The Knight of the Burning Pestle
The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play by Francis Beaumont, first performed in 1607 and first published in a quarto in 1613. It is the first whole parody (or pastiche) play in English. The play is a satire on chivalric romances in general, similar to Don Quixote, and a parody of Thomas Heywood's The Four Prentices of London and Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. It breaks the fourth wall from its outset.
It is most likely that the play was written for the child actors at Blackfriars Theatre, where John Marston had previously had plays produced. In addition to the textual history testifying to a Blackfriars origin, there are multiple references within the text to Marston, to the actors as children (notably from the Citizen's Wife, who seems to recognise the actors from their school), and other indications that the performance took place in a house known for biting satire and sexual double entendre. Blackfriars specialised in satire, according to Andrew Gurr (quoted in Hattaway, ix), and Michael Hattaway suggests that the dissonance of the youth of the players and the gravity of their roles combined with the multiple internal references to holiday revels because the play had a Shrovetide or midsummer's day first production (Hattaway xxi and xiii). The play is certainly carnivalesque, but the date of the first performance is purely speculative. The second quarto publication came in 1635, with a third the same year. The play was omitted from the first Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647 but included in the second folio of 1679. The play was later widely thought to be the joint work of Beaumont and Fletcher.
If written for Blackfriars, The Knight of the Burning Pestle would have initially been produced in a small private theatre, with minimal stage properties. However, the private theatres were first to introduce the practice of having audience members seated on the stage proper (according to Gurr, op cit. in Hattaway ix), which is a framing device for this play's action. Additionally, the higher cost of a private theatre (sixpence, compared to a penny at some public theatres) changed the composition of the audience and would have suggested a more critically aware (and demanding) crowd. The play makes use of several "interludes," which would have been spare entertainments between the acts (but which are integrated into the performance in this case), again emphasising the smallness and spareness of the initial staging (as interludes would have allowed for technicians to arrange the lights and scenery and to put actors in place). Revivals of the play are largely undocumented, but some are attested. Hattaway suggests that it was performed in the Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane in 1635, at court the next year, and then after the Restoration at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1662 and again in 1665 and 1667 (Hattaway xxix). The play "has proved popular with amateur and university groups," according to Hattaway, but not with professional troupes.
The play was revived in London in 1904, with Nigel Playfair in the principal role of Rafe. In 1920 the young Noël Coward starred as Rafe in a Birmingham Repertory Theatre production which transferred to the West End. The Times called the play "the jolliest thing in London". In 1932 the play was staged at the Old Vic, with Ralph Richardson as Rafe and Sybil Thorndyke as the Citizen's Wife. The Greenwich Theatre presented the play in 1975, with Gordon Reid as Rafe. The Royal Shakespeare Company performed it in 1981, with Timothy Spall in the lead. In a 2005 revival at the Barbican Theatre Rafe was played by Spall's son Rafe, who was named after the character in the play. The play is also to be included in the first season at the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre in 2014.
In 1957 the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego presented The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The American Shakespeare Center (then the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) staged it in 1999 and revived it in 2003 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, a recreation of Shakespeare's Blackfriars Theatre. The American Shakespeare Center's "Rough, Rude, and Boisterous tour" of 2009 to 2010 also included the play. The Theater at Monmouth staged the play in the summer of 2013.
- Speaker of the Prologue.
- A Citizen.
- His Wife.
- Rafe, his Apprentice.
- Venturewell, a Merchant.
- Old Merrythought.
- Michael Merrythough, his son
- Jasper Merrythought, another son
- Host of an Inn
- Three Men, supposed captives.
- William Hammerton.
- George Greengoose.
- Soldiers, and Attendants.
- Luce, Daughter of Venturewell.
- Mistress Merrythought.
- Woman, supposed a captive.
- Pompiona, Daughter of the King of Moldavia.
Scene : London and the neighbouring Country, except Act IV Scene ii, set in Moldavia.
As a play called "The London Merchant" is about to be performed a Citizen and his Wife "in the audience" of the play interrupt to complain that the play will misrepresent the middle-class citizens of the city. The Citizen, who identifies himself as a grocer, climbs onto the stage, and he brings his Wife up to sit with him on the stage next to some Gentlemen of the audience. The Citizen and his Wife demand that the players put on a play of their own choosing and suggest that one of them—in fact, their apprentice, Rafe—should have a part in the play. Rafe demonstrates his dramatic skills by quoting some lines of Shakespeare (Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1). He then has a part created for him as a knight errant. He refers to himself as the "Grocer Errant" and has a burning pestle on his shield as a heraldic device.
This meta-fictional plot is intercut with the main plot of the interrupted play, "The London Merchant", where Jasper Merrythought, the merchant's apprentice, is in love with his master's daughter, Luce, and must elope with her to save her from the arranged marriage with Humphrey, a "swell" or City man of fashion. Humphrey is portrayed as a gullible weakling who often speaks in malapropisms indicating that his pretentions to learning and breeding are false. Luce pretends to Humphrey that she has made an unusual vow: she will only marry a man who has the spirit to run away with her. She knows that Humphrey will immediately inform her father of this plan. She intends to pretend to elope with Humphrey, knowing that her father will allow this to happen, but will then ditch him and meet up with Jasper.
