The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Girl Of My Best Friend

At long last, a brand new entry in my ‘Shakespearewatch’!


Yes, it’s getting pretty obscure. So obscure, in fact, that the BBC didn’t mount a production of this play as part of their late-70s/early-80s Bardathon. Why? Well, because depending on where you sit on the fence, it may or may not count as part of the Shakespeare canon. It’s easy enough to include the plays from the first Folio, as they’re all by Shakespeare, pretty much (and it’s easy to remove the odd bits that were added by other parties) but TNK is a collaboration, and hence falls into the murky area of being not-quite-Shakespeare. But the BBC produced the other John Fletcher collaboration, H8, as well as Per, the collaboration with George Wilkins which contains far less Shakespeare material than TNK, so it’s hard to discern the rationale that meant this play, along with E3 and STM, should be omitted. The play has also not been filmed by anyone else or had any stage productions released on DVD to my knowledge.

So instead I’ve had to resort to reading the text, courtesy of The Arden Shakespeare (which is lovely, except for the strange occasions where the typeface mysteriously changes and where the line-number attributions are out). I did see the play performed a couple of years ago, at the Brockley Jack, but that production omitted the whole first act, so I’m not sure that counts as having seen it properly (the irony is that the first act is the part of the play with the most Shakespeare material). So for me this was a little voyage of discovery as well as a chance to tick off an outstanding box.

The play is based on a story by Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale. I’ve never really got on with Chaucer, partly because of the language - it’s either impenetrable and presented with wacky old-style spellings and typography, or presented as a modern translation which feels inauthentic, like cheating. But it’s a childishly simple story, so you don’t need to know Chaucer to get it. In adapting the story Shakespeare and Fletcher seem to have found they didn’t have enough material for a full-length play and so they added a subplot with more songs and a dance number. This subplot, concerning the Jailer’s daughter (they don’t seem to have bothered giving her a name) barely connects to the main plot at all, and could be excised from the play without difficulty. Maybe the Brockley Jack production could have done that instead of cutting the first act, but the thing is, the subplot with the Jailer’s daughter is probably more interesting than the a-plot about the Kinsmen.

This plot can essentially be boiled down to the eternal dilemma of ‘bros before hoes’; whether one should be more loyal to one’s male best friend or to ones favourite gardening implement. I’ll describe it in basic terms as I go along. What’s interesting, I think, is that the a-plot with the Kinsmen goes out of its way to make it clear it’s set in ancient Athens, with lots of mentions of Greek gods and myths, whereas the b-plot with the Jailer’s daughter might as well be set in the present day, as it features a Morris Dance (!) and comes across as a mish-mash of ideas previously seen in other Shakespeare plays, particularly TS, MND and Ham. And yet it seems that the b-plot is largely the work of John Fletcher aping Shakespeare, while Shakespeare handled the ancient Greek stuff. I’ll also point out the attribution as I go along, bearing in mind it’s an imprecise art where no two academics agree, because it can be hard to tell the difference between Shakespeare, Shakespeare as rewritten by Fletcher, Fletcher deliberately writing in a Shakespearean manner, and Fletcher (whose style is not that far removed from Shakespeare’s anyway; certainly not as much as George Wilkins).

The one general impression I got from reading the play was that it would be an ideal play to put on at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Partly because, like DM which I saw back in February, it’s one of the few plays we definitely know was staged at (and probably written for) the Blackfriars Theatre (the basis for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). But also because the playhouse would be able to overcome many of the play’s shortcomings; the jailer’s daughter being lost in the forest could be made genuinely creepy and make her imaginary creatures seem plausible; the theatre would lend itself to the various special effects of the Act 5 temple scene; and even the off-stage tournament at the end could be made to seem climactic if presented in near-darkness as a sequence of sound effects (Emilia’s speech in Act 5 Scene 3 20-29 makes it clear the tournament is taking place at night). So I hope they do it, though they’ll probably do Tem first.

Here’s a fact for you. TNK contains the first known use of the word ‘unfriended’ (though Shakespeare had previously used ‘unfriend’ in KL).

During the course of reading the annotations I also discovered that the word to ‘cozen’ (meaning to deceive) derives from the custom of fraudsters to pose as long-lost cousins, and that ‘bonfire’ doesn’t derive from ‘bon-fire’, but from ‘bone-fire’ i.e. a funeral pyre. Quite interesting.

Anyway, here’s a quick run-through, with my thoughts as they occur.

Prologue (Fletch)

A guy comes on stage to say they hope they do justice to Chaucer and don’t cause him to spin in his grave.

Act 1

Scene 1 (Shakey)

After a quick song, three Queens come to Athens to petition King Theseus to take revenge on King Creon of Thebes, who has killed their three husbands. Theseus is due to get married to Hippolyta but decides to postpone the nuptials and declare war, after being entreated on behalf of womankind by Hippolyta and her sister Emilia.

- This scene is one of two that contains a lot of Chaucer, long, flowery descriptions of the dead kings, and goes on a bit.

