In November, I worked with two actors, Beth Eyre and Elspeth North, on three potentially tricky scenes from the play: one where Rachel discovers her brother’s act of murder, one where Merry must decide how to dispose of his victim’s body, and one where two waterman find the dismembered remains. All three are complicated to stage: the first because there is a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing, as the siblings move between the spaces of their home; the second because it requires onstage dismemberment; and the third because it is a farcical, slapstick scene on which the tragedy of the play hinges. In workshopping these scenes with Beth and Elspeth, I wanted to explore whether using actor’s parts helped the actors get to grips with the complexity of these scenes, or whether they were a hindrance.
In line with Elizabethan rehearsal practices, we plan to rehearse these scenes only once or twice: the more complex stage business, such as dismemberment, will be rehearsed a week before the performance, with props and stage blood on hand, whilst the full scenes will be run through (with lengthly speeches omitted) in a single full cast rehearsal. The workshop was essentially a dry run: an attempt to run the more demanding scenes, with scripts in hand, with two members of the cast before the formal rehearsal process begins. The cast are unlikely to be playing these roles in the full production, so it won’t affect their preparation for the final performance. We found that, while limited knowledge of the overall action of a scene and the characters onstage can be challenging and distracting for an actor, it can also give verisimilitude to actor reactions, which often mirror those of the character. This can be seen in the Watermen scene, in which the two watermen discover the corpse, but neither actor is fully aware of how the scene will unfold:
To see Beth and Elspeth’s experiences at the workshop, and hear how they found working with parts in these scenes, take a look at the Two Lamentable Tragedies YouTube channel, where you can find all three scenes, as well as an interview with the actors.
I’m delighted to announce that ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’, from Robert Yarrington’s Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601) will be performed in the Jeremy Bentham Room at UCL at 7pm on Friday 21st March.
The play will be rehearsed in line with Elizabethan rehearsal practices: actors’ parts (also known as cue-scripts); a rehearsal period of a fortnight; and a single group rehearsal. The first time the cast will perform the entire play together will be on the night of the performance; a rather daunting task for the actors, but it should make it an exciting, if unpredictable, experience for the audience!I will post more details, as well as rehearsal photos and videos, as the rehearsal period progresses…
Philip Bird will lead the cast in a workshop on working with cue-scripts in a couple of weeks, to prepare the cast and get everyone used to working together as a company. A lutenist, a musical director, and a cast of ten are now on board, including Dr Freyja Cox Jensen, a historian at Exeter University, who will be both performing in and producing the play, in the tradition of the actor-sharer. I’ll post further details about the participants in this project over the coming weeks.
A version of ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ was performed by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose in 1600, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, so we will be using Philip Henslowe’s Diary as a guide to our theatrical practice, alongside the research of Professor Tiffany Stern, who has kindly agreed to speak at the performance.
To reserve a ticket, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets are free, but space is limited, so tickets must be reserved in advance.
More details to follow shortly!
On Wednesday 16th October, I ran a performance-based workshop on Two Lamentable Tragedies at Exeter’s Centre for Early Modern Studies. Organised by Dr Freyja Cox Jensen, the workshop was a wonderful opportunity to read and discuss the play in an academic setting. A number of staff and graduate students, from backgrounds in English Literature, History and Theatre, joined us to read the play aloud. As at the Huntington, the more macabre and gruesome moments were frequently greeted by shouts of laughter, and the reading prompted many questions concerning the genre of the play in the spirited discussion that followed. A topic much under discussion was the link between Yarrington’s narrative of the murderous shopkeeper and the morality play tradition. We also discussed the extent to which the tragedy focuses on Rachel, Merry’s sister, as a loyal but misguided member of her brother’s household, and a tragic victim, through her complicity, of her brother’s crime.
My suggestion that ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Merry’ in Two Lamentable Tragedies might derive from the play with that title performed by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose the previous year, also prompted much discussion. One of the key challenges that arose was the question of length: as there are two intertwined narratives in Two Lamentable Tragedies, the tragedy of Merry only forms half the length of a usual play. If the play was memorially reconstructed, this could explain the reduction in length; the Merry narrative also appears to be missing a couple of key scenes , which could support this theory. However, the length could also be due to the genre of the play. Another domestic tragedy, A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608), is far shorter than most plays, with a running time of about an hour: the same length of ‘The Tragedy of Merry’, when excerpted from Two Lamentable Tragedies. We discussed that perhaps plays such as these were designed to be presented in some sort of double bill. Although there aren’t any easy answers, this was a helpful and thought-provoking discussion.
