Eastward Ho! by Chapman, Jonson and Marston, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, 2002.
University of Central England
Nicol, David. "Eastward Ho! by Chapman, Jonson and Marston, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, 2002." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 22.1-12 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/08-2/eastrev.html>.
CAST AND CREW:
David Acton Seagull/Mistress Fond. Sasha Behar Sindefy. Claire Benedict Mistress Touchstone. Paul Bentall Security. Vincent Brimble Scapethrift/1st Gentleman/Potkin. Billy Carter Quicksilver. Wayne Cater Drawer/Scrivener. Shelley Conn Mildred. Amanda Drew Gertrude. Geoffrey Freshwater Touchstone. Sean Hannaway Constable/2nd Gentleman. Sian Howard Winifred. Michael Matus Sir Petronel Flash. Colin McCormack Bramble. Keith Osborn Spendall/Holdfast/Mistress Gazer. Joshua Richards Wolf/Poldavy/Coachman. Avin Shah Slitgut/Hamlet/Page. James Tucker Golding. Lucy Pitman-Wallace Director. Heather Davies Associate Director. Robert Jones Designer.
- Chapman, Jonson and Marston were famously thrown in prison for including in their play Eastward Ho! a number of satirical jibes at the court of King James. Among these was the following passage, in which Captain Seagull describes the golden land of Virginia, which is free from all the irritations of London life, excepting
a few industrious Scots, perhaps, who indeed are dispersed over the face of the whole earth. But as for them, there are no greater friends to Englishmen and England, when they are out on't, in the world, than they are. And for my part, I would a hundred thousand of them were there; for we are all one countrymen now, ye know; and we should find ten times more comfort of them there than we do here. (3.3.38-45)
The RSC's recent revival of the play put an intriguing spin on this famous slur: as Seagull uttered his first sentence, a couple of Scottish sailors thumped their tankards down and stood menacingly. The remainder of Seagull's speech became a hastily spluttered attempt at pacifying the angry Scots, and the cutting sarcasm of his closing phrase was obscured. It is, of course, no longer acceptable to encourage derisive laughter at Scots on the British stage (although, as the playwrights discovered to their cost, it was unacceptable in 1605 too), and the interpolated Scotsmen demonstrated a desire to smooth over those aspects of the play that might seem embarrassingly outdated to its audience. However, the larger question of the play's overriding satirical aims was dealt with less thoughtfully. Reviving topical city comedies like Eastward Ho! is not easy, and the RSC's production was only a partial success. Although it frequently captured the madcap humour that makes the play still funny today, it was less successful at communicating its satire on the politics and culture of 1605, and thus presented a watered-down version of this savage little play.
The production's successes stemmed from the performances of a few leading actors. The director, Lucy Pitman-Wallace, had clearly encouraged her cast to act in an exaggerated style that suited the play's parade of city comedy stock characters: the genial merchant, the prodigal apprentice, the cuckold, the randy citizen wife, the usurer, the witty whore, and so on. Naturalism was eschewed in favour of broad, gestural acting that emphasised the conventionality of the stereotypical figure that each character is based on. The costuming was colourful and opulent, and the actors were smothered in make-up and elaborate wigs that helped to exaggerate their performance style.
Amanda Drew's interpretation of Gertrude Touchstone was by far the most memorable part of the production. Drew's performance was centred on the outrageous voice that she had developed for her character: a throaty Sloane drawl that constantly degenerated into a nasal Cockney squawk. Drew made Gertrude into a flame-haired monster of social pretension who swept the stage in her garish dresses while brandishing a small yappy dog (a stuffed toy; Drew supplied the yaps herself). Her performance was packed with variety: every squawk and every shriek was different, and she could find a way to turn the simplest lines into showstoppers (her snotty, snivelling delivery of "will you help me, sister?" got the biggest laugh of the night).
It was perhaps appropriate that Gertrude became the centre of the production, since the character epitomises the play's satirical targets. Eastward Ho! is a relentless satire on the London citizens, who are depicted as upstarts clambering up the social ladder despite their patent inadequacy. The play scoffs at citizens like Gertrude who marry above their station; at wannabe gallants like Quicksilver the apprentice; and at 'false' gentlemen such as the new-made knight Sir Petronel Flash. It contrasts these characters with humbler citizens such as Touchstone, Golding and Mildred, who know their place, and who prove that 'mean' marriages are more virtuous than marriages of social elevation. But readers of the play have often felt that the playwrights are sneering even at these 'virtuous' citizens: the industrious prentice Golding can be seen as a self-righteous prig and Touchstone a sentimental fool.