 Scene 2 (Shakey)

King Creon’s two nephews, Palamon and Arcite, are keen to leave Thebes. They’re not keen on their uncle, but when a messenger rushes in warning of King Theseus’ approaching army they decide that honour dictates they must fight to defend Thebes.

- Contains long discussion about nature of honour and duty of allegiance to someone you consider a tyrant.

Scene 3 (Shakey)

Hippolyta is missing Theseus while he’s away. Pirithous, Theseus’ best mate and old army buddy, is missing him too. This prompts Emilia to remember her best friend Flavina; she remembers playing with her when they were both eleven years old, before Flavina tragically died. Emilia doesn’t think she could ever love a man as much as she loved Flavina.

- Now, this could be taken as being a bit homoerotic, a bit hot-schoolgirl-lesbian-action, except for the fact that the play makes it clear both girls were prepubescent (‘beginning to swell about the blossom’) and that their friendship was a schoolgirl crush with no physical/sexual dimension (unless you search for double entendre on the word ‘enjoy’). But nevertheless Emilia does conclude that the love between ‘maid and maid’ is, to her, more powerful than the love between a chap and a woman.

Scene 4 (Shakey rewritten by Fletch?)

The battle’s over and Theseus has won. Palamon and Arcite are brought in on ‘hearses’; they’ve both shown great bravery during the battle and now have life-threatening injuries. Having admired their derring-dos, Theseus decides they should both be nursed back to health, in prison, back home in Athens.

- Rather surprisingly, Theseus seems to have now forgotten his postponed marriage to Hippolyta.

Scene 5 (Shakey rewritten by Fletch?)

The three Queens have a bit of a sing-song about their dead husbands.

Act 2

Scene 1 (Shakey)

The jailer and his daughter discuss their prisoners, Arcite and Palamon, who seem delighted to be incarcerated in each other’s company.

- Although the daughter makes it clear she finds both of them attractive, it’s odd that this scene doesn’t set up or mention her love for Palamon specifically.

Scene 2 (Fletch)

In the prison, Arcite and Palamon have a chat about how they’re better off out of it, or at least, better off not being in Thebes and better off being in each other’s company where they can be ‘one another’s wife’. They are best buddies – until they spot Emilia in the garden. Palamon claims dibs as he saw her first. Arcite calls double dibs because he likes her more. But I love her as a goddess! But I love her as a woman! They decide, should they ever get free, to fight over Emilia to the death. Then the jailer turns up to take Arcite away. Arcite is banished from Athens. This news irks Palamon as he thinks this means Arcite will go to Thebes and raise an army to get Emilia, Troy-style.

- The whole ‘we’re best mates’ bit is so over-the-top, and goes on for so long, I detect a sense of it taking the piss slightly, that Arcite and Palamon are trying to live up to a (Chivalric?) ideal of what bros should be. Certainly this seems to be the case bearing in mind how quickly their friendship dissolves at the sight of a babe. 

Scene 3 (Fletch)

Arcite is wandering around in the woods outside Athens (yes, the same wood as MND) when he comes across a load of bumpkins preparing to perform a Morris dance for the Duke. They mention some games that are taking place in Athens, and Arcite decides to return to Athens to compete, as he’s a bit of a sporty type and bound to win.

Scene 4 (Fletch)

The jailer’s daughter wanders alone in the woods. She’s in love with Palamon, desperate to shag him (‘What pushes are we wenches driven to when fifteen once has found us!’ i.e. girls go mad once they are fifteen) and decides to release him from her father’s prison.

- It’s an odd dramatic choice that we get this bit of action covered in two soliloquies from the daughter (here and in scene 6) rather than getting to see her actually release Palamon; the result being that there isn’t a single scene in the play where Palamon and the daughter have any sort of interaction beyond her watching him through a window in Act 2 Scene 1.

 Scene 5 (Fletch)

Arcite has disguised himself as a bumpkin and competed in the games and won. Theseus meets him at the award-giving ceremony. Emilia takes a shine to Arcite. Having seen Arcite demonstrate his great horsemanship, Pirithous decides he should become Emilia’s horse-boy. Arcite kisses Emilia’s hand - looks like his plan is paying off! Then he is invited to go out hunting with the family the next day.

Scene 6 (Fletch)

The jailer’s daughter has released Palamon and left him in the woods while she went to fetch a file and some food. She isn’t sure that he loves her – he hasn’t shown her much gratitude – but she is convinced they will become lovers and run away together.

Act 3

Scene 1 (Shakey)

The next morning, Arcite becomes separated from Theseus et al while they’re out on the hunt. Alone in the woods, he talks to himself about how lucky he is to be in close contact with Emilia, little realising he is being overheard by Palamon, lurking in a bush! Palamon emerges, none too pleased about what he’s heard, and challenges him to a duel to the death. Arcite hears a hunting horn and hurries away, promising to return with food, water and cutting equipment. 

