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…