In a 1972 edition of the journal Gambit, dedicated to the topic Ben
Jonson and the Modern Stage, Irving Wardle observed:
Jonson is neglected: but the odd thing is that while very little
of his work reaches the stage, no dramatist of the past exerts a greater
or more continuous influence on the modern repertory. Ö One can speak of
Jonsonian actors and writers, as one cannot speak of any Shakespearean equivalents.
As Brian Woolland notes, recent years have seen well-received revivals not
only of Jonsonís "middle period" comedies (Volpone, The Alchemist
and Bartholomew Fair) but also of lesser-known plays such as Every
Man Out of His Humour, The Devil is an Ass, and Eastward Ho. Jonsonís
influence remains, however, disproportionate to the frequency with which his
plays are revived. Woolland uses Wardleís statement as a starting point for
Jonsonians, a collection of essays which both explores Jonsonís influence
on later writers and simultaneously challenges our preconceptions about what
constitutes the Jonsonian by focusing attention on some of the dramatistís
more neglected plays. In his introduction, Woolland welcomes the renewed theatrical
interest in Jonson but complains that criticism continues to refuse to relinquish
its tendency to approach Jonsonís plays as literature. Jonsonians therefore
focuses exclusively on Jonsonís plays as theatre, following the pattern of
an earlier book edited by Woolland with Richard Cave and Elizabeth Schafer:
Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory (1999). (2)
As Woolland acknowledges, this relatively narrow focus inevitably entails
sacrifices: the poet Thom Gunn, for instance, could be profitably considered
a Jonsonian if the term was extended to encompass Jonsonís non-dramatic works.
Sacrificing the poetry also narrows our conception of the Jonsonian in other
ways, privileging the Jonson of the commercial theatre over the Jonson of
"The Forest" and the "Epigrams" or the Jonson of the masques.
It is also perhaps a shame that Woolland does not make use of Wardleís assertion
that one can speak of "Jonsonian actors" as well as Jonsonian writers.
Nathan Field, who appeared in a number of Jonsonís plays as an actor, qualifies
for this designation in the seventeenth century. Might Harry H. Corbett, who
played Sir Politic Would-Be in Joan Littlewoodís Theatre Workshop production
of Volpone but is best-known for his role as the younger Steptoe in
the TV comedy Steptoe and Son, qualify in the twentieth century?
The question of how one defines the "Jonsonian" is in itself potentially
problematic. Is it a question of direct influence? Of intertexual relationships?
Of connections in terms of theme, characterisation and ideology? The answer,
it seems, is all of the above: Woolland argues that "if present day theatre
practitioners are seen as Jonsonian, the term should be seen as implying a
plurality of inter-related practices, rather than as constraining and definitional"
(2). Such flexibility is welcome, but it is not without its problems, problems
that are particularly apparent in those essays dealing with Jonsonís twentieth-century
Jonsonians is divided into three sections. The first part aims to
extend and problematise critical assumptions about Jonsonís plays and canon
by examining relatively neglected plays such as the early comedy The Poetaster,
the experimental tragedy Sejanus and the late comedies The New Inn
and The Magnetic Lady. The second looks at Jonsonís direct influence
on seventeenth and early eighteenth-century dramatists: Nathan Field, Richard
Brome, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Polwhele, "Ariadne", Susanna Centlivre,
Margaret Cavendish and Mary Pix. The third section skips over the remainder
of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and examines Jonsonian playwrights
of the twentieth century: John Arden, Joe Orton, Peter Barnes, Caryl Churchill
and Alan Ayckbourn. It concludes with Woollandís consideration of "Jonsonian
cinema" as exemplified by Preston Sturgess, Spike Lee and David Mamet.
The most successful of the essays of the first two sections include Woollandís
discussion of the potential of Sejanus in performance (timely in the
light of Greg Doranís upcoming production for the RSC); Julie Sandersí analysis
of Jonsonís Caroline dramaturgy and, in particular, his use of theatrical
space; and Alison Findlayís survey of the "Epicoene effect" in Restoration
drama by women. Elsewhere, Richard A. Cave valuably explores the way in which
The Poetasterís Roman setting makes use of a cultural tradition shared
between dramatist and audience. In another essay, his treatment of Nathan
Fieldís plays is marred by the occasional factual inaccuracy, but his discussions
of A Woman is a Weathercock and Amends for Ladies are among
the most illuminating critical accounts of these unjustly neglected plays
yet published. In the remaining essays, Carolyn D. Williams explores Behnís
"negotiations" with Jonson, and Peter Barnes memorably describes
Jonsonís language in the theatre: "On stage his seemingly heavy, clotted
verse and prose unfolds like beautiful Japanese paper flowers in water"
The third section also contains much that is illuminating, particularly
Woollandís discussion of analogous theatrical techniques in the plays of Jonson
and Barnes, and of their similarly ambivalent treatment of jokes and laughter.
Cave profitably compares the cruelty of Ayckbournís drama with that of Jonsonís
own plays, suggesting that the two dramatistsí handling of comedy and farce
betrays a "moral anger" that deepens their playsí critiques of contemporary
culture. Morality and comedy are also central to John Bullís discussion of
Orton, and to Stephen Laceyís account of Ardenís plays. Several essays draw
on the idea of the carnivalesque developed by Bakhtin and refined in recent
criticism of Jonson; the most detailed of these is Claudia Maneraís analysis
of Churchillís plays Serious Money, A Mouthful of Birds, and The
In general, however, the third section is the least successful. The "broad"
definition of "the Jonsonian", which profitably informs those essays
dealing either with Jonson or with those writers directly influenced by him,
elsewhere becomes so vague as to lose its meaning. It is true, as Woolland
suggests, that differing interpretations of the term "Jonsonian",
which aim to create "a productive dialectic rather than a fudged consensus"
(6), are one of the collectionís strengths. However, it is not always easy
to see why qualities such as (for example) moral anger, use of farce or the
concern to balance popular entertainment with debate about public issues should
be Jonsonian rather than (for instance) Shavian or Wildean. A more focused
model of Jonsonian influence or intertexuality seems to be required; in its
absence, connections drawn by the authors of the essays can seem merely coincidental.
Caveats aside, Jonsonians is a suitably capacious and thought-provoking
introduction to the sons and daughters of Ben, and a welcome reappraisal of
some neglected areas of Jonsonís own dramatic production.