Meanwhile Jasper's mother has decided to leave her husband Old Merrythought, who, in an apparent mid-life crisis, has spent all his savings in drinking and partying. Whenever he appears he turns every conversation into a song. When Jasper seeks his mother's aid, she rejects him in favour of his younger brother Michael. She tells Michael that she has kept jewellery they can use to live on while he learns a trade. They leave Merrythought, but they get lost in a wood where she loses her jewellery. Jasper arrives in the same wood to meet Luce and finds the jewels. Luce and Humphrey appear. Jasper, as planned, knocks over Humphrey and runs off with Luce. Rafe the "grocer errant" arrives. He believes he has met a damozel in distress when he sees the distraught Mrs Merrythought. He takes the Merrythoughts to an inn, expecting the Host to put them up for free because of a chivaric code of service. When the Host demands payment for the room and meal Rafe is perplexed. The host decides to tell Rafe there are more people in distress he must save from an evil barber named Barbaroso. Rafe effects a daring rescue of Barbaroso's patients.
The Citizen and his Wife demand more chivalric and exotic adventures for Rafe, so a scene is created in which Rafe must go to Moldavia, where he meets the Princess of Moldavia, who falls in love with him. But he says he has already plighted troth to his lady, Susan "a cobbler's maid in Milk Street". The Princess reluctantly lets him go, lamenting that she cannot come to England because she has always dreamed of tasting English beer.
Things go awry for Jasper when he decides to "test" Luce's love by pretending he intends to kill her because of the way her father has treated him. She is shocked, but declares her devotion to him. At this point Humphrey and her father arrive with other men. They beat up Jasper, and drag Luce away from him. The merchant locks Luce in her room. Jasper decides to pretend he has died. He writes a letter, supposedly a dying apology for his behaviour. It is sent with the news of his death to the merchant. Jasper's coffin is carried to the merchant's house (as the merchant is responsible for his apprentice). Luce laments his death, but he gets up from the coffin and explains that he he intends to save her from marriage to Humphrey. When the merchant enters Jasper pretends to be his own ghost and frightens the merchant into expelling Humphrey from the house and helping Jasper's near-bankrupt father. A chastened Mrs Merryweather returns to her husband. The merchant also appears and asks for Old Merryweather's forgiveness. Jasper appears and reveals he is still alive. The merchant gives consent to his match with Luce. The Citizen and the Wife demand that Rafe's part of the drama should also have an appropriate ending, so Rafe is given a heroic chivalric dying scene, and everyone is satisfied.
The play hits a number of satirical and parodic points. The audience is satirised, with the interrupting grocer, but the domineering and demanding merchant class is also satirised in the main plot. Beaumont makes fun of the new demand for stories of the middle classes for the middle classes, even as he makes fun of that class's actual taste for an exoticism and a chivalry that is entirely hyperbolic. The Citizen and his Wife are bombastic, sure of themselves, and certain that their prosperity carries with it mercantile advantages (the ability to demand a different play for their admission fee than the one the actors have prepared).
The broader humour of the play derives from innuendo and sexual jokes, as well as joking references to other dramatists. The players, for example, plant a winking joke at the Citizen's expense, as the pestle of Rafe's herald is a phallic metaphor, and a burning pestle/penis implies syphilis, on the one hand, and sexual bravado, on the other. The inability of the Citizen and Wife to comprehend how they are satirised, or to understand the main plot, allows the audience to laugh at itself, even as it admits its complicity with the Citizen's boorish tastes.
The play was a famous failure when it was first performed; though it won approval over the next generation or two. In Richard Brome's The Sparagus Garden (1635), the character Rebecca desires to see it "above all plays." Beaumont's comedy was performed at Court by Queen Henrietta's Men on 28 February 1636 (new style).
TV musical version
A television version was made in 1938, with music by Frederic Austin, starring Frederick Ranalow as Merrythought, Hugh E. Wright as The Citizen, Margaret Yarde as Wife, Manning Whiley as Tim and Alex McCrindle as George Greengoose.
- It was so credited in the London revivals of 1904, 1920, 1932, 1975 and 1981 detailed in the "Staging" section
- "Drama", The Athenaeum, 19 November 1904, p.703
- "A Jacobean Romp", The Times, 25 November 1920, p. 10
- "The Old Vic: 'The Knight Of The Burning Pestle'.", The Times, 5 January 1932, p. 10
- Wardle, Irving, "'The Knight of the Burning Pestle', Greenwich," The Times, 13 June 1975, p. 9
- Wardle, Irving, "'The Knight of the Burning Pestle', Aldwych," The Times, 18 April 1981, p. 10
- Spencer, Charles, "The unfunniest show in town", The Daily Telegraph, 4 October 2005, p. 26
- "The Old Globe Production History", The Old Globe Theatre, accessed 25 January 2013
- "Knight of the Burning Pestle", American Shakespeare Center, accessed 28 February 2011
- In mid-20th century revivals the name was usually rendered as "Ralph": see "A Jacobean Romp", The Times, 25 November 1920, p. 10 and "The Old Vic: 'The Knight Of The Burning Pestle'.", The Times, 5 January 1932, p. 10
- See Zitner's edition, pp. 42–3.
- Beaumont, Francis. The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Michael Hattaway, ed. New Mermaids. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Sheldon P. Zitner, ed. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004.