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A moment of Jonsonian history was made on 20 November 2018, when the Playhouse Lab at the University of Leeds gave an unrehearsed reading of A Tale of a Tub. Tub is one of the few plays in the canon for which there is virtually no backstory of stage performance. When we compiled the Performance Archive for the electronic edition we could find no record of revival later than the original stagings in 1634, so (as far as I’m aware) our scratch performance at Leeds is the first documented staging since Jonson’s death.
The Playhouse Lab is a group of staff and (mainly postgraduate) students, who meet three or four times a term to stage book-in-hand performances of early modern plays. Amongst other texts, we have attempted Volpone, Love’s Cure, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the bad quarto of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the 1604 quarto of Doctor Faustus, The Tragedy of Mariam, Antonio and Mellida, and Antonio’s Revenge (this last as the focus of a day-long symposium). We read the plays from scripts, but in all other respects we do the best we can to realize them as performances by improvising blocking, scenery and props.
I have long been convinced that A Tale of a Tub is a neglected gem. It has always seemed to me to be a charming and amusing play, cleverly engineered and beautifully articulated: that was the main reason why I included it in my Selected Plays of Ben Jonson volume 2 (1987). But since I have never previously had the chance to test this, I was anxious that my colleagues – almost none of whom knew it in advance – would find it either mystifying or trivial. In the event I need not have worried, since with the team it proved to be one of our most popular revivals. The plot is so accessible and the comedy so delightful that everyone found it entertaining and coherent – as has by no means been the case with all the other plays we have revived. Not the least pleasure for me was witnessing the company’s surprise at the working-out of the plot, when in act 4 the vexed question of who exactly is going to marry Audrey is finally resolved. The company’s delight in discovering the unexpected identity of her successful suitor entirely justified Jonson’s sleight of hand in organising the denouement.
In our revival, several unsuspected virtues emerged in the play. One was Jonson’s expert handling of character and opportunities for comedy. Every part was so individually characterized that it was easy for our actors to find a focus for their performances: each part has its own little moment, and most have a deft quirk or habit that the actor can readily latch on to. The major roles are strongly individualized, and the alternation of variation and surprise is finely calculated. Many episodes that seem rather thin on the page turned out to be hilarious in performance, perhaps the most notable being the scene (3.2) in which Puppy brings in the news of Audrey’s disappearance but can get no further in his speeches than incoherent repetitions of ‘Oh master, oh dame’, ‘Oh Audrey’ and ‘Oh the serving-man’. Another role that makes a big impact despite seeming underwritten is John Clay, whose disappointment at being bilked registers strongly at the end. And the play’s use of dialect, which initially everyone found quite disconcerting, became an intrinsic aspect of the play as we read into it. Jonson’s expertise as a connoisseur of everyday speech comes through powerfully, for the text is full of delightful and memorable turns of phrase: ‘I had ‘un as sure as a zaw in a zawpit’, ‘I am e’en as vull as a piper’s bag with joy’, ‘as true as a gun’, ‘as nimbly as a squirrel will crack nuts’. As an anthology of the rural demotic, it is unsurpassed.
From a technical point of view, the experience of casting the play brought out several distinctive features. There are seventeen significant speaking parts, but only six have more than 200 lines, the two most important being Turf and Hilts (the others are Squire Tub, Puppy, Hugh, and Lady Tub, in that order). A notch down come the roles of 80-150 lines: Preamble, Metaphor, Medley, Dame Turf, and Audrey. All the other roles have less than 70 lines each, with the neighbours functioning throughout as a kind of mad chorus. By far the slightest role is Wisp, though her presence is enhanced because she ends up married to one of the major figures, Puppy. The only role that can be doubled is Metaphor, who disappears in the fourth act and is the one significant character missing from the final scene.
I look forward to seeing a full-scale professional revival. For the record, our cast was as follows: Justice Preamble, David Fairer; Miles Metaphor, Charley Roe; Chanon Hugh, Martin Butler; Squire Tub, Matthew Blaiden; Basket Hilts, José Perez Diez; Lady Tub, Fiona Douglas; Pol-Martin, Sam Hardy; Dido Wisp, Storm Blackledge; Toby Turf, John Gallagher; Dame Turf, Catherine Batt; Audrey Turf, Laura Clements; Puppy, Richard Meek; Medlay, Sam Jermy; Clench, Charley Roe; Scriben, Jeri Smith-Cronin; To-Pan, Brett Greatly-Hirsch; and John Clay, Ed Reiss.
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