Sense and Nonsense in All’s Well That Ends Well

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fifth, from September 2011.]

Francis Wheatley, Helena, Bertram and the King of France (1793) [i.e. Bertram indicates his disdain for Helen], Folger Shakespeare Library
All’s Well That Ends Well is a riddle that begins with the title. As a proverb, as a piece of folklore, the phrase draws attention to the role played by ancestral wisdom in the plot (the heroine, Helen, uses her father’s knowledge of medicine to cure the King of a terminal illness). It informs us that the play is concerned with happy endings, which are a distinguishing feature of the comic genre; but it also implies that happy endings justify the means to bring them about, and that these means may not always be ethical, safe or funny. And it also invites us to consider what ‘wellness’ is, both morally and physically speaking. There’s an air of uncertainty about the title, then, that suits it to this troubled comedy, which seems to pose the question of whether comedy can be brought off at all in a culture as self-absorbed as that of early modern Europe.

The play has much to say about the difficulty of dialogue; indeed it contains some of Shakespeare’s trickiest poetic language, parts of it quite literally nonsense. Verse is its medium, and much of that verse is rhymed. Helen uses rhyme often, and this gives her lines a proverbial feel, like the title, as if she is voicing long-established certainties. ‘Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?’ she asks, and the question becomes an assertion by virtue of the euphonic link between striving and desire. ‘He that of greatest works is finisher / Oft does them by the weakest minister’, she tells the King as she undertakes his cure, and the rhyme lends authority to her claim. The other great users of rhyme in the play are the Countess of Roussillon and the King himself; and their rhymed exchanges with Helen make all three sound as if they were singing from the same hymn-sheet. The King and Helen, in particular, understand each other perfectly as they rhyme in spite of reason – engaging in a melodious contest between sound and sense that gets revived by the King in the final act when he celebrates Helen’s return with a tentative restatement of the title: ‘All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’. Here, then, is yet another meaning of the title: that a conversation goes well when its metrical units end in rhyme. There’s clearly something contrived about this claim – it isn’t ‘true’ in any obvious sense. But its very contrivedness stresses the determination of the rhymers to stage a happy ending against all odds.

John Massey Wright, Helena and the Countess (c 1815), Folger Shakespeare Library

All’s Well is full of elderly people who lament the passing of old-time excellence: the Countess, the old courtier Lafeu, the clown, the King. Their nostalgia is for a very distant past, a golden age when miracles occurred (as they do again in this play: the miracles of the King’s recovery, of Helen’s seeming resurrection) and goddesses walked the earth (as they do again here, embodied by the girl Diana). Above all, they speak of the time when words were linked with their meanings, as Helen insists they are when she addresses Diana. But of all the good things of the past, this exemplary use of language is the hardest to recover. Words and meanings have grown so far apart that one must speak in riddles if one wishes to convey one’s meaning without risk of misunderstanding – what Shakespeare calls ‘misprision’. Helen speaks ‘riddle-like’ to the Countess when she confesses her love for Bertram; and in the final scene, Diana speaks in riddles to the King in her efforts to explain the convoluted paths by which a happy outcome is being accomplished. Riddles are the dialect of oracles, another ancient source of knowledge resurrected by Helen. When she promises the King that she can heal him, she invokes the ‘help of heaven’, just as the priestess did at Delphos when she begged Apollo for answers to his worshippers’ questions. The King is impressed by Helen’s confidence: ‘Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak’, he tells her, ‘And what impossibility would slay / In common sense, sense saves another way’. Her claims to occult knowledge seem to him senseless, like the verses uttered by Apollo; yet the ‘sense’ of the Delphic verses was always confirmed by the outcome of events, just as the sense of Helen’s riddles will assert itself before the play is done. And Helen is only one of the characters in All’s Well to extract sense from a senseless world by uttering apparent nonsense.

Treacherous modern words are a kind of nonsense, but they can bring people together if properly handled, like the patter of a crafty pimp. This is confirmed by the example of Paroles: a braggart soldier who leads Helen’s husband Bertram astray, but who also helps him return to his wife. As his name suggests, Paroles embodies the way words work in the present, leading people away from truth, yet accidentally restoring truth to those who have lost it. This double action can be detected in almost everything he says. In the first act, for instance, he lectures the virgin Helen on the uselessness of virginity (‘there was never virgin got till virginity was lost’); yet despite his salacious motives (he wants to sleep with her himself), Helen is not so much offended by his logic as liberated by it, asking: ‘How might one do, sir, to lose [virginity] to her own liking?’ The lecture later serves Bertram’s turn as well: the young man parrots Paroles when he courts Diana:

When you are dead, you should be such a one
As you are now, for you are cold and stern;
And now you should be as your mother was
When your sweet self was got.

Paroles, in other words, speaks both for Helen and disloyal Bertram. He gives voice to Helen’s desire, which she cannot easily voice herself; and he furnishes Bertram with the language of seduction, thus initiating him into the pleasures of sex – the first step on the road back to his wife. This dual action is apparent, too, in the message Paroles delivers to Helen after her marriage, explaining that Bertram has left for the Italian wars. Paroles describes this abandonment as a deferral of the couple’s pleasure, an erotic technique for enhancing their future love-making (it will ‘make the coming hour o’erflow with joy / And pleasure drown the brim’). And despite the fact that Paroles doesn’t mean it – he never expects the couple to meet again – his quasi-pornographic fantasy proves as prophetic as Helen’s promises to the King. The King’s last words before the epilogue (‘The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet’) repeat Paroles’s sentiment. Paroles, then, like Helen, is a vehicle for truthful utterance; an inadvertent prophet, as Bertram points out when the braggart’s lies are finally exposed: ‘this counterfeit model has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier’.

Arthur Boyd Houghton, Act 4, scene 3 of All’s Well that Ends Well (c 1860) [i.e. Paroles Exposed], Folger Shakespeare Library
If Paroles acts as a prophet, then Helen and the older generation sometimes act as pimps. When Lafeu leaves Helen alone with the King he compares himself to the greatest of go-betweens, Pandarus: ‘I am Cressid’s uncle, / That dare to leave two together’. The newly cured King then acts as a pimp with Helen as his client, parading his courtiers before her like rent-boys, then using threats to make Bertram accept her advances. Lafeu expresses his disgust at the courtiers’ failure to respond as compliant rent-boys should: ‘An they were sons of mine […] I would send them to th’Turk to make eunuchs of’. And Bertram is appalled by the role reversal whereby a woman becomes the client and himself the sex object: ‘In such a business’, he says, ‘give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’. Later, Diana’s widowed mother uses the same word, ‘business’, to refer to prostitution: she tells Helen that she is too well brought up to be ‘acquainted with these businesses’. At this point Helen is urging her to work as a madam on her behalf, so that she can substitute herself for Diana between Bertram’s sheets. Helen’s plot to sleep with her own unwilling husband inspires yet another redemptive riddle; she describes it as ‘wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act; / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact’. In a world where men react with horror to lawful sex and instead seek pleasure with unlawful partners, pimping, prostitution and the playing of sexual practical jokes may be legitimate practices, and dealing in double meanings may be the only way to circumvent more damaging forms of duplicity.

In this world Bertram finds himself bewildered. A snob, he cannot see why he should be forced to marry a woman beneath his station, whatever service she may have rendered to his monarch. Twice he finds himself pimped out, so to speak, against his will; once when the King gifts him to Helen, and once when Helen pays the widow to let her bed him in Diana’s place. He lies often, but where other people get away with it (even Paroles, whose lies become his stock-in-trade when he becomes a clown), Bertram’s untruths are always laid bare to humiliating scrutiny, until by the end of the play he has no choice but to become what everyone thinks he should be: a loyal husband to his lady. Everyone else in the play can adapt themselves to the ways of this fallen world; only Bertram cannot deal with it. But he is young, as the King and the Countess insist. We can hope at the end that he has learned from his experiences; just as we can hope that we too have learned from this remarkable piece of theatre, despite all the nonsense we ourselves get up to.

[For a more detailed account of All’s Well, see here.]

Michael Goodman, Helena and the King (1880) [i.e. Helen chooses a husband]

Macbeth: A Scottish Play?

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve been depositing them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the fourth, written before the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.]

Henry Fuseli, Study for the Three Witches in Macbeth.

How Scottish is Macbeth? The answer, of course, is not at all. It’s a play written by an Englishman, performed in England, to an audience the bulk of whom would have been Englishmen – and Southerners at that. But the play is also evidence of Shakespeare’s intense interest in Scottish history; hardly surprising given his status as chief playwright for a company newly christened the King’s Men, patronized by King James VI of Scotland who had assumed the Scottish throne in 1603. And it’s evidence, too, of just how unsettling the rapprochement between these two nations, which had for centuries shared little but a  border and an intense mutual hatred, must have been for everyone involved.

Macbeth is about the near impossibility of holding a single kingdom together, or even of defining its limits: an impossibility that manifests itself in the dreadful trouble the play’s characters have in holding themselves together – that is, in keeping body and soul in one piece, or in reconciling their convictions with their actions, or in saying what they think. The threatened dismemberment of Scotland and its inhabitants in the play neatly parallels the religious, regional and factional divisions that had split the northern kingdom throughout the sixteenth century. And the Scottish royal family had felt the effects of these internal conflicts for generations before they were exacerbated by the Reformation. As Sir Charles Piggott pointed out to the English Parliament in 1606 – the year Macbeth was written and performed – the Scots ‘have not suffered above two kings to die in their beds, these 200 years’. The Stuarts had been subjected to a seemingly endless series of assassinations and massacres, more often at the hands of their own subjects than those of their English neighbours.

Fifteenth-century map of Scotland, drawn by the English spy John Hardyng. Note that it is cut off from England by the sea.

Ancient Scotland was no better, as Shakespeare would have seen as he browsed through Holinshed’s chronicle seeking plots for James’s entertainment. The kings who reigned before and after the eleventh-century monarch Macbeth met their ends in appallingly inventive ways: by poison, witchcraft, or (in one case) an elaborate trap involving a golden apple and hidden crossbows, whose quarrels were launched at Kenneth II ‘with great force and violence’ when the apple was touched. And the Scots had a habit of importing their violent ways into the neighbouring kingdom. The last Scottish monarch before James – his mother, Mary Queen of Scots – was accused of murdering James’s father (which led to her exile in England), then hatching a series of plots against her cousin Elizabeth I (which led to her execution). James himself had twice been kidnapped, in 1582 and 1600; and his experience of near shipwreck en route to collect his wife Anne of Denmark in 1587 left him certain that he had narrowly avoided murder by witchcraft. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, whereby disaffected Catholics planned to destroy James and the English Parliament in one devastating explosion, may have convinced some Englishmen that the Scots had transplanted their own particular version of political hell into English soil along with their monarch.

A whiff of sulphur accompanied the stench of gunpowder. Scotland seems to have been associated in England with the supernatural: partly perhaps because of the spooky ballads that spread through England from north of the Border (think of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer), and partly because of James VI’s own treatise on magic and witchcraft, Daemonologie (1597 and 1603), which insisted on the dangers they posed as fiercely as the Englishman Reginald Scot had insisted on their non-existence in his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584).  The witches in Macbeth, whose agency is so hotly disputed (did they drive Macbeth to murder, or did they merely redirect a murderous tendency he already possessed?), cater for both the English and Scottish views of witchcraft. They introduce the theme of double-talk or equivocation – saying one thing and meaning another, or convincing yourself through chop-logic that it’s permissible to do the unforgivable – that pervades the play. For them, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, and their delight in reversing moral polarities infects Macbeth’s language, so that he can persuade himself that in a world where ‘nothing is but what is not’ he might get away with regicide. The witches’ later prophecies – that Macbeth cannot be killed by a man born of woman, that he will be safe till Burnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – are classic examples of equivocation: they sound impossible, yet prove accurate because of unforeseeable circumstances (Macbeth’s killer was born by Caesarean section; the wood is uprooted to be used as camouflage by the English army). The witches’ double-speak reflects both the treachery associated with Scotland by the English, and the merging of two cultures and two languages under James, which transformed the English court into a hotbed of mutual misunderstandings.

Marcus Gheeraerts, illustration from Holinshed’s Chronicle (1577) showing Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches.

The Scottish King’s inheritance of England had been anticipated for years, as the English panicked over the ageing Elizabeth’s refusal to name an heir. That period of anxiety has its aftershocks in Macbeth. Problems of succession had often been solved in Scotland by spates of blood-letting – as when Kenneth II murdered the heir to the throne, Prince Malcolm, to ensure that his own son wore the crown. Shakespeare’s Macbeth re-enacts all the atrocities perpetrated by Scots through history against inconvenient heirs. His massacre of MacDuff’s children stands in for his desire to massacre Duncan’s sons Malcolm and Donalbane, Banquo’s heir Fleance, and with them the whole line of monarchs that descended from Banquo to James. Each time he thinks he has the kingdom and its succession under control a new child emerges to taunt him. Young Fleance escapes from the scene of his father’s murder, and his escape leaves Macbeth ‘bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’. Later the witches summon up two infant spirits to taunt Macbeth with the fact that his children will not succeed him. At the end of the play, a Scottish prince, Malcolm, defeats Macbeth at the head of an English army composed largely of ‘unrough youths’ – adolescents who have not yet started shaving. Children die at Macbeth’s hands only to be resurrected like a succession of vengeful ‘newborn babes / Striding the blast’.

The reign of the ‘boy Malcolm’ promises fresh new possibilities for the kingdoms that have combined to put him on the throne. The new king promises to make himself ‘even with’ his helpers of all ranks, thus anticipating a fair and equal partnership between Scottish ruler and subject, and between the erstwhile enemy nations. But the bloody head of Macbeth, dangling like a chunk of Scotland’s history from the fist of his killer MacDuff, undermines Malcolm’s self-assurance with a second promise: that the Stuart dynasty will continue to encounter more than its share of rebels and regicides – including, as we now know, the parliamentary decapitators of James’s son. Accompanied by omens like this, it’s no wonder that a hundred years would pass before the union of England and Scotland would be finally ratified.

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches.

[For more on Macbeth see my post ‘Wonders of the Northlands: Hamlet and Macbeth’, here.]

 

 

 

The Ambiguities of Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (2017)

[In the week when Loreen of Sweden won the Eurovision Song Contest, I’m putting up a post – quite coincidentally, of course – about one of the great Swedish writers of speculative fiction, Karin Tidbeck. This post marks the return to functionality of The City of Lost Books after a period offline caused by a bug in one of the University of Glasgow’s servers. The episode taught me about the precariousness of one’s online existence. Tidbeck taught me about the precariousness of human existence itself, as mediated by language. My thanks to Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins, organisers of the What If Consortium sponsored by the University of Queensland, for introducing me to Tidbeck’s work.

The post contains many spoilers, so only read on if you’ve read Amatka or if you don’t mind spoilers too much!]


In an interview for BOMB Magazine, Karin Tidbeck mentions a familiar distinction between two kinds of writers: ‘There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser’.[1] Both of Tidbeck’s novels emerged from a long period of gestation, taking the author by surprise as they underwent a slow transition from pupa stage (a collection of poems that became Amatka [2017], a set of linked short stories that became The Memory Theater [2021]) to full-blown novelistic butterflies.[2] Improvisation is clearly integral to Tidbeck’s writing process; and while this is true of many writers, in Tidbeck’s case it’s improvisation that has been honed by long practice in a highly specialised field of performance.

The prizewinning novelist and short story writer is also a participant in Nordic LARP – Live Action Role Play – for which they have been writing scenarios for most of their life. It’s no coincidence that their latest novel has a theatrical title, or that Amatka acknowledges an entire supporting cast of co-enablers in its composition: as Tidbeck puts it, for them ‘It truly takes a village; so many people have been helpful in the creation of this story’ (p. 217).[3] LARP performance, too, involves input from many equals who combine to generate a work of collective improvisation, as a cast of players act out roles based on a pre-agreed scenario, without an audience apart from the actors themselves. Its topics can be as lighthearted as a fantasy adventure set in another world or as serious as imagining yourself into the position of queer people in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, of Palestinians under occupation, or of a planet where your gender is determined by the time of day when you were born. LARP discloses the intellectual, emotional and psychological value of play, the politics of improvised performance, the performativity of social interaction, the possibility – indeed, the necessity – of cultivating mutual trust and mental flexibility no matter what your age, as a means of collectively reinventing the forgotten past and imagining a better future. To me, Nordic LARP sounds frightening as well as fascinating, and I’d love to try it. For Tidbeck, it may well be fundamental to the way they think. And this may in turn be key to understanding the unique experience offered by their extraordinary novel Amatka, and what it has to say to a world in Climate Catastrophe, led by leaders hellbent on preserving the status quo.

In 2021 I took part in an online workshop at which Tidbeck spoke with passion about Nordic LARP – one of a series of workshops organised by the What If Consortium, about which I’ve written elsewhere. In the same interview Tidbeck spoke about their fascination with learning languages – they speak six in all, and have translated their own work from Swedish to English and from English to Swedish in an exercise that clearly fascinates them as much as any other creative process.[4] Translation can resemble a live action roleplaying game, in that the restrictions it places upon you highlight the different possibilities available in different situations, the different available styles encourage you to see the world through different lenses, the different grammatical structures suggest different underlying philosophies for different linguistic communities. Tidbeck describes their own variety of written English as an invented composite dialect, made up in equal parts of the British English they learned at school and the American English which is ‘the language of MTV and the movies, and, later, science fiction paperbacks’.[5] As a speaker of British English, I notice the Americanisms in Tidbeck’s style, as I read, more than the British dialectical usages which are my native tongue. And for me these Americanisms work an unusual kind of magic. They superimpose a New World grammar on what seems an Old World story – its Old World-ness suggested both by the Slavic and Nordic names of its characters and by the echoes of European history in the society they inhabit. This effect is perfect for Amatka, which takes as its setting a colony or cluster of colonies established by people from the world we know (mostly Russians and Swedes, to judge by their names) in a nameless place whose location is never identified. The colonists fled to that world with the aim of establishing the ‘ideal society’ (p. 44); but the new place – the planned utopia – has an air of being worn out from the opening sentence of the narrative. Its social structure recalls that of other experiments in collective living such as Soviet Communism or the Marxist-Leninist communes of the 1960s and ’70s, and the story that unfolds there seems familiar from countless literary dystopias from We to A Clockwork Orange, 1984 or Kafka’s The Castle. For me, its New World language suggests a veneer of up-to-date modernity thinly applied to a system that unimaginatively echoes long-outmoded efforts to refashion the world along egalitarian lines through the imposition of increasingly authoritarian and inflexible rules, driven by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality. This mentality even extends to the clothing the colonists wear; none of the characters in Amatka wears garments that fit, and everything is designed for function rather than style: ‘She looked a little peculiar with the hat on; her hair stuck out from under the rim and the earflaps stood straight out. She pushed the hat back a little, tucked her hair in, and tied the flaps. That made it look a little better’ (p. 25). Clothing, in fact, plays a central role in the novel, just as costumes do when pooled and exchanged in a theatrical game among friends.[6]

If the names in the book are often Slavic, Tidbeck themself has suggested that their work has a loosely Nordic character, associating it through certain cultural markers with a cluster of countries in Northern Europe: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In an Afterword to their dazzling story collection Jagannath [2012] Tidbeck lists a few of these markers – a love of festive rituals, the idealization of the working class by the ‘intellectual left’, the soft Swedish dad, all of which find echoes in Amatka – while describing Nordic culture as at once profoundly susceptible to fantastic ways of thinking and unaccommodating when it comes to providing space for fantastic narratives in print. ‘One sensation peculiar to the Nordic culture of my upbringing,’ Tidbeck writes,

is that we really do live on the edge of fairy country. With a small population that’s mostly gathered in towns, vast stretches of countryside could contain any number of critters. Many folktales, and other stories I grew up with, such as the ones by Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson, show reality as a thin veneer behind which strange creatures move.[7]

This is the North that’s familiar to me, a British reader who lived in Stockholm as a small child and inherited books, comics, pictures and objects from that epoch of my family’s history. It’s the North of the Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlöf, whose The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (mentioned briefly in The Memory Theater) presents its readers with a folkloric map of Sweden packed with diminutive tomten, underwater cities, statues that come to life at night, giant butterflies, and articulate beasts and birds; of Astrid Lindgren, whose The Brothers Lionheart imagines a succession of Nordic worlds opening out from one another at the point of death, making each new world a link in a never-ending bracelet or chain; of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, set in a world where the dead watch the antics of the living as if in a paper theatre, while children with strange abilities watch the antics of both the living and the dead; or of Ali Abbasi’s movie Border, where customs officers on Sweden’s national borders themselves exist on a border between mortals and the hidden world of the trolls.[8] For Tidbeck, the borders between the human world and fairy country are rendered permeable by the metamorphic possibilities of language, which in turn react to and have a direct impact on the metamorphoses undergone by our bodies in response to emotion, diet, maturation, thought, curiosity, desire and fear. The thin veneer that exists in Nordic countries between the known and the unknown for her consists (among other things) of words, clothes and skin, all of them infinitely permeable surfaces hiding strangenesses unacknowledged by biologists or the compilers of dictionaries.

Amatka is set in a location on the other side of the veneer that separates our world from the strange, the unsettling, the potentially lethal. It’s a place where things are made with words in a very literal way, changing shape if the word that defines them is not regularly repeated aloud by their users, and preferably marked on them too with writing or a printed label. But this nameless place is hardly a conventional fairyland, Nordic or otherwise. It’s a colony committed to conformity, set in a landscape whose uniformity echoes the values of the colonists, with miles of uninhabited tundra interrupted by featureless bodies of water utterly bereft of the inventive fauna of the folktales. In this place improvisation is deemed to be highly dangerous, and childhood games that imaginatively transform one thing to another pose a very real risk of materially transforming the renamed objects into something new – or of reducing them instead to a semi-liquid, quasi-organic ‘gloop’, the primordial substance mined from the soil of this alien world to construct – well – more or less everything the colonists think they need. Metaphors are dangerous, too, since they can reshape the things they describe into something different, or else more gloop. In deference to this constraint on the inhabitants of their invented world, Tidbeck tells their narrative without recourse to metaphor, unfolding the adventures of the protagonist in pellucid prose whose refusal of ornament – once one notices it – takes on the virtuosic quality of an exercise in Oulipo, the French literary game that imposes apparently arbitrary restrictions on its practitioners such as writing an entire novel without the use of the verb ‘to be’. Tidbeck has explained that metaphors are barely used in Swedish, but their absence from Tidbeck’s English makes the language seem pared-down, reduced to essentials, a suitable instrument for a strictly regulated life lived on a frontier on the brink of the unknown – and on the brink of dissolution through the unregulated use of words.[9]

The plot of Amatka is simple. Vanja has been sent to the colony Amatka by the newly-founded private company she works for, which has asked her to assess demand among the colonists for new hygienic products to replace the mostly state-made hygienic resources they have used till now. Her work, then, is concerned with the treatment of human skin, that organic barrier between the colonists and their alien environment. Her researches find that the Amatkans are subject to many skin diseases and conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema, symptomatic of their difficult relationship with the world they inhabit – or perhaps with the society they are part of, whose every waking moment is marked by the stress of maintaining the shape of the objects around them, from toothbrushes, suitcases and bedclothes to the contents of the factories or desks they work at (if they don’t keep naming them they turn to gloop). In the course of her work she falls in love with a citizen of Amatka, a medic called Nina, and decides to stay. At around the same time she unearths evidence of a resistance movement against the Central Committee of the colonies, the governing body based in her home colony of Essre to which all the Committees of the other colonies are finally answerable. Despite her love of the conformist Nina, Vanja finds herself steadily drawn into the resistance movement, largely through her friendship with Amatka’s librarian, a man called Evgen, and the poetry he invites her to read, the work of a colonist called Berols’ Anna. The novel closes with a revolution which involves the breakdown of the verbal tyranny that has governed the colonists’ lives, and a similar breakdown in the composition of their bodies, above all their skins, rendering them impossible to focus on, unbarricaded, unshielded, naked to the world. Something similar happens to language in the revolution, as it ceases to be policed and instead becomes creative and infinitely malleable, the verbal equivalent of the gloop that can be reshaped into anything you choose by those who dare to commit themselves to the idea of revolutionary reshaping.

The trajectory of the novel, then, is from rigidly rules-based organization to improvisation, from strict linguistic and social limitations to unrestricted verbal and social fecundity, from fear of the place in which the colonies are located to a passionate embrace of it, a quest to know it, to merge with and reinvent it, and in doing so to enter a new phase of evolution. The experience described may be not so very different from the experience of learning to improvise in a Nordic LARP community, starting out tentative and awkward, growing in confidence as the performance unfolds within the limitations of the pre-agreed plot. Alternatively, it resembles the philosophical shift that will be necessary to live in harmony with the environment – to discover, in fact, that we are the environment, and cannot segregate ourselves from it with an artificial barrier constructed from the languages of otherness, authority, human self-interest, mental discipline, technological control. In this novel, opening up to other people (falling in love, for instance, as Vanja does with Nina) is no different from opening up to our reliance on the intimidatingly strange material world of which we are part.

If Amatka is a narrative of social revolution, it is also a tale of (partial) psychological healing. The book opens with Vanja in a state of unacknowledged depression, having recently recovered from a medical problem that involved treatment, we later learn, in a fertility clinic. The roots of her depression are deep ones. Her father was arrested as a dangerous dissident when she was a child, having first made her his confidante when he indulged in whispered, alcohol-fueled rants against the system late at night, when the rest of the family were asleep in bed. Unhappy with her job, negligent in her verbal naming or ‘marking’ of her possessions – as a result of which she soon finds her toothbrush and her suitcase reduced to gloop – without a partner or close friend in her home town of Essre, dominated by her more conformist older sister, her ‘general disinterest’ can be measured by the amount of savings she has available to spend on warm clothes when she first arrives in Amatka (p. 25); up till now she has had nothing and nobody to spend her credits on. Her depressed state of mind reflects, for the reader, the depressed state of the colonies, cut off from the world they came from and equally cut off from the world they now inhabit.

This state of isolation and exile is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening chapter. Here we find Vanja taking the train journey from Essre to Amatka on board a train which embodies the colonists’ collective material and psychological condition. The passenger car in which she travels is full of bunks, having been ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’; but its generous capacity is pointless in a world where exploration has given way to a daily struggle for survival within the perimeters of established settlements (p. 3). Everything in it is strictly functional, from the ‘rigid and uncomfortable’ seats to the bland food provided in the pantry: ‘stew with a base of mycoprotein’, to be eaten cold from a can, root vegetables to be cut into chunks and eaten raw (pp. 3-4).  It has no windows, cutting the passengers off from the drab but somehow terrifying landscape through which it travels – partly to suppress their fear of it, partly because there is nothing to be seen outside in any case ‘except the empty steppe: billowing grass, some hillocks, and combes’ (p. 5). Most disturbingly of all, everyday objects in the carriage have their names written on them in ‘large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE’, the labels loudly proclaiming the possibility, even the likelihood of their imminent disintegration (p. 4). Everything is utterly familiar and undifferentiated, yet the continuing existence of these familiar things cannot be taken for granted; the fear felt by the colonists is that the things they need will be taken away from them by irresponsible acts, or merely by forgetfulness, by neglect. One is reminded of the way that the presence of imagined objects needs to be constantly reaffirmed in a mime show or improvised scenario, the way they can disappear or lose shape if the performers fail to reinforce their presence by naming them repeatedly or shaping them often with their hands and bodily movements.

The colonists’ identities, too, are always on the verge of dissolution – Vanja’s more so, perhaps, than the rest, since she has little self-confidence, little certainty about where the system ends and her personality begins. The standardization of their names identifies them as little more than objects or functions in space and time. Vanja’s full name, for instance, ‘Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two’, starts with a fusion of her parents’ names (Britta and Lars), followed by a Slavic personal name, and ending with the name of her home colony and where she stands in the chronology of her parents’ offspring (she is their second child, hence ‘Two’).[10] Their bodies, too, are both grimly functional and neglected. When Vanja looks at herself in a mirror on the train she sees that she has lost weight since the last time she noticed her appearance, that ‘her belly no longer sagged from fat but from loose skin and flaccid musculature’ and that ‘her legs were no longer firm’; she has been reshaped, in fact, by the demands of her dull and sedentary job, so that her clothes no longer fit her (p. 5). Her skin no longer fits her either, with the result that to her own eyes she looks much older than she is, accelerating towards an annihilation as complete as that of an object reduced to the gloop of which it is made. We later learn that the records of individual citizens kept in the annals of the colonies are reduced to the minimum after their deaths in order to save paper: name, date of birth and death, profession, cause of death (p. 121). The functionality of the records surrounds the dead inhabitants of the colonies with a featureless waste of unrecorded time, as drably grey and uniform as the landscape surrounding the colonies.

Gradually, however, as the book goes on, we learn that Amatka and the other colonies can be seen as a form of Utopia. That, at least, is how the ruling Committee of each colony describes them and how their more conformist citizens understand them: a perfectly egalitarian community set up in opposition to unspecified but clearly inferior alternative ways of living, now lost in the wasteland of the unrecorded past. But it is a deeply ambiguous Utopia. Indeed, all utopias can be seen as ambiguous, since utopianism itself combines two contradictory impulses: towards radical change (from the material conditions under which the writer and their readers live) and towards total stasis (most Utopias are strictly policed to prevent transition to a less desirable state). Anyone with a preference for change will find themselves stifled by inertia, anyone rendered anxious by transitions will be maddened by the inevitable tendency of societies to mutate and slide into new shapes. All Utopias, then, are Dystopias for some, and Amatka’s Utopia is no exception, since any dissent is savagely punished and any form of eccentric behaviour can be interpreted as dissent. Like the original Utopia of Thomas More, each colony is organised on geometrical principles, with an administrative tower-block in the centre – the all-seeing watchtower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon – and rings of residences, factories, plant houses and recreational facilities arranged around it, under its eye. The worst of punishments fits the crime for which it is most often exacted, loose or disruptive talk: it involves the surgical destruction of the speech centre in the brain, rendering the citizen inarticulate and hence incapable of participating in the life of the commune. One might call this poetic justice – irresponsible speech being rewarded with enforced silence – if it were not for the fact that enforced silence implies an incapacity for poetry of any kind, just or unjust.

So far so familiar; but Tidbeck is unusually dextrous at making her Utopia seem homely as well as intolerable. Its most loyal citizens can be affectionate, funny, compassionate, mutually supportive; its rebels are not motivated by hatred or anger so much as affection, compassion, mutual supportiveness, even a sense of humour, recognising as they do the sheer absurdity of trying to keep things stable in a world predicated on the need for metamorphosis (birth, growth, death, eating, drinking, successive sleep states, etc. etc.). Both sides, too – loyalists and rebels – are intensely conscious that they themselves have conspired to construct the oppressive Utopia from which some seek to be liberated, and that consensus or complicity is essential both for maintaining the commune as it is and for overthrowing it and installing a new order. The alternative Utopia of the rebels is closely related to the Utopia of the loyalists, being compounded of the same elements, the same desires and dreams and needs. The personalities involved in both sides are not crudely distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Some of the revolutionaries, like the sarcastic retired doctor Ulla who cohabits with Nina and Vanja in their communal dwelling, can be infuriating, while Nina’s commitment to the colonies is based in a sense of responsibility to other people’s welfare which has also (presumably) driven her to become a nurse, and which makes her deeply sympathetic to Vanja’s loneliness and depression, despite the opposite points on the political spectrum each of them occupies. Even at the point where Nina betrays Vanja to the ruling Committee near the end of the book, she does so in the conviction that the committee will do what’s best for Vanja as well as for the commune; it’s their merciless treatment of Vanja that finally pushes Nina into joining the revolution. For Nina, Vanja’s body is a utopian space; the visitor from Essre is in her eyes a ‘beauty’, despite Vanja’s own conviction of her ugliness and premature ageing, and despite Vanja’s attraction to the dissidence Nina fears (p. 96). By this means – by seeing her as beautiful – Nina instils fresh confidence in Vanja, a confidence that ironically helps to propel her into the arms of the revolution (to which Nina later follows her).

