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'Only remember your lines and you are safe.' (1) Epicene or The Silent Woman in Performance.

Posted by: CEWBJ Team 8 years, 7 months ago



Contribution by Peter Reynolds

Ben Jonson's play, Epicene or The Silent Woman, was first performed in London around 1609/10. His actors were then children or young adults (all male of course) drawn from the company known as The Children of the Queen's Revels. Despite recent efforts in the UK of Perry Mills and his Edward's Boys, this play and others designed for performance by the children's companies are now so rarely performed either by adult, or especially by child companies, that our knowledge of them is almost entirely gained from the text on the page.

The production of Epicene which took place on 30th November 2012 at the University of Western Australia as part of the ANZSA conference was designed as a piece of performance as research. It employed a cast of twenty-first century school boys, in, so far as was possible, the material conditions that would have pertained in the private theatres towards the end of the first decade of the seventeenth century. The space was indoors and enclosed; there was a raised thrust stage; seating was for not more than 120 people; and the lighting throughout was intended to resemble candle-light. The actors were never more than a few feet from the audience thus minimising any potential problems in projecting their voices and they were able at all times when on the stage to see the audience.

Before rehearsals began the play was cut to a running time of approximately 1.5hrs, an acknowledgement of the initial caution felt when facing an unknown quantity and quality of juvenile actors. It was unlikely that they would have had the ability to sustain a complicated narrative, which, if it were to last the full three hours, might make unacceptable demands on both their technique and the patience of the audience. Some of the more obviously obscure sections of the text were omitted, including all the Latin in Act V spoken by the Priest (Capt. Otter) and Doctor (Cutbeard) since none of the fifteen boys from the three Australian state schools from which they were recruited, had been taught to speak it.

The 2012 production was staged rather than directed and no attempt was made to impose an interpretation or concept on the play. The director's priority was to ensure smooth movements onto and off the stage, give confidence to his actors, and try to ensure that the whole performance proceeded to tell the story clearly and straightforwardly. As they grasped the narrative thread, and given some help with unfamiliar words, the boys read with surprising fluency, and enjoyed getting their mouths around Jonson's sometimes awkward syntax. They quickly identified the types of people Jonson created: the three lads, always keen to make an impression; the old man who is mocked because he is different and difficult; the women who are astute and manipulative. However, there were certainly times when the boys were speaking text that they didn't fully understand. Occasionally this happened with individual words. For example, the boy playing La Foole confessed at one stage that when he was saying the line which included the word jerkin (a word whose meaning was understandably unfamiliar to him) thought the word was gherkin, a pickle of his acquaintance. At other times some of Jonsons detailed allusions to London life, and to scandals at Court passed over the heads of the boys as they go over the heads of modern adult readers. In the final performance our actors undoubtedly spoke some words of the play without fully understanding them, and certainly without grasping Jonsons complex socio-political critique of early modern London. However, they spoke the text rhythmically and with pace, and with sufficient understanding to enable them to advance the narrative. What the narrative signified was left to the audience to construct.

This production took place as part of the director's on-going research at the University of Western Australia's Centre for the History of the Emotions in Europe 1100-1800. One of the research questions motivating the project was how contemporary young people would respond to an early modern text that required them to adopt, as actors, attitudes towards sexuality and towards women that, in some cases, were profoundly out of sympathy with twenty first century attitudes and beliefs. The text would also expose them to a story in which some of the events described would today be illegal. Indeed, at a time when the media were saturated with lurid tales of the abuse of children by, amongst others, the British DJ Jimmy Savile (2), the public presentation of a play by young people which included details of the apparent sexual abuse of a young child was potentially highly problematic. In common with many early modern plays, Jonson's text requires characters to kiss. In Act 3 Morose kisses Epicene on the lips. In this production it was a male teacher playing Morose, and a school boy playing Epicene, so to have them kiss however briefly on the lips would have been unacceptable. In performance the kiss was avoided not by cutting Morose's line, but by having Cutbeard, who is on stage at the time cough, as if in embarrassment before Morose could plant his lips (3).

