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.
A grocer and his wife "in the audience" of the play interrupt to complain loudly that plays are always about nobility and that it is they, the common people, who pay for most of the tickets. The Citizen has a seat on the side of the stage, and he brings his wife up to sit with him (a violation of decorum). They 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 then gets the part of the "Grocer Errant" in the interrupted drama. He has a burning pestle on his shield as a heraldic device and has to undertake the daring rescue of patients being held by a barber named Barbaroso. The meta-fictional plot is intercut with the main plot of the interrupted play, where Jasper Merrythought, a 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 not at the level of fop, but he has multiple malapropisms and indications that his learning and breeding are false. Luce pretends to wish to elope with Humphrey so that her father will be expecting such a flight, but she and Jasper's plans go awry, and Humphrey and the merchant capture the lovers, and the merchant locks Luce in her room. Jasper feigns death and gets his coffin carried to the merchant's house (as the merchant is responsible for his apprentice). He then gets up from the coffin and pretends to be his own ghost and frightens the merchant into giving consent to his match with Luce.
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 Grocer 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 Grocer'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.