In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle travels to Elizabethan England for Robert Greene’s comedy
Robert Greene is probably best-known, in the British popular consciousness at least, for two things. The first is for penning what was perhaps the first, and one of the most memorable, philippics against William Shakespeare: as he lay dying, Greene attacked the Stratford playwright as an ‘upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.’ The second is for being played (in a comical tour de force) by Mark Heap in the BBC sitcom Upstart Crow, in which David Mitchell plays the up-and-coming Bard and the lovely Liza Tarbuck plays Anne Hathaway. (I feel I must give Liza a mention, as she once called me ‘bouncy’ on national radio and the compliment has always stuck with me. But that’s another story…)
In Upstart Crow, which takes its title, of course, from Greene’s broadside, Greene is clearly Shakespeare’s senior, viewing the Bard of Avon as a young interloper threatening Greene’s pre-eminence in the theatre world. The running joke – one of several, in fact – revolves around Greene’s attempts to get rid of Shakespeare from the theatres, at any cost. One would hardly guess that in real life, Greene was only six years older than Shakespeare. But Ben Elton, the show’s writer, does have plenty of fun with the title of Greene’s most famous and enduring play for the London stage, the comedy Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. Read the rest of this entry
The best Restoration comedies and tragedies
Restoration comedies and tragedies often get overlooked in our rush to celebrate the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Yet any survey of English literature would be substantially poorer if it didn’t mention Aphra Behn, William Wycherley, or William Congreve. Below we introduce ten of the greatest works of Restoration theatre – comedies and tragedies, though mostly the former.
John Dryden, Marriage a la Mode. Probably the earliest of the great Restoration comedies, this play premiered in 1673 and was written by the first official Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Interweaving two separate storylines, the play features plotting and deceit, thwarted marriages, and squabbles over property – all ingredients that would become firm favourites in later Restoration comedies.
William Wycherley, The Country Wife. For many years – indeed, the best part of two centuries – this play, now regarded as a classic and widely studied in universities, was effectively absent from the English stage, thanks to its bawdy content and sexual explicitness (instead, a version written by the pioneering actor David Garrick, called The Country Girl, was staged). First performed in 1675, The Country Wife features several interwoven plots, including a young country girl’s marriage to the older Pinchwife (hence the play’s title). Intersecting with this plot line is the lecherous rake Horner’s plot to seduce women by, of all things, pretending he is impotent… Read the rest of this entry
The best plays by women
The first named writer in world history was a woman, Enheduanna. Yet as Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own, Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith would have found it impossible to make it in the world of Elizabethan theatre. But in fact, ever since the time of Shakespeare, women have found a way to write for the English (or American) stage, and have changed the way we think about theatre. In this pick of 10 of the greatest plays by women writers, we’ve tried to include a representative chronological range, from the early years of female dramatists through to the present day.
Elizabeth Cary, Viscountess Falkland, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry. This play is a notable first in English history, since it’s the first original play written in English by a woman under her own name. (There had been an earlier English female dramatist – a Tudor translator by the name of Joanna Lumley – but Cary’s is the first substantial dramatic work composed, rather than translated, by a woman.) Written in the early 1600s and first performed in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam is about the second wife of Herod the Great, whose sister Salome convinces Herod that Mariam has been unfaithful to her husband. Read the rest of this entry