Pitman-Wallace's production followed the latter interpretation, at least in the representation of Golding. James Tucker's Golding was, like Drew's Gertrude, an enjoyably loathsome creature, a punchable nerd with a sense of humour bypass, obsessed with keeping his hair parted correctly. His pious speeches were represented as dull and sanctimonious. But Geoffrey Freshwater's Touchstone was presented uncritically as a charming and genial fellow, and Freshwater was successful at making the character's ebullience lovable.
The strong performances of Drew, Tucker and Freshwater meant that the best scenes were those set in the goldsmith's shop. Less successful were those involving the 'venturers' in their madcap voyage to Virginia. Here, the cast seemed uncomfortable with the broad acting style and were tiresomely monotonous, delivering all their lines in a uniform tone, and relying too much on arm-waving and bellowing.
Billy Carter's Quicksilver was a demonstration of how dull exaggerated acting can be if the actor cannot find variety within the role. Carter gave a monotonous representation of jovial swaggering, in which he over-en-un-ci-at-ed ev-er-y syll-ab-le in a booming voice, while remaining curiously inaudible. Michael Matus as Sir Petronel Flash went too far the other way. Although dressed in an outrageous costume and caked in make-up, he seemed too quiet and restrained, and never lived up to the character's name. He went through all the swaggering motions, but could not dominate the stage, and the actor seemed far more comfortable in the Newgate scene, in which he could display openly the anxieties and insecurities that the character tries so hard to disguise in the preceding scenes.
The production was therefore a patchy affair, reliant on the comic talents of a few individual actors. It was difficult to see what relationship Pitman-Wallace's production had with the play's overall satirical aims. Admittedly, the playwrights' condemnation of the citizenry did not go unnoticed. The characters were carefully delineated on class lines: the unaffected citizens spoke in unaffected Cockney, while the upstarts spoke in strangulated accents that lurched between Knightsbridge and Whitechapel. But it was unclear what the audience was expected to think about the play's elitist insistence that the lower classes should know their place (and its implicit correlative that aristocrats are superior). The audience seemed expected to scoff at the citizens without questioning the political assumptions that underpinned their scoffing.
Of course, the triumph of Touchstone and Golding in the conclusion means that the play can be seen as a celebration of hardworking citizens. But this ending is almost certainly intended ironically. The concluding scene (in which the prodigal apprentice Quicksilver announces his reformation by singing a ballad of his repentance that causes the sentimental Touchstone to forgive him) has often been seen as a parody of the tearful reformations and reconciliations that conclude plays like The London Prodigal, while Touchstone can be seen as a spoof of the generous and unworldly merchants in plays like Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday or Heywood's If You Know Not Me 2. It certainly seems unlikely that three elitist, educated playwrights would use the vulgar, populist medium of a ballad if they wanted their ending to be uncomplicatedly emotional. The parodic nature of the final scene is entirely in tune with a play whose central message is that all citizens are worthy of derision: by spoofing the conventions of the repentant prodigal, the industrious prentice and the genial merchant, the dramatists suggest to their audience that such figures do not really exist among the London citizenry.
Yet Pitman-Wallace's production took the ending at face value, and Quicksilver's repentance song was not represented comically. Underscored by rhythmic, serious music and sung with passionate earnestness by Carter, the ballad seemed intended to contrast with the bawdy ballads that were sung by the cast during the interval. Indeed, the words of Quicksilver's song were not very audible; their absurdities were obscured in favour of focusing on the beauty of the music, so as to emphasise sentiment over satire.
This sentimental ending had the effect of highlighting Touchstone as the play's true hero. Touchstone appeared to represent a golden mean: he was humble, unlike Quicksilver and the wannabe aristocrats, but his forgiving nature made him more attractive than the priggish Golding. This ending had the effect of mitigating the play's totalising attack on the citizenry. But it also, perversely, turned Eastward Ho! into one of the very plays it was originally written to satirise.
Perhaps such a reading becomes inevitable once the play has been removed from its original context. The trouble with staging Eastward Ho! in 2002 is that most audience members will be unfamiliar with the plays that it is parodying, since the unselfconsciously sentimental plays of Dekker and Heywood are staged even less frequently than the more cynical plays of Jonson and Middleton. I found myself wishing that the RSC had chosen to stage a play like The London Prodigal alongside Eastward Ho! - it would have helped the audience to appreciate better the aims of the dramatists, and might also have helped the cast and crew to refine their ideas and decide what they thought about the intentions of this funny but arcane play. The RSC's season exploring non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama is much appreciated, but while it has uncovered some little-known gems, it has also revealed that these plays require as much thought and study as Shakespeare's if their ideas are to be engaged with and communicated.
- Jonson, Ben, George Chapman, and John Marston. Eastward Ho! Ed. C.G. Petter. London: Ernest Benn, 1973.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).