Report from the Field: ‘Dare To Tell: Silence and Saying in Ben Jonson’ Conference in St. Andrews

Just before we went into production for our ‘Mankind’ revival run a few of us attended a conference on Ben Jonson with a view to expanding our historic drama horizons. The following is what our Artistic Director took away from the event.

Right now, you can hardly turn around in theatrical England without being reminded that it’s the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also the four hundred anniversary of the publication of the folio of Ben Jonson’s works, an anniversary that has had much less attention. This is just variation on a longstanding theme: Jonson exists so much in his contemporary’s shadow. Trying to bring him out of this relative obscurity is one of the hopes of Jonson scholars. Since my own specialism suffers a similar fate, I sympathise with them – and, in fact, medieval drama and Jonson do in many ways dovetail together nicely (something I hope to explore further in the future).

The ‘Dare to Tell’ conference in St Andrews was organised in celebration of this Jonsonian anniversary. Like all academic conferences, the papers ranged over quite a lot of territory, from literature to performance to cultural reception. And, like all specialist conferences, it was a reminder that being “reasonably familiar” with Jonson’s works and career is not the faintest patch on the knowledge of true experts, and there is a lot to be learned. Here, then, are some of the ideas introduced at the conference – it is only a skimming of the surface of the depth of study out there!

The meaning of space was the subject of a paper by Laura Swift, particularly with respect to the play The Devil is an Ass. In the play, she argued that the interior of houses was connected with tradition, reliability, inherited wealth, and female chastity (the importance of which was tied to concerns for legitimate inheritance), while the street/exterior was symbolic of change, transgression, and wealth that comes through commerce, at a time when early modern (particularly urban) culture was struggling to adjust to the idea of social and economic mobility. Although the discussion was considering the play from a literary angle, it occurred to me these ideas would also be useful to consider in actually staging a production.

Isabel Karremann discussed the issue of memory with respect to Jonson’s many masques. This dramatic form is probably the least accessible of Jonson’s works, because they were intentionally extravagant, expensive performances, usually one-off, created for events such as a royal visit to a noble house; as conspicuous consumption, they weren’t intended for repeat performance. Jonson’s choice to include them in his folio therefore seems to undermine that intention ephemerality, as he must have had some reason for committing them to paper and therefore posterity. Had he not done so, they would exist only as a series of design sketches, and we would know far less about them. It strikes me that this is not just a historical but very modern question: that of whether performance can/should be pinned down on paper. We’re still trying to make sense of that; but what does it tell us, that in this particular case, Jonson thought it worth trying?

Rachel Horrocks discussed the dual role of audience – particularly royal audiences – as spectator and performer at masques, not in their capacity as dramatic participants, but because, as royalty, they were on display when being seen in public. This ‘reciprocal spectatorship’, she argued, had an effect on the performance and its success or failure: other audience members were likely to follow a monarch’s lead, and if the monarch was seen to be enjoying a performance, others would do the same, but if a bored monarch decided to leave the performance, so did everyone else. One can only imagine how challenging this situation must have been to those trying to put together a performance, and some of Jonson’s masques, she suggested, were created in such a way as to try to find ways that subverted this ‘mutual performance’ phenomenon.

An interesting episode in Jonson’s life, his “foot journey” or very, very long walk from London to Edinburgh, fairly recently discovered, was discussed by Anna Groundwater, who has worked on the project studying the journey. A travelling companion kept something of a diary of the event, but there is still a lot about it which is unknown, including why it happened. Groundwater suggested that Jonson was hoping to get idea material from it for future writing projects, and that he may have strategised his route to curry favour with possible patrons along the way, but that there might have been a diplomatic aspect to it as well, with the King hoping that Jonson would bring back news and information acquired along the way, particularly from Scotland and the ongoing politics within its church.

Martin Butler’s discussion of the many ways in which Jonson has appeared in twentieth and twenty-first century culture was especially interesting to me, because when you’re creating a production, you’re not doing so in a vacuum, but within the context of that play’s own past and baggage. The older the play, the more permutations this may have gone through – how the Georgians or Victorians felt about, or performed, Jonson’s works has influenced opinion of his work down to today. Although Jonson was reasonably prolific, almost all of his visibility in the past century came down to two plays, Volpone and The Alchemist. Butler commented that most reviews of Jonson’s plays, when they are performed, boil down to the ‘surprising’ revelation that his plays aren’t dull and are actually very entertaining – which is promptly forgotten thereafter, until the next review says exactly the same thing. This was particularly interesting because it’s one more way that Jonson seems to be an early-modern parallel to my experiences with medieval drama.

We went to the conference as a chance to spread out drama-historical wings a bit, and it definitely did. Maybe you wouldn’t normally dive into the expert end of the pool as a starting point, but it was nice to get an idea for what’s going on in at least one corner of early modern drama studies, to get a sense of the richness lying within. And it was very much a reminder that the early modern period is not a seismic shift from the medieval but rather a bridge, neither the same thing nor entirely dissimilar either. The same could be said about Renaissance and modern drama, too: theatre history is not so much a direct evolution as a spectrum. I hope we will have the chance to put some of what we learned and have thought about since into practice, and that we will revisit Jonson and his contemporaries in the future.