This post is the third in our series of guest-authored posts written by scholars who have been awarded funding for their research by the Society. This post was written by Emma Whipday, a PhD candidate at University College, London.
Performing ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’
I was awarded a 2014 Malone Society Bursary to stage a research production of ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ from Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601), which portrays the murder of a London shopkeeper by his neighbour. The play is significant in its tragic portrayal of a murder in the home of an ordinary Londoner, and in its unprecedented attention to the forensic processes of detection. On Friday 21st March, the production was staged at UCL in what was, to my knowledge, its first performance in modern times.
The play is based on a true murder that took place in London in 1594: Master Merry, who ran a tavern, murdered a neighbouring shopkeeper, Master Beech, and the surrounding community worked together to solve the crime. This sensational murder caught the attention of Elizabethan London; it was reported in news pamphlets and sung about in broadside ballads. In 1600, a play named ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ was performed at the Rose by the Admiral’s Men. The following year, a play based on Merry’s crime was printed in quarto, in a collection entitled Two Lamentable Tragedies. The title page claims that the author of the plays is Robert Yarington. The only surviving record of a Robert Yarington living in London refers not to a playwright, but to a scribe; it is impossible to discover whether he was the author of the plays, or whether he simply compiled them into a single narrative. The second play is fictional, set in Padua, and stages the murder of a nobleman’s ward. Scenes from both tragedies are intertwined in the quarto, and thus Two Lamentable Tragedies is unique in presenting a traditional, elite tragedy alongside a true and recent neighbourhood murder. In staging only the tragedy of Merry, I wanted to test whether it was performable as a standalone play.
Drawing on the Malone Society edition of Two Lamentable Tragedies (edited by Chiaki Hanabusa), which was the Society’s ‘Book of the Year’, this research production aimed to discover how our understanding of the play alters when it is performed. This project is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to practice as research, combining the expertise of theatre practitioners with the knowledge of literary critics and historians. Freyja Cox Jensen (University of Exeter) co-organised the production; Helen Hackett and Alexander Sampson (UCL) were the executive producers; and the cast was composed of both professional actors and UCL staff and students.
Our production was prepared using Elizabethan rehearsal practices, based on the research of Tiffany Stern (Oxford). We sought to explore the ways in which reconstructing early modern rehearsal and performance practices could illuminate spatial dynamics and character development in the play. In so doing, we hoped to demonstrate the validity of practice as research as an approach to early modern drama.
The actors received their ‘parts’, composed of only their own lines and short cues, thirteen days before the production, at the read-through, at which they read the play aloud; they then met with me individually to discuss their character choices and work on their lines. A week later, we also had a single ‘stage business’ rehearsal, where we plotted use of props, fights and the closing jig, and a single dress rehearsal. These were the only times the actors rehearsed together; the rest of their work on the text took place alone. As the ‘book holder’ or prompter, I sat to the left of the playing space during the final performance, visible but not part of the action, to highlight the role of the book holder for the audience.
The performance was accompanied by music contemporary to the play. Our lutenist Sam Brown performed at the side of the stage, and was visible to the audience throughout. He drew from his repertoire pieces by various composers, including John Dowland, Robert Johnson and Francis Pilkington. Our musical director Simon Smith assisted in the selection of pieces, and worked with us on adding musical cues to the script, ensuring that our musical practices were appropriate. Music was used as an overture, in the act breaks, at moments of heightened theatricality – such as when the narrator-figure, Truth, appeared – and to accompany the closing jig.
The production was a great success. The actors gave wonderful performances, my services as prompter were only needed a couple of times, Tiffany Stern’s introductory talk about actors’ parts and early modern rehearsal methods was fascinating and accessible, and the audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. We were amazed by how smoothly the play went with so little rehearsal time; it seemed to suggest that, with early modern actors accustomed to learning lines from ‘parts’ and a limited rehearsal period, Elizabethan first performances may have been more polished than we might imagine. We were even more surprised by how funny the play was – the audience laughed heartily throughout, even at seemingly ‘tragic’ events. This has raised interesting questions about how comedy and tragedy interact in the play. There are plenty of comic moments, from farcical falls to one character’s mis-hearing of murder as ‘mustard’, and even seemingly ‘tragic’ moments, involving murder and dismemberment, are macabre to the point of absurdity, and thus provoke laughter. Yet the narrator-figure, Truth, repeatedly calls attention to the truth of the crime that is staged, and comments on the teary eyes of the audience, reminding them that the action they watch is ‘but a play’. In our production, Truth’s commentary became an uncomfortable counter-point to the audience’s vocal amusement; this provoked further thought about how the hybrid genre of domestic tragedy may have been received by its original audience. I will be discussing the production at Andy Kesson and Stephen Purcell’s ‘Practice as Research’ seminar at the upcoming 2014 Shakespeare Association of America Annual Meeting, and look forward to exploring this issue further.
I am extremely grateful to the Malone Society for supporting this project; their generosity made our performance possible. This allowed us to purchase necessary stage properties, from pewter tankards to stage blood. It also made it possible for us to provide refreshments for the audience, so that Freyja and I could distribute questionnaires about audience responses to the play, and then swap completed questionnaires for glasses of wine, which proved a popular bargain! We look forward to exploring these audience responses over the coming weeks.
Furthermore, thanks to the Malone Society Bursary, I was able to invite Philip Bird, an experienced actor, director and teacher, to lead a workshop for our actors on Elizabethan rehearsal practices. Philip worked with the Original Shakespeare Company in the 1990s, and regularly leads workshops on cue-scripts at Shakespeare’s Globe and elsewhere. Concentrating on examples from Shakespeare, he worked with the actors on how to approach a part, before giving out the cue-scripts for scenes of various sizes. The actors all rose to the challenge, and though they admitted to finding the experience of working with cue-scripts ‘terrifying’ at first, they produced some fantastic scenes where everyone was engaged, responsive, and listening very hard indeed. It was a demanding process, but Philip was generous with his advice, and everyone participated with enthusiasm and immense concentration. The workshop proved invaluable for the actors in preparing for the final performance.
An analogy Philip shared with us in a good luck message just before the performance proved particularly useful:
‘The audience will be on your side… Instead of baking a cake and offering it up for consumption on the night, you are bringing the ingredients and baking it in front of them. They will be delighted.’
This was a hugely enjoyable, if daunting, process for everyone involved. The fruits of this production will inform and substantially benefit my own research on both Two Lamentable Tragedies and the genre of domestic tragedy, and I hope that the performance of the play proved illuminating for other scholars in the field.
N. B. Click here if you would like to see the actors discussing their experience of working with ‘cue-scripts’ and early-modern rehearsal methods.