Other Amatkans, meanwhile, have little interest in either conformity or rebellion. Nina’s children by her housemate Ivar, for instance, have been separated from their parents since birth, raised like the rest of the commune’s children in the so-called ‘Children’s House’. They find it hard to get used to being with their parents each weekend, and spend much of their time staring at adults and clinging to one another as representatives of the sole community they really recognise. Ivar, meanwhile, who works in the commune’s subterranean mushroom farms despite his dislike of being underground, and who is unable to obtain a transfer to more congenial work in the Plant Houses, conforms even while he succumbs to acute depression. This isolates him from his fellow colonists, precisely thanks to the damage caused him by his willingness to conform. Ivar, then, is neither a heroic revolutionary – since he never rebels – nor a loyal colonist – since his eventual suicide is treated by the Committee as the ultimate betrayal, a permanent withdrawal of necessary labour from the struggling collective he was expected to preserve. For both Nina and Vanja, on the other hand, he is a beloved friend. Each of them recognises in him an aspect of themselves, despite their seemingly contradictory positions, and each appreciates him for what makes him himself: his love of strong coffee, his delight in making things grow, his tenderness toward the children he shares with Nina. There are no absolutes in Tidbeck’s commune, since there are no absolutes in the words, sentences and personalities from which it is constructed.

It is no surprise, then, that both colonists and revolutionaries share a love of poetry. The ‘wholesome fun’ enjoyed by the Amatkans at gatherings every Sevenday includes regular readings of poetry written by Berols’ Anna, who is revealed in the course of the narrative as the de facto leader of the revolution (p. 61, p. 159). Poems, of course, can be descriptive, and Anna’s poems meticulously describe the various Plant Houses or agricultural conservatories that form the outer circle of Amatka. When Vanja first reads them she finds they stabilize the mundane objects and actions they invoke, as all language should when responsibly uttered: ‘In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil. Breathing became easier’ (pp. 44-5). As Vanja grows in sympathy with the revolution, however, the same poems offer evidence of change as well as of stability – of becoming as well as of being: the plants are always growing and dying, the rake moves the soil, sound and breath dissolve in air. And some poems harbour double meanings thanks to the possibility of reading them ironically, like Berols’ Anna’s hymn in praise of the Central Committee (‘We thank them / for telling us/ What to do / what to do’), which Vanya assumes at once to be ‘sarcastic’ (p. 78). The novel’s readers, meanwhile, might understand the poems as doing both, making and unmaking as they are read or spoken. In them, revolution and reactionary conservatism are shown to spring from the same soil, the same impulses towards shaping a community and a home.

Colonists and revolutionaries also share a love of music. The wholesome fun of a Sevenday gathering involves singing and dancing as well as poetry recitals. Some of the singing is dedicated to preserving the shapes of things against the danger of change; this includes the ‘Marking Song’ taught to young children so that they can name the necessary objects they make use of every day, protecting those objects from disintegration into gloop. When the revolution finally breaks out, the revolutionaries sing a version of the same song, though with a different intent: an opening out of the song’s meaning rather than a closing down and consolidation of that meaning. What the revolutionaries sing is ‘something like “The Marking Song,” but the words were different; it was a song of making and unmaking, a song not of things that were, but that could be’ (p. 216). Indeed, music plays a key role in the revolutionary transformation of Amatka. At one point in the novel, after a minor falling-out with Nina, Vanja makes her way to the lake outside the commune – a lake that has already begun to manifest signs of the coming change, since it freezes each night at sunset and unfreezes with a sound of thunder at the break of dawn, in defiance of the laws of physics. As she sits on the shore of the lake, Vanja sees an old woman standing nearby, holding a long pipe half submerged in the water. When the water freezes, the woman lifts the end of the pipe to her lips and begins to play it like an alp-horn, effectively turning the frozen water into a musical instrument, a tuneful communication system summoning fellow revolutionaries to her aid. Later, pipes begin to manifest themselves in the ground beneath Amatka, in the form of a mysterious network of tunnels that extend into the tundra beyond the city limits. Noises are heard in the tunnels – voices, buzzing, thunder – and later from the vertical pipes that give access to those tunnels, and which sprout from the ground beyond the city in increasing numbers. The pipes wail and groan like the pipes of a church organ, as if the ground itself were singing, or as if an improvised musical instrument were finding voice for the very first time. In their interview with BOMB Magazine Tidbeck speaks of their legendary great-grandfather who had only five fingers but who nevertheless built ‘an organ out of a sofa’; an interest in improvisation was clearly an integral part of their family saga long before they discovered LARP. The elderly revolutionary Ulla, meanwhile, reminds us that pipes or tunnels may be used for ‘travel’ as well as for making sound (p. 132). Music may be a repetition and affirmation of what’s known and loved, or it may transport us to strange new territories, like the train that carried Vanja to Amatka. In Tidbeck’s world it does exactly both, and revolution arrives like a remembered experimental tune, heavy both with nostalgia and with the joy of the unexpected, the innovatory, the yet-to-be.

The family likeness between reaction and revolution is embodied in the spaces where both are fostered. When Vanja finally learns (of course from the conservative Nina) how the revolutionaries left the city under the leadership of the poet, Berols’ Anna, to set up a rival commune on the featureless tundra, she discovers that the habitation they made for themselves differed little from the design of the colonies they had abandoned: ‘It looked sort of like a colony – a ring of little houses and a commune office’ (p. 169, my emphasis). But the sky above this new commune is alive and full of lights, unlike the grey unchanging skies above the old one, while the walls are painted not with the appropriate noun (‘wall’, ‘window’, ‘door’, and so on, lending solidity to the objects they embellish) but with representations of things ‘not there’, transforming them into narratives rather than nouns (tales of utopia, the no-place, perhaps) (p. 170). Apartments, too, can be spaces of revolution or reaction. When Berols’ Anna fulfils her promise to free Amatka – that is, to fulfil its potential to remake itself along radical lines – she is accompanied on her march to the colony by the old woman Ulla, who formerly shared an apartment with a group of friends from across the political divide. Living together in that apartment were the idealist conformist Nina, the unhappy conformist Ivar, the would-be revolutionary Vanja, and Ulla herself, the fully-fledged insurrectionist. Within that apartment were hatched both plans for liberation and plans to betray the liberators to the Committee. Each physical space in the novel, then, is a theatre, full of possibilities, yet constrained by a set of rules. Each performance in each of those spaces depends on an interaction between the performers, as a sentence depends for its sense on the interaction between its grammatical parts. Rebels need conformists to define themselves against; conformists are equally dependent on rebels to understand for themselves what needs to be suppressed, expelled or resisted. And individuals mutate from conformist to rebel, as Vanja mutates in the course of the novel, emerging from her isolation, depression and atrophy into the catalyst and herald of a new era.

Organs themselves in Tidbeck’s work are, so to speak, organic, mutating from one function to another, militating against the laws of biology. The skin is a fine example. Berols’ Anna writes poems about the Plant Houses that form the outer ring of the concentric circles of buildings that comprise Amatka. Her interest, then, is in what could be called the ‘skin’ of the colony, the protective architectural membrane that protects its interior organs from the perceived threat of what lies beyond. Yet the Plant Houses are already mixed with the Other, since the plants they contain spring from the soil of an alien world. So it’s no surprise, when the revolution breaks out, to see one of the Houses bursting apart to release a ‘stream of furiously flapping greenery’, while another sprouts ‘six unsynchronized, rickety legs’ and trundles off across the steppes in a bid for freedom (p. 212). Meanwhile the mysterious tunnels under the colony – the arterial conduits that convey the bacterium of revolution from one part of the communal body to another – spontaneously mutate into Plant Houses full of semi-sentient ‘fruiting bodies’, which were once the colonists who maintained the underground mushroom farms (p. 214). And skin itself often ceases to be a membrane, announcing its identity with the earth and its products, or with the abject inner organs, even as its owners struggle to keep it contained and in good condition, moisturized, blemish-free and snugly clothed. The eczema suffered by the mushroom farmers turns their skin into fertile ground for fruiting bodies, like the caves where they tend their fungi. When the people imagine or speak the malleable earth of this new world into new bodies – such as imitation cats or fish, sketchy copies of the nonhuman creatures they left behind in the world they fled – the bodies in question differentiate themselves from their lost originals by failing to distinguish between skin and  flesh: their outer membrane envelops no bones, no veins, no organs, no brains, just undifferentiated gloop from head to toe, like living plasticine or clay (pp. 198-9). The earth of the colonies itself resembles either a membrane or an unprotected inner organ, instinct with life. When a neglected everyday object turns to gloop, the gloop feels somehow warm, alive and potent, capable of evolving into something – anything – under the right conditions (p. 175). Towards the end of the novel, Vanja even adopts a blob of gloop as a kind of pet, mutating it at will into useful everyday tools designed to further the revolution.

Yet the capacity for metamorphosis can be exploited for reactionary purposes as well as revolutionary ones. The past can be moulded by the Committee to erase narratives that threaten the integrity of the colonies; Berols’ Anna’s commune, which drew about a hundred colonists out of Amatka into the tundra, is reimagined by the Committee into a disaster which killed the colonists and their leader – thereby shutting down the narrative instead of opening it out, and putting an end to the possibilities of improvisation. The complexity of individual experience is retrospectively reinvented, thanks to the crudeness of the colonies’ records, into simple descriptors of life, job, death, and a set of dates. When the sensitive colonist Ivar discovers the hidden tunnels under the mushroom farm where he works, he is told that he is suffering from delusions; by erasing his account of the tunnels, reducing him to silence, the Committee hopes to wipe them out of existence – and will wipe him out of existence, too, if he persists in asserting the truth of his narrative. In the end, the contradiction between the Committee’s version and his own drives Ivar to wipe himself out of existence; and he accomplishes this by removing his outer membrane – his coat and shoes – and exposing his skin to the murderous cold of the freezing lake. Ivar’s suicide, in fact, represents his most radical act. He kills himself using a feature of the landscape which is impossible according to the laws of conventional physics, a lake that freezes and unfreezes nightly regardless of the prevailing air temperature or weather conditions. Ivar gives himself up to the new world, in other words, embracing it as the Committee will not. In response, the Committee erases even the barest record of Ivar’s life from its archives. But it cannot erase Ivar himself without erasing the community he was part of: his friend Nina, with whom he had children; the children themselves; his co-workers; the roommates who reacted to his story of the tunnels in different ways. In giving himself up to the world, Ivar shows the way to the revolutionaries, who eventually learn to become the place they find themselves in, as he did, giving themselves ‘to the world’ in a daring gesture of making and unmaking, hope and despair (p. 214).

Tidbeck’s dystopic Utopia, then, defines itself by its dangerous capacity to be two or more things at once, and in this it is closely related to the so-called ‘fairy country’ of European literature and folklore, despite its differences from familiar representations of that space. Tidbeck’s story collection Jagannath contains two stories set in that country, both of which were later incorporated or absorbed into The Memory Theatre. Both stories concern themselves with the human relationship with time, and in particular with our simultaneous desire to inhabit a world impervious to change and a world that is always changing. Time also, of course, has a central role in Amatka, not least as something that happens to one’s body (think of Vanja looking in the mirror, contemplating the way her own body has been altered by time and suffering, or her later contemplation of Ivar’s body, changed for ever by its period of suspension in the ‘frigid water’ of the lake [p. 154]). Bodies mark time, too, in both of the fairy stories in Jagannath. The first of them, ‘Augusta Prima’, tells us what happens to the body of an immortal being when she finds a watch.[11] Once the watch is set in motion it changes its formerly changeless finder, who starts to age, while at the same time she becomes aware of the wearisome changelessness of the garden where she lives, which has preserved her in an immutable state up to the point when the clock began to tick. The discovery, too, makes something clear about the politics of fairy land: that the disconnected shreds of time it does contain affect the working classes – the unfortunate changelings who are stolen, enslaved and tortured by their fairy masters – very differently from the masters themselves, who remain unchanged from one generation of servants to another. Fairy land, in other words, like many other places, is a utopia for its rulers and a dystopia for its workers, though here the distinction between them is not merely confirmed but reinforced by their different experiences of chronology. The stolen children are ritually slaughtered when they reach maturity, in a bid to expel even the memory of time and change from the paradisal garden; while the immortals wake each morning at the beginning of what is effectively the same day. The children live in a state of nervous anticipation, perpetually fearful of a sudden change that will wipe them out of existence; the masters live in endless ennui, driven insane by the knowledge that everything everywhere will always be the same, and that there is nothing more to existence than what they have. And a somewhat similar temporal structure rules in Amatka, though the elements of it are slightly different.

At the beginning of Amatka, when Vanja boards the train to the colony where the rest of the novel is set, we learn that something strange has happened to time in the course of her journey. Long journeys in this new world can sometimes cause machines to malfunction, and her wristwatch gets ‘stuck at one o’clock’ because ‘mechanical things sometimes didn’t behave like they should between the colonies’ (p. 5). We might think of the tricks performed by time on long-haul journeys, or in SF stories that feature Faster-than-light-speed travel, or of the warpings of mortal time experienced by voyagers to fairy land such as Oisín, or by fantasy adventurers like the Pevensies in the Narnian chronicles. At the same time, Vanja notes in the mirror the signs of passing time inscribed in her own body; movement goes on, despite the lack of precision instruments with which to measure it, and this is also true of Oisín, who finds that he has aged when he gets back from Faerie. Augusta Prima’s fairy garden has a similar effect on mechanisms: ‘Mechanical things usually fell apart as soon as they came into the gardens’ domain’ (p. 116), dismantled by the will to immortality embodied in the garden by its creators, just as time has been rendered meaningless in the colonies by the ruling Committee’s systematic erasure of the past. In both train and garden, however, chronometers are rendered unfamiliar by Tidbeck’s descriptions of them: Vanja’s watch is ‘the clock on her wrist’ or ‘the little clock’ (p. 5), which gives it an unusual weight and mass for its size and function, while Augusta Prima’s watch is a ‘little machine’ with ‘Three thin rods […] attached to the centre’, moving round the disc ‘in twitching movements’ and making a noise like the beat of a mouse’s heart (115). The mouse analogy, in a realm that has by this stage in the story shown a propensity for casual cruelty to small, powerless beings such as the changelings, makes the watch sound vulnerable; but the strangeness of these two watches gives them an imaginative power beyond the timepieces we know from our own experience. As a result, Augusta Prima proves more vulnerable still, becoming seized by a desire to ‘know’ about the mystery of time as embodied in the watch, and gradually succumbing to physical change as her knowledge grows.

Vanja too, on arriving at Amatka, becomes afflicted with the desire to know, in this case about the mystery of Amatka’s past – a past embodied in the train which caused her watch to stop (the train is ‘built for migration, for transporting pioneers to new frontiers’, but its ‘capacity was pointless’ in a world where such frontiers no longer exist [p. 3]). Vanja’s quest for knowledge leads her to another apparently damaged machine, a giant subterranean contraption whose intended function – as an agent or symptom of change – is as mysterious to her as the watch’s was to Augusta Prima (p. 149). Like the watch, Vanja’s underground machine changes its discoverer, and with her the colony whose past she has been investigating; her interest in it sets it in motion and its motion restores the tunnels to their role as agents of travel, transformation and trauma. A similar extension of Augusta Prima’s experience of time to the rest of the fairy country is implied in the short story ‘Aunts’, where the inhabitants of a fairy glasshouse or orangery find themselves changed by a fleeting visit from Augusta Prima, who clutches a round, metal, ticking object: clearly the watch.[12] Before this moment, the titular Aunts have existed as part of a perpetual cycle of birth, growth and death, sealed into the ecosphere of the glasshouse in perpetuity, self-fed and self-consumed. With the arrival of Augusta Prima and her watch the cycle is broken, and nobody knows what will happen next, either in the glasshouse or in the garden of which it seems to be the beating heart. Knowledge and time, then, are both creative and destructive, breaking down the composition of the objects and people caught up in their transactions, creating new possibilities from the breakdown, and triggering in the people who witness it either terror, delight, or both. And eternity too has a dual nature, locking its denizens into a happy circular dream, entrapping its victims in a recurring nightmare.

Knowledge, and the impulse to knowledge called curiosity, is a threat to the philosophy of stasis that governs both the fairy garden and the colonies. In the garden it is ‘common knowledge’ that time stands still, and that ‘Whenever one woke up, it was the same day as the day before’, a Groundhog Day of pleasure for the masters and torment for the children they have enslaved (p. 118). Augusta Prima’s sudden awareness that there may be other times and other ways of living gives her access to new knowledge which is far from ‘common’. Amatka too, as we’ve seen, is committed to repetition, since this is the only means of preserving its shape: ‘As morning comes,’ declares a poster in Nina’s bedroom, ‘we see and say: today’s the same as yesterday’ (p. 97). Vanja’s quest for knowledge about the past of the colony challenges this mantra repeatedly, as she discovers (for instance) that enormous chunks of the colony’s history have been strategically fabricated by its historians. If fairy country is a beautiful but dangerous illusion, kept in check by rule-based games such as parties and games of croquet, so too is Utopia, a collectively imagined space whose shape and extent is strenuously maintained by the policing of the inhabitants’ words and actions. It is kept in check by parties too, ‘games and organised play’ (p. 158) at each colony’s leisure centres, which ensure that even the citizen’s spare time is policed, observed and linguistically restricted. The key item of knowledge in both books is the recognition that the worlds in which they are set are no more than games, and that a player may choose to change the rules or leave the game altogether, although deciding to do so will put that player in mortal danger, according to the rules of the game they are choosing to leave.

The location of fairy country is notoriously uncertain; and the same is true of Utopia, whose name means ‘no-place’ or ‘placeless’. In Vanja’s world, the fact that the location of the colonies is unknown is one of the pieces of knowledge kept strictly hidden from the people by the Central Committee. Vanja’s father reveals it to her in her childhood in a whispered confession which gives the imparted knowledge both the delightful air of a bedtime story and disturbing connotations of child abuse, which is so often represented by the abuser as a shameful secret to be concealed from other members of the community. Lars’s whisperings to his daughter, in other words, are another of the ambiguous spaces with which this Utopia is filled. As Lars bends towards her in the dark, his beard tickling her cheek and his ‘whispered words’ smelling of alcohol, he imparts to her the explosive fact that ‘No one knows where we are. But we’re not allowed to say that’ (p. 39). At this point the reader finds themselves torn between the notion that he is imparting to her his inmost knowledge in a gesture of supreme parental trust, and the competing notion that such knowledge is too heavy a burden to be shared with a child; that this is, in fact, an irresponsible act on the part of a parent. Lars goes on to restate the fact of their placelessness as a bedtime story, like the most famous tale of that famously ambiguous tale-teller Lewis Carroll: ‘then he seemed to sober up and began to tell her a story about how people had found a hole in the world, and passed through, and ended up in this place. But where “this place” was, no one knew, not even the committee’ (p. 40). At this point Tidbeck seems to be reminding us that fairy stories, children’s stories, can serve as holes in the world through which we can glimpse the shapes of forbidden topics, though they withhold judgement as to whether or not a child might be harmed by such glimpses.

The link between Lars’s ‘hole in the world’ and Carroll’s famous rabbit hole forges another link to ‘Augusta Prima’, whose games of croquet on the lawns of the fairy garden – their chief aim being to break the heads of players and the enslaved children known as ‘pages’ – recalls the violent game of croquet in Alice in Wonderland, set in a garden which is metaphorically or potentially littered with severed heads. The tunnels that riddle the ground beneath Amatka recall the dream-maze threaded by Alice’s White Rabbit; the wayward workings of watches in Amatka and the fairy garden invoke the Mad Hatter’s squabble with time itself (since when, the Hatter tells us, Time ‘won’t do a thing I ask!’);[13] while the curiosity of both Vanja and Augusta Prima recalls the unflagging curiosity of Alice herself, who finds Wonderland and Looking-Class Country ‘curiouser and curiouser’ as she plunges deeper and deeper into their interiors. Amatka, in fact, is more Looking-Glass country than Wonderland. In the second Alice book it’s Humpty Dumpty who declares that any word can mean exactly what he wants it to mean (or in Amatkan terms, make exactly what he wants it to make), while the loss of Alice’s name in the Looking-Glass wood is invoked by the identikit names bestowed on the colonists, or the permanent loss of speech imposed on dissidents as punishment by the regime. Key to both Amatka and the Looking-Glass country is the question of who is dreaming the whole shebang: in Alice’s case, whether it’s the Red King, Alice herself, Lewis Carroll, or the reader, while in Amatka the choices are Vanja (who dreams often, and often cannot tell whether she is dreaming), or the Central Committee, or the colonists, or Tidbeck and the reader, or a strange fusion of all these. After all, the colonists’ ruling committees are elected by the colonists, while Tidbeck (like a good LARP player) allows themself to be ruled by both colonists and committees for as long as they are writing, as does the reader, for as long as they are turning the pages of Tidbeck’s book. So the novel can be read as a commentary on the acts of reading and writing (both of which ‘take a village’, according to the acknowledgments), which can in turn be used as analogies for the workings of power in any given society or culture. The clear allusions to Carroll’s Alice books underscore the centrality of reading and writing to the narrative, as do the many acts of reading and writing performed by Vanja herself, whether she is borrowing the works of Berols’ Anna from the colony’s library or reading and storing away the records of Amatka’s citizens in the archives.

The Alice books have often been described as nightmares rather than dreams, with Alice under constant threat of being beheaded, driven mad, or having her personality denied or eroded. But Lars’s story of the ‘hole in the world’ also gestures towards another great work of literature: Ursula le Guin’s utopian masterpiece Always Coming Home (1985). In this book – published just one year after the date of the most famous of dystopias, 1984 – Le Guin imagines a future version of California in which humans live in harmony with the land, in a manner that consciously recalls the lives of the native Californian peoples whose cultures were the lifetime preoccupation of the author’s anthropologist parents, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. In one story in Always Coming Home, a member of this future utopian community, the Kesh, finds his way through a ‘hole in the air’ into the urban California of the 1980s, when the book was written.[14] He is horrified by the pollution, the absence of natural beauty, the noise and the bustle; but before he leaves, he spots one modern woman in the city crowd who is not like the place’s other inhabitants. Recognisably one of his own people – a woman of the Kesh long before the Kesh came into existence – she is conscious of her context as the others are not, stranded and isolated (it would seem) by having been born with an environmental outlook far in advance of her time. Many of Tidbeck’s short stories speak of similarly isolated individuals who find it hard to connect to their fellow humans; individuals who seem to have wandered through some hole in the world from some other place into our own. ‘Mom’ in ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ is one example; the titular ‘Rebecka’ is another; so are the two sisters in ‘Reindeer Mountain’ and the dead human stranger from whose waistcoat pocket Augusta Prima purloins the watch. ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’ even contains an anticipatory echo of Vanja’s father: there are certain conditions, the narrator observes, that invoke for her the idea that there is something strange that exists very close to everyday reality, some location analogous to what Tidbeck calls the fairy country. ‘When I was little,’ the narrator observes,

I could sit for hours looking out the window. It could be because of a certain kind of music, or because it was dusk, or a certain slant of the light. There was a sensation in my chest, a churning. I couldn’t put words to it then. But it was a knowledge that there was something out there. That there was a hole in the world. And a longing to go there. (p. 24)

The passage is packed with experiences that get echoed in other Tidbeck stories: the weird ‘churning’ in the protagonist’s chest, which for Vanja in Amatka can represent the grinding of the gears of the machinery of desire, curiosity, or fear – all sensations closely related to one another in the effect they have on her body, and all of them invoked by her discovery of the mysterious machine in the tunnels beneath the colony. The word ‘knowledge’ is used in this passage as it is in Amatka, to signify the consciousness that there are things unknown, lacunae worth locating and confronting, not glossing over; things, in fact, that may never get taxonomized in the official historical or scientific records. There is ‘longing’, here, too, for things unknown, as there is in the novel; and this word is worth pausing over. At the end of the English edition of Jagannath Tidbeck lists a number of words they could not translate from Swedish, and one of these is ‘vemod’ (related, I guess, to the German Wehmut, and akin to the Japanese concept of natsukashii as Erika Hobart describes it here [https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200119-a-uniquely-japanese-take-on-nostalgia]). Of ‘vemod’ Tidbeck writes as follows: ‘think of it as a wistful sorrow about something that is over or a quiet longing for something else. As a friend of mine put it, “smiling through tears”’ (p. 155). I don’t know if vemod is the word used in the Swedish version of the passage from ‘Ove Lindström’ I just quoted, but the sensation Tidbeck describes here certainly ‘shines through’ her work in general, just as they claim it ‘shines through in much of our culture’. The woman in Le Guin’s story presumably feels it, that longing for ‘something else’ which has not yet come into being, but which is held in mind as wistfully and sorrowfully as something long past and irrecoverable.

Amatka also echoes another of Le Guin’s Utopias, her classic representation of anarchism The Dispossessed. The subtitle of that novel is ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’, and as we’ve seen, the title perfectly describes the colonies of Amatka.[15] Like Tidbeck’s novel, The Dispossessed is concerned with time that’s out of joint, and with a quest for knowledge, its protagonist being a physicist who wishes to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable principles of simultaneity and sequentiality – or to put it another way, of stasis and change. The anarchy of Anarres in The Dispossessed is both deeply attractive, in its commitment to absolute equality among its citizens, and riddled with corruption, like Amatka’s Central Committee. Words in The Dispossessed are always political: the colony speaks a tongue that was invented by its founders, intended to jettison possessive pronouns and hierarchical concepts, though certain words in it, such as the word for ‘egoizing’, can be used as tools of oppression by the more conservative colonists against those who seek knowledge they deem unnecessary, and therefore luxurious, wasteful, capitalistic.[16] In Amatka words are even more political, of course, shaping the world as they are spoken or inscribed. Its colonies are more communistic than anarchistic, reflecting Sweden’s long love-affair with socialism; several stories in Jagannath take place in ex-communes, such as ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, which is full of vemod for an ‘old schoolhouse’ rented out to a ‘bunch of hairy communists from the city’ (p. 17), or ‘Reindeer Mountain’, which revolves around a family home inhabited by six identical reclusive uncles, or ‘Brita’s Holiday Village’, about a tourist destination that never took off which becomes home to a bizarre egalitarian community – most unnervingly egalitarian, perhaps, in its attitude to incestuous inter-generational sex. As in Anarres, Amatka’s children are raised collectively, while love between parents and children is tolerated but discouraged as a distraction from the most responsible form of love, which is for the community. Love between adults, too, comes under pressure in Amatka, as it does in Anarres, where couples must accept postings to separate workplaces in response to the needs of the collective or risk being branded ‘egoists’. Vanja finds love with the woman who puts her up when she first comes to Amatka; but unlike Vanja, Nina is wholly committed to the idea that the colonies represent the best of all possible worlds, and this leads her to betray her lover for what she considers the best of motives. Ambiguity, for Tidbeck as for Le Guin, is where we live, and any political ideology struggles to accommodate this fact as it seeks to form a habitat for its principles. Poetry, music, drama and the visual arts offer spaces where ambiguity can be embraced, but these spaces are always being policed by ideologues with no tolerance of or interest in its ubiquitous presence in human experience. Ambiguity may be everywhere, but acknowledgement of it is rare and vulnerable, always on the verge of being snuffed out, though capable of reasserting itself through, for instance, double meanings, dreams or inexplicable events.

The most moving form of ambiguity in Tidbeck’s work is that of the committed radical who finds it difficult to accommodate their personal needs to their political convictions. The socialist loner; the anarchist who requires a consistent daily schedule for their mental wellbeing; the lover more committed to their chosen partner than to the collective they love – or vice versa; the innovator with a passion for the past; a number of Tidbeck’s protagonists fall into one or more of these categories, and in consequence fail to find a place for themselves in any human community. Or rather, they drift in and out of human communities, always gravitating towards the peripheries of group activities or discussions, afflicted by their ability to see things from a radically different perspective to the one on which the group agrees. In ‘Some Letters for Ove Lindström’, ‘Mom’ spends a few years in a household of ‘starving activists’ but eventually wanders away, her reasons for staying and leaving equally opaque to friends and family. It is hinted that she may have ‘been through something difficult’ in the past – perhaps suffering at the hands of an abusive husband (Jagannath, p. 23) – but this doesn’t explain her disappearance from the place where she was welcomed and cherished. Similar rumours abound about great-grandmother Märet in ‘Reindeer Mountain’. On the one hand she may be one of the vittra, beings who look like humans ‘but taller and more handsome’, and who live inside mountains like the Irish Sidhe (Jagannath, p. 81); on the other she may have ‘had a hard life’ in some isolated human community, given her decision to ‘run away and never speak to her family again’ (p. 82). The protagonist of The Memory Theatre, a young girl called Dora, suffers from the after-effects of the abusive environment of the fairy gardens, where children are enslaved, abused and used as targets in violent games; yet she is not the same as the other children, both because of her parentage – part fairy, part vittra, which means she is taller and stronger than most – and because of her inclinations: she needs solitude as much as or more than company, and becomes distressed by excessive noise or action. Again, her needs may be ascribed either to her psychological make-up – it would be easy to place her somewhere on the autistic spectrum – or her supernatural origins, her literal roots in the stones and solitude of the Nordic mountains by way of her vittra ancestry. Tracing her needs to the supernatural liberates them from the discourse of (dis)ability, instead inviting attention to their specific attributes and their association with the nonhuman environment, the neglected wild spaces. At the end of her story, Dora chooses to return to those wild spaces despite her deep attachment to her adopted brother, Albin – a fellow victim of the gardens – and the eccentric company of supernatural players he elects to join, and of which she has briefly been a part. The dramatic cooperative known as the Memory Theatre is a true utopia for Albin, but for Dora its bustling, convivial atmosphere is in the end unbearable for more than a few months at a time. Becoming a stone among stones, a vittra among the calm and isolated vittras, is much more conducive to her true identity, the identity she was forced to jettison when she lived among the violent lords and ladies of fairy land.

Like Dora and perhaps Mom and Märet, Brilars’ Vanja is the victim of trauma: the trauma of her father’s arrest and murder for so-called crimes in which he implicated her as a child, and the trauma of having been forced to try to conceive children of her own which she did not want. Both forms of trauma set her apart from the community norm. Well-adjusted female colonists are expected to bear children – and to want to bear children – for the sake of the colony’s survival, while the crime for which her father was punished was that of privileging a quest for knowledge above the need to erase any knowledge that might harm the community – a crime Vanja too commits through her quest for Amatka’s past. Thanks to this double trauma she finds herself both inside and outside two social groups: that of the old colonies she was born into, and that of the revolutionary new colony established by Berols’ Anna on the mysterious steppes beyond the limits of the colonies. Vanja begins by behaving like a committed colonist, but becomes increasingly conscious of the damage sustained by individual colonists – such as her flatmate Ivar – thanks to the community’s unyielding stress on the needs of the collective over those of the individual. Like Le Guin’s maverick physicist Shevek in The Dispossessed, Vanja is a loner, unable to commit herself fully even to the tiny community of an apartment, or of a pair of lovers such as herself and Nina. She is always gravitating towards the outside of any given space in which she finds herself, aching for alternatives she doesn’t herself fully understand.

