Posts Tagged ‘Comedy’

Dekker: The Shoemaker’s Holiday

August 19, 2020

dekker-shoemakerThe Shoemaker’s Holiday
Thomas Dekker
(Methuen, 2008) [c.1599]
120 p.

Thomas Dekker was a prolific playwright working in London at the same time as Shakespeare, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which might as aptly have been called The Playgoer’s Holiday on account of its good cheer and genial tone, was one of his most successful.

It’s an early example of a “city comedy” — a play about artisans, merchants, and ordinary folk in London. In his appreciative introduction to a late nineteenth-century edition of Dekker’s plays, Ernest Rhys describes Dekker as a man of “abounding heartiness”, and singles out this play as among “the best comedies of pure joy of life which were produced by the Elizabethans”.

Much of that “joy of life” erupts from the play’s central character, Simon Eyre, a shoemaker who, by play’s end, has become Lord Mayor of London. Eyre is a man bursting with vitality and sturdy jollity, “the very incarnation [says Rhys] of the hearty English character on its prosperous workaday side.” He reminded me of no-one so much as Falstaff, right down to the joyous creativity of his volcanic speech:

Eyre. Away, you Islington whitepot! hence, you hopperarse! you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish, go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here; and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic free-booters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London. (V, iv)

I don’t know what it all means, but it’s meant in good humour.

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earlymoddrama-bookmarkThe play turns sweetly on a few charming romances. One thread has a nobleman in love with a lower class woman; he ducks military service and disguises himself as a Dutch shoemaker in order to be near her (speaking the while in a thick and fake Dutch accent that Dekker renders in almost undecipherable lines). Another has a young man wooing a woman whose husband is believed killed in a war against the French — until it turns out that the husband is in London but just hasn’t known where his wife is living! But I think it is fair to say that the story is largely just an occasion for the characters to do and say things, rather than the other way around.

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Because we’re dealing here with the lower classes, much of the language of the play is challenging. As in Shakespeare, Dekker tends to give metrical lines to the upper classes and free prose to the lower, while endowing the latter’s speeches with a wealth of slang that would be hard going without notes. But this street talk is wonderfully colourful too, as in Eyre’s speech above.

Dekker also sometimes uses verse to signal important or especially graceful moments. There’s a scene I particularly liked in which a young man, Hammon, first approaches a woman, Jane, as she’s working in her shop. He loves her, and wants her to know it. It’s worth quoting at length:

Jane. Sir, what is’t you buy?
What is’t you lack, sir, calico, or lawn,
Fine cambric shirts, or bands, what will you buy?
Ham. (Aside.) That which thou wilt not sell. Faith, yet I’ll try:
How do you sell this handkerchief?
Jane. Good cheap.
Ham. And how these ruffs?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. And how this band?
Jane. Cheap too.
Ham. All cheap; how sell you then this hand?
Jane. My hands are not to be sold.
Ham. To be given then!
Nay, faith, I come to buy.
Jane. But none knows when.
Ham. Good sweet, leave work a little while; let’s play.
Jane. I cannot live by keeping holiday.
Ham. I’ll pay you for the time which shall be lost.
Jane. With me you shall not be at so much cost.
Ham. Look, how you wound this cloth, so you wound me.
Jane. It may be so.
Ham. ’Tis so.
Jane. What remedy?
Ham. Nay, faith, you are too coy.
Jane. Let go my hand.
Ham. I will do any task at your command,
I would let go this beauty, were I not
In mind to disobey you by a power
That controls kings: I love you!

This is simple and generous verse. That Dekker contrives to have the dialogue consist of rhyming couplets makes audible the happy harmony developing between them. In that respect it’s very much like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (although in that case the two lovers actually compose a sonnet together).

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I was also intrigued by how much Catholicism was in this play: the shoemakers belong to a guild devoted to St Hugh, and the characters swear by the Mass, by God’s wounds, by God’s nails, and other holy things characteristic of English Catholicism before the Reformation. Digging a bit, I found that the character of Simon Eyre is based on a real fifteenth-century Londoner, and so the action of the play is presumably meant to take place then.

There is even a passage late in the play in which the King is asked to undo the inter-class marriage by an outraged father, which includes this exchange:

King. Are they not married?
Lincoln. No, my liege.
Both. We are.
King. Shall I divorce them then? O be it far,
That any hand on earth should dare untie
The sacred knot, knit by God’s majesty;
I would not for my crown disjoin their hands,
That are conjoïned in holy nuptial bands.

I can imagine raised eyebrows when this played in Elizabeth’s court.

