What You Will in The Playhouse Lab

On 15th November 2017, and as part of The Playhouse Lab—our Renaissance play-reading group at the School of English of the University of Leeds—we attempted an improvised staged reading of Marston’s What You Will, a play most likely premiered by the Children of Paul’s in 1601, early in Marston’s career as a dramatist. We were using an early draft of Janet Clare’s edited text of the play for the Oxford Marston, trying to get a sense of how it might have felt in performance. The experience was both baffling and illuminating. Our committed regular performers, all of them established academics and doctoral researchers who are quite experienced in the drama of the period, did not know the play beforehand, and just turned up on the night to play characters they knew nothing about, trying to make sense of the plot of the play. In that respect, What You Will came across as a series of loosely connected episodes with a few striking stand-alone pieces. The Latin lesson with the Schoolmaster (or the Pedant, according to the speech headings, masterfully played by David Fairer) and his pupils in 2.2 was particularly enjoyable, and it was riveting to think that real pupils from St Paul’s School would have re-enacted what must have been a very familiar situation—perhaps even with their own Schoolmaster performing the Pedant? Jacomo’s appearance as a melancholy lover in 1.1 (as played by myself) was a promising start for what turned out to be a rather confusing plot line involving the disguised perfumer Francisco and the supposedly deceased Albano. A couple of last-minute (and technically impossible) doublings due to personnel constraints did not help: Francisco was played by John Gallagher (who had to talk to himself in the same scene as Laverdure (with a ludicrously funny French accent); and Calum Gardner played Randolfo, as well as his own brother Albano, and the French page Bidet, all of whom interact in the same scenes. Messy as the casting was—mea maxima culpa!—the structure of the play did not help anyway, and certain details of plot did not quite come across. For instance, it was difficult to spot at the start that Albano, Randolfo, and Adrian are meant to be brothers, and we couldn’t quite fathom how Randolfo and Adrian were meant to receive Jacomo’s advances on their brother’s supposed widow Celia in the opening scene. It is not trivial either to spot that Randolfo and Adrian, who believe that Albano is really dead, mistake their brother Albano for Francisco because they think that his soul must have been transferred on to the disguised perfumer by metempsychosis. Finally, the end of Act III was entirely opaque to us, and will need a lot of annotation: the gang of schoolboys engage in some kind of underground criminal activity, and they appear to be led in a strange ceremony by the French page Bidet, who is proclaimed to be ‘Bosphoros Cormelydon Honorificacuminos’, the ‘Emperor of Cracks, Prince of Pages, Marquis of Mumchance, and sole regent over a bale of false dice’.

The two characters from this play that Renaissance scholars familiar with the controversy around the so-called ‘Wars of the Theatres’ or the ‘Poets’ War’ are likely to know are Quadratus and Lampatho Doria, generally believed to be satirical portraits of the author and his supposed rival Ben Jonson. James Bednarz, for instance, has analysed Quadratus as a literary self-portrait of Marston, while Lampatho would be a caricature of Jonson. However, after reading the play, we remained unconvinced: Quadratus (performed by Martin Butler himself in our reading) is prone to long-winded perorations about aesthetics and scholarship, and is generally patronising to other characters, including Lampatho (played then by my Playhouse Lab co-convenor Matthew Blaiden). Could this actually be a portrait of Jonson’s verbal excess, scholarly aspirations, and his traditionally perceived superciliousness?

The play was also interesting for what it reveals of the physical geography of the tiny playhouse that Paul’s Boys used. According to Herbert Berry’s research, that room was probably the ‘singing hall’ upstairs in the Almoner’s House in the southern part of the precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral. As the fake audience member Atticus puts it in the metatheatrical Induction:

Let’s place ourselves within the curtains for, good faith, the stage is so very little we shall wrong the general eye else very much.

The stage platform was, therefore, quite small, and it clearly had a curtained space upstage (‘within’). This discovery space is used in various moments. At the beginning of Act II, the French knight Laverdure ‘draws the curtains sitting on his bed apparelling himself, his trunk of apparel standing by him’. The Schoolmaster in 2.2 ‘draws the curtains behind with [the] schoolboys, sitting with books in their hands.’ Most effectively, at the beginning of Act V, ‘the curtains are drawn by a page’ and no less than four couples are ‘displayed sitting at dinner’. The room must have been tall enough to have an upper playing space, perhaps only a single window. In What You Will, this above space is implied by the fact that a garland is thrown down to Jacomo in 1.1 when he is trying to ‘bring Celia’s head out of the window’ with a serenade before dawn. That window is also implied in another play by Marston staged in the same space perhaps early in the winter of the preceding year, 1600, Antonio’s Revenge: ‘The curtain’s drawn and the body of Felice, stabbed thick with wounds, appears hung up.’ (1.3) At that moment, Antonio, who has been similarly waiting for his beloved’s appearance, cries: ‘What villain bloods the window of my love?’ The single curtain implied in this passage for the window contrasts with the plural ‘curtains’ employed in the discovery space.

Though it did not strike our group as the most easily performable or engaging of entertainments, What You Will is an interesting play for all sorts of reasons. What seemed clear is that there is a lot to annotate for a modern audience, and that the staging of numerous difficult moments will need to be considered in detail in due course, as the quarto is missing vital information. For instance, we will be able to make sense of what goes on during the buttock-numbing thrashing that poor little Holofernes Pippo seems to get from his angry Schoolmaster:[1]


PEDANT  You, Holofernes Pippo, put him down. Wipe your nose. Fie, on your sleeve? Where’s your muckender your grandmother gave you? Well, say on, say on.

HOLOFERNES  Pray, Master, what word’s this?

PEDANT  Ass, ass!

HOLOFERNES  ‘As in presenti perfectum format in, in, in—’

PEDANT  In what, sir?

HOLOFERNES  ‘Perfectum format in what, sir?

PEDANT  In what, sir? ‘In avi.

HOLOFERNES  ‘In what, sir? In avi.Ut no, nas, navi, vocito, vocitas, voci, voci, voci—’

PEDANT  What’s next?

HOLOFERNES  ‘Voci, what’s next?

PEDANT  Why, thou ungracious child, thou simple animal, thou barnacle! Noose, snare him, take him up. An’ you were my father, you should up!

HOLOFERNES  Indeed, I am not your father! O Lord! Now, for God’s sake let me go out. My mother told a thing—I shall bewray all else. Hark you, Master, my grandmother entreats you to come to dinner tomorrow morning.

PEDANT  I say untruss—take him up! Noose, dispatch! What? Not perfect in an as in presenti?

HOLOFERNES  In truth, I’ll be as perfect an as in presenti as any of this company, with the grace of God, la! This once, this once; an’ I do so any more—

PEDANT  I say hold him up!

HOLOFERNES  Ha, let me say my prayers first. You know not what you ha’ done now: all the syrup of my brain is run into my buttocks and ye spill the juice of my wit well. Ha, sweet—ha, sweet—honey, barbary-sugar, sweet Master—

PEDANT  Sans tricks, trifles, delays, demurrers, procrastinations or retardations, mount him, mount him!



[1] This is my own edited version for the purposes of this blog post, rather than Janet Clare’s. It obviously lacks editorial indications of what is meant to be happening on stage.