Saturday, January 07, 2012

Bartholomew Fair

This play by Jonson is straight-up bizarre. It starts off reading like Pirandello--the stage manager comes out and addresses the audience, telling them what to expect. "The play's not that bad, but the stupid author didn't take my advice . . ." and then a book-seller and a scrivener come in, interrupt the stage-manager and send him packing, and read mock-legal "Articles of Agreement" between the audience and the playwright, basically stating that if the audience does not like the play, they have bought the right to criticize it in proportion to how much they paid for their ticket.

After that, it gets more typical. And by more typical, I just mean, not completely avant-garde but still pretty unique from other plays of the period. It is set, largely, at a London fair. I wasn't sure how much of my fair experience to transpose onto the scenery, but I came in assuming it's dirty and chaotic, with a cast of dubious characters on the margins of society, food on the ground, lots of things to look at, people yelling about their wares/services, and crowds pushing past each other.

And I was right. The fair-people are weird, dirty, ugly, with their own language and mini-society. Food does play a large role in the play--it's the reason the Littlewit family goes to the fair, and Ursula the pig-seller is a "large" character, whose pig-stand becomes the scene of a lot of the action. People are excited about the fair for more than just the food, though, and Cokes can't stop looking around at (and buying) all the things people are selling. We hear hawkers pushing their wares and some petty violence occurs, too--pick-pocketing, and a shoving match that ends up scalding Ursula's leg. I haven't seen another play set in a fair, so this is an interesting window into a microcosm of London life that other plays don't show us, and it's kind of cool that it still matches up with fairs today.

But the play starts out feeling more like The Roaring Girl. It begins in the home of a citizen who dotes on his wife who is smarter than him; the Littlewits remind me of the Gallipots in that sense. Various other characters enter the scene, introduced (usually) one by one--a couple of gallants, a wealthy young gentleman and his betrothed . . . so far, very much the cast of characters we expect from a Middleton comedy.

But these characters are so strange. Bartholomew Cokes is a gentleman idiot, a character I'm more used to seeing in Restoration comedy. Wasp is a hilarious ball of anger, whose favorite saying is "Turd i' your teeth" and who is compared, in the introduction, to Donald Duck and other silent film comedians. Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is typically Puritan, down to his rhythmic and repetitious diction: "Now pig, it is a meat, and a meat that is nourishing . . . and so consequently eaten; it may be eaten; very exceedingly well eaten: but . . . as a Bartholomew pig, it cannot be eaten." He reminds me here of Falstaff (another character with a possible Puritan past), always spinning off of that last idea into the heights of rhetoric.

And Ursula--who is like Ursula? Is Moll Cutpurse like her? They are both large women, intimidating to men, with sharp and witty tongues, in touch with a sort of underworld. But Ursula is more obviously fat than Moll--or maybe her fatness is more grotesque than Moll's. She is angrier than Moll, too; Moll is capable of winning a battle of insults but she doesn't usually start it. She doesn't boss people around or threaten them the way Ursula threatens Mooncalf. And while Moll knows the thieves and pickpockets of London and can speak their jargon, she herself does not participate in criminal activity, which Ursula plainly does.

At the end, the two gallants get new wives, but I feel a little cheated. I didn't see it coming, really--didn't expect the gallants to be the protagonists who win out in the end and whose weddings we celebrate. My heart belongs to Littlewit and Bartholomew.

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