At the same time, Vanja is not wholly at one with the revolution she seeks to bring about.  Once Vanja has become conscious of the revolutionary movement in Amatka, she works tirelessly to bring it about; but the language of the revolutionaries, as spoken by Berols’ Anna when she finally meets her, confuses her. As Anna herself puts it, ‘The word… the language. Is too small’ (p. 195), unable to encompass the experience of absolute freedom, of being ‘everything’ in the new world beyond the colonies. Anna’s appearance as a revolutionary leader, too, makes her seem alien to Vanja – dazzling, more-than-human – while even her lover Nina, once she has joined the revolution, seems physically too much for her, as if ‘her body had become too small to contain her’ (p. 214). Instead of melding with one another, as some of the colonists do (a father, for instance, melds with the daughter he slapped, as if in homage to Vanja’s complex relationship with her own father), the lovers scorch each others’ lips when they kiss for the last time in the novel: ‘They burned. Blisters formed where their tongues met’ (p. 214). Even before this, the women’s relationship has often been painful, fraught with misunderstandings, punctuated by hurtful exchanges; the kiss may be taken as a metaphor for the nature of their love up until this moment. And at the point when the kiss takes place, Vanja’s tongue has already been disenfranchised from the post-revolutionary world. In punishment for her revolutionary activities, Amatka’s surgeons destroyed her speech centre, which means she will never make herself perfectly understood again, either to her lover or to the organic, sentient gloop out of which the new world will be sculpted. The blisters on her tongue, then, also represent her painful relationship with speech itself, with participatory communication, with membership of the community she has revolutionised. She has been stranded in the past, infantilized, condemned always to be the uncomprehending child who listens to her father’s urgent whispers in the dark. Even the expression of the revolutionaries’ love for her confirms this infantilization: ‘you will remain […] as you are, separate. But we will carry you. […] We will always carry you, little herald’ (p. 216). Few novels have an emotional high point as intense or multivalenced as this.

For me this is the great achievement of Tidbeck’s ambiguous Utopia: that it finds a way to comprehend, to celebrate and to mourn those revolutionaries who are constitutionally ill-fitted for participation in revolution. I suspect there are many such revolutionaries in the world: the fellow travellers who never joined the body of the revolutionary caravan, the non-party members who worked to further the party’s cause, while always uneasy about certain aspects of the doctrine it upheld; the communists who disliked communal living, the anarchists who yearned for order, the many, many partisans who only ever wanted peace and quiet. The actors in experimental theatre companies or LARP workshops whose passion for acting competes with their preference for self-effacement. Ambiguity can characterize one’s attitude to what one passionately believes in. Perhaps it always should. And there is no genre in which that idea could be better articulated than the weird hybrid of science fiction, fantasy, nonsense, fairy tale, surrealism and Live Action Role Play that comprises Amatka.

NOTES

[1] The interview can be found here.

[2] Tidbeck describes the process of writing Amatka in an interview for The Beat Blog, here. The process of writing The Memory Theatre is detailed in the BOMB magazine interview (see footnote 1).

[3] All quotations from Amatka are taken from the Vintage Books edition of 2017.

[4] ‘As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.’ https://bombmagazine.org/articles/karin-tidbeck-interviewed/

[5] Jagannath (New York: Vintage, 2018), ‘Afterword: Transposing Worlds’, p. 152. All quotes from Jagannath refer to this edition.

[6] Other clothes that don’t fit include the outsized medical overalls Vanja borrows from the hospital supplies (as her friend Nina comments, ‘The important thing is they’re not tight across your bottom. That could make lifting patients embarrassing’ [p. 48]). The dissident librarian Evgen meets Vanja at one point ‘buttoned into an enormous overcoat with a thick collar’ (p. 106), as if to hide his radical tendencies from hostile eyes, while surgically damaged political prisoners wear ‘torn and dirty overalls’, as if to reinforce their outcast status (p. 115). Ivar expresses his sense of having been betrayed by his community by removing his outer clothes and setting himself adrift in a freezing lake. Proximity to your friends, meanwhile, gets expressed in Amatka through intimacy with their clothing. After Ivar’s suicide his best friend Nina wears one of his sweaters and sleeps in his bed, face buried in his pillow (p. 162), thereby prolonging his presence in her life beyond his death; and before this Vanja finds solace when she is separated from her lover by ‘resting her nose on the sleeve of her sleep shirt’ and breathing in ‘the scent it had absorbed from Nina’ (p. 103). Clothes conceal and protect, in other words, but they also reinforce deep connections between their wearers.

[7] Jagannath, Afterword, p. 154.

[8] The mention of Lagerlöf’s novel can be found in The Memory Theater (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) at p. 135.

[9] ‘The Swedish [version of Amatka] has no metaphors, or synonyms, or homonyms, because it’s not part of the Swedish language. Since they were “forbidden” in the book, I had to write them out of the [English] prose as well.’ (I may have misunderstood this statement of Tidbeck’s!) https://www.comicsbeat.com/sdcc-17-interview-author-karin-tidbeck-uncovers-the-dreamlike-storyline-of-amatka/.

[10] See the ‘Edict: Name Usage’, Amatka, p. 199.

[11] Jagannath, pp. 113-124.

[12] Jagannath, pp. 125-133.

[13] The Complete Illustrated Works of Lewis Carroll (London: Chancellor Press, 1986), p. 69.

[14] Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1988), p. 154.

[15] Ursula K. Le Guin, Hainish Novels and Stories, ed. Brian Attebery, The Library of America, 2 vols. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2017), vol. 1, p. 613.

[16] See Le Guin, Hainish Novels, vol 1, pp. 640-641.

Where Even Trees May Speak Their Minds: As You Like It

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’This is the third, and the topic seems appropriate for LGBTQI+ month here in the UK.]

Jack Laskey as Rosalind and Nadia Nadarajah as Celia in the 2009 Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s magical plays. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream the bulk of its action takes place in a forest; and like Prsopero’s island in The Tempest the forest can be what you will, assuming a different shape for each mortal that stumbles into it. The forest of the play, then, mimics the stage. It can suddenly shift location, becoming the English forest of Arden or the Belgian forest of Ardenne, freely mingling Mediterranean palms and olive trees with northern blackthorn and bramble, populating itself with European stags and Asiatic lionesses, English shepherds and Greek shepherdesses. In the forest you can dress as you like: girls as boys, Dukes as outlaws, courtiers as farmers, and everyone as a lover, however foolish, ugly, wicked, old, or cynical. The forest, then, is less like the world as it is than the world as it never can be. But it invokes too the desire to ‘Cleanse the foul body of the infected world’ beyond the limits of its magic circle, and for this reason this comedy has seemed to many commentators to be something much more substantial than a theatrical firework display or a sylvan love-feast.

The play begins in a land ruled by a tyrant, Duke Frederick, who has usurped the throne of his elder brother, and lives in paranoid fear of falling victim to a similar betrayal. In his dukedom free speech is impossible, as it sometimes was in the England of Elizabeth I: in 1599, for instance, when As You Like It was being written, the Bishops of the Church of England burned a number of offensive books in central London, including satires and erotic poems by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. Banishing Rosalind, the daughter of his elder brother, Duke Frederick tells his own daughter Celia not to ‘open […] thy lips’ to defend her, despite their friendship. In the previous scene one of his courtiers warns young Orlando that the Duke has taken an equally unreasonable dislike to him, but that the courtier dare not say so openly: ‘What he is indeed / More suits you to conceive than I to speak of’. Yet even in this oppressive atmosphere the Duke’s subjects dream of a ‘better world than this’, as the courtier puts it. Celia and Rosalind preserve their friendship despite the bad blood between their fathers; and everyone knows that the old Duke lives in the nearby forest ‘like the old Robin Hood of England’, where he ‘fleets the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world’. So it’s to the forest that Celia and Rosalind flee with the jester Touchstone after Rosalind’s banishment; and Orlando flees there too with his servant Adam, as if in a bid to find some sort of Eden in Arden, a place where the hand of tyranny cannot touch them.

John Edmund Buckley, Touchstone, Silvius and Phoebe (1864)

What they find in the forest is free speech, and a measure of egalitarianism. Exile has made the old Duke philosophical, and everyone in his vicinity may speak their minds, even the trees (he sees ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything’). Unlike Duke Frederick, Duke Senior encourages anti-authoritarian satire; he even has a pet satirist, the traveller Jaques, who tells him off for every act that smacks of despotism. Later the Duke takes equal pleasure in the impudent banter of a boy named Ganymede, who tells him he is as well-born as he is (which is true, since Ganymede is really Duke Senior’s runaway daughter Rosalind in disguise). He is equally disposed to like the jester Touchstone, whose patchwork costume or ‘motley’ grants him liberty to mock whom he pleases, regardless of rank. And these are only three of the free-speakers who populate the woods where the old Duke dwells. The shepherd Corin can hold his own against any courtier in defence of his profession; the shepherdess Audrey, the shepherd William and the hedge-priest Oliver Martext each possesses their dignity, despite the mockery of the ruling classes; and the shepherd Silvius is enlisted in the final act as spokesman for all the lovers in the play, whatever their station.

Arthur Hughes, Rosalind (1872-3)

But the most remarkable free speaker in the forest is the boy-girl Rosalind/Ganymede, who meets her lover Orlando, finds that he does not recognise her as the woman he dotes on, and initiates a game which changes the direction of the play. Since Orlando misses Rosalind, Ganymede ‘pretends’ to be her, seeking to disabuse him of the absurd fantasies about women that were common currency among Elizabethan males. The charm and wit with which he does so seems to spread the benign infection of love throughout the forest. The shepherdess Phoebe promptly falls for Ganymede, Celia for Orlando’s brother Oliver, and Touchstone for the bashful Audrey, while Silvius takes his old love for Phoebe to giddy new heights. As this happens, satire gives way to love as the dominant mode of the comedy. Love-songs take over from songs of betrayal and exile, and lovers become the most eloquent of the foresters, sweeping aside all social inequalities in their willingness to serve one another, and finally rendering the satirist Jaques redundant.

At the end of the play, Ganymede turns magician. Using a spell he learned from an imaginary wizard uncle – invented by Rosalind as a background for her male persona – he finds a way to join the play’s lovers together in a quadruple wedding by changing himself from boy to girl, from Ganymede to Rosalind, with the help of the great god Hymen. As he casts his spell, Duke Frederick wanders into the forest and sloughs off his tyranny like a serpent shedding its skin. Love conquers all, then, in this play, with an efficiency that satirists can only dream of. And at the end of the play, the newly feminized Rosalind turns to the audience and invites them to join the magic circle of love by applauding the actors’ efforts, spurred on by their liking for this boy-girl who has made herself attractive to all genders. It would be a hardened cynic indeed who did not respond to her invitation, and discover in the process that the free-speakers of Arden had subtly changed his/her/their outlook.

2022 Delacorte Theatre production, Central Park

Elmer Rice, A Voyage to Purilia (1930)

[I started writing this piece, which will be of interest to film fans, before I heard about the closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse – one of the few places in Scotland where you might have watched a silent movie of the kind Elmer Rice had in mind as he wrote his novel. This blogpost, then, is dedicated to the Edinburgh Filmhouse and all who worked in it. May local cinema rise triumphant from the ashes!]

Here’s another of those curios I stumble across from time to time – this time courtesy of Thistle Books, that subterranean treasure-house off Otago Street in the West End of Glasgow. A Voyage to Purilia (1930) is one of five novels published by the socialist playwright Elmer Rice, whose theatrical work includes The Adding Machine (1923) – an Expressionist piece about a worker who commits murder when he finds himself sacked and replaced by a machine – and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Street Scene (1929), turned into a musical in 1946 with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. He also co-wrote a play with Dorothy Parker, Close Harmony (1924), and wrote anti-capitalist and anti-Fascist plays in the 1930s (We, the People, 1933, and Judgement Day, 1934). These biographical details are important. I had never heard of either Rice or A Voyage to Purilia when I first spotted it on the bookshelves, in one of those lovely orange-and-white Penguin paperbacks of the 1950s; but the premise grabbed me at once. It’s a book about a planet that operates according to the conventions of Hollywood Silent Movies of the 1920s, with all the absurdities this entails. And while it made me laugh out loud as I began to read, I also realised as I read on that it was a deeply disturbing book, designed as a savage attack on the pernicious form of false consciousness that governed American culture in Elmer Rice’s lifetime.

It’s a false consciousness that serves to denigrate women, the working classes, people of colour, disabled people, sick people, and any attempt to engage with economic and social problems in a serious way. And it’s also a false consciousness designed to promote the claims of White Supremacy, as embodied in D. W. Griffith’s three-hour epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). Being Jewish and an activist of the Left – one of the most outspoken playwrights of his generation – Rice was well aware that Griffith’s proto-fascistic agenda governed a great deal of Hollywood’s output between the wars, and attacked that agenda by all the means at his disposal. But his novel’s unflinching representation of American filmic proto-fascism makes uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century, and it’s crucial to bear his political outlook in mind, I think, before you begin to read.

The Hollywood conventions Rice describes are not so familiar to moviegoers of the twenty-first century. Some will be recognizable, perhaps, from the great silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd; images from these films – The Gold Rush (1925), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Freshman (1925) – kept swimming up out of my memory as I read, alongside ‘talkies’ of the 1930s that follow similar rules; but the melodramas Rice has in mind as he writes have mostly vanished from our screens, along with the rules by which they operated. By imaginatively imposing these rules on a whole society – a whole planet – Rice brilliantly brings out both their absurdity and the appalling assumptions they normalise. And as the novel goes on, what starts out as amusing pastiche quickly morphs into nightmare. The ridiculous coincidences, bizarre norms and clichéd characterisations of cinematic melodrama take on the quality of a tortuous labyrinth or prison, and the constant stress laid on human emotion becomes harrowing, since nothing in the movie world of Purilia – not even gravity, the weather or the seasons – is capable of functioning for any other purpose than to reinforce the dominant emotion of the moment – usually heterosexual love between two beautiful young white people. By the end of the book, the protagonist finds himself desperate to leave Purilia before falling victim to one of the irrational and finally deadly laws that govern it.

Two Supermarine Southamptons, flying boats produced between 1925 and 1935

The novel is written in a slightly formal style like that of H G Wells – Wells being one of the thinkers who influenced Rice’s socialism. It’s a style well suited to its first-person narrator, a nameless ethnologist, who seeks to use it to record his observations of the planet Purilia as impartially as possible – wholly unaware, of course, that impartiality is impossible on that world, where everyone is committed to one side or another in some melodramatic plot or confluence of plots. The narrator starts by describing the final preparations for the titular voyage across the vast abyss of space, which are interrupted by a long delay caused by bad weather. As he and his fellow adventurer – a pilot called Johnson – check over their ‘great birdlike flying-boat’ for the final time, the rain begins, and a week of acute frustration elapses before they can take off on their secret mission to find Purilia.[1] The delay is clearly devised to remind the reader of the conventions of literary realism; this early bout of intransigent weather, which is at odds with the adventurers’ feelings of excitement at the coming journey, provides the starkest of contrasts to the weather on Purilia, which always concedes to the demands of pathetic fallacy. Here’s how Rice describes the narrator’s impatience as the drizzle sets in:

In my keyed-up state, I was all for making the start, rain or no rain. Almost any risk or discomfort seemed to me preferable to a postponement of this carefully planned-for and eagerly awaited hour. But after much persuasion, I deferred to the soberer judgment of Johnson and the meteorological experts. An easterly wind offered no promise of clearing, and a special report from Washington confirmed our doubts. Added to this, was the very real immediate danger of attempting to lift our heavily laden craft from the already sodden field. It would have been a childishly foolhardy risk.

‘Childishly foolhardy risk’ is, of course, the meat and drink of Hollywood, and the idea of either planning something carefully or delaying an action in the interests of prudence is as unknown to the scriptwriters and directors of Los Angeles as the idea of an ‘easterly wind’ with no emotional significance.[2] On arrival in Purilia the narrator discovers that not only are weather conditions there strictly tailored to the emotional needs of the key (white) people in any given vicinity, but that random events like enforced delays on account of rain are non-existent. The first person he meets on the planet, a young woman called Pansy Malone, immediately becomes the love interest that governs his own particular pathway through the planet’s infrastructure, and every other adventure he undergoes turns out to be connected in some intricate way with her life story. Before meeting her, too, he is treated to a fine example of the indifference of Purilians to ‘soberer judgments’ or the dangers involved in taking ‘foolhardy risks’. He and Johnson watch in amazement from their aircraft as two biplanes chase each other through the Purilian skies before their occupants stage a daring display of wing-walking, shoot at each other in a bid to respectively capture or rescue another young woman, and vanish in the blink of an eye when the combat is over (pp. 17-20). The organisation of Purilian affairs clearly has little in common with terrestrial practices, despite the outward similarity in the appearances of their buildings, landscapes and people.

Movie star Ruth Roland sets out on a wing walk

The planet itself is first identified at a distance by the appearance in space of ‘luminous masses of rosy cloud’ (p. 15), which seems to be the physical body of the planet itself (there is no suggestion that it also manifests as a sphere or globe). Its atmosphere is breathable, but has a ‘curious sweetish taste, which made one experience a slight sensation of nausea’ (p. 16). The planet’s appearance and the atmosphere between them suggest something between amniotic fluid and a mind-altering drug, and there’s no doubt that the narrator and Johnson quickly find themselves emotionally affected by the planet, both in their susceptibility to romance (Johnson falls for a circus girl called Mollie not long after the narrator falls for Pansy) and in the way they see things. On Purilia, objects are constantly appearing in close-up, swelling to enormous size then shrinking again as if to emphasize some specific theme or emotional tenor in the scene under observation. The narrator assumes that this is a side-effect of the planet’s somewhat syrupy atmosphere; but it is also a function of the planet’s subservience to the laws of storytelling, laws that have the effect of trapping the planet’s natives and visitors alike in the toils of an inescapable and sometimes horrific destiny.

An illustration for Rice’s novel from its first publication in The New Yorker, by cartoonist Arno

The effect of entrapment is hinted at in the very first scene the terrestrial adventurers encounter on the planet’s surface. To begin with, we learn that everything that happens on Purilia is accompanied by a musical soundtrack, which Rice describes in terms that again invoke mind-altering substances, and perhaps too mind control – a topic of intense interest in the 1920s and 30s (Freud was fascinated by hypnosis, while the Freudian educationalist Joseph O’Neill wrote an entire science fiction novel about mind control, Land Under England, in 1935). Here’s how Rice conveys the music’s mesmeric effect:

Let the reader try to fancy himself lapped every moment of his existence, waking or sleeping, in liquid, swooning sound, for ever rising and falling, falling and rising, and wrapping itself about him like a caressing garment. The effect is indescribable. It is like the semi-stupor of an habitual intoxication: an inebriety without intervals of either sobriety or complete unconsciousness. It is insidious and irresistible; the hardest head and the stoutest organism cannot withstand it. (p. 24)

Alongside this melodic intoxicant, events on Purilia are accompanied by an authoritarian commentary in the form of a disembodied voice, which ensures they can only ever be given the ‘approved’ reading intended by the invisible scriptwriter. The commentary stands for the flashcards or intertitles containing narrative that introduce new scenes and sequences in the silent movie era; but when transferred from cards to a masculine voiceover with no visible source this narrative somehow becomes distinctly menacing, despite (or even because of) the anodyne nature of its contents. Here is the narrator’s first encounter with what he comes to call ‘the voice’ or ‘the presence’:

While we were still puzzling over the origin of the strange music, we were not a little surprised to hear a voice say: ‘Spring comes early to the Purilian hills’ […] It was a round, suave, unctuous voice, lilting and cadenced, and curiously impersonal. And although the tone in which it made its interesting observation about spring was one of helpful courtesy, there was in it, too, a note of authoritative firmness. (pp. 24-5)

Intertitles don’t exactly have a ‘tone’, though in silent movies they often have an air of schoolmasterly sententiousness. Giving them in addition the tonal qualities of suavity, unctuousness and firmness helps bring out their controlling function. And this function is reinforced by the suddenly looming close-ups that confirm their every assertion:

Scarcely had the voice ceased, when a robin’s nest on the branch of a tree near by […] suddenly swelled to such enormous proportions, that we involuntarily stepped back in alarm. The bird, which was industriously feeding its hungry young […] appeared for an instant to be as large as some fabulous roc. Then it shrank as suddenly as it had swelled and we saw that it was a mere robin after all. But with the deflation of the robin, a distant lamb, tottering across the field, loomed elephantine. And as it, in turn, receded, a modest crocus, just raising its head in the tender grass, expanded and shot upwards with tropical luxuriance. (p. 25)

Johnson is shocked by these manifestations, but the narrator notices at once that they serve to corroborate the observation made by the disembodied voice a moment earlier: ‘“You’ll notice,” I added, “that they all seem to bear out the pronouncement about spring”’ (p. 25). The voice’s views are supported by what the ethnologist dubs a ‘procession of monstrosities’ (p. 25); and its observations are just as authoritative when made about human beings. Note, by the way, the association of the robin with a roc, those giant birds from the second voyage of Sinbad the sailor; while the ‘elephantine’ lamb recalls the hypertrophied animals and people in H. G. Wells’s scientific romance The Food of the Gods (1904). These details neatly invoke the way the film industry makes the ordinary as bizarre and unsettling as a fantastic voyage of the kind undertaken by our two protagonists. They also anticipate the way Rice’s novel will become a horror story, without for a moment losing its ironic sense of humour.

Another Arno illustration from The New Yorker

Humans themselves are rendered monstrous in Purilia by their rigid conformity to the voice’s assertions, by the swelling and shrinking to which they too are subject, and by the fact that they are almost indistinguishable from other members of their social and physical community. When he first meets Pansy, the narrator thinks her to be the young woman he saw in the biplane chase on first entering the planet’s atmosphere. She is not, but the resemblance is a symptom of the ‘curious caste-system which is one of the most remarkable institutions of Purilia’ (p. 27). The members of each distinct caste look more or less identical to one another, and are quite unable to escape the caste they belong to except by way of certain strictly delimited routes. The voice identifies Pansy’s age and caste as soon as she appears (she has seen ‘nineteen summers’, it tells us, and is a ‘lovely unspoiled child of nature’); and although the narrator thinks she looks much older (‘I should have thought her to be thirty rather than nineteen’ – something one could say of many silent screen heroines), and although her relationship with ‘nature’ seems ambiguous (she has soft hands, a snowy complexion, manicured toenails, well-coiffed hair, and grasps a rake, despite the fact that spring is ‘scarcely the season for haying’), he and Johnson accept the voice’s claims without demur, as they will throughout the novel. Time itself gets subordinated on Purilia to the observations of the voice, whether concerning the time of year or the ages of the female characters; Pansy’s mother, for instance, looks around seventy (p. 29), despite the fact that she has a teenage daughter (something the voice takes pains to explain by telling us she is ‘old before her time with work and worry’). The analogy to the strict control of a worker’s time by capitalism, or of a society’s time by an authoritarian state, is irresistible.

Scene from The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926), showing curving track

A number of the bizarre rules of the planet Purilia seem more or less arbitrary. These include the fact that all the railway tracks there are built in curves and contain no straight sections at all – practicality being subordinated to the needs of camera users (though the narrator does not know this: ‘My ignorance of engineering makes it impossible for me to explain this curious method of railroad construction’, p. 67); or that Purilia has no industries, despite being to all appearances an industrially advanced civilization (p. 53); or that the planet is ‘overrun’ with failing circuses (p. 48); or that no journey can be completed without an infinite number of highly dangerous incidents (‘No one who has not travelled along a Purilian road can conceive of the perils of such a journey’, p. 40). Amnesia is widespread, usually caused by blows to the head (p. 163). The only visible shops in the cities are florist’s and jeweller’s shops, which are mostly frequented by men (p. 77). In the end, though, all these rules serve only to underpin the planet’s caste system, which is founded not on economics but on a very small number of emotional imperatives – above all that of furthering the needs of ‘eternal, cosmic love’. ‘Cosmic’ love here means love between beautiful young white heterosexual couples, and understanding this fact is ‘key’, the narrator tells us, to an understanding of Purilia.

One of the many unhappy circus Pudencians of the 1920s: Merna Kennedy in The Circus (1928), with Charlie Chaplin

The caste system is broadly divided into five categories, two for men and three for women (the genders are rigidly segregated on this planet, and strictly binary). The most venerated caste is that of the ‘Umbilicans’, made up of ‘mothers who have suffered deeply’ (p. 58), thereby acquiring a status ‘which can truly be characterized as […] semi-divine’. Motherhood on the planet is not a biological but an emotional function (indeed, no one knows how life originates in Purilia – babies simply ‘occur’, p. 61), and Umbilicans spend all their time in ‘Weeping, knitting, and the prolonged contemplation of the portraits or photographs of their absent  children’ (p. 59). The next caste in rank below the Umbilicans are the Pudencians: beautiful women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, most of them blonde and all of them virgins – a condition which endows them with a status which, the narrator feels, is somewhat surprising in a culture with such a high regard for motherhood. He resolves this seeming inconsistency by pointing out that Pudencians never become Umbilicans, just as there is never any suggestion that Umbilicans were ever Pudencians; both are locked in their particular social or narrative functions, trapped forever within the narrow limits of what is acceptable for members of their caste. Despite the regard to which virginity elevates them, the sole purpose of a Pudencian’s life is to get married. Marriage, however, is an institution which ‘has about it a finality which is almost lethal’ (p. 62), and the narrator suggests that the keenness of Pudencians to get married arises from the exhausting nature of their existences – being constantly pursued, kidnapped, cheated, betrayed, abandoned, rescued and threatened – which makes the prospect of ‘restful physical obliteration’ deeply attractive. He also suggests that the marriage ceremony itself may have a vaguely generative effect, since babies occur soon after a wedding without any indication that sex or conventional childbirth was involved.

One of the great Pudencians: Lillian Gish

The male equivalent of the Pudencians are the Paragonians, young men whose sole purpose in life (despite their reverence for virginity) is to marry a Pudencian, and who must undergo terrible trials before they can do so. Fortunately all Paragonians are not only ‘trained athletes, expert horsemen and marksmen, skilled aviators, untiring swimmers, and clever boxers, and swordsmen’, but seemingly immortal and invincible, since ‘there is no record of a Paragonian’s death or defeat’ (p. 64). Like the Pudencians they all look more or less identical, which frequently threw the narrator, he tells us, into a state of confusion during his time in Purilia.

A Paragonian and a Vaurien, fighting (from Don Q Son of Zorro, 1925)

Pitted against the Paragonians are the Vauriens: male villains who spend all their time chasing Pudencians. They are motivated not by love but by what the narrator calls ‘symbolic lust’ (since acts of sex are unknown in Purilia), though what they might do about this lust if they finally gained possession of a Pudencian can only be guessed at, since they have never succeeded in doing so. Vauriens may be white-skinned or dark-skinned. If dark they always wear ‘some bizarre garment, in lieu of the trousers of civilization and probity’ (p. 65), which soon leads the narrator to conclude, in his time on Purilia, that ‘a man who spurned trousers could be up to no good’. The female equivalents of the Vauriens belong to the lowest caste of all, the immodest Bordellians: ‘fallen’ women who are ‘almost invariably, dark-haired, plump, and past the prime of their youth’, and who spend their lives in ‘attempting to lure the Paragonians, although to what they wish to lure them I never succeeded in discovering’ (p. 66). These women are incapable of the spiritual love that motivates Pudencians, and none of them are or ever have been virgins. They would seem to have been born Bordellians, ‘occurring’ no doubt in that form as babies and perfecting their Bordellian skills as they matured.

Apart from some of the Vaureans, members of the Purilian caste system are all white, and as the novel goes on we keep coming across social groups which stand outside the system, usually on account of the colour of their skins – their outsider status condemning them to bit parts in all the planet’s dominant plotlines. Among these are the Black Purilians, a ‘happy, childlike race, given to song and laughter’, in many cases wholly devoted to ‘the welfare of the white men and women whom they cared for in infancy’ (p. 88). Chinese people, by contrast, spend all their time seeking to undermine white civilisation – quite literally, by digging tunnels under it and setting up a labyrinthine subterranean metropolis beneath the feet of the ‘guileless whites’, no doubt in a bid to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese labourers from migrating to the United States between 1882 and 1943. The sole profession of this ‘strange and sinister race (p. 114), as the Purilians call it, is the enslaving of Pudencians for some purpose which the narrator cannot fathom, though ‘it is generally agreed that their purpose is a horrible one’ (p. 115). Their underground cities are invariably destroyed by earthquakes, which seem to operate as quasi-sentient allies of the white Purilians. There are also a few islanders of colour scattered across the oceans of the planet, who are outwardly childlike but in fact prove ‘capable of the most perfidious treachery and appalling bloodthirstiness’ (p. 149). Finally, there are the various nameless dark-skinned peoples who have the audacity to challenge ‘the supremacy of the whites’ (p.157), only to be slaughtered in huge numbers. Helpful regiments of white marines are always on hand at strategic points in the Purilian landscape to accomplish the ‘splendid work of extermination’ necessitated by the existence of these challengers to the hegemony of silent-screen proto-fascism (p. 155). As the novel moves towards its conclusion, references to casual slaughters of non-white communities increase in number incrementally, leaving a trail of ‘smouldering embers’ and ‘dark-skinned bodies’ in their wake. For Rice, the period of early black-and-white movie-making is marked by its strict exclusion of people of colour from the privileges enjoyed by whites, an exclusion which is enforced by omnipresent, almost incidental acts of racist violence.

Lon Chaney, who often played disabled people, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Disabled people, too, stand outside the Purilian caste system, and are subjected to constant humiliations amounting to physical and psychological torture. This becomes clear to the narrator when he boards a train which carries a circus troupe made up almost entirely of performers with disabilities, branded ‘freaks’ by the Purilians (p. 67). The cruel laughter that accompanies such humiliations is also directed at sick people, especially those who suffer from seasickness, delirium tremens, influenza, gout, or bad teeth, the latter affliction being always conveniently signalled by the fact that the sufferer’s face has been tied in a ‘large handkerchief, which is knotted upon the crown of the head’ (p. 141). These amusing illnesses, along with various incidental ‘abrasions and maimings’ (p. 140), are exclusively endured by members of the lower social orders. More serious diseases (‘serious’ in the sense that they do not produce hilarity) are the exclusive province of high-caste citizens, and can be more readily cured by the power of prayer than medical intervention – a circumstance that suggests the presiding Deity on Purilia works solely on behalf of the upper classes.