I hope our upcoming production of the play will help to support my suggestion that the play functions as a standalone narrative: however, it is only through staging the play that we can test if this is in fact the case. I will shortly be posting videos a recent preliminary workshop, where actors, working with actors’ parts, attempted a number of key scenes; a number of similar workshops will be held over the coming months, in order to prepare the actors for working with parts in the full production of the play. The date of the production is currently being finalised; I hope to post the date and venue, with full booking details, very soon!
Two Lamentable Tragedies is unique in pairing a conventional tragedy, set in an elite household in Padua, with a crime in contemporary London. In staging a sordid murder in a non-elite sphere, the second narrative would seem to belong to the generic category usually termed ‘domestic tragedy’, an early modern English genre which portrays domestic crime and sexual transgression in non-aristocratic homes.
Domestic tragedy flourished in the 1590s and early 1600s; in staging non-elite domestic discord, it opened up the private home to the public gaze, and elevated the concerns of the ‘middling sort’ to the tragic stature more usually afforded to kings and noblemen. Other plays belonging to the genre include Arden of Faversham, printed in 1592, which is based on the true murder of Master Arden by his wife and various accomplices; A Warning for Fair Women, printed in 1599, which portrays the true murder of George Sanders by his wife’s lover; and Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, printed in 1607, which stages the adultery and death of a fictional erring wife, Anne Frankford.
Domestic tragedies are often printed anonymously; in this case, the name of the author, Robert Yarrington, is known, but no further information can be found, and the name is widely believed to be a pseudonym, or perhaps the name of a compiler who simply amalgamated two very different plays.
Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the domestic tragedy in Two Lamentable Tragedies is in fact the lost play The Tragedy of Thomas Merry, otherwise known as Beech’s Tragedy, which was performed by the Admiral’s Men at the Rose Theatre in the late winter of 1599/1600. For more information, see the Lost Plays Database: http://www.lostplays.org/index.php/Thomas_Merry_(Beech%E2%80%99s_Tragedy)
Two Lamentable Tragedies, then, offers the reader a unique opportunity to experience two very different dramatic genres in one play. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it was ever staged in this form. It is equally likely that Robert Yarrington simply combined a version of an existing play, The Tragedy of Merry, with the second narrative, which was later printed in ballad form, and may have already existed as a ballad at this time.
In staging only the “Merry” narrative of Two Lamentable Tragedies, I will test whether it can indeed be performed as a standalone play. The success of the recent reading of the play at the Huntington Library suggests that it is possible to attempt a full performance; I will document my preparations for such an attempt, and the performance itself, on this blog over the coming months.
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!
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.
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…
Tomorrow, the Huntington Library in California will present a ‘Brown Bag Play Reading’ of Robert Yarrington’s Two Lamentable Tragedies, printed in 1601.The Huntington holds one of the few surviving copies of the play, which is rarely studied or taught, and has never, to my knowledge, been performed in modern times.
Two Lamentable Tragedies is a ‘two-folde tragedy’ composed of two intertwined narratives.One dramatises a true, and recent, murder of one neighbour by another, and is set in contemporary London. The other portrays the murder of an orphaned boy at the hands of his aunt and uncle, who covet his inheritance. It is a fictional narrative, and is set in Padua.
Two Lamentable Tragedies is unique in pairing a traditional, elite tragedy with a true and recent neighbourhood murder. The narrator figure Truth introduces the play as presenting ‘two shewes of lamentation’, of which ‘the one was done in famous London late’, and ‘the other father off, but yet too neare’.
At this play reading, a number of readers and staff have kindly volunteered to assist me in reading one of the two lamentable tragedies aloud.We will be reading only the ‘true’ tragedy which stages a recent crime: in Thames Street in contemporary London, a tavern-keeper, Master Merry, kills a neighbouring shopkeeper, Master Beech, in a fit of avarice and envy. This is the more unusual, and the more significant, of the two tragedies.
The murder takes place in Merry’s own home, upon a stairway; Merry lures Beech into the building under false pretences, and hits him on the head with a hammer until he is dead. Merry then kills Beech’s young manservant, Thomas Winchester, to avoid detection; and makes his sister and his manservant complicit in the disposal of the body.
Merry’s crime leaves physical traces across London, and a diverse cast of characters, including watermen, a gentleman and his spaniel, and numerous suspicious neighbours, find evidence of the crime, discover the suspect, and bring about Merry’s condemnation and execution.
The play is fast-paced, exciting and gory; in many ways, it is a significant forerunner of modern detective novels and crime television dramas. The readers tomorrow will include Professors of English, PhD students and staff at the library (with backgrounds in amateur dramatics). This play reading may be the first time the play has been read in public in over 400 years. I look forward to reporting how the readers and audience react…