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Every Man in His Humour

Watching the Other Side of Shakespeare

By Ben Jonson
American Shakespeare Center
, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.

Saturday, March 28, 2015, C–7&8 (center stalls)
Actors' Renaissance Season

At the start of Ben Jonson's comedy Every Man in His Humour, the prologue pokes fun at William Shakespeare. Laying out the case for his comedy, Jonson warns his audience not to expect "three rusty swords and help of some few foot-and-half-foot words fight over York and Lancaster's long jars" or a Chorus that "wafts you o'er the seas." Then, after all this, who should appear to speak the play's opening lines? Shakespeare himself. I don't mean Shakespeare as a character, I mean the actor in the Lord Chamberlain's Men when that company mounted Every Man in His Humour at the Curtain Theatre in 1598.

Bobadill in red striped shirt and black leather jacket, Ed Knowell in brown tartan vest and pants with white shirt, and Master Stephen to the left, hands on hips, wearing purple and gold checked vest with blue buttons, blue shirt, green felt jacket, pink pants, and Elizabethan ruff collar
Captain Bobadill (Patrick Midgley) shows off his sword to Ed Knowell (Chris Johnston) as Master Stephen (Benjamin Reed, left) watches in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

Sounds like the stuff of legends, but this is no mythical matter; at most, the scenario above is extrapolated from recorded facts, and it underscores why this play is so important to Shakespeare fans and why the American Shakespeare Center included it in its Actors' Renaissance Season this year (we'll get to the play's actual merits in a bit).

Every Man in His Humour was first printed in 1601, but Jonson revised it for his collected works in 1616, which included the prologue. We can't be sure the speech was yet part of the original staging, but we know that Shakespeare was. With the 1616 publication, Jonson included a list of the original 1598 cast, and Shakespeare's name is at the top, ahead of other members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, including Richard Burbage and Will Kempe. Certainly, Jonson could be engaging in namedropping by listing Shakespeare first—Jonson had quite the ego, but he also was a great self-promoter and apparently a close friend of Shakespeare's despite their public rivalry. However, the order of cast names is likely by appearance in the play, meaning Shakespeare would have played Old Knowell, the kind of elderly character that scholars have determined was apparently his acting specialty.

So, when the Prologue concludes and Christopher Seiler walks onto the Blackfriars Playhouse stage as Knowell, you can waft your way back to the Curtain in 1598 and pretend you are watching Shakespeare, the man. Now, frankly, the character of Knowell is no great shakes, though Seiler does a solid job in the performance. Nevertheless, this Shakespearean connection writ large is a river running through the course of the play and its performance. This is especially so in the Actors' Renaissance Season, when the actors use the same production process as Shakespeare himself would have used when he played Knowell: the actors working out the play among themselves with no director or design team, coming up with their own costumes and props while learning their parts and cue lines in about a week's worth of rehearsal time. They would then perform on a bare platform (except for patrons sitting on the gallant stools along the edge) with no sets and no electronic or digital effects, the same environment ASC’s replica Blackfriars Playhouse replicates.

Every Man in His Humour was Jonson's first hit, and it remained popular in the repertory of the King's Men, which the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would become, into the 1630s. With greater maturity as a writer, Jonson improved on the verse when he revised the play in 1616 and, significantly, moved the setting from Florence to London. But he didn’t improve the play’s cumbersome plot structure, using the first half to establish his many, various characters and their particular "humors" before finally moving his story forward in the second half to a fun payoff. Humor, by the way, refers not to funny ha-ha but to the ancient physio-psychological principle that moods and personalities are governed by the balance of certain bodily fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm (these are actually four properties of blood: phlegm is white blood cells, black bile is clotted blood, yellow bile is the platelets in the clotting process, and blood is unclotted blood). In a medical theory dating back to the ancient Greeks, these fluids correspond with certain personality temperaments: blood is sanguine, yellow bile is choleric, black bile is melancholic, and phlegm is phlegmatic (peaceful). So, when scholars say that Jonson specialized in writing "humor plays," they are referring to his basing characters and plots on these archetypes, Every Man in His Humor being the first of the genre.

Thus, we get an extended character study of a slice of London society. We have the wealthy Knowell (Seiler) worrying about his seemingly roustabout son Ed Knowell, the merchant Thomas Kitely (René Thornton Jr.) and his wife, Dame Kitely (Sara Hymes), both insanely jealous, and the squire George Downright (John Harrell) angry at everything and everybody. You want plegmatic? That would be Ed Knowell, played by Chris Johnston with a teacup always in his hand—even when he’s on the streets of London or before a magistrate. His Ed is so laid back he courts Kitely’s sister, Mistress Bridget (Lauren Ballard), with a casual laissez-faire attitude, and it takes his best bud, Wellbred (Bridget Rue), who is Dame Kitely's brother and Downright's half-brother, to prompt Ed down the path of courtship. Ed Knowell and Wellbred—typical of Johnson’s too-cool-for-school characters—love to play pranks on fools, and they have three to work with in this play: Master Stephen (Benjamin Reed), the melancholic country fool; Master Matthew (Nathan C. Crocker), a city fool who styles himself a great poet but plagiarizes everything he composes; and Captain Bobadill, (Patrick Midgley), an out-of-service soldier and inveterate braggart, one of Jonson’s greatest creations and a forerunner of Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