In a culture so single-mindedly dedicated to the upholding of a rigid caste system, there can be no more appalling fate than to find yourself near the bottom of the system, or outside it altogether. This fact is driven home for the narrator towards the end of the book, when his fellow traveller Johnson, the pilot and engineer of their expedition, suddenly finds himself flung from a position of seeming pre-eminence – with all the markers of a Paragonian, the highest caste to which a white Purilian man can belong – into the casteless position of a sidekick or extra (a ‘redshirt’ in the terminology of the Trekkie community). Towards the beginning Johnson is described as a ‘man of action’ (p. 39), who seeks  to confront the principle Vaurien in the narrative – a man called Millwood – as soon as his villainy has been exposed for the very first time. Later, Johnson’s assimilation into the conventions of Purilia is confirmed by his reaction to being beaten by a Chinese Vaurien, who starts to ‘rain blows’ with a leather thong on the pilot’s defenceless back, only for the narrator to express some doubt as to whether they are really blows at all, since ‘I was unable to discern any actual contact between the instrument of castigation and the body of its victim’ (p. 123). At the same time, the narrator goes on, ‘so patent […] was Johnson’s agony that my companions could scarcely restrain me from flinging open the grated door which concealed us, and rushing to his rescue’. By this point in the narrative the narrator, too, has evidently been seduced by Purilian culture. Where he had earlier described himself as relatively ‘passive’ compared with his friend (p. 39), he here behaves like a classic Paragonian, striving to launch himself into action despite all the criminal forces massed against him. As the would-be rescuer rather than the victim, however, the narrator has begun an upward movement through the caste system, whereas the victimised Johnson is on his way down. This suggests that as strangers from another planet the two visitors are capable of moving freely between the castes in a manner denied to the native Purilians.

The Paragonian Douglas Fairbanks Sr in Robin Hood (1922)

A few chapters later, when the narrator and Johnson have arrived at what the narrator calls the ‘pastoral community’ of the Purilian Wild West, Johnson has the misfortune to stumble and fall to the floor to avoid the hooves of a horse ridden through a plate glass window (p. 173). The horse is ridden by a local Vaurien, Killer Evans, and Johnson’s stumble marks him out as a non-Paragonian, since a Paragonian would never show such weakness in the face of an enemy. By stumbling and (worse) by falling, Johnson has precipitated himself bodily out of the planet’s caste system, and hence acquired both vulnerability and mortality, qualities to which the true Paragonian is immune. His one chance at this moment, as a casteless extra, is to make himself comic. If he were to damage himself still more in amusing ways he would at once be assigned to the role of a clown, like the hired man, Jim, who keeps turning up at unexpected moments in the novel doing silly things, or the Chaplinesque ‘little fellows’ who frequent the Purilian streets in their ill-fitting clothes. Clowns in silent movies, of course, never die, any more than Paragonians do. But Johnson still sees himself as a Paragonian – disastrously so, since he has forfeited his title to be treated as anything better than an extra. He responds to Killer Evans’s rudeness with an imprecation, staring him down in ‘justifiable indignation’ (p. 173). And Evans’s response to this upstart extra is foreordained by Vaurien convention. From his holster he whips a handgun ‘of unusual size’ and shoots Johnson dead. Johnson’s death is duly confirmed by the Purilian bystanders, in the usual way, through the instant removal of their hats; once these have been taken off no medical practitioner can save him. As the narrator puts it, his friend was gunned down owing to his refusal to ‘observe a simple formula’ (p. 174), which makes him ‘a victim to the rigid and immutable Purilian code’. Strangers too, it seems, can be destroyed by disobedience of the planet’s totalitarian regime; and the incident finally confirms to the narrator that he, too, has been somehow made subject to the rules by which all Purilian natives are governed.

William S. Hart, c. 1920

It’s worth pausing a moment to notice two terms that feature in the scene of Johnson’s death. The first is the phrase ‘a simple formula’, which echoes the set of ethical recommendations compiled by Will Hays in 1924 known as ‘The Formula’. Devised in response to the outbreak of a number of Hollywood scandals, including the trials for rape and murder of the film star Fatty Arbuckle in 1921-2, the Formula laid out certain principles for the reformation of the industry along Puritan lines (Hays was a Presbyterian elder, and might have described himself quite happily as a Puritan). The second term, ‘code’, suggests the process of tightening up the ethical standards by which the motion picture industry was governed. A so-called code of standards was first submitted to Hollywood studios by two Catholic dignitaries in 1929, and led to the adoption of a revised version of the Code by several studios in 1930. Johnson violates both sets of standards – the Formula and the Code – by swearing twice in the moments before his shooting; and one of the oaths he swears also happens to violate the Purilian cult of mother-worship, since it ‘cast doubt upon the honour of Killer Evans’s mother’ (p. 173). He could be said to have died, then, as a victim of censorship as well as movie convention, his ‘rashness’ punished by violence as the racist violence of Purilian culture never has been and never will be.

The narrator himself nearly falls victim to the ultimate fate of all Pudencians and Paragonians: the ‘restful physical obliteration’ of a happy ending. Having spent the novel chasing after the first woman he met on Purilia, Pansy Malone, the narrator finally succeeds in freeing her from the clutches of her enemy, Millwood. The inevitable consequence of this rescue is of course marriage; and all at once the prospect of marriage fills the narrator with horror, possibly because its approach is immediately signalled by an intensification of the two phenomena that most clearly distinguish Purilia from Earth. Having proposed to Pansy and been accepted, he retires to bed, only to experience a sharp crescendo of sound and atmospherics: ‘Never, it seemed to me, had the swooning melodies spoken in such mellow and pervasive accents; never had the atmosphere appeared so palpably pink’ (p. 179). As this happens, he is seized by a desire to escape from the planet, taking Pansy with him whether she likes it or not. Looking back, as he writes, on this dual decision to escape and to treat Pansy as an object without intentions or thoughts of her own, the narrator is horrified by the changes that have been wrought on him by his time on Purilia:

I must ask the reader to believe that the course of conduct upon which I was now determined was wholly foreign to my nature. In ordinary circumstances, I not only am opposed to hasty and quixotic action, but am reasonably considerate of the rights and desires of others. Yet, in all this, it did not occur to me to take into account what might be Pansy’s wishes in the matter. On the contrary, I was quite prepared to overcome, by force or cunning, any objection she might raise. In self-justification, I can offer only the excuse that my long sojourn in Purilia had habituated me to a mode of conduct which, a year earlier, would have struck me as indefensibly arbitrary and unreasonable. (p. 179)

The narrator, in other words, has had his personality almost erased by habituation to Purilian culture and physical conditions. This has led him, in effect, to mentally erase the personality of the woman he claims to love, utterly oblivious to the totalitarian implications of being ‘arbitrary and unreasonable’ in his treatment of her. Both he and Pansy, then, are on the verge of being annihilated, in mind if not in body; Pansy by being denied any kind of agency, the narrator by losing touch with his own ‘nature’ and ignoring hers. So it is scarcely a surprise when, on their wedding day, it becomes clear to the narrator that Purilian marriage is indeed, as he already half suspected, no more than an act of total physical as well as mental obliteration, which puts an end to the existence of both man and woman at the very moment of their symbolic fusion. As the wedding ceremony goes ahead, the narrator notes that the other two couples undergoing marriage at the same time begin to fade into non-existence as soon as the clergymen has pronounced them man and wife. As his own marriage is proclaimed, he sees Pansy, too, begin to vanish. He seeks to clasp her to him, but ‘already she was too insubstantial; nothing remained of the vibrant, pulsating girl but an evanescent wraith’ (p. 183). Appalled at the prospect of succumbing to a similar fate, the narrator flees and boards his aircraft, feeling a ‘sense of indescribable relief’ as the all-pervading Purilian soundtrack gets drowned out by the noise of the engines, and as the ‘faint, persistent nausea’ produced by the Purilian atmosphere is dispelled by the ordinary oxygen he breathes in through his pilot’s mask. Soon he leaves the pink cloud of Purilia behind him and turns his eyes on the ‘luminous globe that hung below me like a welcoming beacon: the world of human beings’ (p. 185). Distinctions make themselves clear to him for the first time in many months, like the spherical sun or moon emerging from behind a bank of clouds: distinctions between individuals, between planets, between one journey and another, between all the subtler elements of human existence which Purilia had rendered simplistic through its enslavement to a strictly limited set of rules. At last he recognises Purilia for what it is – a drug that annihilates the mind; and in rejoining the ‘world of human beings’ he salvages hope that he will no longer see it in the crude and finally deadly terms which is all that Hollywood has to offer by way of narrative.

Norma Talmadge and Eugene O’Brien just before their obliteration in The Only Woman (1924)

At the end of the book, in fact, the narrator is restored to his function as narrator. No longer governed by a formulaic narrative imposed on him by malevolent outside forces, no longer a mouthpiece for a monologic, omnipresent, overbearing voice or presence, he writes his story in the form of a novel; a novel that relates his experience of Purilia in language that – like Brecht’s – constantly reminds us of the artificial nature of all forms of narrative, mingling formal discourse with the emotive vocabulary of melodrama, expressing astonishment at the familiar and dismay at the comic and the hackneyed. Rice’s tool of estrangement is laughter; but his novel is as wary of allowing us simply to laugh without acknowledging the political implications of our laughter as it is of allowing us to immerse ourselves unthinkingly in the wild adventures it relates. The laughter it provokes has become more unsettling with time, since most of Rice’s present-day readers will have learned that mocking the marginal is an open highway to fascistic thinking. In 1930, the worst effects of fascism had not yet made themselves felt. In 2022, there is no excuse at all for ignoring or embracing them.

Scene from John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924)

NOTES

[1] In this novel, a ‘flying boat’ is capable of navigating the space between worlds, much as a biplane does in Lord Dunsany’s short story of 1929, ‘Our Distant Cousins’ (see Dunsany, The Collected Jorkens, ed. S. T. Joshi (San Francisco and Portland: Night Shade Books, 2004), pp. 41-62.

[2] It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that the east wind is closely associated with John Jarndyce’s periodic bouts of melancholy in Dickens’s Bleak House (see Chapter 6).

The Merry Wives of Windsor: A Commonwealth of Merriment

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the second, on a play I left out of my book, Shakespeare and Comedy, because there wasn’t room to include it].

Falstaff with beaker, by Eduard von Grützner

‘Cry God for Falstaff, England and Saint George!’ For one scene only, in 2 Henry IV, we are given a glimpse of an England where Falstaff, not Harry, is king: a land engendered by the sheer force of the fat knight’s imagination. Throughout the play Falstaff’s disease-ridden body, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, paradoxically generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until it erupts, near the end, in the cheeriest party in theatrical history. The party takes place on the eve of Harry’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song; a servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master; Falstaff’s seedy follower Bardolph speaks like a monarch; a young page finds himself entertained by a judge with the same gusto as his elderly employer; and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’, to slough off their years of penury and feast instead on the fruits of Justice Shallow’s orchard. And the party ends with a promise that this genial mood will soon extend itself throughout the kingdom. When Falstaff hears of the old king’s death he declares ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’; his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future (‘welcome these pleasant days’); and for a few seconds we dare hope that this ragtag of ne’er-do-wells may be granted some small fragment of their wishes, if no more than a pittance with which to fund their ongoing revelry. Instead, Falstaff is discarded by his former protégé, the new-crowned monarch, and slinks off to die of disappointment. Few audiences have found it in their hearts to forgive Henry V for his dismissal, even when their heads insist that it’s in the best interests of the English economy.

But legend has it that another monarch – Elizabeth I – compensated for Henry’s bad sportsmanship by insisting that Falstaff be granted an imaginative kingdom of his own: a play in which he falls in love, thus confirming the physical fruitfulness of his laughter-engendering body. No-one knows if she really made this request, but if she did, Shakespeare did not quite comply with it. Falstaff could never truly be in love, except perhaps with Harry or Hal and the possibilities he represented; and an England, or rather a play, that was dominated by this monstrously self-centred anarchist would quickly collapse into nightmare. Nevertheless, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes concrete the merry England that is hinted at in Justice Shallow’s orchard; and it renders that fictional construct both stable and convincing by plucking it out of the hands of the aristocracy and gentry – the classes to which Falstaff and Shallow belong – and placing it firmly in the hands of the middle classes, to which Shakespeare belonged himself.

Falstaff disguised as Herne with Mrs Ford and Mrs Page, detail of painting by Robert Smirke

In doing so, Shakespeare lifts England out of the nightmare of history to which his plays had so far consigned it. Apart from the History Plays, The Merry Wives is the only play he set in his own country, and it’s firmly linked with the two parts of Henry IV both by the presence of Falstaff and by the fact that the impoverished gentleman Fenton once drank ‘with the wild Prince and Poins’. But Fenton’s link with the cast-list of the English chronicles – the Prince of Wales and his aristocratic companions – merely disqualifies him as a suitable match for a nicely-brought-up middle-class girl in the eyes of her parents. Throughout the Second Tetralogy the middle classes carefully exempted themselves from the epic narrative of the nation, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters and betrayals that bedeviled the ruling classes; and in The Merry Wives they firmly decline to be dragged back into those events by an ill-considered union. The events of ruling-class history are not just irrelevant to these people’s lives but obnoxious to them. Instead this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it’s purveyed in the Tudor jest-books, whose so-called ‘merry tales’ full of pranks and japes are mimicked in the farcical situations with which it is filled: situations based, as nowhere else in Shakespeare’s works, on a mutual trust that never for a moment seems in any danger of breaking down.

The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space in which nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or procure each other’s marriages. It’s a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’, in contrast to the dishonest merriment of hereditary knights like Sir John. And it’s a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us. The Host’s deception of the physician, Doctor Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from damaging each other in a duel. The wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him from hurting their husbands by committing adultery. Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony. As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘fery honest knaveries’, and Master Page piously confirms this view: ‘God prosper our sport’. Moral disapproval of this sport – of the kind expressed by the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby – is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge. And so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe The Merry Wives as Shakespeare’s only ‘pure’ comedy, the one play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.

“Falstaff in the Washbasket” by Henry Fuseli

The egalitarianism of the play manifests itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played upon them. Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, of course, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies. But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he was in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by. the bulk of the Windsor community. Master Ford, Master and Mistress Page, Slender, Sallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter Inn and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’. So if in this play Falstaff is toppled from the position of comic pre-eminence he enjoyed in Henry IV, his former absolute monarchy of wit is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England. In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the ‘Henriad’, the fat knight is tricked into accepting a crown made of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’. And while the stag is the most lordly of English beasts, it’s also the chief ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of perpetual amity. between them. In other words, Falstaff here becomes a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle. He is defused, in other words, but not deflated, and this cheerful metamorphosis is completed at the end of the final scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh his sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’.

In The Merry Wives merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat. It’s not the land where the Elizabethans lived; but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.

Serena Evans (Mistress Page), Christopher Benjamin (John Falstaff) and Sarah Woodward (Mistress Ford), in the Globe’s 2010 production

 

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: Extreme Comedy

[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe. Strangely, though, I only saw my first production at the Globe this year, when my daughter Gracie took me to see King Lear performed by the incomparable Kathryn Hunter under the direction of Helena Kaut-Howson. The experience made me think I should publish my Globe essays on this blog, in the hope they may remind a few readers of the productions staged at the playhouse through all those years when I couldn’t see them. This is the first, on a play for which I’ve always had a soft spot since seeing it in the 1970s with Imogen Stubbs as a handless, tongueless Lavinia.

The following piece comes with multiple trigger warnings: rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism and more.]

Shakespeare’s Globe

Ancient Rome lay at the heart of the Elizabethan grammar school system. At Stratford grammar school Shakespeare would have learned to see Roman culture as the source of all good writing, the touchstone by which any modern society must measure the degree to which it could claim to be civilised. So when Shakespeare set his first non-English tragedy, Titus Andronicus, in Rome, one might have expected him to approach the subject with timidity: a little over-awed by the sheer weight of expectation that must accompany any theatrical dealings with the supreme exponents of theatre, a little abashed at the prospect of testing his rhetorical skills on the historical home of rhetoric…

Not a bit of it.

Shakespeare dealt with the anxiety of influence by cocking a snook at Rome. Instead of drawing on Roman history he invented a story of his own, rewriting the decline and fall of the Empire as a series of violent set-pieces, riddled with derisory laughter. He responded to the belief that ancient Italy was the cradle of civilization by depicting it as fundamentally barbaric. And he mocked the solemn attitude of his old schoolmasters by filling his play with allusions to the schoolroom, where an appreciation for Latin had been beaten into him with a stick. In Titus, Shakespeare had the temerity to laugh at the culture that shaped him; and having done that so early in his career, it must have seemed to his Elizabethan audience that he was capable of anything.

On the face of it, Titus deals with the infiltration of a great metropolis by the forces of barbarism, as the Queen of the Goths Tamora and her Moorish lover Aaron take a terrible revenge on the Roman general Titus for subjecting them to the humiliation of a military defeat. But as the plot unfolds it becomes clear that barbarism was already endemic in the Empire long before the Goths came on the scene. In the first act, Titus presides over a bloody ritual that horrifies Tamora: the sacrificial killing of an unarmed prisoner-of-war, Tamora’s eldest son; and in the last, he perpetrates a series of atrocities that puts all her crimes in the shade. Between these framing acts of violence, the Empire’s affinity with barbarism signals itself repeatedly: among other things, in the speed with which the Roman Emperor Saturninus woos and marries Tamora, and the ease with which the Romans catch on to the lesson she has to teach them, which is about the intimate relationship between revenge and laughter. This was a topic that fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, from The Merchant of Venice to Twelfth Night, from Hamlet to The Tempest. And in all his work it is the Roman general Titus who is its bloodiest exponent.

Laura Rees as Lavinia in the 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus

Aaron and Tamora see themselves as teachers, instructing Tamora’s surviving sons in the art of comic vengeance. Summing up his career in Act Five, Aaron explains how he taught the boys to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses – one of the standard books in the Elizabethan school curriculum – as an instruction manual in the art of rape. From it they learn to rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, then cut off her hands and tongue to prevent her revealing their crime. The Moor finds this ghastly prank hilarious: Lavinia, he says, was ‘washed and cut and trimmed’ by barbarous barbers, and it was ‘Trim sport’, he adds, ‘for them which had the doing of it’. Later, he framed two of Titus’s sons for murder, then tricked the old general into cutting off his own hand in a vain attempt to save them from execution. As Aaron puts it, he ‘played the cheater’ for Titus’s hand – a cheater being at once a swindler, an officer of the crown and a cant word for hand – ‘And when I had it drew myself apart / And almost broke my heart with extreme laughter’. Afterwards Aaron and Tamora celebrated the downfall of the Andronici in an orgy of sex and merry-making: ‘when I told the Empress of this sport / She swoonéd almost at my pleasing tale / And for my tidings gave me twenty kisses’. Clearly, reading the Roman classics in a certain way could have quite the opposite of a civilizing influence; and this is a way of reading that Titus takes to heart. For Aaron is Titus’s tutor too, teaching him through a series of sledgehammer blows to abandon the excessive respect for time-honoured custom with which he began the play, and to discover instead the terrible power of comic improvisation.

The turning point in Titus’s fortunes comes in the middle of the play, when he learns to join in the monstrous mirth provoked by the Moor’s atrocities. This happens at the moment when a messenger comes in carrying the heads of his executed sons, together with Titus’s hand, which Aaron lopped off on the old man’s orders in a bid to procure his sons’ release. As the messenger says, the judges who refused to spare the boys made ‘Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked’. And it’s by mimicking this grotesque conversion of grief to jest that Titus finds the path to vengeance. His brother Marcus tells him that this is the proper moment to vent his sorrows: ‘Now is the time to storm’. Instead Titus bursts into peals of hysterical laughter, stinging Marcus into an offended inquiry: ‘Why does thou laugh? It suits not with this hour’. But Titus’s mistimed merriment signals his readiness to take part in the appalling comedy set in motion by Tamora and her lover. Grief is powerless, he tells his brother, making his eyes ‘blind with tributary tears’ and obscuring the path to ‘Revenge’s cave’. Laughter, by contrast, serves as the perfect means of blurring his enemies’ vision, while leaving his own sight clear to seek out the nastiest and most appropriate form of retribution.

Poster for Julie Taymor’s extraordinary movie Titus, 1999

The revenge he chooses wittily completes the story from the Metamorphoses that Aaron chose to dramatize when he plotted the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. After a series of comic performances – filling Rome with satirical taunts aimed at Tamora and her Emperor husband, pretending not to recognize Tamora and her sons when they visit him in disguise – Titus stages a banquet as the final act of his comedy, a grotesque parody of the feast of reconciliation that closes the traditional comic plot. In it, he serves up Tamora’s sons to their mother, baked in a pie: a scene that recalls the tale of Philomela, in which her sister Procne killed and cooked a rapist’s son, then served him to his father in a stew. The Gothic Queen is being forced to eat her words: after all, it was she and her sons who first liberated Philomela from Ovid’s pages. Her death at the climax of this cannibalistic supper demonstrates the success of Titus’s scheme to stun her into silence, finally putting an end to the pernicious cycle of comic vengeance she helped to spark off.

Except that Tamora and Aaron, and the horrendous form of comedy they practise, are not so easily suppressed. As the ‘breeders of these dire events’, the couple have also bred a healthy baby in the course of the play; and Aaron’s last trick on the Romans is to make them swear that they will raise the child as one of their own. The offspring of the two notorious pranksters survives the play along with Titus’s grandson, and both branches of the Roman family were adopted by the Elizabethans, who indoctrinated their own offspring in the ways of ancient Rome. The inheritance from that Empire is an unsettling one, and in stressing its unsettling nature Shakespeare makes his audience rethink the concept of civilization, and whether they can claim – or would ever wish to claim – to aspire to the Roman brand of it. Titus Andronicus is a funny play as well as a savage one. its humour is in poor taste; but who says that history, politics, myth, or even good drama have to be tasteful?

The famous drawing of Titus Andronicus by Henry Peacham, 1595

 

Fantasy and Puppetry: Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield

[This blog post was inspired by the recent ‘Fantasy and Puppetry’ event hosted by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow, featuring Marita Arvaniti, Brian Froud, Wendy Froud, Howard Gayton, William Todd Jones, Mary Robinette Kowal and Terri Windling, with funding from the University of Glasgow’s Chancellor’s Fund, obtained by my wonderful colleague Dimitra Fimi. My warm thanks to all the participants for their stunning insights, to which I’ve hardly begun to do justice here. Special thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for putting me on to the work of Steve Tillis.]


What is it about puppets that draws and horrifies us? Puppets are representations of human figures whose radical dissimilarity to human figures marks them out as grotesque imitations, always eerily distanced from what they purport to portray. Their workings are often visible, whether as rods or strings manipulating limbs, or the bony solidity of hands beneath the cloth of their bodies, or puppeteers alongside them on stage, manoeuvring heads and arms and legs with the attentive reverence of priests or undertakers. They are, then, the embodiment of control: control by authority, control by fate, control by our own desires, fears, instincts and diseases – control by anyone but themselves.

But they are also the embodiment of anarchy. Their unfeeling bodies make them impervious to damage, their seeming detachment from their puppeteers absolves them of responsibility, with the result that many puppets are violent things often subjected to violence. Most of the narratives about puppets I can think of involve acts of aggression: from the constant infighting of the friends Damon and Pythias in the puppet show that dominates the final act of Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (1614) to the multiple murders that beset Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1883); from the self-destructive darkness that inhabits human puppets in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), to the forced reiterations of Mr Punch’s actions magically imposed on young children in Diana Wynne Jones’s book The Magicians of Caprona (also 1980), the ‘scrobbling’ and near murder of the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings in The Box of Delights (1935), or the revelations of dark family secrets imposed on a child by successive encounters with the puppet master, Mr Swatchet, in Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s graphic novel The Tragical Comedy and Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch (1994). All these narratives are designed for children or have children in them, so that the darkness and violence they contain runs fiercely counter to the narrative of innocent childhood, which prescribes insipid pap as children’s entertainment in place of unsettling revelations. Puppets tell us that childhood is, like adulthood, full of shadows and damaging encounters, confirming our suspicion that the version of our young selves that is foisted on us by much children’s television is a falsification, a smiling puppet rendered increasingly sinister, as we grow, by its distance from our concussive daily lives.

Human but not human; controlled yet anarchic; violent and subjected to violence yet somehow amusing; puppets are full of paradoxes and contradictions, and this, for Steve Tillis, is the source of their ancient fascination. For Tillis, puppets of all kinds give rise to a kind of double-vision, and his definition of a puppet incorporates this fundamental doubleness:

the puppet is a theatrical figure, perceived by an audience to be an object, that is given design, movement, and frequently, speech, so that it fulfils the audience’s desire to imagine it as having life; by creating a double-vision of perception and imagination, the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life.[1]

This double-vision whereby an object is seemingly endowed with life while at the same time remaining self-evidently an object explains the affinity puppets seem to have with the fantastic – an affinity which Tillis notes elsewhere in his book Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, and which is borne out by the many fantasy movies that have given a central role to puppets.[2] Fantasy is the art of the impossible; objects endowed with life are an impossibility; so the union of fantasy with puppets seems an obvious artistic strategy. But Tillis’s placement of double-vision at the heart of the attraction of the puppet also has something crucial to say about fantasy as a mode or genre. Fantasy involves a similar double-vision. We read a fantasy text, or watch a fantasy film, in the knowledge that what we are reading about or seeing could never have happened in what we think of as ‘real life’; if it could, the film or book would not be fantasy. This awareness inhabits our minds all the time we are viewing or reading. Where Tolkien would have us totally immersed in the fantasy narrative as we read or watch, forgetful of the rules that govern the ‘real’ world we live in,[3] that immersion involves processes which we know very well as we watch or read have never happened and never will happen, such as a person turning invisible by putting on a ring, a person looking across a vast distance by peering into a stone, a tree coming alive and waxing lyrical about the ages it has lived through and the changes it has seen. The amazement with which the Hobbits confront such processes reminds us repeatedly of the fact they cannot take place in the world we live in; this is why they’re delightful. Reading about these things may make us look at gold rings and stones and trees in a new light – surrounding them with an aura of previously unimagined (im)possibilities, as Tolkien says it will in his essay on Fairy Stories – but it won’t lead us to expect that these objects will somehow really acquire the qualities Tolkien gave them; that we may find a ring to turn ourselves invisible, or a stone to see through, or a walking, talking tree. When we walk over downs and stroll through forests our imagination may fill them with barrow wights, Black Riders, Ents and elves, but we’ll always be conscious these are things of the imagination, no matter how keenly we may yearn for them to be real.[4]

The double-vision of perception and imagination, in other words, is not exclusive to puppets. It inheres in paintings, where the viewer can often see the brush-strokes laid on paper by a watercolour artist – even intuit the movements that laid down those brush-strokes – yet simultaneously recognise what they’re looking at as a landscape. It inheres in poetry and prose, where words on the page remain stubbornly present in front of our eyes even as we look through them into the worlds they conjure up. Fantasy, like puppets, stresses the disparity between the object we are looking at – the book, the painting, the screen – and the impossible forms of life with which it seems to have been imbued. The fantasy book or film or painting are theatres, like the puppet theatre, in which impossibilities are brought into being yet remain impossibilities, because if they weren’t we wouldn’t get the kick out of seeing the impossible brought to life that defines them as fantasy.

In the final chapter of his book, Tillis has a chapter entitled ‘Coda – Metaphor and the Puppet’ (pp. 159-169), in which he considers how the metaphors of puppets and puppetry have been used in a range of contexts. He is mostly concerned with marionettes – not glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets or Bunraku – and hence with the relationship between the puppet and the hidden, distant puppeteer, which he sees as embodying the awareness humans have of being at the beck and call of forces beyond our vision: divine forces, political forces, or the force of a powerful emotion such as love. In this blog post I’d like to consider three fantastic texts which deploy the metaphor of puppets in special ways, particularly as a way of playing with the double-vision Tillis writes of. All three of my examples contain representations of glove puppets rather than marionettes, which affects the terms of Tillis’s coda in certain fundamental ways (the glove puppet, for instance, is partly made of the puppeteer’s flesh and blood, as well as the wood and cloth of the head and body; the puppeteer may be in some sense distant, but they are also very much present and intimately bound up with the objects they manipulate). In all three cases, too, double-vision is central to the narrative in which the puppets appear; or rather double-, treble- and quadruple-vision, as the puppet metaphor introduces us to a world in which multiple layers of perception and imagination dominate our lives. These puppet narratives seem designed to defy our belief (our practical belief, that is, as evinced by our movements as we go about our activities) that we live in a rational universe, where the rules that govern what’s real, what’s imagined, and how effect will follow cause, are more or less known and more or less invariable. That’s what the last sentence of Tillis’s definition implies: ‘the puppet pleasurably challenges the audience’s understanding of the relationship between objects and life’. In the particular puppet stories I’ll be discussing, knowledge is precisely what’s being called into question by the prolonged encounter with an inanimate object which is also imagined to be alive, while remaining an object, against all the laws of biology and physics.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Magicians of Caprona

Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s book The Magicians of Caprona is all about contention, violence, and the kinds of knowledge and ignorance that enable acts of spontaneous aggression. She sets it in an alternative Italy that has never been unified, and is therefore made up of multiple city states whose competing interests break out from time to time in military conflict. Her book sees the neighbouring city states of Florence, Pisa and Siena invade the made-up city-state of Caprona, hoping to extend their respective territories at Capronan expense. This contention between countries is reflected in the hostilities that divide the two principal Capronan families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. Each family possesses a stock of grievances and disparaging myths about its rivals, handed down from parent to child and growing more extravagant with each new iteration, until violence breaks out between them around the middle of the book in the form of a huge street brawl, rendered more terrible by the fact that it is waged by magic – the families in question being universally renowned specialists in fashioning spells.

Jones’s imagined world, in other words, is governed by imaginary boundaries: boundaries between those fantastic entities known as nations, between those porous entities known as families, between the commercial interests of businesses which trade in the same product – in this case, magic. These boundaries encourage conflict – war and brawling – and inhibit the sharing and verification of ideas and information – in other words, knowledge. At the same time, the book makes it clear that neither the boundaries nor the selective information that leads to conflict has any basis in material reality. All the geographical divisions between nation states mentioned in the book have long been removed, in our own world, by Italy’s nineteenth-century unification, while the reader knows that the two families are mistaken in thinking that each house has kidnapped a child from its rival, which is the ostensible cause of the street brawl. In other words, the plot of the book is based on double-visions engendered by self-absorption, delusion and prejudice, proposing their dominance of our daily lives and the destructive intransigence that maintains them.

