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I am delighted to announce that the first (known) reading of the “Merry” narrative of Robert Yarrington’s Two Lamentable Tragedies in over four hundred years was a success! The Huntington kindly hosted our reading in the a courtyard of their Botanical Centre, and the Californian sunshine streaming into the shaded court made an odd contrast with the dark and often gory world of murder and dismemberment presented in the play. A diverse cast of academics, graduate students and library staff valiantly took on the parts of Merry the murderer, Rachel, his sister, who becomes complicit in his crime, and the surrounding neighbours who discover the murder and detect the murderer. Despite no prior rehearsal, everyone spoke their parts with clarity, energy and enthusiasm – it was wonderful to watch!

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The audience seemed to enjoy it as well – indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the performance was how warmly the audience responded. The escalating murders; the unpleasant means by which Merry disposes of the body of his murdered friend; and the providentially arranged means by which the pieces of the body are discovered, may be read as simply demonstrating the play’s concern with the material processes of crime and detection. However, when these details were read aloud, they prompted increasing amusement, both in the audience, and in the readers themselves. What might, in the manner of Titus Andronicus, be simply horrific when represented onstage – a young boy being struck on the head numerous times with a hammer, a bag containing a head and various limbs stumbled upon at the river side, a dismembered body identified by its clothing – became, when discussed by characters and narrated by the stage directions, amusing in its very awfulness.

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Two Lamentable Tragedies pays particularly graphic attention to the disposal of the body; the forced complicity of subordinate members of the murderer’s household; and the importance of forensic evidence, neighbourhood surveillance and providential interference in the detection of the crime. But it also intertwines many of the most graphic details of the detective process with humour – from the “clown” part of the Second Waterman who stumbles over the bag containing the body parts, to the gentleman whose spaniel finds the rest of the body by splashing about in a pool of water. Although individual elements of comedy are evident in the playtext, the play reading brought to life the comic nature of much of the tragedy. My strongest impression of the reading, then, is that the play is not only amusing to modern sensibilities; the playwright complemented a sensational narrative of murder and its aftermath, set amongst the taverns and shops of late Elizabethan London, with comedy that does not form a sub-plot of the narrative, but rather arises from the situations of the narrative itself.

More photos of the event with follow over the next few weeks, and I promise to share my thoughts about the play, and the experience of reading it before an audience, as they develop…

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