The play's various plots and misunderstandings wend their way to a collective resolution orchestrated by two of the most unique characters I've ever encountered in English drama. One is Brainworm, Knowell’s servant, who runs his own whirling dervish course through the play that seems to have only a spurious connection to the plot except for waylaying Knowell in pursuit of his son. Jumping from one mischievous prank to another, Allison Glenzer’s Brainworm moves from butler’s tux to a bailiff’s cape, to a knight in chain mail and an eye patch. By the time she emerges in a police officer’s uniform—after Brainworm has laid out why he needs to engage in such an exploit—the audience applauds, but I’m not sure if it’s because Brainworm is so clever or Glenzer is having so much fun playing him. Brainworm comes to his accounting at the end before Justice Clement, whom Michael Amendola plays as an Old West judge, which may seem anachronistic but is yet so perfect in the way he dispenses practical wisdom rather than learned legal saws. It’s telling that Jonson, who had his own several dealings with the law, should portray a justice as something of a kin in humor to Brainworm (they end up drinking together), who relies on common sense and mercy for his judgments, and who defends Ed Knowell’s pursuit of poetry against the wishes of Old Knowell in a down-to-earth yet elegant speech. Clement also sums up the point of the play’s title when he “conjure[s] the rest to put off all discontent: You , Master Downright, your anger; you, Master Knowell, your cares; Master Kitely and his wife, their jealousy.”

Witty as all this may be, the only way you can make such an Elizabethan character study succeed on its own merits, as this production does, is to have a cast of actors who are experts with Elizabethan/Jacobean language and verse structure and knowledgeable in the Blackfriars staging conditions. Particular to the Actors’ Renaissance Season, one staging condition is having to work out the production as an ensemble in a short timeframe, which this company accomplishes. The actors also lighted on the idea of costuming themselves in a mash-up of Elizabethan and Victorian clothes, a smart collective choice in that it gives the play something of a cartoonish Oscar Wilde aesthete. Another key condition of the Blackfriars is interacting with the audience. Thornton, delivering Kitely’s soliloquy on how beautiful women are prone to infidelity, pointed at my wife and then, with the look of Marlow’s ghost, told me to “Beware!” Midgley’s Bobadill, describing to Ed Knowell some of the dangers he has known, gestured to a row full of high school students in the stalls to represent a multitude of attacking enemies he would need to fend off. “And how would I do it, think you?” he asked, and waited for the kids to provide an answer. One shook his fist, an attempt to out-Bobadill Bobadill, but without missing a beat Midgley said, “That’s shaking your fist, not an answer.”

I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Every Man in His Humour that opened the Swan Theatre in 1987, and Pete Postlethwaite's performance of Bobadill remains indelible in my theater memories. Supplementing that memory now is Midgley, who makes a star’s entrance in the fourth scene and maintains that stature with such sweet braggadocio and gracious cowardice that we embrace this would-be Rottweiler as a skittish cocker spaniel. After nailing the part of Blunt in The Rover and Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew this season, Midgley might seem in danger of being typecast as the punked braggart, but the part fits so well this bona fide body builder whose muscular frame sports a sweet-faced nature and houses an ever-flowering Shakespearean-era acting talent (not to worry: Midgley’s range has been well established with portrayals on this stage of Gaveston in Edward II, the Cardinal in the Duchess of Malfi, and multiple roles in Henry V).

Dame Kitely, in Victorian white ruffled-front, high-lace-collared blouse and plain gray dress, has her hands on the shoulder and arm of Kitely in black suit with shiny blue vest, wailing with eyes closed as he leans over the back of a renaissance chair.Dame Kitely (Sara Hymes) comforts her jealous husband (René Thornton Jr.) in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.

On the other hand, Harrell, the amiable comic actor who can even make sinister sliminess funny, plays against any such type with his imposing bully of a Downright. He speaks, walks, and even just stands there with his volume turned up to 10, and his bearing makes it look as if he’s gained 80 pounds of muscle to play this part. Nevertheless, he makes such forcefulness immensely funny, and given that he's also playing a repertoire that includes Belvile in The Rover and old Gremio in Shrew, his added heft is simply good physical acting.

Meanwhile, after a play's worth of garnering laughs from the jealous Kitely’s shocked reactions to seemingly innocent comments from his wife, Thornton pretty much ends up playing himself, but to a proper purpose. In this production, Master Matthew’s plagiarized texts in Jonson’s script have been switched out with passages from Shakespeare’s works, a defensible choice given that the Shakespeare-centric audience starts laughing even before other characters point out the plagiarism. So, it is fitting that Thornton does something similar at play’s end when Kitely asks forgiveness of his wife for his overly jealous behavior through lines of verse, after which he says, “I have learned so much verse out of a jealous man’s part, in a play.” Thornton swaps out the verse Jonson uses with Shakespearean lines about “One that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme.” The audience is already snickering, but with Kitely’s next line that “I have learned so much verse out of a jealous man’s part, in a play,” Thornton, who played Othello on this stage in 2010, earns the show’s biggest laugh capped by applause—applause at the memory of his Othello, probably, but also appreciation of such a perfect connection of character to actor to character to space.

We can’t be sure who played Kitely in the original production of this play, but whichever member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men it was, it is possible that the audiences at the Curtain might have enjoyed a similar insider joke (albeit with a different point of reference for the actor, as Othello wouldn’t be written for another half a dozen years or so). It’s in incidences like this when Shakespearean theater does more than break down the fourth wall; it transcends time, and, for a brief moment, we are right there in the presence of Shakespeare, the actor, himself.

Eric Minton
April 28, 2015

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