Meanwhile, the book’s comic treatment of its two conflicts – between neighbouring nations, between neighbouring families – stirs up echoes of two well-known tragedies, one real, one imagined. The imagined tragedy is Shakespeare’s play about young love in the context of a feud between two Italian families, Romeo and Juliet. The real tragedy is the civil war between fascists and partisans in Nazi-occupied Italy towards the end of the Second World War, with all the atrocities that entailed. The book is founded, then, on a set of double-visions which gives its light-hearted story, full of cats and puppets and clever children, the darkest of undertones.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if the metaphor at the centre of Jones’s narrative should be that of the Punch and Judy show, a light-hearted take on the domestic or homegrown violence which breaches so many imaginary boundaries: between sexes (Punch and Judy), between adults and children (Punch, the Baby and the children in the audience), between legality and illegality (Punch and the Policeman), between life and death (Punch, the Ghost, the Devil), between the domestic and the public (Punch, Judy, the Policeman and the Hangman), between the stage and the world beyond the stage (Punch, Judy, the Baby and the audience), and so on. No wonder, too, if Jones is concerned to compound the double-vision produced by puppets in Tillis’s book – which is governed by perception and imagination, the perception of the puppet as an object, the imagination of that object as alive – by adding multiple further double-visions to it. I’ve mentioned the double-visions behind the book’s two central conflicts; but there is also a particular double-vision in it that challenges the boundaries conventionally imposed between adulthood and childhood. For instance, in this novel the traditional Punch and Judy show is a personal obsession of the Duke of Caprona, who is himself a living, breathing double-vision, a ‘large damp-faced man’ decked out like royalty (‘He was wearing a shiny silk suit with flashing gold buttons and glittering medals’) who responds to a street puppet show with as much enthusiasm as ‘the smallest boy there’ (p. 21).[5] He is also, as it happens, a puppet himself, in the metaphorical sense mentioned by Tillis in his coda. His wife, the Duchess, indulges his love of puppets in order to distract him from his royal duties, leaving her free to rule Caprona herself. It’s while the Duke is watching a Punch and Judy show at the palace that she declares war on Siena, Florence and Pisa in his name, triggering the invasion for her own dark purposes. And the same Punch and Judy show also effectively triggers the childish brawl between the two families that distracts them from the impending political crisis. It is the Duchess who kidnaps a child from each of the families, then spreads the rumour that each child was stolen by the other family, thus unleashing a potentially deadly Punch-and-Judy style fight between the two families in the city streets. Meanwhile the two kidnapped children are themselves transformed by magic into Punch and Judy puppets – the Duchess being a powerful sorceress whose magic powers exceed those of the Montanas and the Petrocchis combined. So the presence of the kidnapped children as puppet-performers in the Punch and Judy show watched by the Duke at the palace, at the very moment when war is being declared in the Duke’s name by the scheming Duchess, lends a further double-vision to the double-vision of the objects endowed with life as defined by Tillis. The show, designed for children, masks very adult political manoeuvres, while the children who take part in it find themselves deeply conscious, in a very adult way, that they are in mortal danger from an adult (the Duchess), while the principal member of the adult audience (the Duke) watches the show with all the insouciance of a child. There could hardly be a more complex troubling of the conventions that divide the adult world from the sphere supposedly occupied by children.

The Duke is not the only adult in the book to be consumed by childish obsessions. The head of the Montana family, too, resembles a child: ‘Old Niccolo’s face, and his eyes in it, were round and wondering as the latest baby’s’ (p. 16); while his son and heir Rinaldo strikes poses, harbours grudges, and ‘enlists’ the youngest members of the family as part of his secret gang, like an overgrown schoolboy (p. 166). Both men are content to believe the old lies about the Petrocchis, and to ignore the plentiful evidence that the Petrocchis had nothing to do with the Montana child’s kidnapping. Like the Duke they are therefore easily puppeteered by the Duchess into acting out their obsessions. Enraged by the kidnapping and certain they know who is responsible, Niccolo and Rinaldo spontaneously lead their family through Caprona towards the Petrocchi residence, unleashing a chaos of dangerous spells as they go without regard to the possible consequences. All Jones’s books, in fact, are full of adults who have not grown up, continuing to cleave to the stories, prejudices, resentments and obsessions of childhood without subjecting them to any kind of discipline or critical analysis. The division between adulthood and childhood is rendered permeable by her narratives, which are equally full of children who take on responsibility for themselves and their families, often with considerable success.

At a certain point in each book, these responsible children show themselves capable of moving on from a passive acceptance of the controls imposed on them by the simplistic narratives they inherit from their childish parents to a critical consciousness of those narratives’ simplicity. In many cases this is brought about by a kind of double-vision which enables them to separate one aspect of a person’s character from another, and hence to ‘clear [their] eyes’, as Jones puts it in the Magicians (p. 166). A case in point is Paolo Montana, the elder brother of one of the kidnapped children. Paolo’s moment of productive double-vision comes when Rinaldo, a ‘true Montana’ whom Paolo has always tried to mimic (p. 163), expresses callous indifference to the question of whether his father will die of a stroke he has recently suffered. ‘It’s about time the old idiot gave up anyway,’ Rinaldo scoffs; ‘I shall be one step closer to being head of the Casa Montana then’ (p. 165). At these words, things in Paolo’s head abruptly fall into a new perspective: ‘he tried to imagine Rinaldo doing the things Old Niccolo did. And as soon as he did, he saw Rinaldo was quite unsuitable. […] It was as if Rinaldo had said a powerful spell to clear Paolo’s eyes’ (pp. 165-6, my emphasis). Abruptly the boy understands the callous self-interest of Rinaldo, the will to power that motivates his heroic posturing – posturing which is itself based on the model of the theatrical brigand, a human puppet whose clichéd heroism is fatally compromised by a casual indifference to other people’s sufferings. From this moment onwards for Paolo, his older brother Rinaldo is always the spoilt, irresponsible eldest son, whose posturing no longer hides his bullying propensities.

Paolo’s kidnapped younger brother, meanwhile, whose name is Tonino, needs his own eyes cleared by acquisition of the distance provided by double-vision. He loves to read, an activity represented in most children’s fiction as an unqualified good. But in Tonino’s case his kidnapping is accomplished through a spell cast by a book he has been reading obsessively; and the book in question is a novel full of questionable nationalist heroics called The Boy Who Saved His Country. Tonino believes the story to have been sent to him as a present by the most highly educated member of his family, Uncle Umberto; and the boy’s conviction that it is precisely the kind of gift his uncle might have sent him suggests that its propagandistic content may indeed conform to the Montana family’s philosophy. We already know by the time the book appears that a ‘true Montana’ like Rinaldo will do anything to put down the Petrocchis, whether or not there is evidence that they are at fault for any given situation. Tonino’s outlook has been shaped by his family and his city as well as his reading, and having finished the book he at once sets out to map its story onto his home, Caprona.  The boy searches its streets for the strange blue house at which the protagonist’s adventures began, hoping to mimic the fictional boy’s heroism, just as his brother Paolo hoped to mimic the heroic posturing of Rinaldo. Thanks to his family, then, Tonino already has a propensity for confusing fiction with reality, and it’s by playing on this propensity that the Duchess is able to entrap him. His eventual discovery of a real blue house matching the fictional one in The Boy Who Saved His Country triggers the trap which is woven by magic into the fabric of the volume. Soon afterwards he finds himself imprisoned in the ducal palace, held alongside (horror of horrors!) a Petrocchi child, who turns out to have been entrapped by reading fiction in exactly the same way. Both children have to learn that the fantasies peddled by stories shouldn’t be uncritically confused with the day-to-day reality of family life; and it’s by being changed into puppets that this fact comes home to them, quite against the wishes of the sorceress who accomplished that transformation, the scheming Duchess.

Becoming a puppet gives Tonino and his fellow prisoner, Angelica Petrocchi, a terrifying insight into what it is to be controlled by an unscrupulous adult. The motivation for the change is never quite clear to them – they may have been ‘punished’ for an attempt to escape from their imprisonment, or simply transformed to give sadistic pleasure to the Duchess – but once changed, their knowledge of the story they are part of makes the situation far worse than if they had been acting out an unfamiliar narrative. Tonino is Punch, Angelica Judy, and as each new puppet character pops up from under the stage – Angelica-as-Judy, the Baby, the Policeman, the Hangman – the children are horribly aware of the fate that lies in store for it, yet wholly unable to prevent the unfolding suite of murders, as Mr Punch annihilates the entire cast-list one by one through a mixture of trickery and brute force, to the accompaniment of strident laughter.

Jones represents the children’s sense of entrapment by adding yet another layer of double-vision to the usual double-vision engendered by puppets. As Punch and Judy, each child can see the other’s dual nature in their puppet face:

Judy was coming along the stage holding the white rolled-up shape of the baby. Judy wore a blue nightdress and a blue cap. Her face was mauve, with a nose in it nearly as large and red as Tonino’s. But the eyes on either side of it were Angelica’s, alternately blinking and wide with terror. She blinked beseechingly at Tonino as she squawked, ‘I have to go out, Mr Punch. Mind you mind the baby!’ […]

‘What have you done with the baby?’ squawked Angelica. And she belaboured Tonino with the stick. It really hurt. It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him. Tonino […] tried to stay crouched on the floor. But it was no good. He was made to spring up, wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it. He could see the Duke laughing, and the courtiers smiling. The Duchess’s smile was very broad now, because, of course, Tonino was going to have to beat Angelica to death. (pp. 155-7)

Here the transformed Angelica and Tonino, trapped in cloth bodies and hard wooden heads, clearly recognise that they have a distinct identity from that of the puppets in whose forms they are enclosed – the kind of recognition they lacked when they imagined themselves as the heroes of the children’s book The Boy/Girl Who Saved Their Country. Angelica has a large red wooden nose, the nose of Judy, but the eyes that stare out on either side of it are her own, while Tonino finds himself ‘made to spring up’ (the phrase makes it sound as if the necessity is woven into the fibres of his puppet body), then ‘wrest the stick from Judy and beat Angelica with it’ – the sentence underlining his horror at and inward resistance to these enforced actions even as he performs them. The stick is described as Judy’s, the beaten body Angelica’s – two distinct entities – and the action is rendered more horrific by Tonino’s awareness that a child’s body feels the blows of the stick intensely (‘It really hurt’), even after the child has been changed into a thing of wood and cloth. Meanwhile the stick is not just Judy’s, Angelica’s or Punch’s; it has a will of its own: ‘It knocked him to his knees and went on bashing at him’. Jones’s prose perfectly captures, in other words, the multiple identities of a glove puppet, whose head and body clothe a living hand which directs their actions. The hand, meanwhile, serves a traditional, centuries-old story, embodied in the stick which cannot be restrained from its murderous ‘bashing’. Some of the elements of a puppet should in theory be able to operate independently of the others; the flesh-and-blood heads of the children inside the puppets, for instance, are deeply opposed to the story represented by the figures’ wooden heads, while the flesh-and-blood hand of the puppeteer has the agency to take that story in new directions. Yet with seeming inevitability the narrative repeats itself along the same old lines. From a position outside the story – the position of the spectators – the repetition might seem pleasurable, since none of the characters (except perhaps Mr Punch himself) knows what will happen next, and a sense of superiority is part of what makes a situation funny – especially when we’re conscious that no harm is being done (puppets don’t really feel pain). But Jones’s story positions the eyes of the child spectators within the puppets performing the action, so that their horrified knowledge of where the story is going is coupled with a still more horrifying sense of vulnerability (‘it really hurt’), as well as complicity – though it’s a complicity driven not by their own desires but the impossibility of escaping from the long tradition.

The situation I’ve just described can of course be read in political terms. It may invoke the moment when a child suddenly realizes that in looking at its elders – as represented by the Punch and Judy puppets – it may be looking at a horrible image of its future self, physically and mentally transformed by years of damage inflicted by inside and outside forces, and horribly incompatible with the heroic, successful or beautiful selves it has been promised in stories. The audience of royalty and courtiers, meanwhile, who laugh uproariously as Tonino and Angelica batter each other, might suggest the moment when a child first acquires a political consciousness and understands its personal helplessness in the face of indifference or even sadism on the part of the ruling classes. The Duchess with her ‘very broad’ smile need say nothing to make it clear how she relates to the children in terms of class. They can see from her expression that she knows exactly who they are, what has been done to them, how it will end, and that this only pleases her, is part of her plan, an image of what makes her a Duchess and them nothing more than her helpless lower-class subjects. The fact that the show is performed in front of a royal court helps to underscore the disparity between the comfortable fairy tales about themselves encouraged by the powerful and the oppressive truths these tales conceal.

But in fact, as Jones shows us, the kids are not without a power of their own. There are ways they can exploit the rules of the Punch and Judy show to resist their sneering puppet-master – as there always are in Jones’s books.[6]  Mr Punch, after all, is the master of breaking rules. He successively kills the Policeman, the Hangman, a Ghost and the Devil, the details varying according to the version of the show you happen to be playing; and it isn’t long before Tonino realises he can use this characteristic of his puppet character to undermine the Duchess. In order to control the show the Duchess must be ‘putting some of herself into all the puppets to make them work’ (p. 158). This means that to some extent she is the Policeman, the Hangman, the Devil and the rest, each of the instruments of power effectively drawing on some vital element in the puppet master who operates them. Her power over the puppets links her to the puppets, so that if Tonino-Punch can beat the other puppets he can beat the Duchess – physically as well as metaphorically. And he can beat them, because Punch always beats his enemies. The Duchess is as much the victim of the narrative she has chosen to be part of as the children are; and despite all her efforts to alter the outcome of the confrontation between Punch and the Hangman, it’s inevitably the Hangman who comes off worst in the end. Punch asks the Hangman repeatedly to show him how to put his head in the noose, and after several attempts to change the script the Hangman finally succumbs, puts the rope around his own neck, and is hanged himself by the irrepressible murderer – which damages the Duchess quite badly, thanks to the link between herself and the Hangman puppet. The Duchess may have thought this could not happen because her Punch and Judy puppets were mere children, and therefore self-evidently powerless; but one of the children was also Punch, and therefore self-evidently capable of subverting the script written by authority. The Duchess’s double-vision was not sufficiently advanced to let her recognise the consequences of her decision to take control of the Punch and Judy show, which is all about working against control.

Stories have rules, like states, Jones seems to suggest, but those rules can work both ways, asserting control over the would-be storyteller as much as over the story’s cast of actors. Another mistake the Duchess makes is to use her magic to bring both the rival families of Caprona under her control at once. By uniting Tonino and Angelica as her prisoners, forcing them to work together to escape her, she begins the process of undermining the two sets of familial stories or myths that have been handed down to the children of each family in lieu of knowledge. It doesn’t take long for Angelica and Tonino to realise that they have both been manipulated by their elders all their lives, as they exchange inherited ‘facts’ about the Montanas and the Petrucchis which turn out to be lies, all underpinned by their first-hand knowledge that they have both been kidnapped not by a rival family but by the Duchess. Their two separate perspectives combine to form a truthful double-vision of each other’s upbringing and of the myths on which it was founded.

Between them, too, they begin to read their situation in the light of a new story, dedicated not to conflict but cooperation. This is the story of the Angel of Caprona, a symbolic being who provides the two families with a spell to protect themselves against the White Devil that seeks to destroy the City of Caprona in each successive generation. Thanks to the children’s new alertness to the fact that one thing can also be another – their double-vision – they learn that the human-seeming Duchess is also the legendary White Devil, manifesting itself in a new form in their lifetimes as it has done in every earlier age or epoch. To defeat her, the children must combine the words of the spell of protection brought from Heaven by the Angel, only half of which is known to each of the families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis. The double-vision of the two families, who have described each other in grotesque terms to sustain their quarrel, must be symbolically fused by bringing together the two halves of the spell; and once this has happened the statue of the Angel on the dome of the Cathedral will come to life and defend the City (and it’s worth stressing here how the statue, once animated, becomes in this way an alternative ‘puppet’ to Punch and Judy). At the same time the White Devil will appear in her true form – a giant white rat – and be hunted down, in a final act of violence, by the cats of each family. Double-vision, in other words, need not be divisive. It can be shared, like all forms of knowledge, so that two people on opposing sides can learn together that the world is not the simplistic place they thought it was, composed only of trusty friends and implacable enemies; and this lesson once learned, their new, positive double-vision of each other can be shared in turn with the warring factions that brought them up.

With the end of the Duchess the invasion ends too, as the bewildered armies of Siena, Pisa and Florence return home after being somehow defeated by the Angel (we never learn the details). The Duchess’s favourite story, too, goes into abeyance at this point, as the narrative of Punch and Judy suddenly ceases to be relevant. At the climactic moment of her plot to destroy Caprona, all the members of both warring families, the Montanas and the Petrocchis, are turned into Punch and Judy puppets by the Duchess’s sorcery and imprisoned in the ducal palace, like Tonino and Angelica before them. The defeat of the White Devil restores them to human form, but in the meantime their transformation has humiliatingly confirmed their predilection for being manipulated, as Tonino and Angelica were in the puppet show before the Duke. As a result, both families quickly agree to abandon the habit of attacking one another on the slightest provocation, thus freeing themselves from the danger of succumbing to the power of puppet masters. The Duke, too, decides to abandon his obsession with Punch and Judy puppets; ‘Somehow I don’t fancy them like I used to’, he observes ruefully (p. 265). At this point the story of the Angel of Caprona – another object magically or imaginatively endowed with life – takes the place of Punch and Judy as the presiding narrative of the city and the novel. We can, then, choose the stories that govern us, Jones implies, at least to some extent.

But our choice of story will have a material effect on the way we see ourselves and each other. It must be made with care; and we must be equally careful not to let ourselves be subsumed or mastered by the narratives we have selected. Reading them with double-vision will help, keeping ourselves conscious of the fictionality of the stories we live by. An angel which is also a statue has less say over our choices than a plain angel. A Duchess who is also a giant rat can hardly make a bid for control of the country. Enemies who also have families just like ours are more difficult to see in simplistic terms; while we can hardly take ourselves over-seriously if we understand our own capacity for becoming objects, operated by strings, rods, slogans or cunning fingers. Puppets not only have a use in bringing stories to life, but they also have a use in reminding us that they are only stories. The double-vision they afford is a crucial one, and needs to be valued.

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

If The Magicians of Caprona considers glove puppets as embodiments of our susceptibility to being possessed by malevolent powers, Hoban’s Riddley Walker presents us with a still more disturbing vision of how they might embody the human condition. In a South-East England of the distant future – after a worldwide nuclear holocaust that has wiped out much of the population and mutated many of the survivors – we find ourselves wandering across a blasted landscape described in an English language which has mutated into a broken down, worn-out dialect, haunted by unintended puns and echoes of ideas, people, beasts, desires and objects from earlier epochs. Words, here, harbour double-visions of multiple kinds, reminding us repeatedly of their composite nature – constructed both from letters arranged in an unfamiliar orthography and embedded fragments of other words – while pointing towards different fragmentary narratives and forms of knowledge that run concurrently through the novel. The verbal units that make up this futuristic dialect can be seen as puppets steered by puppet-masters who suffer from acute memory loss – and who are therefore themselves in a sense made up of fragments, a situation symbolised by the severed hand of a dead puppeteer which is discovered by the protagonist, Riddley Walker, inside the remains of a glove puppet he unearths near the start of the novel. Desperately guessing at connections between one part of a sentence and the next, between one historical period and another, and between one element of knowledge – science, religion or philosophy – and the crucial companion element that will ignite it into new significance, the many would-be puppet-masters of time to come plunge blindly forward towards an unknown end. Some of them, indeed, plunge forward in a state of literal blindness, as one would-be puppet-master loses his eyes by violence, while another was born with ‘no eyes nor no hoals for eyes’ in his pallid face (p. 72).[7] As a result of this outward and inward sightlessness their quest to move forward takes them only in circles, treading paths that have already been well worn by their ancestors, each circle centred on the ancient city of Canterbury, or ‘Cambry’ as it is known in Riddley’s lifetime. They are pilgrims condemned to repeat the trajectories of their forefathers over and over, Punch and Judies unable to free themselves from the murderous traditional narrative, so once again it’s hardly surprising to find Mr Punch himself at the heart of Hoban’s novel.

The multiple meanings spawned by the dialect of Hoban’s text are matched by the multiple rival factions that seek to dominate this damaged future, each of which is hard at work to recover the half-understood technologies of the past. Most of these factions are ironically convinced that recreating the nuclear bomb – or a less ambitious explosive such as gunpowder – holds the key to regaining the power that once put planes in the sky, light and heating into homes, and pictures and information into the metal brains of quasi-sentient machines. They seek, in other words, the power of destruction, thinking it the power of creation, and the most frightening thing about the book is its suggestion that they may well be right about the close connection between these two processes.

Stalking this blasted landscape is the half-remembered figure of Mr Punch, the embodiment of human resilience, human savagery, and human possession by ideas, dreams, feelings and obsessions not our own. A figure of Mr Punch is unearthed by twelve-year-old Riddley near the start of the narrative, and comes to embody in his mind the uneasy relationship between the post-apocalyptic present and the forgotten past. The chief characteristic of Mr Punch, for Hoban as for Wynne Jones, is possession. The puppet is possessed both by the puppeteer who seeks to make gains from his performances and by the violent story he is condemned to repeat through endless generations. His visible disability – the hump on his back – is understood by Riddley as a sign that Punch’s body has been deformed by radioactive fallout, while his violent life story (which Riddley learns from the puppeteer-politician Abel Goodparley) is being re-enacted on a larger scale in the book’s ‘real’ world, where the power-seeking factions descend from murderous local rivalry to the brink of all-out war. Possession locks Mr Punch into re-enacting his past again and again, and Mr Punch’s re-enactments confirm that the world is also locked into its habit of repeating past mistakes again and again till it self-destructs and the tortuous history begins once more.

The possessed interior of Mr Punch is destructively at odds with his colourful exterior. Inside is a living darkness full of fear and cunning, while the side he presents to the world is bright and crude – the disparity between the two qualities making him funny, at least in theory, at least for some. The inside is always on the verge of breaking out, of breaking into and breaking apart the already broken body that contains it (back to those broken-down words again, with meanings breaking through them in all directions). The same is true of Riddley Walker’s world, the world from which the body of Punch was accidentally dug up in a quest for the technological secrets of the past. The puppet body unearthed by Riddley at the dig signals the fact that the past has finally broken through into the present, and that the hidden darkness, fear and cunning which lurk in the human heart and mind have broken through into the light and colour of the shattered landscape, as one might expect they would in a place whose name has mutated over the centuries from ‘England’ to ‘Inland’, a land whose inhabitants are obsessed with looking inwards.

One of Quentin Blake’s illustrations for the Folio Society edition of Riddley Walker. ‘Sharna pax and get the poal.’

‘Looking inwards’, here, might mean seeking out one’s personal advantage in a bid to survive from day to day; or behaving parochially – in the interests of one’s local ‘crowd’, not anyone else’s; or examining one’s mind and body in a bid to understand one’s desires and instincts. Two sets of desires and instincts struggle for possession of the ‘inward’ parts of humankind in Hoban’s future. The first is the ‘first knowing’, the sort of knowledge humans share with animals: an inherited awareness of how to survive, and of the tragic inevitability of not surviving, giving rise to a sadness born of collective memory of family members and much-loved places repeatedly lost to disease or violence in a constant cycle from generation to generation. The second is ‘clevverness’, embodied in Mr Punch himself, as well as in his immortal enemy and twin Mr Clevver, aka Mr On The Levvil, aka the Devil. Clevverness is the constant quest for the upper hand, combined with the dangerous conviction that one’s head will supply it; this is the force that drives the factions on their explosive rival quests for power. These two forms of possession or inward action are in effect one, since they combine to urge the possessed – the human species or its subject members – on the same circular path that was trodden by their forebears. Clevverness cannot prevent this – and in Mr On the Levvil’s case may even wish to bring it about – and the First Knowing in us knows as much, though we suppress that knowledge as best we can. Riddley Walker, our protagonist, represents a fusion of Clevverness and First Knowing, reading riddles in the landscape and people around him, working out those riddles through ingenuity or by instinct or by accident, and walking them around the circuit he is doomed to tread, like his ancestors and contemporaries, till the answers fall into place (or don’t, as the case may be). For the most part, though, it’s the First Knowing that possesses him, giving him a special empathy with the anarchic wild dogs (the opposite of controlling gods) that roam the Inland landscape, for ever alienated from humankind by the memory of worldwide devastation.

The best representation in the book of First Knowing – the inherited, instinctual, dark knowledge we carry with us from birth – comes near the beginning in a conversation between Riddley Walker and the wise woman of his community, Lorna Elswint (Lorna implying loneliness, her surname suggesting a wind or spirit from elsewhere). Read in the light of Riddley’s later discovery of Mr Punch, the passage could equally be an account of the power of puppets, especially puppets of the glove variety, made from painted wood and colourful cloth and designed to fit the human hand, with the thumb and middle finger working the arms while the index finger nods the head. The passage is also a fine example of the broken-down dialect in which the novel is written, a suitable medium for a narrative about brokenness, forgetfulness, incomprehension, and the tendency to repeat ourselves inadvertently, without understanding:

Lorna said to me: ‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.’

I said, ‘What thing is that?’

She said, ‘Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it dont even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.’

I said, ‘If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.’

Lorna said, ‘Wel there is a millying and mor.’

I said, ‘Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?’

She said, ‘Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It dont realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. What ever it is we dont come naturel to it.’

I said, ‘Lorna I dont know what you mean.’

She said, ‘We aint a naturel part of it. We dint begin when it begun we dint begin where it begun. It ben here befor us nor I dont know what we are to it. May be weare jus only sickness and a feaver to it or boyls on the arse of it I dont know. Now lissen what Im going to tel you Riddley. It thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont think the way we think. Plus like I said befor its afeart.’

I said, ‘Whats it afeart of?’

She said, ‘Its afeart of being beartht.’

I said, ‘How can that be? You said it ben here befor us. If it ben here all this time it musve ben beartht some time.’

She said, ‘No it aint ben beartht it never does get beartht its all ways in the woom of things its all ways on the road.’ (pp. 6-7)

In this passage, the ‘thing’ inside us could be taken for our puppeteer, or the impulses that drive the puppeteer. But instead of a ‘clevver’ being with a self-serving agenda – the kind of being implied by the phrase ‘a puppet state’, authoritative, cunning and cruel, like the Duchess of Caprona – the being inside the human puppet is both childishly innocent and utterly inhuman. It has no identity, no words, no shape, no community, no hidden agenda. It isn’t an individual and it’s not a collective; it seems to have been split into multiple pieces by some past cataclysm – each piece lodged in a separate human person – and to be both lonely for the lost fragments of itself and terrified of assembling them, as if when assembled like the ingredients of a bomb it might go off, with devastating consequences. Like the hidden puppeteer it has no name, but its primary motivation is fear; above all, fear of itself, or of what might happen to itself and others if it comes together and gets ‘beartht’ or born. Hoban’s narrative gives numerous indications of the kind of happening that might ensue from such a reassembly and parturition. The nuclear catastrophe that destroyed humankind in the past seems to embody the sudden coming-together and emergence of that ‘thing’, released from the caging and sheltering womb by the quest for clevverness. A smaller-scale coming together and sudden emergence or birth takes place at the end of the novel, when one of the questing factions succeeds in detonating gunpowder, using ingredients of various kinds which have not been brought into explosive contact with each other for generations. In the process, the ‘thing’ is let loose again on the world, being born and killing, creating and destroying at one and the same time. And throughout the rest of the narrative, human beings and animals – dogs, boars, boys and men – find themselves torn to pieces and tossed aside as they first converge, then burst apart, like gloves or garments or bodies that can no longer contain what lies within. Being reassembled and born into the world, this dismantled ‘thing’ subjects itself and others to destruction of different magnitudes. The ‘woom’ or womb of creation is also the ‘WHAP’ of exploding ordnance (p. 188). No wonder the ‘thing’ is ‘Tremmering’ at the prospect of its own destructive creation.

In Riddley Walker, then, human beings are violent puppets; but puppets themselves also play a role. Puppet shows tour the scattered communities of the future, performed by the Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer of Inland’s government or Mincery, which is physically based on an island known as the Ram (the Isle of Thanet, with Ramsgate on it). The show is essentially government propaganda, informing the people of Inland about Mincery policy and urging their compliance. But the communities can answer back, and in doing so affect that policy. Each show is digested and reinterpreted for the local community by their own ‘connexion man’, a job that falls to Riddley Walker when his father, the old connexion man, is killed in an accident while working on a Mincery dig. Riddley ‘tels’ or makes connexions for his people, and in doing so has the potential to build resistance to unpopular directives from the Ram. He supplies them with a political double-vision, ensuring they never lose sight of the contingent nature of the policies acted out by the Mincery’s puppets.

The Ram’s puppet shows, in other words, have several checks on them to ensure they cannot work in a monologic or univocal way. Being delivered by puppets, all of them stock characters who get reused from show to show and from generation to generation, they are contained and controlled by certain conventions. The Ram’s shows have a backdrop of smoke and flames that reminds their audiences of the appalling consequences of wrong decisions. One of the characters is a figure called Eusa, a Punch-figure whose name recalls the two Cold War superpowers that brought about those consequences (USA, USSR). Another is Mr Clevver, with his pointy beard, his horns and his red complexion – an animated warning of the dangers of certain forms of knowledge, or of assuming one can control those dangers by ingenuity. The puppets are necessarily small, the ‘fit-up’ in which the show takes place is a portable, collapsible box, and the Mincery men who deliver the show are required to carry it around Inland themselves as if in ritual penitence for the events that reduced Inland to its current state. They are pilgrims, in other words, doing penance for past misdemeanours. And the show’s audience, as well as the connexion man, is actively involved in interpreting the Mincery’s performance, as well as in deciding whether or not to accept the connexion man’s exegetic reading of it, or ‘tel’. They are stridently vocal, as we see whenever Hoban describes a puppet performance. They are sometimes violent. Some nervous Pry Mincers and Wes Mincers, including Abel Goodparley and his sidekick Ernie Orfing, choose to protect themselves against potentially hostile audiences by being accompanied on their travels by a crowd of ‘hevvies’ from the Ram. Puppetry, in Hoban’s world, is an art that restricts the ambitions of the powerful and confers a degree of power on the people, who are rendered by it unruly co-performers as well as spectators, with a voice and unruly bodies of their own.

The map of Inland

It’s crucially, too, a mobile art, created by travellers, even when those travellers purport to be speaking for a government attached to a fixed location (the Ram). Travellers are vulnerable, dependent on the goodwill of the communities they pass through and trade with; in this case, the items for trade on offer being the entertainment and the knowledge or information supplied by the show. Riddley Walker takes place at a point in future history when the communities across Inland have become divided between travellers and ‘formers’ or farmers, who are increasingly enclosing land for their own private uses, encroaching on the space available to the groups who have chosen to continue with their mobile lifestyle. Formers are also implicitly conservative, dedicated to recovering former times. A shift of power is taking place, from travellers to formers, and the current Pry Mincer and Wes Mincer are keen to encourage the shift to a forming existence. But their tool for encouragement, the show, embodies travelling rather than forming; and the travelling community who watch it, if not the formers, are inclined to side with the travelling ethos figured by the puppets, rather than the policies preferred by the Mincery’s script.

Meanwhile the Mincery itself is not monologic; like a Punch and Judy show, it doesn’t speak with a single voice. Of course, the voices of puppets in such a show are all spoken by one person – the puppeteer – albeit in different ways, so that like Lorna Elswint’s hidden ‘thing’ the puppets are one as well as many. But a crucial mediator between the show and its audience is the front man or bottler, who in the old days would pass a leather bottle round the audience to collect their fees, and who in Riddley’s time does the ‘patter’ – encouraging Eusa to come up from inside the booth and begin his performance, then challenging him when the show goes in a direction he doesn’t approve of. Orfing is the front man or bottler, and hence also the ‘Shaddow Mincer’, ‘Wes Mincer’ or opposition leader in the Mincery, and he challenges the Pry Mincer Goodparley repeatedly in the first performance by the pair we witness. Later the two Mincers split up, in a witty allusion to the splitting of the atom to create nuclear fusion, and form separate factions in the quest for power. And later still Orfing joins Riddley as they develop a new show – based not on Eusa but on Punch and Judy – which is designed specifically to encourage the continuation of travelling, and of remembering the disastrous outcome of the last quest for geographically demarcated, hierarchically organised power on the part of their ancestors. Orfing becomes Riddley’s front man, continuing the tradition of questioning the monologic voice on behalf of the community, without robbing the community itself of its raucous multiple voices.