However, there were other references to early modern sexuality and the involvement of children in it that were more difficult to negotiate. The performance began with the youngest cast member alone on stage as the audience came in. He was a boy of 10, playing Clerimont's Page, and, as the audience settled, he could be heard practicing the song written by his Master. The boy's treble voice and innocent looking face was initially reassuring, but the associated innocence and purity of this iconic vision of childhood was soon disrupted. The boy's rehearsal of the song was interrupted by the entrance of his Master, Clerimont, and the mood of the play shifted radically with a startling graphic description of what appears to be behaviour we would now identify as child abuse. The young page tells his master (a boy actor of 17) what happens to him whilst he is in the company of older women: “Page. The gentlewomen play with me, and throw me on the bed, and carry me in to my lady; and she kisses me with her oil'd face, and puts a wig on my head; and asks me will I wear her gown? (Act 1, scene 1). It is not the reference to cross dressing that shocks, but the strong hint of force used to make the Page comply. He is alone and thrown onto the bed by several people, and then carried (presumably struggling) into the presence of the Lady. The boy refuses to wear her gown and then she hits me a blow o' the ears In response to this news that this Lady, the object of the Master's amorous attentions, is in the habit of aggressively flirting with his Page, Clerimont tells the boy he œshall go there no more, lest I be faine to seek your voice in my Ladies rushes. Of course, the rushes could refer to the covering used on the floor of a chamber, but the boy is first thrown onto a bed, not the floor, and is kissed, and to a twenty first century ear the rushes appeared as a reference to pubic hair. It may be that current sensitivities and awareness of child pornography and the abuse of children by adults, has overly sensitised us and made it impossible to see what the original meaning of Claremont's remark was. Would the 1609/10 audience have been amused (and perhaps familiar) with the idea that an older woman would employ a young boy as her sex toy, and might even use him to give her oral satisfaction? To a modern audience that thought would have been unpleasant had it registered. We therefore cut the reference to my Ladies rushes, but not the Page's description of his treatment.

Another episode highlighted the gulf in attitudes towards sexuality between the sixteenth and the twenty first centuries: Truewit, Jonson's ironically named young man about town, rapidly establishes his deeply misogynistic credentials both in conversation with his peers, Dauphine and Clerimont, and when he informs the unfortunate Morose of “the monstrous hazards you shall run with a wife (Act 2, scene 1). These include her wearing too much makeup (all oil and birdlime) and visits to a fortune teller where her first question is, how soon shall you die? (ibid). His general view of women is that nothing about them can be taken at face value and that they cannot be trusted. But he goes beyond this later in the play when, in Act 4 scene 1 he discourses on women to Dauphine and Clerimont and advocates rape as an acceptable form of courtship:
True. A man should not doubt to overcome any woman. Think he can vanquish them, and he shall: for though they deny, their desire is to be tempted. You must persever, and hold to your purpose. Praise them, flatter them, you shall never want eloquence or trust: even the chastest delight to feel themselves that way rubb'd. With praises you must mix kisses too: if they take them, they'll take more-though they strive, they would be overcome.
Cler. O, but a man must beware of force.
True. It is to them an acceptable violence (Act 4, scene 1).
This was a moment in the production in when the staging reflected a more enlightened sexual politics but without cutting Truewit's lines. Clerimont and Dauphine turned away from their friend, visibly embarrassed, and showing their increasing unease and incredulity as Truewit expanded his thesis. This directorial intervention served to distance Truewit's friends from his views, and make them appear isolated rather than commonly held.

We know that Jonson sometimes played a part in preparing boys to perform his plays. He might have been outraged by the heavy cutting of the text in the 2012 production, infuriated by the occasional lapses of the actors in forgetting lines, re-shaping the syntax, and their deliberate addition of references to contemporary Australian culture (La Foole claimed to be descended from the Australian La Foole's).What he might conceivably have admired about this twenty-first century revival of his play was the bravery of the young actors, and their wit, skill, and intelligence in bringing new life to an old play.

Peter Reynolds, Professor of Theatre, Newcastle University UK. International Partner Investigator, CHE.


1.  Truewit, Act 5 scene 1. This and all subsequent quotations from the play are taken from the edition by Richard Dutton (Manchester 2003).

2.   Savile, well known in Britain as a DJ, children's television presenter, and charity worker, died in 2011. Subsequently hundreds of child sex and rape allegations against him, and others became public.

3.  Puritans were well aware of what they saw as the moral hazards this kind of behaviour. As the contemporary Oxford scholar John Rainolds observed, the kiss of a boy is like certain spiders if they but touch men only with their mouths, they put them to wonderful pain and make them mad. Quoted in Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (London, 2004) p.27



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