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Plays are not meant to be read, but acted and seen and heard, and so we’re working from a position of weakness when we approach an unfamiliar play on the page. This weakness is especially acute, I think, in a quick-moving, quick-witted comedy like The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which drops non-negligible difficulties of diction in our path. I would love to see this play on the stage, and especially to see what a talented actor could do with Simon Eyre. As it is, I enjoyed the play, but suspect that there is more to it than I gleaned on my own.

Wodehouse: Heavy Weather

October 30, 2019

Heavy Weather
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2002) [1933]
321 p.

Beginning a day or two after the events of Summer Lightning, this novel features most of the same characters and even a similar plot: Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown still want to marry over the objections of the family, Gally’s tell-all memoir is still attracting thieves of all descriptions, and the Empress of Blandings is still contentedly feeding on all that comes within reach of her terrific, plump snout.

The principal new characters are Ronnie’s mother, Lady Julia, who rushes back to Blandings Castle intent on quashing Ronnie’s engagement to Sue, and Lord Tilbury, a publishing magnate with the rights to Gally’s memoir and determined to make good on them.

Much of the comedy arises from the sheer number of people trying to lay hands on the memoir: some want it destroyed, some want it published, and some just want to sell it to the highest bidder. As the convoluted hunt proceeds, the manuscript itself is passed, like a covert hot potato, from person to person, each with his or her own motives for guarding it. It’s a triumph of character-driven circumstantial humour.

As always with Wodehouse, the plot has been conscientiously constructed, but the real joy of the book is in the writing, which bubbles with wit. It’s a splendid read.

Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

October 9, 2019

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1929]
320 p.

At the end of the previous Blandings Castle adventure, young Psmith had replaced Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s personal secretary, and a principal question on my mind was whether he would continue in the post long enough to play a role in this rollicking tale. Sadly, he did not. Baxter, in fact, was back, or coming back, in his own efficient manner.

The intertwining stories in this book require close attention to keep straight. There is, of course, the matter of the prize pig, Empress, whose gigantic, near-spherical form doesn’t prevent her going missing. Then there is the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s project to write his tell-all youthful memoirs, an occasion of sure embarrassment for all the Shropshire nobility. Then there is young Ronnie, the nephew of Lord Emsworth, who has fallen for a London chorus-girl, and there is his cousin, Millicent, who, though intended for Ronnie, has eyes for a member of the domestic staff. And there is the private detective who lurks in bushes and climbs drain-spouts to no great effect. All pile in and are swirled around to create something delectable. Amazingly, Wodehouse hit upon a single brilliant stroke in the final chapter to resolve all of the competing interests. It could not have been more elegant.

Usually the American versions of Wodehouse’s books were given inferior titles, but in this case the American edition was called Fish Preferred, which is not half bad.

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original-Prin.jpgOriginal Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.

Wodehouse: Psmith III

June 18, 2019

Leave it to Psmith
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1923]
288 p.

Wodehousian comedy seems to take place in a world of its own, one sharing certain features with ours but more generously endowed with sunshine, pretty girls, and happy happenstance. It comes as something of a shock — shock before delight, you understand — to find that the walls of this world are permeable, and that if characters cannot actually wander out into our own world, they can at least wander from one story-world to another, and that is just what happens here: Leave it to Psmith narrates what transpired when Psmith walked out of his own sphere and into Blandings Castle.

It wasn’t quite so simple as that, of course, for the course of true fun never does run smooth, but, all the same, circumstance did so contrive that Psmith, having assumed the unlikely identity of a modern Canadian poet, entered Blandings Castle as a guest, intent on wooing the attractive young woman cataloguing the castle’s library, and perhaps — if possible — stealing a £20,000 necklace from the lady of the house.

The action of the story, in fact, centers on this diamond necklace, as the action of Macbeth turns on a handkerchief. We see it hung round Lady Constance’s neck, flung from a window, buried in a flower pot, and stuffed in a bird. Much of the joy of the story comes in the gradual discovery of just how many of the central characters are, for one reason or another, in surreptitious pursuit of that glittering garland.

Speaking of central characters, Wodehouse outdoes himself not only in the quality of his comic characters — Psmith, of course, is a comedic figure of the first rank, but the Hon. Freddy Threepwood is nearly as funny as his name, and even the efficient Rupert Baxter, all unwitting, has his moments of comic glory here, in lemon pyjamas — but also in the number of characters arcs he manages at once, each following their own motivations and intersecting in a variety of hilarious ways. It’s a virtuoso performance.

Leave it to Psmith was to be the last of the Psmith books — I think. So the rumours run. I am in some doubt of the matter, because at story’s end he comes on staff at Blandings Castle, which would seem to portend a return in the next Blandings book, Summer Lightning. However, if it should prove not so, and Psmith passes out of earshot for good, allow me to express my thanks for the happy hours spent in his company.