From the cover of Quentin Blake’s illustrated edition of Riddley Walker

For Hoban, in other words, a puppet show can be used for propaganda – like television, from which the twenty-first century public gets ‘tels’ from its powerful rulers – or as a work of art, with its own, less predictable ‘tels’, always wandering, refusing stability, taking its creators as much as its recipients by surprise, stirring up trouble, breaking up communities as well as forming them. At the end of the novel, Riddley and Orfing acquire a following through their performances: a mobile community of men, women and children, who choose to join them on their travels after each performance instead of continuing their lives as members of stable communities defined by ‘forms’ and ‘fentses’ (fences, the temporary defensive structures put up by travellers at their camp sites). This travelling troupe, possessed by the spirit of First Knowing and carrying the memory of the ambiguous Mr Punch, takes to the roads at a time of crisis, when the knowledge of how to make gunpowder has been unleashed on the world once more and violent power struggles have broken out of the shadows to which for a while they had been confined. Puppets have always been used for resistance and protest – most strikingly, perhaps, in the radical days of the 1960s and 70s, when political companies like Bread and Puppet (in New York City, then Vermont) or In the Heart of the Beast (in Minneapolis) sponsored performances and May Day processions in the USA, or in modern times when the refugee puppet Little Amal walked from the Syrian border to Glasgow for COP 26, the climate conference of 2021. For Hoban these political puppets have a supernatural or spiritual air about them, being driven by forces we and they do not understand: the winds of change, the wind from elsewhere (the ‘Elswint’), an instinctive alertness for imminent crisis. In Riddley Walker and his people he has created a potent image of the perennial potential of puppets to serve as a means of giving a voice to the unvoiced, the dis-voiced, the voiceless.

John Masefield, The Box of Delights

If Riddley’s puppet show is an unsettling work of political and spiritual art, written as prologue to the cyclical human performance of war, another puppet show that speaks to an approaching conflict is that of the Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, in John Masefield’s celebrated fantasy for children The Box of Delights (1935). Like Punch himself, old Cole is an ancient figure, reminiscent of the Wandering Jew or the Flying Dutchman as portrayed by Eugène Sue and Richard Wagner. Masefield introduced him in a long poem of 1921, King Cole, as a flute-playing traveller whose magic revives the fortunes of a group of destitute circus performers by bringing royalty to watch their show. In the poem, King Cole is the resurrected figure of a legendary monarch commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, under whom England was properly merry – or at least that little corner of England ruled by him, the quasi-fictional ‘valley-land from Condicote to Thame’ in which Masefield sets most of his novels, a kindlier, smaller version of Hardy’s Wessex (p. 731).[8] After his death King Cole is granted the gift of wandering the country with his wooden flute, an ‘old, poor, wandering man, with glittering eyes’ who bestows blessings on the needy: ‘His piping feeds the starved and warms the cold, / It gives the beaten courage; to the lost / It brings back faith, that lodestar of the ghost’ (p. 731). As a performer who brings new courage and prosperity to performers, King Cole is a patron of art and artists, who specializes in celebrating the humblest forms of creativity. He says of the travelling circus people, ‘they serve the arts and love delight’ (p. 749), and transforms their painted waggons with his music into rich emblems of fertility: ‘And all the vans seemed grown with living leaves / And living flowers, the best September knows, / Moist poppies scarlet from the Hilcote sheaves, / Green-fingered bine that runs the barley-rows’ (p. 741). By the end of the poem the fragile love-relationships between members of the circus troupe have also been renewed. Returned from the dead as a genial green god, King Cole in turn revives, refreshes and regenerates the people of Masefield country and their dreams (hence the reference to poppies), giving him the same supernatural, quasi-ritualistic potency as Hoban’s puppets.

In The Box of Delights Masefield brings back King Cole again in the person of Cole Hawlings, still a wandering, poor old man with glittering eyes, but transformed in voice – he now speaks like a traveller rather than a monarch – and seemingly also more ancient than any King of England, since he has been travelling, he tells us, since before England even existed. As he explains to the book’s protagonist, young Kay Harker: ‘First there were pagan times; then there were in-between times; then there were Christian times; then there was another in-between time; then there was Oliver’s time; and then there was pudding time: but the time I liked best was just before the in-between time, what you might call Henry’s time’ (p. 46).[9] In this incarnation Cole is a Punch and Judy man, with a little dog called Toby; but the focus of his act is not so much on the puppets as on the visions he can conjure up with his performer’s magic: sometimes in the fire, sometimes from the wainscot of a living-room wall, sometimes in an ordinary picture (which becomes a portal, Mary Poppins style, when Cole needs to make a quick escape from his enemies), but most often through the little box of the novel’s title, which gives its user free access to the folkloric spaces of the past like a miniature time machine.

The Box of Delights is a kind of Puppet theatre or booth, and hence an embodiment of the artist’s ability to conjure up wonders in a little space with the most ordinary of ingredients: wood, paint and cloth, or words like Masefield’s, or a child’s imagination. The theatre can be carried even by a little man – Orfing in Riddley Walker is the porter of the Mincery’s booth despite his diminutive stature – and Cole Hawlings can lift it with ease when escaping by mule from his enemies into the drawing of a Swiss mountain: ‘he swung himself onto the mule, picked up the theatre with one hand, gathered the reins with the other, said, “Come, Toby,” and at once rode off with Toby trotting under the mule, out of the room, up the mountain path, up, up, up, till the path was nothing more than a line in the faded painting, that was so dark upon the wall’ (p. 61). The portable nature of the theatre explains and symbolises its resilience, its capacity to survive from generation to generation, evading censorship and litigation, and mutating from time to time to accommodate new social and political circumstances. It is a theatre for travellers, as Hoban confirmed in Riddley Walker; and as it travels the magic it contains can be unleashed and escape into its various surroundings, rendering them magical too. In this scene the drawing on the wall becomes another miniature theatre, and after Cole Hawlings has disappeared into the picture magical fragments continue to blow back into the room where it is hung from the mountain landscape he has brought alive: snowflakes that resolve themselves into ‘shapes of coloured paper’ and ‘little coloured balloons, in the shapes of cocks, horses, ships and aeroplanes’, each carrying a gift for one of the children in Kay’s house (p. 61). The puppet theatre is small and seemingly enclosed, but thanks to the interactions between the puppets, the audience, the bottler (where there is one) and the puppet-master’s little dog Toby, is always escaping from its confines and unleashing strangeness on the world. And every audience that witnesses a puppet performance takes a fragment of it home with them in their hearts and minds, to lend new strangeness to enclosed spaces like paintings, boxes, wainscots, wardrobes, and windows with curtains, throughout their lives to come.

The Box of Delights, being even smaller and more portable than a puppet theatre – though equally full of the visions and wonders which Cole Hawlings calls ‘plays’ (p. 47)[10] – comes to symbolise this capacity for survival from the deep past as strongly as the booth itself. And the theatre and its master are connected to the past from the very beginning of the story. The villainous Abner Brown – a foreigner of uncertain origins, possibly American, who wants to get hold of the Box for his own nefarious purposes – thinks of Cole Hawlings as the custodian of an ancient puppeteering tradition that goes back even further than Punch. ‘I am interested,’ he tells Kay’s cousin Little Maria,

‘in the various forms of the Punch and Judy show, and this man is the son, and grandson of Punch and Judy men, who were on the roads many years ago. This man is known to have several versions of the play which they played, and other versions still older, which are not played, and I do most earnestly want to meet him, and now he is off to this wild life of the roads in weather like this, where a touch of pneumonia, or a passing van, may wipe out his knowledge for ever.’ (p. 68)

Brown’s slightly sinister hint at the fragile mortality of the Punch and Judy man is belied by Cole’s own account of his long, long memory, which implies that he is more or less immortal. Abner’s concern for the old man’s welfare as he continues in the traveller tradition seems to mask a desire to see him confined to a fixed address, perhaps a workhouse or a Public Assistance Institution (the replacement for the workhouse in the 1930s). And Brown’s later insistence that Cole is no more than a reincarnation of the Catalan philosopher and alchemist Ramon Lully, Lull, or Llull (p. 265), serves a similar purpose: to fix him in a specific time and place, robbing him of his supernatural mystique. Cole himself never answers to the name ‘Lully’, and his memory of ‘pagan times’ suggests that if he is indeed Llull (who lived in the twelfth century) then Llull is a good deal more ancient than historians suspect; Lull, that is, may be Cole, rather than the other way round. Abner contends that Llull invented an elixir of life, and sought to trade it for the Box of Delights, which gave him mastery over time and space. If such a bargain had been successfully concluded this would help to explain Cole’s longevity, of course, while his possession of the Box – dug up by the Punch and Judy man many years after it was first lost – would help to explain his detailed knowledge of all those periods of history and prehistory; after all, the maker of the Box, Arnold of Todi, shows an equally detailed familiarity with the career of his greatest hero, Alexander the Great. But Cole’s own interest in the past is driven not by history but folklore. His Box transports its new possessor, Kay, to encounters with the pagan wood-spirit Herne the Hunter and a nameless Woman of the Oak-Tree, who has a wonderful way with animals of all species. These folkloric figures are as unconfined as the creatures that accompany them – squirrels, birds of every kind, and porpoises – and by giving Kay access to them, the Box identifies itself as a work of resistance to arbitrary boundaries and oppressive limitations.

Cole’s connection with Herne the Hunter and the Woman of the Oak-Tree marks him out, too, as a folkloric figure, not a historical one, closer to the nursery rhyme personality Old King Cole than the twelfth-century philosopher with whom Abner seeks to identify him. He embodies knowledge which is not that of ancient philosophers, elitist magic-workers or modern scientists, but of the popular, oral variety; a knowledge which is decaying in the current cycle of history, but may revive itself, as King Cole did in the poem, when the next cycle begins. Wielders of such knowledge, like Punch and Judy men and travellers, are now despised, but were not so in the past and may not be in the future: ‘Time was when we had power,’ Cole tells Kay Harker when he first meets him, ‘like the Sun, and could swing the Earth and the Moon, and now our old wheels are all running down and we are coming to our second childhood. […] Still, they say […] that it begins again, in the course of time’ (p. 20). Regardless of Abner’s stories about Cole as Ramon Llull and Arnold of Todi, the old man seems possessed of both command over space and time and immortality thanks to his folkloric knowledge what he calls ‘the secrets of my show’, which ‘aren’t to be had by these common ones’ (p. 20), meaning the wealthy, ruling class men and women who seek possession of them – though he shares his show freely with the those who don’t seek exclusive possession of it.

Abner’s desire to get hold of Cole, meanwhile, and to winkle his knowledge out of him by fair means or foul, marks him out as the polar opposite of the old man. Brown is a person with his own narrow, secretive, self-serving range of desires and obsessions; not a generous sharer of his art like the puppet master, who performs for every comer he encounters in his ‘wild life on the roads’, but a private collector, who keeps the things he collects (like the box of jewels he crows over at one point in the novel, a colder, stonier container than the Box of Delights) for his own delight and no one else’s. Brown, in fact, represents a menace from the past that has always been opposed to what Cole stands for: imaginative wonder, delight, and adventure freely shared with all. Brown is the leader of a band of ravening ‘wolves’, who have materialised in every epoch to which the Box gives Kay magical access. In each of these epochs these symbolic ‘wolves’ have hurled themselves against the protective fences of peace and art: not just as the ‘enormous wolves, with red eyes and gleaming teeth’ that attack Kay when the Box takes him into the Camp of the legendary King Arthur (p. 88), or clamour about the walls of the mythical City of Troy, which Kay also visits; but as the ‘other wolves’ who are in pursuit of the Box, the devious human kind that ‘magistrates don’t heed’ (p. 90). One of the reasons magistrates don’t heed this kind of wolf is that it so often takes the shape of establishment figures. Abner disguises himself as a clergyman – the head of a missionary training college – while his followers who kidnap Cole after he has passed the Box to Kay are at first assumed by the police to be officers from the local aerodrome, having a frolic. Abner’s gang has an enormous underground hideout which is mostly made up of prison cells; cars that can turn into planes and fly at great speed in absolute silence; criminal operations throughout the world, it seems; and an endless supply of weaponry. Abner himself, meanwhile, is an avid collector. He has his personal collection of jewels, a collection of enslaved supernatural servants – including a sullen Boy and a Brazen Head – and a collection of human prisoners, to which he adds as the novel goes on till the dungeons underneath his hideout are crammed full of them. His acquisitiveness marks him out as capitalistic, as well as socially elevated; but for all his high status the double-vision supplied by Cole identifies him as one of the wolves, readily visible to all despite the clerical sheep’s clothing he affects.

An illustration of The Box of Delights by Faith Jaques

Abner Brown shuts things down and locks people up; the Box opens things out and liberates people from bondage – first the castaway Arnold of Todi, who is rescued from a desert island through its agency, then the crowds of prisoners locked up by Abner Brown. Kay’s acquisition of the Box of Delights from Cole Hawlings renders Kay an apprentice puppet master, first drawn into the wonderful ‘plays’ the Box already contains, then empowered to produce original ‘plays’ with props of their own. And his plays are dedicated to liberty. In the final section of the book, Kay uses the Box to transport himself to Abner’s underground lair, where the cells are, and here Cole shows him how to make functional, liberatory art using the old man’s special brand of magic. Under Cole’s direction Kay makes drawings of creatures and objects that could help the prisoners break free from the cells in which Abner has locked them; drawings that come alive, as the drawing of the mountains came alive for Cole, and detach themselves from the fragile sheets of paper to which they were once confined. Here’s the moment when it begins to happen:

In fact, the drawings did stand out from the paper rather strangely. The light was concentrated on them; as [Kay] looked at them the horses seemed to be coming towards him out of the light, and, no, it was not seeming, they were moving; he saw the hoof casts flying and heard the rhythmical beat of hoofs. The horses were coming out of the picture, galloping fast, and becoming brighter and brighter. Then he saw that the light was partly fire from their eyes and manes, partly sparks from their hoofs. “They are real horses,” he cried. “Look.” (p. 378)

As with the moment when Cole Hawlings rides the mule into the picture of the mountains, the wonder of this passage is the double-vision it generates; the picture is as vividly present to the reader’s eye as the horses in it, and Kay’s joyful cry, “They are real horses,” serves only to remind us that they are also not real horses, since they are ‘coming out of the picture’, not out of a field or forest, and they have a light about them ordinary horses do not cast.

In The Box of Delights, then, large and small puppet theatres, the puppet master and his young apprentice, become emblems of art at its most liberating and exuberant. And although the end of the book has disappointed some, with its Alice in Wonderland consignment of Kay’s adventures to the land of dreams, Masefield ensures the boy wakes up in a railway carriage – making him a modern traveller, capable of going wherever the rails might take him – and with a strong appreciation of the dream in which he met Cole Hawlings (‘Have you had a nice dream?’ his governess asks him, and Kay replies ‘I have’, p. 418). His return to the ordinary world need not disenchant the story we’ve just been reading so much as re-enchant the ordinary. And the ordinary was in great need of re-enchantment in the year the book was published, 1935.

Abner Brown is a pleasingly hopeless villain, plotted against by his witchy wife, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, and her scheming lover the foxy-faced Charles, unable to retain the loyalty of his gang (purely on account of his own disloyalty), incapable even of getting satisfactory service from his supernatural servants, who resent him because he mistreats them every time he consults them. But the Wolves with whom he is associated are sometimes frightening, if only because they are everywhere, in all times and places, and always hungry. Perhaps, too, Masefield’s first readers of Kay’s age would have been aware that there were Wolves abroad as they read: the wolves of fascism, Stalinism, Nazism and the rest, whose presence in Europe would lead to another war almost as mythical as and vastly more cataclysmic than the Trojan wars or the wars waged by King Arthur, or even Alexander the Great. Under these conditions the smallness of puppets, who enact stories that endure from age to age in the face of conflict and calamity, and who come to life again and again despite the self-evident lifelessness of their wood, paint and cloth, can be comforting and even inspiring, as we look for ways to express our own opposition to the abuses of power. Diana Wynne Jones, Russell Hoban and John Masefield all seem to say so. We could do with some of their hopeful double-, treble- and quadruple visions right here and now, in the year of conflict 2022.

Notes

[1] Steve Tillis, Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet (New York etc.: Greenwood Pres, 1992), p. 65.

[2] See for example the quote from Michael R. Malkin on p. 37 of Tillis’s Toward an Aesthetic of the Puppet: ‘Puppetry has played a vital role in the development of what can be called the dramatic concept of the plausible impossible […] [This] is the link between the world of the real and the realm of pure fantasy […] It is this sense that puppetry represents a basic theatrical concept; it represents dramatic imagination in one of its most fluid forms’.

[3] See his discussion of ‘literary belief’ in the essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins 2001), pp. 37-8.

[4] As I write this, I remember the artist and puppet designer Brian Froud telling us how, when drawing our painting the Devon landscape, he seeks out the strange life that inhabits it – the life that’s somehow inside it, as the faeries of Ireland and Scotland are said to dwell inside the hills; and I wonder if I’m right. That wonder is exactly where the pleasure of fantasy lies. The status of what we ‘know’ is at stake here, and fantasy is often concerned to trouble our assumptions about ‘knowledge’ and ignorance, as I hope this post will go on to suggest.

[5] All references are to The Magicians of Caprona (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

[6] Tillis’s book includes a fascinating section on the way puppets have sometimes seemed to take control of their puppet masters; Toward an Aesthetics of the Puppet, p. 33 ff.

[7] All references are to Riddley Walker (London: Picador, 1980).

[8] All references to ‘King Cole’ are taken from The Collected Poems of John Masefield (London: William Heinemann, 1923).

[9] All references are to John Masefield, The Box of Delights, or When the Wolves Were Running (London: William Heinemann, 1935).

[10] ‘And now, Master Harker and friends,’ he said, coming outside his stand, ‘now that I’ve played my play, I’ll play more than my Punch and my Judy, for a travelling man collects as he goes, or doesn’t he?’

Thomas Middleton, Your Five Gallants (1606-7)

[My friend and colleague Richard Stacey has twice interviewed me for his brilliant final year course at the University of Glasgow, Dragged off the Street: Queer Players on the Renaissance Stage. He asked me to talk about Thomas Middleton’s play Your Five Gallants, which gave me a chance to read it in Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino’s monumental edition, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. All references are to Ralph Alan Cohen’s edition of the play in volume 1 of the Collected Works, and I also used Taylor’s life of Middleton, ‘Lives and Afterlives’, and Scott McMillin’s essay on ‘Middleton’s Theatres’.

This version of the post has been revised, introducing some new ideas after Richard interviewed me a second time, and a couple of new footnotes. The five questions are Richard’s, the answers mine.]

 

Thomas Middleton

Q: Your Five Gallants was written by Thomas Middleton. Could you tell us a little bit about Middleton’s theatrical career?

A: The son of a London bricklayer who became a building contractor and made himself a gentleman, Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) described himself as a gentleman throughout his life. His quasi-gentlemanly status may have played a role in his choice of topic for Your Five Gallants, which centres on a handful of fake gentlemen making a living from their entirely fabricated class position. His Dad died when he was five, his Mum married again, but her second husband seems to have been a bit of a monster and she spent the whole of her marriage fighting him over ownership of her property. She won.

Middleton went to the University of Oxford, but like his outrageous older contemporary Kit Marlowe (1564-1693) he didn’t graduate. He wrote and published poems while a student, and one book of his poems was burned by the Elizabethan censors for breaking a law against writing satires. After that he started writing for the theatre. He also wrote civic pageants for the City of London authorities and masques for the royal court. He wrote a lot, in fact: the Oxford Middleton is bigger than the Bible.

Unlike Shakespeare, who wrote for just one company, Middleton was a freelance playwright who wrote for all the major playhouses and theatre companies in London. At the beginning of his career he co-wrote with other playwrights, or made additions to other people’s plays – such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to which he added some rather rubbish extra scenes involving the witches, or Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1580s), to which he added some scenes extending the madness of Hieronimo. One of the servants in Your Five Gallants is called Hieronimo Bedlam, as if in homage to this little job of his. His favourite collaborator was Thomas Dekker (c. 1572-1632), his worst enemy Ben Jonson (1572-1637) – who also happened to be the son of a bricklayer.

In 1603 the theatres were closed for a year, first because of the death of Queen Elizabeth I, then because of the plague. While they were closed Middleton got married and wrote some terrific pamphlets about the plague (with his friend Dekker) that got reworked by Daniel Defoe in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). You’ll note the number of plague references in Your Five Gallants – for instance, the broker Frip is always counting the number of plague victims in the parishes of London to help him decide which items to accept in pawn (Act 1 scene 1), and his plague obsession draws on the material Middleton used in his pamphlets.[1] After this year-long break from theatre work, his career as a playwright really took off.

Here’s a list of his finest plays:

A Trick to Catch the Old One (1607), a comedy about a young man tricking an old one out of his cash.

The Roaring Girl (1611), a comedy about the real-life cross-dressing female thief, Mary Frith or Moll Cutpurse. She attended some of the performances and exchanged banter with the audience.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613), a satirical city comedy about a girl who doesn’t want to marry an older man called Walter Whorehound, for obvious reasons, dies of grief, and then – but that would be telling.

The Revenger’s Tragedy, an extremely bloody revenge tragedy, in which a Duke is murdered by kissing a poisoned skull.

Women Beware Women (1621), another extremely bloody revenge tragedy which culminates in masque whose participants are all killed, some of them by Cupids shooting poisoned arrows.

The Changeling (1622), about multiple murders in a castle, purportedly in defence of a woman’s reputation.

A Game at Chess (1624), a satire on the court machinations around the proposed marriage of Prince Charles to a Spanish princess. This seems to have been his last play – he may have been banned from writing when it was thrown off the stage by order of the Privy Council.

One more thing is worth adding about Middleton’s theatrical career. The Oxford Middleton brought out the extent to which he was a collaborative writer, both in his prose and his plays; and perhaps the most controversial aspect of the edition was its suggestion that he should be recognised as co-author of some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including Macbeth (1606-7) and Measure for Measure (1603-4). Your Five Gallants bears all the hallmarks of a writer steeped in Shakespeare’s work, and in particular it contains multiple echoes of Shakespeare’s greatest English history play, Henry the Fourth Part One (1596-7). In the opening scene the pawnbroker Frip fancies himself as a Prince Hal figure, taking off his battered old usurer’s cloak to reveal the fine gentleman’s clothes underneath with words that echo Prince Hal’s when he promises to discard his unruly friends from the Boar’s Head Tavern on the day he inherits the crown. Here’s how Prince Hal puts it:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness;
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him. (1.2.188-196)[2]

And here are Frip’s words as he takes off his battered cloak:

Vanish, thou fog, and sink beneath our brightness,
Abashéd at the splendour of such beams.
We scorn thee, base eclipser of our glories,
That wouldst have hid our shine from mortals’ eyes.
Now, gallants, I am for you; ay, and perhaps before you!
You can appear but glorious from yourselves,
And have your beams but drawn from your own light;
But mine from many, many make me bright. (1.1.279-286)

Notice that Hal chooses to distinguish himself qualitatively from his lowlife companions and promises to reveal his ‘true’ royal nature when he casts off the wild behaviour of his youth. Frip, by contrast, aims to show himself the best of a bad bunch, in that he can out-con all the gentlemen con artists who are his friends; and he proposes not to reveal some essential ‘true’ good nature of his, but to take full advantage of his own fakeness, of the way his glorious appearance is made up of clothes pawned by the full range of Jacobean society, adding their various ‘lights’ to his own until he looks vastly brighter than he did before.

The parallels with Henry the Fourth Part One continue. Later in Your Five Gallants, the tendency of the fake gallants or gentlemen to inflate the number of people who attacked and robbed them (Pursenet lyingly claims to have been attacked by ‘three at once’ when he lost the goods he stole from Tailby, 3.4.61) directly echoes Falstaff’s inflationary lies in Act Two Scene Four of Henry the Fourth Part One (‘if I fought not with fifty of them, I am a bunch of radish’, 2.4.178 ff.). Fitzgrave’s decision to disguise himself as a gullible scholar echoes Hal’s decision to pose as an irresponsible young hooligan, while the robbery scene at Coombe’s Hill clearly echoes the robbery scene at Gadshill in Henry, during which Prince Hal robs and humiliates Falstaff after Falstaff has robbed some unfortunate merchants. These and other echoes[3] suggest that Middleton thinks of his play as a complement or accessory to Shakespeare’s history play – set in the present rather than the past, when the goings-on at the Boar’s Head Tavern have spread to encompass the entire capital, infecting all social classes like the plague or a sexually transmitted disease rather than just the Prince of Wales and his narrow circle of drinking partners. Hal’s outrageous behaviour has, in fact, become the norm, and Fitzgrave’s dedication to honour and faith indicates his rootedness in a past that was more serious (‘grave’) than the present day, and is now in imminent danger of being forgotten, like the dead (again, this is implied by his name: ‘Fitz-grave’ or Son of the Cemetery).

These various echoes of the older poet remind Middleton’s audience that they live in a different age from the one that spawned the great Elizabethan history plays. It is in some ways a more democratic age; in Act 4 scene 7 the thief-gallant Pursenet urges his fellow fake gentlemen to support each other instead of acting as rivals or competitors, since damaging their peers has never been in the interests of the ruling classes they seek to impersonate: ‘This should not be; ’twas never seen among the Romans, nor read we of it in the time of Brute’ (Brutus being the legendary founder of ancient Britain or Brute-tain) (4.7.116-118). ‘Are we more Brutish now?’ Pursenet goes on, and the answer, of course, is in one sense yes: the modern descendants of Brutus are more brutish than their ancestors in their total dedication to the delights of the animal senses. But they are also less inclined to decline into the kind of self-destructive Civil War that haunts all of Shakespeare’s history plays, from the three parts of Henry VI to King John. Their sense of having learned from the past and discovered a way to make it work for them is confirmed by a near quote from another Shakespearean history play that quickly follows Pursenet’s speech. Having reached an agreement to support each other faithfully whatever may come next, the five fake gallants proclaim that ‘now the world shall not come between us’, to which Pursenet adds a proviso: ‘If we be true to ourselves’ (4.8.187-188). Middleton’s audience might have heard an echo of the famous closing lines of King John (mid-1590s):

This England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
[…] Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112-118)

The irony here is that the men who are swearing to be true to one another in Middleton’s text are the opposite of ‘true men’ in the eyes of the English legal system; they are all thieves of one kind or another.[4] Their actions ‘wound’ their country, and they themselves have sustained effectively self-inflicted wounds (like Pursenet’s when Fitzgrave dispossessed him of the spoil of the Coombe’s Hill robbery, or Fripp’s when Pursenet mistakes him for Fitzgrave) in carrying out those actions. At the same time, their ingenuity as con artists has entertained the audience throughout the play, and their determination to support each other comes across as more attractive by far than Hal’s plot to cast off his Boar’s Head friends when it suits him to do so. Things have changed in England, Middleton emphasizes, and will go on changing with the same speed and inventiveness as the gallants have shown when they repeatedly changed their costumes and their stories in pursuit of personal gain.[5] Theatre audiences, at least, have not lost by these changes.

Notes

[1] I co-edited one of these pamphlets for the Oxford Middleton: News from Gravesend: Sent to Nobody. It’s a cracker. See Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), pp. 128-148. All quotations from Middleton refer to this edition.

[2] All my references to Shakespeare come from my sea-wracked old A level edition: The Alexander Text of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Peter Alexander (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1975). Years later I wrote introductions to some of the history plays in a later issue of the same edition. A-level student me would never have believed it!

[3] Such as a harassed barman calling ‘anon, anon sir’; see King Henry the Fourth Part One, 1.4.35ff., and Your Five Gallants, 2.4.337.

[4] The phrase ‘true men’ seems to have been a quasi-legal term in early modern times, used to indicate someone without a criminal background, as in the description of a jury as ‘twelve good men and true’. Shakespeare uses it a number of times, most notably, perhaps, in Love’s Labours Lost (where it becomes gender neutral): ‘Walk aside the true folk, and let the traitors stay’ (4.3.209), and in Much Ado About Nothing, when Constable Dogberry asks the recruits to his Watch: ‘Are you good men and true?’ (3.3.1).

[5] Calling attention to these changes, the pawnbroker-gallant Frip tells the audience: ‘I can continue change more than the proudest gallant of ’em all; yet never bestow penny of myself [i.e. never pay out any of my own money], my pawns do so kindly furnish me’ (4.1.6-9).

 

The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia

Q: Your Five Gallants was performed at Blackfriars theatre. Would it be possible for you to tell us a bit about this particular playing space?

A: There were two kinds of playhouses in Jacobean England: the public playhouses, like Shakespeare’s Globe, which had a large capacity – up to around three thousand spectators – and the private playhouses, like the Blackfriars, which held a few hundred. The public playhouses were unroofed, relying on daylight for lighting, while the private ones were roofed and heated, and had artificial lighting: lanterns, rushlights, candles etc. The public playhouses were quite cheap – especially if you were prepared to stand in the pit rather than pay for a seat. The private playhouses were quite expensive. As a result, the public playhouses had a very diverse audience, while the private ones were attended by the middle and upper classes only – ‘gallants’ or gentlemen of the play’s title, gentlewomen, lawyers from the Inns of Court, ladies, well-off merchants, etc. etc.

You’ll notice the way Your Five Gallants plays on class. For instance, it’s got a lot of Latin in it – Latin being the language of law and government as wielded by the ruling classes. The masque devised by Fitzgrave in the final act includes a Latin prologue spoken by Pursenet’s thieving boy, as well as Latin mottos for the shields presented to the five fake gallants or gentlemen of the title, whose lower-class status is indicated by their ignorance of the language.[1] And the plot of the comedy, too, is based on class. Fitzgrave, whose name suggests he is the bastard son of a (possibly dead) gentleman, but a genuine gentleman all the same, aims to prevent any of the five fake gentlemen from seducing and marrying the woman he loves – and who loves him – Mistress Katherine, a lady by right of birth (as against the various fake ladies, most of whom are prostitutes, who populate the play). At the same time, the interdependence of the classes is demonstrated by the way valuable objects circulate among them (a string of pearls, a jewel, a cloak, goblets, an expensive salt cellar and a lot more) and the difficulty of distinguishing genuine from fake gentlefolk. King James had degraded the status of the nobility and gentry by selling knighthoods and other honours for cash. Fitzgrave’s struggle to assert the difference between true and false gentry is a genuine struggle, and not guaranteed to come off.

Some commentators suggest that the proximity of the players and the spectators in the private theatres – you could pay for a stool, if you wanted, to watch the play from the stage itself – explains why the plays performed there switch so readily between intimate asides to the audience and dialogue between the actors. There are certainly plenty of these asides – like Piamont’s in Act 4 scene 7, ‘See yonder’s the rogue I suspect for foul play. I’ll walk muffled by him, offer some offence or cause of a quarrel, only to try his temper’. But this is true of many plays performed in public playhouses too, where the spectators were milling round the actors’ feet, so I’m not convinced. On the other hand, a play written for a private playhouse, The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) by Francis Beaumont, has the most elaborate interplay between audience and players I can think of, as a citizen and his wife emerge from the audience to send the play in an entirely new direction. So they may have a point after all!

The most striking thing about the Blackfriars was that the actors who performed there were young boys: choristers who performed at the Chapel Royal and whose voices (for the most part) had not yet broken.[2] This meant that music was important in this theatre; you’ll notice that there are several calls for music in the play, including the extended musical interlude between Acts Two and Three, Interim 1 and Interim 2, in which two mini scenes are acted out by Tailby to illustrate how he has all his needs provided for by the many women who appreciate his sexual favours. The boys were accomplished professional musicians, and the playhouses did all they could to take advantage of the fact.

In addition, the fact that the boys were not paid for their acting (they were funded by their roles as choristers) means that the plays written for them often have large casts. The Oxford Middleton has helpful suggestions for reducing this number to about twelve by giving the same actors multiple roles (see pp. 635-6), but that wouldn’t have been necessary in the original production. Another thing you might notice is that they often don’t have a central role that lays an enormous amount of stress on a single actor. Your Five Gallants divides the action among multiple main actors, with all the five gallants having plenty of time in the limelight, as well as the ‘true’ gentleman Fitzgrave, Mistress Newcut, the thieving boy, four courtesans, and so on. The public playhouses often featured famous stars of the Jacobean stage – Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn, Will Kemp and so on – playing roles like Hieronimo, Tamburlaine the Great, Hamlet, Falstaff and the rest. The private playhouses may have had a faster turnover of actors, and were more reputed for ensemble work than individual performances – at least, that’s what I guess.

Something that may arise from the more even distribution of roles in plays for children’s companies than in plays for adult companies is the tendency in Your Five Gallants to emphasize collaborative action over individual action. Going back to Prince Hal and his plans to reveal himself at last as a responsible monarch, casting off his old drinking companions as he does so, this is very much the secret plan of an individual; the whole point of it is that he’s the only one who knows about it, and this is why it will take the world by surprise when it happens. Hereditary monarchic systems are all about the specialness of individuals, their ‘natural’ superiority to the communities they were born to govern, and the rest of the feudal hierarchy from aristocracy to gentry to commoners to mendicants could be said to share in this favouring of the notion of ‘natural’ class divisions within communities.

The five fake gallants, on the other hand, not being born into their supposed status as members of the gentry, rely entirely on their relations with other people to sustain it. Indeed, they acknowledge as much quite frequently (consider, for example, what Frip says above about his outward identity having been formed from other people’s pawned garments), despite boasting from time to time of their individual skills in their chosen ‘trades’. The born gentleman, Fitzgrave, has the gentleman’s skill as a competitive swordsman, stabbing the thief-gallant, Pursenet, in the arm as he tries to run away. Pursenet and the other fake gallants never offer to fight; the gigolo-gallant Tailby, for instance, surrenders his property willingly and at once as soon as Pursenet challenges him with weapons on the public highway. The agreement by all five fake gallants to support each other in Act 4 scene 7 has a democratic principle behind it; they agree that whichever of them succeeds in winning the heiress Katherine as his wife will thereafter use his newfound wealth and social status to boost the interests of the other four gallants in their future projects. Even Fitzgrave partly gives in to this democratic impulse in the final act, recruiting the courtesans of the pimp-gallant Primero as his associates in his plot to expose the fake gallants for who they are. The courtesans consent to this collaboration with Fitzgrave willingly, because like the gallants they are conscious of their reliance on other people, and because they collectively wish for vengeance on the men who have repeatedly betrayed them. Fitzgrave’s flirtation with democracy, on the other hand, doesn’t last long. After exposing the fake gallants by naming them truly in a masque, he forces them to marry the courtesans against their will, and the courtesans seem as unhappy with this arrangement as their prospective husbands:

Rather confine us to strict chastity,
A mere impossible task, than to wed these
Whom we loathe worse than the foul’st disease.

Your Five Gallants, then, pitches democratic collaboration and reliance on other people against the wielding of power by individuals on the basis of birth-right. The Blackfriars Theatre, with its company of children, may have made Middleton particularly conscious of the workings of cooperative or symbiotic action as against hierarchical divisions. And despite the triumph of the true-born gentleman Fitzgrave at the end – who with his new wife Katherine ‘treads down’ his rival gallants, thanks to his plot (5.2.99) – the audience will have remained conscious, I think, of the highly collaborative nature of a Blackfriars performance as they left the theatre, and of what this said about the rapidly-changing society to which they were returning.

Notes

[1] See Your Five Gallants, 5.1.193-221 and note.

[2] I say ‘for the most part’ because some of the page boys in the plays of John Lyly, which were written for children’s companies in the 1580s, take the bass part in the songs they perform. That’s my memory, at least – but looking through the plays just now I couldn’t find an example. Perhaps I was thinking about another play for children’s companies, such as Richard Edwards’s Damon and Pithias or George Peele’s The Old Wive’s Tale!

 

Q: Have any of the early performance elements of Your Five Gallants been preserved in the script? How do we think the play might have been originally staged?

 A: I’ve given quite a few examples in my previous answer, haven’t I? There’s the music, the large cast, the Latin, and the attitude to class. There’s the frequent use of asides, if you think of that as specific to the private playhouses. And the writer of the introduction to the play in the Oxford Middleton, Ralph Alan Cohen, has some interesting things to say, in particular, about the crowd scenes in the play (pp. 594-597).

There are three of these crowd scenes: a scene in Primero’s brothel (2.1), in which Primero acts as a kind of circus master, concealing Mistress Newcut to enjoy her favourite activity of voyeurism, reintroducing the pawnbroker Frip to his latest prostitute, and overseeing the musical performance that accompanies the various seductions and acts of thievery that go on in his establishment. Then there’s a scene in the Mitre Inn (2.4), which focuses on a game of dice but keeps breaking away to follow the various player-gallants who have to raise money by illicit means to continue their gambling – suggesting a chaotic economy of theft and counter-theft, all of which culminates in the purloining of the Mitre’s most precious item, a gilt goblet, by the con-man Goldstone. And finally there’s the masque in the final act (5.2), which is danced by the company to music and so has far fewer words than the action in the other acts, while also gesturing towards the high standard of education in the audience through its use of the ‘high’ art of masque as well as the Latin speeches. The masque announces the return of the world to harmony and balance, as the five gallants are exposed by being given their proper names and ranks for the first time in the action; that was the function of masques, according to their most celebrated practitioner, Ben Jonson, so the music in it would have been ravishing.

Each of these crowd scenes plays to the strengths of the playhouse as well as of the boy company that performed there. They’re indoor scenes at which the crowded nature of the venue would be a positive asset. They take advantage of the highly trained boy’s company by using their special talents in music, dance and concerted movement. They also take advantage of the boys’ youth to involve numerous female parts (an adult company only had a few boys in it capable of playing women). And the multiple separate actions taking place at once in the first and second crowd scenes would mean that different sections of the playhouse audience might well be expected to notice different activities going on in different parts of the stage, leading to a satisfying variety of reactions perfectly in tune with the illicit goings-on we’re witnessing.

One can imagine all three scenes as ways to demonstrate the boys’ virtuosity in various ways; a virtuosity that gets underlined by the gallants’ intense anxiety over whether their own boy, the thieving servant of the thief-gallant Pursenet, will be able to remember his lines in the final masque (the masquers in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost have the same anxiety about their own boy prologue, Moth). There’s no real doubt over whether the Children of the Chapel Royal will remember their lines; it’s a skill that’s been thrashed into them since they joined the choir.

 

Edward’s Boys in John Lyly’s Gallathea

Q: Your Five Gallants is quite a male play, in that a lot of the actors are tasked with portraying boys or men. Critics tend to associate the practice of boy playing with cross-dressing and gender play, almost by default. Are there any particular effects which are generated by boys playing men on stage?

A: This is such an interesting question, and not one I’d thought about before you asked it! Long ago I made a study of the earlier phase of the children’s companies, when their main playwright was a talented man called John Lyly. In those days Lyly made the most of his company’s childishness. In his comedy Sapho and Phao (1584), for instance, the titular ferryman Phao – with whom the poet-queen Sappho falls in love – is consistently referred to as ‘my child’, ‘foolish boy’, ‘fair boy’ and so on; while in Gallathea (1588), in which two girls disguise themselves as boys to avoid being sacrificed to a monster, their youth is constantly emphasized; Gallathea tells herself at one point ‘Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit, nor thy sex bear it’, and the other girl disguised as a boy shortly afterwards calls the disguised Gallathea ‘a pretty boy and a fair, he might well have been a woman’, which of course he is, in the play at least. Men’s parts in Lyly’s plays seem sometimes to have been played by men – possibly the boys’ teachers. Sir Tophas in Endymion (1588) is obviously much larger and deeper-voiced than his page boy Epiton, though not half as clever. At the end of the 1580s the children’s companies shut down, but Lyly’s plays were remembered in the Jacobean period: the boy’s company play The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) begins (at least in its printed version) with a version of the prologue to Sapho and Phao. But the later children’s companies went a different way, giving audiences the spectacle of children playing adults using decidedly adult language.

At the same time, there are times when the youthfulness of the players acting as men would have produced some amusing effects in Middleton’s plays, quite apart from the basic pleasure of seeing the city’s adult affairs played out in miniature. The enjoyment shown by the pawnbroker Frip’s enjoyment of the opportunities for dressing up made available by his trade could be described as boyish: ‘Let me see now, whose cloak shall I wear today to continue change?’ And the pleasure of the other gallants in their own ingenuity has a similar air of youthfulness. After Tailby has gambled away his clothes, his infectious pleasure in being supplied with new clothes by the women who adore him makes him seem a little like a spoiled boy whose every need is provided for by doting relatives. And Cohen has pointed out how naïve the thief Pursenet is when he plies his trade, delighted with Tailby for giving up his valuables so easily (‘that shows a good nature, sir’), unreasonably shocked by Fitzgrave’s resistance to being robbed – he keeps asking him to play fair – and outraged by Piamont’s discourtesy in keeping one hand in his pocket at all times, preventing Pursenet’s boy from picking it: ‘Unpractised gallant! Salute me but with one hand, like a counterfeit soldier?’ (The joke is that Piamont is a ‘genuine’ gallant or gentleman, so the idea of a fake gallant telling off a true one for not being gallant is highly amusing.) Pursenet’s repeated telling off of his boy for bad manners would also be amusing if done by a larger boy, who is presumably subject to similar tellings-off at other times from his own elders. So would Fitzgrave’s comment on him after he beats him in a fight: ‘O thou world, / How art thou muffled in deceitful forms!’ The fact that the fake gallants are played by children would make their fakery or deceitfulness very obvious at every stage of the action; and the fact that Fitzgrave is himself a child, and that he’s in disguise for most of the play, would help to emphasize the difficulty of distinguishing ‘real’ fakes from ‘fake’ fakes in Jacobean urban life.

There’s another pleasure to be had from the notion of the five gallants being played by boys. They are members of the Jacobean criminal underworld, which had been the subject of many pamphlets by Robert Greene and Middleton’s friend Thomas Dekker. Those pamphlets achieved popularity by posing as the products of men with inside knowledge of the secret lives of con artists and tricksters. The notion that children might possess such inside knowledge when in fact they are still imbibing more conventional knowledge at school would add to the wit of Middleton’s plot. And the fact that they are beaten at their own game by another child – Fitzgrave – who has clearly spent longer at his lessons than they have, since he knows Latin and they do not, would add another layer of wit to the performance. The humour to be got from this situation only applies if the actors are boys playing men, of course, since most girls and women did not have access to the same educational opportunities. Around 80% of women in Jacobean London, including Middleton’s mother, signed their names with a mark.

One final point that might be made about boys playing men in Your Five Gallants is that it could have lent additional force to the play’s portrayal of its characters’ vulnerabilities. There’s a great deal of emphasis in the play on the fact that people in it have no living relatives, and hence no support network to protect them from economic loss, social disasters, or the depredations of urban con artists. The ‘true lady’ Katherine, who is courted by all five fake gallants as well as by the ‘true gentleman’ Fitzgrave, is only of interest to the criminals because her father is dead: ‘there’s a general meeting / At the deceased knight’s house this afternoon’, Primero tells Frip, at which decisions as to her future will be made from which he and Frip hope to profit (1.1.269-70). Fitzgrave, meanwhile, poses as a scholar whose ‘friends [i.e. relatives] are of the old fashion – all in their graves’ (2.1.61-62), which will make him, he hopes, the ideal target of the fake gallants, as he bids to expose their criminal activities. Con artists, after all, prey on the vulnerable, as Frip confesses in the very first scene: ‘Many over-cheated gulls have fatted me / With the bottom of their patrimonies’, that is, with their inheritances, which traditionally they would have received on the death of their fathers (1.1.156-157). Most of the men and women in the play are alone in the world, and the dangers to which this situation subjects them would have been rendered more visible, perhaps, by the fact that both men and women were played by boys.

But the fake gallants, too, are vulnerable, and acutely conscious of their own vulnerability. We’ve already noted Frip’s paranoia about the plague, which means he refuses to pawn any garment that comes from a parish where there are cases of contagious disease. Primero and his courtesans live in fear of sexually transmitted diseases putting paid to their activities, and Tailby claims that the older courtesans are already well on their way to an early death (‘they cannot live till Easter’, 2.1.337). Meanwhile the gigolo-gallant, Tailby, depends on his own physical and sexual health to ply his trade; as his servant Jack reminds him, the benefits he derives from sex rely on ‘the state of your body, sir’, and will only last for as long as he can ‘hold up [his] head. If that droop once, farewell you, farewell I, farewell all; and droop it will, though all the caudles [medicinal drinks] in Europe should put to their helping hands to’t’ (Interim 2, 23-28). The thief-gallant, Pursenet, lives in fear of capture and execution, and the young boy who helps him bears out these fears by being threatened twice with death for picking pockets (‘That boy will be hanged’, Tailby observes in Act Five, 5.2.49). All the fake gallants depend on their reputations as gentry to pull off their various cons, and reputations can be withered at a breath. Child actors are not only conspicuously vulnerable owing to their youth, size and physical weakness, but conspicuously subject to the effects of time: they are still in the process of growing up, and as their voices change they will approach the end of their period of employment with the children’s companies. Middleton’s comedy, like the comedies of Ben Jonson as analysed by Ian Donaldson, operates like a clockwork mechanism, its diverse components working together towards the seemingly inevitable outcome of the final act like cogs in a timepiece.[1] Children are embodiments of time, and their inevitable displacement by other children as they mature and leave the company lends added poignancy, I think, to the clearly well-founded fears of Middleton’s characters.

Notes

[1] See Ian Donaldson, ‘Time and The Alchemist’, in The Glasgow Review, Issue 1, here. Also his book, Jonson’s Magic Houses.

 

The ‘Last Boy PLayer’, Edward Kynaston

Q: Your Five Gallants is quite a bawdy play, in line with other child company pieces. As critics, what can we make of this type of early modern dramaturgy?

A: The plays performed by the children’s companies were famous for being risqué, arousing the disapproval of the moralists for their tendency to have many female roles – the idea of the male putting on the garment of the female being expressly forbidden in the Bible – and for the conviction that they corrupted both the children who acted in them and the audiences who went to see them. In Middleton’s time, too, they frequently engaged in topical satire, something that had theoretically been banned in print – as I mentioned when I pointed out that Middleton’s own verse satires were burned, along with other offensive books, by order of the Ecclesiastical High Commission, the censors of early modern printed books.[1] Children’s companies may have been banned from performing for ten years before they began performing again in the first decade of the seventeenth century; though whether or not this was the result of a ban is not certain. They had powerful patrons – children’s companies were at different times very popular for entertainment at court – but the powerful antitheatrical lobby, led by the City authorities, did not approve, and this doesn’t seem too surprising from the perspective of the twenty-first century, given the sexually explicit content of some of their plays.

I suppose the question of knowledge comes into this too (and when I use this word I think of Henry James’s great novel of childhood, What Maisie Knew). There might perhaps have been an assumption that schoolboys would not know exactly what they were talking about when they spoke about sex, just as they wouldn’t if they talked in the cant terms of the criminal underworld. So the explicit allusions would add to the humour of the performance, from one point of view, while the fact that they were made by boys could be held up as a way to defuse them, so to speak – to drain them of their poison. You may remember the puppet play in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), which is thought by the fool Bartholomew Cokes to be performed by a children’s company because the puppets are small, like children. When attacked for performing profanities by a religious zealot in the audience, the puppets respond by pulling up their garments and displaying their puppet bodies: they have no genitalia, of course, and therefore cannot be accused of indulging in sexual acts – or of inciting them, the puppet master implies. Cokes’s confusion of puppets with boy players may suggest that boy players, too, were seen as in some sense sexless and genderless – which explains their skill in acting both men and women, since they have not yet acquired the physical characteristics of either gender. That’s a bit of early modern biology, by the way: you grew into your gender as you grew up, you weren’t exactly born with it, they thought. Their view of gender identity was therefore somewhat flexible in comparison with the views, say, of Victorian biologists at a time of imperialist expansion.

One thing the plays demonstrate, down all these years, is the remarkable skill of those boy players. They could perform highly complex scripts, deploying a combination of complex physical and musical skills; they could chop and change from one disguise to another, play elaborate tricks on stage, dance, sing, cavort and juggle, fight with swords. That’s another thing the plays would have given their audiences: the opportunity to be amazed that such young boys could be such consummate performers. This suggests, perhaps, that there would always be a little bit more of a distance between the boy players and their roles than in an adult production. They were so much more obviously not the people they played, not doing the things they pretended to be doing, not involved in the politics or the business decisions or the plots or sexual antics they were acting out on stage; hence, perhaps, the play’s stress on the gap between the roles its characters play and their inward identities, if indeed they have any fixed identities at all (as Fitzgrave puts it, ‘O, thou world, / How art thou muffled in deceitful forms!’, 3.1.177-178). The children’s plays tend not to have deep emotion in them – at least, not the ones I can think of (though the boy players could do deep emotion if they wanted to, if Antony and Cleopatra is anything to go by). They were so much more obviously plays as a result; playful play-acting; hence perhaps the Jacobean tolerance for the bawdy material they contained.

Notes

[1] For early modern censorship press practices see the work of Cyndia Susan Clegg. In this case the first of her books on the subject is most relevant: Press Censorship in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), especially chapter 9.

 

The Globe Young Players in The Malcontent by John Marston

Q: What role do objects play in Middleton’s comedy?

 A: In a discussion with me a while ago, you suggested that the Elizabethan theatre of the sixteenth century has objects in it that contribute to the symbolic order: the sword the guards swear on in Hamlet, which represents their feudal duty to the crown; the crown in Henry the Fourth Part Two, which represents monarchy; the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice, which represents the common humanity of all the play’s cast; the magic flower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the armour pursued by Hector in Troilus and Cressida, etc. etc. I suggested in response that there’s a far greater diversity of heterogeneous objects in Jacobean drama, which represents a change of order under James I – often thought of at the time as a wholesale loss of order. Think of the revolting list of things described in Ben Jonson’s Volpone as the contents of a mountebank’s (fake) elixir of youth (‘a sheep’s gall, a roasted bitch’s marrow, / Some few sod earwigs, pounded caterpillars, /A little capon’s grease, and fasting spittle’, 2.6); or the even more disgusting list of substances used by alchemists to fool their gullible customers in Jonson’s The Alchemist (‘your broths, your menstrues, and materials, / Of piss and egg-shells, women’s terms, man’s blood, / Hair o’the head, burnt clouts, chalk, merds, and clay, / Powder of bones, scalings of iron, glass, / And worlds of other strange ingredients’, 2.1).[1] The elixir is supposed to impart long life; the potions are supposed to refine the alchemist’s customers into suitable recipients of limitless gold; but both are sickening when broken down into their constituent elements, and symbolize a market-driven society that’s sickly as well as disordered, no longer capable of distinguishing the good stuff from the bad, the fake from the genuine, in food and objects as well as in people.

Your Five Gallants opens with a scene in which the exchange of heterogeneous objects is used to represent the breakdown of the early modern class system and the symbolic order connected to it. People of all classes pawn their things to raise cash – the things are mostly clothes – and the pawnbroker-gallant Frip collects them and puts them to use, transforming himself in the process from his earlier condition as a hard-up, put-upon servant into one of the five fake gallants of the title. During the play we witness other objects being passed from hand to hand, including the precious things exchanged as love tokens at the beginning of the play by the genuine Lady Katherine and the genuine gentleman Fitzgrave, a string of pearls (signifying chastity) and a jewel (signifying fidelity). At the end of the Mitre scene, the gilt goblet stolen by the con-artist-gallant, Goldstone, is thought to have miraculously disappeared: presumably this is a mocking reference to the miracles wrought in medieval romance by the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper; and the name of the tavern, the Mitre, strengthens the allusion with its reference to another religious object, a bishop’s headpiece. The draining of meaning from objects by their random exchange symbolizes a draining of conviction from religious practices, a forgetfulness of the virtues that drove the Arthurian knights on their lonely quests, a draining of value itself from the Jacobean economy (though in fact value remains, since each object in the play has its own value in the mind of the pawnbroker who exchanges it for cash).

At the end of the play, objects seem to be restored to their role in the symbolic order by the devices Fitzgrave uses to expose the true nature of the five fake Gallants: an upside-down purse to signify the thief-gallant’s thieving and whoring, three silver dice to signify the con-artist gallant’s cheating and opportunism, a pearl in a cave to represent the pimp-gallant, who sells the virginity of young girls and can’t appreciate beauty or value of any kind, and so on. When the devices are formally presented to the five fake gallants in the final masque, the languages of value and social order are restored to meaningfulness again. The promise of this ending is held out throughout the performance by the applicability of the names of the characters – Pursenet the fisher for purses, Frip the pawnbroker who thrives on other people’s frippery, Goldstone the con artist, who converts anything he touches to gold for his own uses, Tailby who earns his living by his (front) tail, and so on.[2] The masque dances these names into their correct position in relation to meaning; so for a while at the end of the play the Jacobean audience would have felt reoriented and comforted – until they stepped out of the playhouse door and re-immersed themselves in the seething city streets.

Notes

[1] My copy of Jonson – an ancient 2-volume Everyman edition – doesn’t have line numbers; this suggests it’s meant for reading, not acting, which might require cutting lines. It’s also not meant for scholarship, with its need for references. But it’s nicely printed and very complete! The Complete Plays of Ben Jonson, 2 vols. (London and New York: J M Dent and E P Dutton, n.d.).

[2] For a rich account of the link between names and meanings in comedy see Anne Barton’s The Names in Comedy (Toronto and Buffalo, New York: University of Toronto Press, 1990), especially chapter three; also the ‘chapter interloping’ on names in her Ben Jonson, Dramatist.

Jacobean gilt goblet (standing cup), 1607

Puck, Dreams and the Devil

[This article first appeared as ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’ in the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44, and was reprinted by Cengage Learning in Shakespearean Criticism, vol. 139 (2011). I put it here to sit alongside a number of other pieces on the early modern fantastic.]

Henry Fuseli, Robin Goodfellow

1.  Robin Goodfellow in Athens

In darkness, Nashe tells us in The Terrors of the Night (1594), mortals are more vulnerable to the machinations of the devil than they ever are by daylight.[1] Dreams and night visions weave Satan’s most cunning ‘nets of temptation’ (p. 210), and after sunset one’s eyes turn into magnifying glasses, so that ‘each mote… they make a monster, and every slight glimmering a giant’ (p. 239), multiplying the viewer’s proneness to delinquency and despair.  For the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, on the other hand – as represented by pamphleteers like Stephen Gosson, Phillip Stubbes and William Rankins – it’s drama rather than dreams that constitutes the Devil’s weapon of choice in the unceasing siege he lays to the human mind and spirit.  Plays, they claim, constitute an elaborate imaginative trap whereby Satan lulls the citizens of London into a false sense of security, then ambushes their souls through the unguarded portals of the senses.[2]  So when in about 1595 Shakespeare wrote a comedy called A Midsummer Night’s Dream and crammed it full of spirits, damned or otherwise, he was playing a witty game with the fears of Gosson and his fellow thespiphobes.[3]  What I shall argue here is that the game he played in the Dream was already in full swing among the pamphlets and printers’ shops of 1590s London, and that the appearance of Robin Goodfellow in the woods of Athens would instantly have alerted his first audiences to Shakespeare’s participation in it.

Puck’s presence in the Dream has long been something of a puzzle – whether acknowledged as such or simply ignored.  Classical creatures had found their way into the English landscape often enough in Elizabethan culture before Shakespeare started writing: the transformed Philomene had warbled in English woods in Gascoigne’s verse satire The Steel Glass (1576), Neptune had terrorized Humberside in John Lyly’s play Gallathea (c. 1588), the sea-god Glaucus had moped by the banks of the Thames in Thomas Lodge’s poem Scilla’s Metamorphosis (1589).  But Shakespeare’s transplanting of Robin Goodfellow to some woods near Athens was the first time (to my knowledge) that a figure from English folk legend had been relocated to the Mediterranean, and the implications of that relocation have not yet, I think, been fully worked out.  For one thing, as a peculiarly northern forest-dweller Robin may have had some effect on the relationship between night and day in his new, more southerly setting.  Nashe reminds us in The Terrors of the Night that nights are longer in the north, and especially in Iceland, where witches and wizards are plentiful and possess an enviable power over local weather-conditions (p. 223).  The Dream transplants those northern nights to Greece, curtailing daylight hours and extending the shortest night in the year to giant proportions.  Four days and four nights are supposed to have passed between the first and last scenes of the comedy, whereas the audience experiences only two – and has no idea which of those two is the midsummer night of the title.  Robin Goodfellow seems the obvious person to blame for this hypertrophied period of darkness, since he is associated in folk tradition with night, dreams, trickery and Devilish magic.  Moreover, he had an unusually high profile in print during the early 1590s, featuring everywhere as a spirit who transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.  It’s only by recovering this profile that we can hope to understand his function in Shakespeare’s ancient Greek extravaganza.

2. Puck in Print

For the Elizabethans, Robin possessed a strange double nature, as the embodiment both of English Catholic superstition in the past and of an innocent native cheerfulness that had been lost with the advent of continental sophistication in the present.[4] Reginald Scot paints him in the former light in The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), where he features as a bugbear whose ability to terrorize night-wandering papists has been stripped from him by Protestant rationalism: ‘Robin goodfellowe ceaseth now to be much feared, and poperie is sufficientlie discovered’ (sig. B2v).  The poet William Warner concurs with Scot. His Robin is a spirit who appears like an incubus to sleeping mortals, and in the fourteenth book of Warner’s digressive epic Albion’s England (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him: ‘Was then a merrie world with us when Mary wore the Crowne, / And holy-water-sprinkle was beleevd to put us downe’.[5]  But Warner’s Robin is also a blunt teller of unwelcome truths to Protestants.  He goes on to utter a satirical invective against the various forms of hypocrisy prevalent in the reigns of Elizabeth and James, thus revealing himself to have as much of the satyr as of the demon about him.

This is hardly surprising, since by the time Warner painted this picture of him in 1606 Robin had long been associated with satire as well as with drama, dreams and devils.  Robin’s conversion into a satirist is in fact inextricably bound up with his theatrical associations.  In a pamphlet of 1590 called Tarlton’s News out of Purgatory the ghost of the late great comic actor Richard Tarlton appears to the anonymous author in a dream, and sooths his terror at this visitation by reassuring him that he is no devil, but a homely spirit like the noted goblin: ‘thinke mee to bee one of those Familiares Lares that were rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence, as Hob Thrust, Robin Goodfellowe and such like spirites (as they terme them of the buttry) famozed in everie olde wives Chronicle for their mad merry pranckes’ (p. 2).  As a substitute Robin, Tarlton links himself with Catholicism – but a Catholicism defused of the terrors of damnation with which it had been charged by Protestant dogma.  When the author asks the dead clown’s ghost how it has managed to visit the land of the living, given the Calvinist belief that ‘the soules of them which are departed… never returne into the world againe till the generall resurrection’ (pp. 2-3), Tarlton contemptuously dismisses Calvinist doctrine as unhealthily dualistic.  His spirit, like the spirit of Hamlet’s father, inhabits Purgatory, the third alternative to heaven and hell, vouched for by the great poet ‘Dant’ as well as by ‘our forefathers’ and ‘holy Bishops of Rome’ (p. 3) – hence its ability to return now and then to the earth’s surface. In this way the clown blithely sweeps aside decades of religious conflict; and he goes on to tell a string of stories under the aegis of a non-judgemental version of the afterlife which permits the free flow of merry tales between this world and the next, regardless of theology.  His stories may stink of sulphur but they are ‘rather pleasantly disposed then indued with any hurtfull influence’; and in telling them he dismisses out of hand the didactic goody-goodies who saw all such stories – on stage or on the page – as works of Satan.

Tarlton’s News was ‘published’, according to its title-page, by an ‘old Companion’ of Tarlton’s, Robin Goodfellow – the spirit with which the ghost of Tarlton links itself.  It seems fitting, then, that when an anonymous ‘Cobbler’ wrote a story-collection of his own (The Cobbler of Canterbury (1590)), and prefaced it with a light-hearted attack on the shortcomings of Tarlton’s News, Robin Goodfellow should have penned a response to the cobbler’s preface, which was printed immediately after it in the first edition.  Here the goblin takes the cobbler’s objections to his publication as a sign of the times, when respect for good manners has been utterly eroded since the happy days when he was ‘so merry a spirit of the Butterie’, helping maids to grind malt and getting a ‘messe of Creame’ for his labour (sig. A4r).  The inhospitable spirit of Elizabethan England has driven Robin to a self-imposed exile in Purgatory along with his old friend Tarlton.  It has also made him devilishly vindictive, though not frighteningly so: he promises to ‘haunt’ the cobbler ‘in his sleepe, and after his olde merrie humour, so to playe the knave with the Cobler, that hee shall repent hee medled so farre beyond his latchet’ (sig. A4r).  Damnation and hauntings have here been reduced to pretexts for comic squabbling and trickery, quite bereft of the fear with which the established churches sought to invest them.

Robert Greene in his shroud

At this point in our story the immensely popular writer of romances and comedies Robert Greene gets mixed up with Puck’s Elizabethan biography.  Evidently a rumour went round that Greene had written The Cobbler of Canterbury, and to deny this rumour Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Vision (1592) in which he is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of Chaucer and Gower, who debate the merits and demerits of Greene’s prolific scribblings.[6] At the end of the dispute the spirit of King Solomon appears and elicits a promise from Greene that he will from henceforth devote himself to theology; and perhaps for this reason Greene did not publish the pamphlet in his lifetime, reluctant to commit himself to such a career-changing volte-face until he had exhausted the profitable vein of fiction he was still working at the end of his life.  When it did appear, the pamphlet reintroduced the fear of hell into the dialogue between pamphleteers, since it opened with a section where Greene articulates his  ‘trouble of minde’ in distinctly Faustian terms: ‘can the hideous mountaines hide me, can wealth redeeme sinne, can beautie countervaile my faults, or the whole world counterpoyse the balance of mine offences?’[7]  Greene’s fellow pamphleteer Barnaby Rich pounced on this hint at Greene’s posthumous fate, and described him in Greene’s News both from Heaven and Hell (1593) as wandering between Heaven and Hell in search of the happy third location, Purgatory, where he can escape damnation while retaining all the venial faults that made him so attractive a writer in his lifetime.  (On his journey he meets Dick Tarlton, who has now become Lucifer’s resident satirist-entertainer.)  The devil finally expels Greene’s ghost from hell at the request of the cony-catchers he exposed in his final pamphlets; and at this point Greene is transformed into a particularly aggressive incarnation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow, a spirit who troubles the nocturnal wanderings of living sinners.  ‘I woulde therefore wish my friendes,’ he declares, ‘to beware howe they walke late a nights, for I will bee the maddest Gobline, that ever used to walke in the moonshine’ (sig. H3r), haunting the sleep of women and persuading them to cuckold their husbands, infecting men of all occupations with the spirit of avarice so that they will do anything to amass wealth for their heirs, and urging lawyers, courtiers and clergymen to persevere in the corrupt practices already rife in their professions.  Robin has resumed his mantle as a night-dwelling satirist; but by now he trails in his wake the ghosts of clowns and popular authors, whose activities had been denounced as devilish by the theatre- and fiction-haters along with Robin himself.  The implication here as elsewhere is that the target of the moralists has been badly misjudged, and that they have wasted their energies in denouncing fictions and the makers of fictions, when in fact these are far more effective and energetic in attacking social abuses than they are.

For all his residence in a fictitious Catholic Purgatory, then, Robin Goodfellow was seen as mostly harmless by Shakespeare’s predecessors in popular print.  Indeed, he was represented as the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sharing with the common people of England the burden of an inequitable social and legal system, and endowed with gifts that enable him to expose these inequities.  In the anonymous pamphlet Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift (1593) he joins forces with the honest narrator Tell-troth to denounce the operations of jealousy or envy at every level of the English commonwealth.  Here he is characterised as ‘Robin good-fellow… who never did worse harme, then correct manners, and made diligent maides’ (sig. A2r), a kind of incorruptible agent for the discovery of hidden vices, who ‘could go invisible from his infancy’, is ‘subject to no inferiour power whatsoever’, and has ‘a generall priviledge to search every corner, and enter every castell to a good purpose’ (sig. A2r-A2v).  Robin’s affiliation with hell is explained as a consequence of this privilege, which means he can visit even the infernal regions without becoming contaminated by them, and use what he sees and hears there ‘to a good purpose’.  The insistence on his independence of all authority apart from nature’s is intriguing: it is the most explicit statement so far that Robin has become a figure for the legendary liberty of imaginative writers, a liberty invoked by the ghost of the executed poet Collingbourne in William Baldwin’s hugely influential collection of political poems, The Mirror for Magistrates (1559, 1563, etc.).[8]

Behind all these vision-pamphlets, in fact, the Mirror looms as a monumental presence, containing as it does the richest collection of posthumous first-person narratives in the English language.  Its versified stories of the decline and fall of great men and women throughout English history are narrated by the spirits of the dead, and its representation of the past is repeatedly linked to political and social abuses still current in the present.  Interestingly, too, it features a representation by a protestant poet of a Hell that is based on classical accounts of Hades (as it is in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589) and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift) and which is also explicitly linked to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.  This representation of Hell occurs in the celebrated ‘Induction’ to Thomas Sackville’s tragedy of the Duke of Buckingham, and is followed by a discussion of Purgatory among the protestant writers who have gathered to hear the narrative.  The Induction’s Hell, complains one writer, ‘savoreth so much of Purgatory… that the ignorant maye thereby be deceyved’ (fol. 137r) – presumably into thinking that Purgatory really exists.  But the chief editor of the Mirror, the printer-poet William Baldwin, disagrees.  In his poem, says Baldwin, Sackville has depicted not Hell or Purgatory but the grave, ‘wherin the dead bodies of al sortes of people do rest till tyme of the resurrection.  And in this sence is Hel taken often in the scriptures, and in the writynges of learned christians’ (fol. 137r).  A second listener goes further.  What does it matter if Sackville’s Hell resembles Purgatory, he says, since ‘it is a Poesie and no divinitye, and it is lawfull for poetes to fayne what they lyst, so it be appertinent to the matter’?  True enough, Baldwin replies, but such liberty has not always been accorded to poets; and he proceeds to read out the tragedy of Collingbourne, who was executed for writing satirical verse in the reign of Richard III, and whose ghost warns all poets to beware of speaking the truth about tyrants in an age that has grown ‘so fell and fearce / That vicious actes may not be toucht in verse’, and when ‘The Muses freedome, graunted them of olde, / Is barde, aye reasons treasons hye are helde’ (fol. 138r).  The tragedy closes with the heartfelt wish from its listeners that the warning it contains ‘may take suche place with the Magistrates, that they maye ratifie our olde freedome’ to speak openly in verse (fol. 146v).  Restoring this liberty will work for the ruling classes as much as for the common people in whose name the poet speaks, since rulers need to know what their subjects think of them if they are to defend themselves from popular insurrection and eventual dethronement.

The audience of Collingbourne’s tragedy speak with the heartfelt hopefulness of Protestants who have lived through persecution under a Catholic monarch and who hope for something better under her successor.  The first print-run of The Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed in the reign of Mary Tudor, and the 1563 edition from which I have been quoting couches its plea for poetic liberty in terms that are wittily designed to shock both radical protestants and Catholics alike – invoking the concept of Purgatory while at the same time dismissing it as a poetic fabrication – as if to test the Elizabethan reader’s capacity for greater tolerance.[9]  The references to Purgatory in the pamphlets of the 1590s seem to take up this notion of Purgatory as emblematic of the poet’s exemption from political or religious persecution, as does their frequent invocation of that figment of the superstitious Catholic imagination Robin Goodfellow.  Robin is a spirit of the buttery – that is, the bar or pub – rather than of the infernal regions, and his location in Purgatory indicates his temporary immunity from knee-jerk moral judgments based on over-rigid notions of right and wrong.

In the spirit of the other pamphlets we have touched on, Henry Chettle’s Kind-Heart’s Dream (1593) deploys its revenants to argue against simplistic views of the theatre and popular print.  Robin does not figure in it (though it addresses itself to ‘Gentlemen and good-fellowes’, sig. B1r), but the ghosts of both Tarlton and Robert Greene are summoned up, the latter appealing to Pierce Penniless – a pseudonym of Thomas Nashe – to defend his memory against the posthumous slanders of Gabriel Harvey, and the former defending the stage against its detractors while acknowledging the shortcomings of the modern theatre.[10]  ‘Mirth in seasonable time taken,’ the ghost of Tarlton avers, ‘is not forbidden by the austerest Sapients.  But indeed there is a time of mirth, and a time of mourning.  Which time having been by the Magistrates wisely observed, as well for the suppressing of Playes, as other pleasures: so likewise a time may come, when honest recreation shall have his former libertie’ (sig. C4r).  The latter sentence so closely echoes the discussion of Collingbourne’s tragedy in the Mirror that it is hard not to read it as a reminder of William Baldwin’s hope that liberty of speech will be restored to poets at last – even if only at the latter end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Greene and Tarlton, poets and players are ‘good fellows’ in two Elizabethan senses: good drinking companions (Kind-heart sees their apparitions while dozing in a tavern) and morally upright citizens who tackle vice wherever they see it.  And both wish the same punishment on all moralistic ‘maligners of honest mirth’: that is, ‘continuall melancholy’ (sig. C2v).

In Nashe’s Terrors of the Night – a pamphlet where spirits and devils are reduced to the size of dust particles so that ‘not a room in any man’s house but is pestered and close-packed with them’ (p. 212) – Don Lucifer himself, ‘their grand Capitano’, is described as having taken on the form of a ‘puritan’ with an aversion to shows and ceremonies of all kinds (p. 230).  In doing so he has ceased to be the cheerful entertainer he was of yore, when he ‘was wont to jest and sport with country people, and play the Goodfellow amongst kitchen-wenches’ (p. 231).  As a result of this transformation ‘there is no goodness in him but miserableness and covetousness’; he has shifted his allegiance to the camp of the theatre-haters and laughter-loathers, and the world is a poorer place.  Here again Robin represents a form of night mischief that is finally harmless, despite its devilish associations, and those who set themselves against it condemn both themselves and others to an unalleviated depression, the condition for which laughter was prescribed by early modern physicians.[11]   

Shakespeare’s Robin Goodfellow is the heir to all these Robins, Greenes, Tarltons and merry Devils.  Like his precursors he frequents the sleeping places of mortals, shaping what are in effect their dreams (all the lovers concur in retrospectively perceiving the business in the wood as dreamlike).  Like the Robin of Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift he can make himself invisible at will and go with impunity wherever he wishes in the globe or, presumably, out of it.  Tell-Troth’s Robin has the licence accorded to fools (and sometimes poets) to meddle with the doings of all classes, and Shakespeare’s Puck takes the role of Oberon’s fool, making and discovering fools wherever he turns up.  The merry tricks he plays are mentioned often in the pamphlets, and became the subject of a jest-book in the seventeenth century, Robin Goodfellow his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1628), filled with stories like the ones he tells the fairy on his first appearance in Act Two.  And his connection with fairies is taken for granted by nearly all the pamphleteers, as it is by Shakespeare.  Nashe, for instance, associates Robin with ‘elves, fairies, hobgoblins of our latter age’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210); and it is striking that Puck’s fairy friends in Shakespeare’s play have the capacity to shrink themselves to the size of Nashe’s mote-like devils.  Even Puck’s fondness for hemp, for stamping and for bellowing ‘Ho ho ho!’ is shared with the Robin of The Cobler of Caunterburie, whose catchphrase when provoked is ‘What Hemp and Hampe, here will I never more grinde nor stampe’ (sig. A4v).[12]  Clearly Shakespeare was deeply immersed in the recent literary as well as folkloric history of his ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (2.1.43), and knew how well the ground had been prepared for the rapprochement between popular superstition and sophisticated comedy by his precursors among the Elizabethan pamphleteers.   

 Shakespeare’s artfully managed rapprochement between popular superstition and romance, too, was prepared for by the pamphleteers we’ve glanced at.  Robin’s interest in lovers is first established in Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift, where he condemns greedy fathers for seeking to wed their daughters to wealthy men against their will, and catalogues the many forms of jealousy and fallings-out between sweethearts which occupy the central scenes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Tell-Troth ends with a general blessing bestowed by Robin on young lovers, which foreshadows Oberon’s blessing of Theseus’s household at the end of the Dream:

Their dalliaunce shall bee rewarded with darlings, whose sweete favoured faces, shall be continuall pledges of their faithfull kindnesse… Their encrease shalbe multiplied, their substance doubled and trebled till it come to aboundance… They shall adde so great a blessing to their store as time shall not take away the memory of them, nor fame suffer their antiquitye ever to die… Thus shall loves followers be thrise happy, and thus Robin goodfellowes well-willers, in imitating his care bee manifolde blessed (sig. F4v-F5r).

Oberon too promises that the issue created in the ‘bride beds’ of Theseus, Hippolyta and the rest will be ‘fortunate’, free from the ‘blots of nature’s hand’, and that the ‘couples three’ who engendered them will ‘Ever true in loving be’ (5.1.394-411); and Puck follows up this promise with a heartfelt appeal to his well-willers among the audience.  Shakespeare’s Puck shares, too, with Tell-Troth’s Robin a particular concern for the well-being of amorous women, as he shows when he mistakenly dismisses Lysander as ‘this lack-love, this kill-courtesy’ for his apparent spurning of Hermia (2.2.83).  The goblin, then, was associated with the defence of romance as well as of the stage at the point when Shakespeare introduced him into his Athenian love story.  He was also already seen as a link between English and classical myth, one of the Lares Familiares or household spirits transformed into an impudent English imp who lives in a classical-Purgatorial Hades, well before Shakespeare gave him a new home in the woods of ancient Greece;[13] and a half-demonic champion of laughter with a heart of gold, well before Shakespeare gave him the capacity both to laugh at and pity the mortal fools he spies on. 

Stanley Tucci as Puck

The combination of mischief-making with benevolence is shared by Shakespeare’s goblin with his namesakes in Tarlton’s News, The Cobbler of Canterbury and Tell-Troth’s New Year’s Gift.  In Shakespeare’s play, it is Oberon who speaks most openly about this fusion of qualities, when he invokes the link between himself, his fellow spirits and the devil at the end of the third act, telling Robin to ‘overcast the night’ with ‘fog as black as Acheron’ (3.2.355-7) – one of the rivers in the classical underworld – and encouraging him to mimic the voices of Demetrius and Lysander as devils are said to mimic men’s voices in Nashe’s Terrors of the Night (3.2.360-3).[14] But when Robin tells him that this must be done swiftly before dawn sends ‘damned spirits’ back to their ‘wormy beds’ (no hint of Purgatory here), Oberon replies by dissociating himself and Robin utterly from souls who have ‘themselves exiled from light’.  ‘We are spirits of another sort’, he claims, and goes on to describe his delight in dallying with the morning sunshine like Apollo, the classical god of learning (3.2.378-93); and this assertion of benevolence is reinforced at the point when the fairies and Puck extend their benison to the sleeping lovers in the play’s last scene.  If plays resemble dreams, in this play they are evidently dreams that bring peace and health to those who experience them.

Having said this, the terror of damnation with which the theatre-haters had infected the playhouse is by no means absent from Shakespeare’s comedy.  When Robin Goodfellow turns ‘actor’, for instance, after witnessing the amateur theatrics of the craftsmen (3.1.75), he throws them into a superstitious panic by assuming a range of terrible forms: ‘Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn’ (3.1.106).  But the devilry he practises is finally harmless, like the merry pranks played by the demonic Vices of an earlier dramatic tradition, or the antics of the devilish satyr-spirits in the pamphlets of the 1590s.  And if it is both harmless and health-giving, the theatre-haters who saw it only as monstrous stand condemned for crude thinking, moral cowardice, and a lack of generosity.  After all, the craftsmen welcomed Bottom back into their midst when they saw he was no monster (4.2); whereas the theatre-haters at their most extreme could find no place in a civil commonwealth for comedy.[15] 

Mickey Rooney as Puck   

It is hardly surprising, then, if in the last lines of the play Robin himself should turn defender of the theatre, like Tarlton in Kind-Heart’s Dream.  Theseus lays the groundwork for this defence earlier in the scene when he teaches his contemptuous master of the revels Philostrate the proper way to respond to well-meant drama.  ‘Never anything can be amiss,’ he says, ‘When simpleness and duty tender it’ (5.1.82-3); and he goes on to explain how best to read incompetent performances where the actors stumble over their lines and fall silent, overawed by the grandeur of their audience.  ‘Trust me, sweet,’ he tells Titania,

Out of this silence yet I picked a welcome,
And in the modesty of fearful duty
I read as much as from the rattling tongue
Of saucy and audacious eloquence.
Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity (5.1.99-105).

For Theseus, a courteous audience participates in a performance, reading into it the good will they would hope to find in all the works of the imagination.  A little later he characterizes this process of generous reading as a kind of amendment or emendation: ‘The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them’ (5.1.210-1).  It’s the word ‘amend’ that Puck takes up in his epilogue; a word that had long been associated with readerly generosity by Elizabethan readers.  Presenting their books to a potentially hostile public, some authors prefaced them with a gnomic challenge to their critics: ‘commend it, or amend it’; speak well of a work of art if you can’t improve on it.[16]  Robin Goodfellow presents his audience with a more genial offer from the playwright and actors who have entertained them.  ‘If we shadows have offended,’ he begins, ‘Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear’ (5.1.414-7).  For Nashe, visions seen in sleep, like Robin, are mostly harmless; they seldom have prophetic significance, and in most cases signify little more than the quality or otherwise of the last meal you have eaten.[17]  Robin’s dream, too, is no more than a ‘weak and idle theme’, and its idleness is not threatening (5.1.418).  If it is pardoned, the players will ‘mend’ or improve their performance next time; if they escape the hissing of envious serpents among their spectators they ‘will make amends ere long’; and finally, generosity from their audience will strengthen the bond of imaginative friendship or amity among the citizens and their entertainers: ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends’ (5.1.421-9).  The theatre-haters insisted that the playwrights had failed to amend or reform their plays despite endless promises of amendment.[18]  Robin makes the process of amendment a general one, healing rifts and bridging gaps between friendly co-habitants of the linked spaces of playhouse and city, and exorcising the demons that had been introduced into those spaces by the serpentine hissing of ungenerous prudes.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

3.  Robin Goodfellow and Bottom’s Dream

It’s perhaps worth mentioning one more way in which Shakespeare’s Robin both evokes and counters the anti-theatrical prejudice through interference with sleep.  His decision to replace Bottom’s head with the head of an ass, then obtrude him into the presence of the sleeping Titania, in whose arms he is afterwards lulled asleep to the strains of seductive music, is another knowing reference to the Tudor controversy over the beneficence or devilishness of drama.  As early as the 1540s, the schoolmaster-playwright John Redford introduced a scene into his moral interlude Wit and Science in which the schoolboy-hero Wit is danced into a state of exhaustion by a seductive female Vice, then lulled to drowsiness in her arms.  As he dozes, the Vice’s son Ignorance places his fool’s cap on Wit’s shoulders: a cap no doubt endowed with the usual pair of ass’s ears.  On waking, it is some time before Wit becomes aware of his transformation; and if ever Shakespeare saw a performance of Wit and Science or one of its variants, it seems unlikely he would have forgotten the peals of laughter that greeted Wit’s puzzlement at the reaction of those around him to his changed appearance.

The Vice who seduced Wit into this compromising somnolence was called Idleness, a term often used by the theatre-haters to designate the unproductive activities of players.  Her rival in the play is a Virtue called Honest Recreation – and again, this is the virtue defenders of the theatre liked to champion, insisting on the necessity for relaxing and instructive entertainment in the midst of one’s daily labour, and claiming that the theatre could provide such entertainment more fully than any other art-form.  Redford’s Honest Recreation has nothing but contempt for Idleness; but any attack of hers on the Vice is pre-empted by the Vice herself, who launches a devastating verbal assault on Honest Recreation that anticipates in its wording the polemic of the theatre-haters in the 1570s and 80s.  Honest Recreation, says Idleness, is nothing but a fake, a common player or mummer who uses the mask of virtue to cover her vices:

The dyvyll and hys dam can not devyse
More devlyshnes then by the doth ryse
Under the name of Honest Recreacion:
She, lo, bryngth in her abhominacion!
Mark her dawnsyng, her masking and mummyng.
Where more concupiscence then ther cummyng? [19]

Honest Recreation retaliates with an eloquent humanistic defence of leisure-time activities as a source of intellectual refreshment; but her thunder has been stolen, her name forever muddied, and she retires defeated as soon as she has said her piece, leaving Wit firmly entwined in the embrace of her demonic counterpart Idleness.  And here he was to be found, again and again, throughout the rest of the sixteenth century.  Two more versions of the story of Wit and Science were staged in the 1560s and 70s (The Marriage of Wit and Science and Francis Merbury’s The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom), each of which replayed the scene where Wit gets saddled with a fool’s cap in his sleep.  In the early 1580s a version of the play was acted called The Play of Playes and Pastimes, which responded to Stephen Gosson’s attack on the theatre by depicting Life lulled asleep by Honest Recreation herself – not by her vicious substitute – then entertained with Comedy when she wakes.20  And Redford’s play was reworked at least three more times in the following decade: once in The Cobbler’s Prophecy (c. 1590), a comedy by the celebrated clown Robert Wilson, where the god Mars is lulled asleep by Venus until startled into action by a comic cobbler; once in Anthony Munday’s Sir Thomas More (c. 1593), where More takes part in a performance of The Marriage Between Wit and Wisdom; and once in the Inns of Court entertainment The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, whose entire plot is ultimately derived from Redford’s.  Shakespeare helped to revise Sir Thomas More for performance, perhaps in the early 1600s.  It seems beyond the bounds of possibility that he should not have known the plot, at least, of Wit and Science, and its affiliation with the theatrical controversy.  And read as another reworking of this plot, Bottom’s transformation tells us a good deal about his creator’s attitude to the theatre at this stage in his career.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom

Bottom the weaver is an actor – albeit a very bad one.  His designation as one of the ‘rude mechanicals’ – the phrase Robin applies to them (3.2.9) – associates him with the standard insult levelled at actors and non-university playwrights by two of the so-called University Wits of the 1580s, Greene and Nashe, both of whom saw acting as a ‘mechanical’ art, a non-intellectual exercise well suited to the offspring of craftsmen and tradesmen who practised it.[21]  So when Puck invests Bottom with the head of an ass it seems no more than he deserves, as an upstart crow who plans to raise his presumptuous voice in the presence of royalty against all the principles of classical decorum.

Yet the weaver responds to his predicament with astonishing dignity.   He refuses to be frightened by the insults levelled at him (he tells his fellow craftsmen that in accusing him of monstrosity they are merely exposing themselves as ‘ass-heads’ or fools, 3.1.111), and sings to keep up his courage.  His song acts like that of a mermaid or Siren on Titania’s senses; she becomes ‘enamoured of his note’ (3.1.131), much as audiences were said by the theatre-haters to be roused to lustful paroxysms by the melodic blandishments of the stage.  Yet when she declares her love for him he remains both rational and scrupulously courteous.  ‘Methinks, mistress, you should have little reason for that’, he tells her, and later denies her statement that he is ‘as wise as he is beautiful’ – he lays claim only to the pragmatic ‘wit’ he needs to ‘get out of this wood’ (3.1.135-42).  This practical or mechanical intelligence manifests itself, too, in his philosophy: ‘reason and love,’ he says, ‘keep little company together nowadays – the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends’ (3.1.136-9).  For him, the love that matters is the love that binds communities, the love between neighbours which he has clearly provoked among his own neighbours, the fellow craftsmen and actors who mourn his absence at the end of Act Four, just before he is miraculously restored to them.  Bottom is a fool only in that he voices popular wisdom, fails to take advantage of Titania’s infatuation for selfish ends, and refuses to modify his behaviour in the presence of power, as a sycophantic courtier would have done.  His deportment to Titania’s fairy servants is impeccable; and when Titania tells them to ‘Tie up my love’s tongue; bring him silently’ (3.1.191), it is not an injunction to restrain the ribaldry of an unruly clown, as it would have been in a Redfordian moral interlude, nor yet an act of ritual humiliation, as it would have been in a play by Robert Wilson, but a means of subduing him to her desire – a desire that is ultimately harmless, to herself, to him, and to their Elizabethan audience.

Joseph Noel Paton, Oberon and the Mermaid (with Puck)

The harmlessness of the piece of supernatural theatre Bottom finds himself caught up in is strongly asserted by Puck in the following scene.  When he describes the weaver’s transformation to Oberon, Robin laughs at the unnecessary terror of Bottom’s companions when faced with his metamorphosis: ‘Their sense thus weak, lost with their fears thus strong, / Made senseless things begin to do them wrong’ (3.2.27-8).  Later, unreasoning terror is mentioned again by Theseus, whose analysis of the workings of ‘strong imagination’ includes the transformation of inanimate harmless objects by panic: ‘in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!’ (5.1.18-22).  Even the craftsmen are aware of the ease with which terror can be aroused by harmless things: they seek to defuse any fear that might be generated by their own theatrical performance by drawing attention to its theatricality, so that the lion in their play gives an elaborate and wholly unnecessary explanation of the principle of dramatic illusion to its courtly spectators.  Both the craftsmen’s very reasonable fear of Bottom, and their less reasonable fear that the ladies in their audience will fear them, are profoundly funny; and the implication is that the fear of the theatre evinced by its critics is not much less so.

Malice is simply absent from Robin’s actions, as it is from those of the well-intentioned craftsmen.  When Oberon rebukes him for administering the love-juice to the wrong lover, for instance, the goblin repeatedly insists that he ‘mistook’, although he is delighted by the outcome of his errors.  Once his cruel but harmless ‘sport’ is over, it assumes the status of ‘a dream and fruitless vision’ (3.2.371) for the Athenian lovers who were its victims; and Titania’s fleeting affair with Bottom – something mistaken on her part, not maliciously intended – also ends by being dismissed as ‘the fierce vexation of a dream’ (4.1.68).  Like Titania and the lovers, audiences will leave the theatre without having been adversely affected by what they saw there; restored to what Robin calls ‘True delight’ (3.2.455) – responsible pleasure, something the theatre-haters don’t seem able to imagine – in the things and people that are dear to them, they will return to waking life with nothing but an enhanced sense of its fragile beauty and comic unreasonableness.  And having left the stage, they will be no more tempted to engage in any over-critical analysis of their ‘most rare’ theatrical ‘vision’ than they would to analyse a dream after a feast (4.1.202).  If they sought to do so, they would show themselves to be asses, transformed to fools by the spectacle they have witnessed, just as those who take exception to satire transform themselves into satire’s targets by their over-sensitive response to its gibes.  

Arthur Rackham, Bottom

This, at least, is what Bottom implies when he wakes from the dramatic role of Titania’s lover in Act 4 scene 1.  ‘I have had a most rare vision,’ he says, and ‘Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream’ (4.1.202-4).  But he couches this observation in the language of theology, adding a somewhat jumbled but instantly recognizable version of Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was’ (4.1.207-10).  As we’ve seen, Robin Goodfellow and Dick Tarlton were not afraid to get themselves mixed up with theology, despite the bloody history of religious controversy throughout sixteenth-century Europe.  At the bottom of Bottom’s theatrical dream there may be a serious point about the working of the imagination at all levels of society.  After all, real dreams could, Nashe tells us, be heaven-sent ‘visions’ containing genuine prophecies, even if the bulk of them were nothing but outlets for the superfluous matter engendered by the human digestive system.[22]  Prophecies could provoke social change, insurrection, maybe even revolution; visions could start religions or spark off heresies; that’s why there was such careful legislation in England against men’s claims to be visionaries or prophets throughout the Tudor period.  Bottom awakes these controversial matters even as he dismisses them, just as Robin Goodfellow and his fairy companions evoke the demonic associations of drama even as they dismiss them.  The magic of the theatre, and its status as the space where human dreams and nightmares can be realized as nowhere else, remain as potent at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as they were at the beginning.  And it’s partly thanks to Shakespeare’s clever predecessors, with all the goblins, ghosts, and visions they invoked on stage and printed page, that this is so.  The time has come to wake them from their long sleep, set them loose among us once again, and listen carefully to what they have to tell us.

Arthur Rackham, Puck

NOTES

  1. See Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions, in The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 209-210.  All references to The Terrors of the Night are taken from this edition.  An early version of this paper was given at the World Shakespeare Congress, Brisbane 2006, in a panel on early modern sleep organized by Garrett Sullivan and Evelyn Tribble.  I am very grateful to all the participants in the panel, especially Jeffrey Marsten and Rebecca Totaro.
  2. I have discussed the anti-theatrical prejudice in my book, Shakespeare and Comedy (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005), pp. 5-24 etc.  See also Jonas Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), and Laura Levine, Men in Women’s Clothing: Anti-Theatricality, 1579-1642 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  3. My reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this paper develops my discussion of it in Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 141-154.  I am also indebted to Peter Holland’s introduction to his edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), and his essay ‘“The Interpretation of Dreams” in the Renaissance’, Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, ed. Peter Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).  See also Derek Alwes, ‘Elizabethan Dreaming: Fictional Dreams from Gascoigne to Lodge’, in Framing Elizabethan Fictions: Contemporary Approaches to Early Modern Narrative Prose, ed. Constance C. Relihan (Kent, Ohio and London: Kent State University Press, 1996), 153-67.
  4. Accounts of Robin Goodfellow can be found in Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959) (see index); Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane, 1976), entries for Puck and Robin Goodfellow; Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, 2000), ch. 5; and Winfried Schleiner, ‘Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare’s Puck’, Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 65-8
  5. Albions England (1612), Anglistica and Americana (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971), p. 368.  The first four books of Warner’s epic were published in 1588; the 14th book, containing ‘A Tale of Robin-goodfellow’, first appeared in the 1606 edition.  See my ‘Myths Exploited: The Metamorphoses of Ovid in Early Elizabethan England’, Shakespeare’s Ovid, ed. A. B. Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 27-8.
  6. For a fuller discussion of this text see my ‘Robert Greene and the Uses of Time’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), ch. 8, pp.182-7.
  7. The Life and Complete Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 15 vols. (London and Aylesbury: privately printed, 1881-3), vol. 12, p. 207.
  8. For a detailed discussion of the place of the tragedy of Collingbourne in The Mirror for Magistrates see Andrew Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity: Reformation to Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), chapter 3.  All references are to the 1563 edition.
  9. For a print history of The Mirror for Magistrates see the introduction to Lily B. Campbell’s edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).
  10. For a recent account of Gabriel Harvey’s posthumous attack on Robert Greene and Nashe’s response, see Ronald A. Tumelson II, ‘Robert Greene, “Author of Playes”’, Writing Robert Greene, ed. Melnikoff and Gieskes, ch. 5.
  11. For the health-giving properties of laughter see my ‘The Afterlife of Andrew Borde’, Studies in Philology vol. 100 no. 4 (Fall 2003), pp. 463-92.
  12. The Cobbler’s Robin opens his epistle with ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’, the phrase Shakespeare’s Robin uses at 3.2.421.  Shakespeare’s Robin alludes to hemp at 3.1.72, and describes himself stamping to terrify Peter Quince and his fellow craftsmen at 3.2.25. 
  13. Nashe associates him with the Lares or ‘household Gods’ in The Terrors of the Night (p. 210), and Warner calls Robin a ‘breechlesse Larr’ in Albions England, p. 367.  See also Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, p. 2, quoted above.
  14. Nashe mentions the devil’s power of mimicry several times in The Terrors of the Night, but cf. ‘Those that catch birds imitate their voices; so will he imitate the voices of God’s vengeance, to bring us like birds into the net of eternal damnation’ (p. 211).
  15. Stephen Gosson takes this stance in his Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582).  See Arthur F. Kinney, Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson (Salzburg: University of Salzburg, 1974), introduction.
  16. For the phrase ‘Commend it, or amend it’ see e.g. the title-page of John Lyly’s Euphues and his England (1580).
  17. ‘From the unequal and repugnant mixture of contrarious meats… many of our mystic cogitations proceed; and even as fire maketh iron like itself, so the fiery inflammations of our liver or stomach transform our imaginations to their analogy and likeness’.  Nashe, Terrors of the Night, p. 233.
  18. For the theatre-haters’ rejection of the playwrights’ claims to have reformed their work, see my Shakespeare and Comedy, pp. 11-12.
  19. John Redford, Wit and Science, in Tudor Interludes, ed. Peter Happé (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), pp.181-219, p. 196.
  20. For a summary of the plot of The Play of Plays, which demonstrates its indebtedness to the plot of Wit and Science, see Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen Gosson, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Salzburg: Universitaet Salzburg, 1974), pp. 181-3.
  21. See Nashe’s statement that ‘everie mechanicall mate’ aspires to the status of a rhetorician because of the example set by ‘vainglorious tragoedians’; epistle ‘To the Gentlemen Students of both Universities’, printed with Greene’s romance Menaphon (1589), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 6, p. 9.  See also Greene’s romance Francescos Fortunes (1590), Works… of Robert Greene, ed. Grosart, vol. 8, p. 132, where the players’ art is described as ‘a kind of mechanical labour’.
  22. The Terrors of the Night, p. 235.