Scene 2 (Fletch)

The jailer’s daughter returns to the woods for a third scene where she does nothing but talk to herself. She finds that Palamon isn’t where she left him and assumes that he has been eaten by a wolf (as he couldn’t walk far without his chains making a noise, which would attract wolves). She also suddenly realises that her father will be blamed for Palamon’s escape and will be put to death, thanks to her. 

- Basically any actress has her work cut out with this scene, making leaps to wild conclusions seem plausible whilst also giving the first hints of a descent into madness.

Scene 3 (Fletch)

Arcite returns to Palamon with food, water and cutting equipment. Palamon challenges him to a duel to the death over Emilia. Arcite tries to change the subject to various girls they have known (in the shagging sense) but Palamon is gagging for a duel. Problem is, they don’t have any swords. Wait here, says Arcite, I’ll just go and fetch some.

- This scene implies that they have both fathered illegitimate children, which sits a little oddly with their protestations of/aspirations to honour in the rest o the play. But they may just be drunkenly boasting.

Scene 4 (Fletch)

Yet another scene with the jailer’s daughter wandering in the woods on her own talking to herself. It’s now got dark and she’s hearing and seeing things, her imagination running wild as she loses her sanity.

- Her train-of-thought nonsense and (elsewhere) uncharacteristic lewdness and I-know-a-secret-business strongly recalling Ophelia in Ham.

Scene 5 (Fletch)

A pompous Schoolmaster gathers together the bumpkins from earlier (along with their wives) to prepare their dance for King Theseus and Hippolyta. They are surprised by the arrival of the jailer’s daughter looking literally like she has been dragged through a hedge backwards and singing a sea-shanty. Theseus and Hippolyta turn up and the Schoolmaster ambushes them with a Morris dance. 

- The Schoolmaster’s speech to Theseus and Hippolyta strongly recalls Quince’s prologue to the same in MND. It’s making essentially the same jokes – a country bumpkin attempting to appear clever by delivering a poetic recital but making himself look ridiculous with his forced rhymes, alliteration, leaden adherence to a metre and getting his vocabulary and classical allusions wrong. (Where MND has ‘dainty duck’, this has ‘dainty duke’ – it’s practically a tribute!). It also reminded me of Holofernes’ show in LLL and the various examples of ‘bad’ poetry in many of the comedies. But apparently it’s all Fletcher pastiching Shakespeare rather than Shakespeare.

- There is some confusion/debate about whether the jailer’s daughter joins in with the Morris dance in some capacity, as she goes off-stage with the bumpkins but it isn’t clear whether she comes back onstage with them when they return for the dance. I think she shouldn’t.

Scene 6 (Fletch)

Meanwhile, Arcite returns to Palamon with some swords and armour. They have a chat while they help each other put their armour on, and exchange compliments on each others’ valour. They have a short fight but before either of them can do any damage they hear hunting horns and the sound of hooves. Arcite realises it’s Theseus and co. He recommends Palamon should hide but Palamon doesn’t want to. Theseus arrives and condemns them for fighting in his kingdom, which is a capital offence. Palamon tells Theseus everything; that Arcite is the exiled prisoner, that he escaped from the jail, everything. They both make it clear that they’re in love with Emilia. She begs Theseus not to have them executed merely banished, as she doesn’t want them killed for her sake. But Arcite and Palamon both say they’d rather die than be forced to live without her. Theseus then asks Emilia to choose between them but she can’t, so Theseus decides to defer the decision, and tells Arcite and Palamon to come back in three months with three knights each, when they’ll have a contest to see who gets to marry Emilia and who has to die. 

- The contest is a bizarre kind of Gladiators thing where you have to try to touch a ‘pyramid’ (i.e. an obelisk) while preventing your opponent from doing so.

- Theseus and co are continuing their hunt, having resumed it after the Morris dance.

Act 4

Scene 1 (Fletch)

The jailer is informed that he’s been pardoned by Theseus. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his daughter has gone insane. Her ‘wooer’ – another character without a proper name – reports that he saw her standing in a pond, clutching some flowers, singing to herself, Ophelia-style. And she’d have drowned Ophelia-style too, if he hadn’t dragged her out in time. The daughter is then brought on, rambling about Palamon – who she now believes, in her madness, to be alive. She’s mentally all at sea, and her father and her wooer play along, leading her away as though they’re all on a boat.

- This scene mentions Pelops, a mythic character who’d not heard before, but who seems to have been a prototype Cyberman/Frankenstein’smonster. Cool!

Scene 2 (Shakey rewritten by Fletch?)

Emilia looks at portraits of Palamon and Arcite, and just can’t decide between them. A gentleman enters to inform her that it’s now several months later and Palamon and Arcite have returned for their duel, bringing three knights each. A messenger and Pirithous then launch into three mind-numbingly tedious descriptions of three of the knights, who are terribly butch.

 - This is the second occasion where the text contains a lot of Chaucer and is consequently dull.

Scene 3 (Fletch)

The jailer has called a doctor to treat his daughter. The daughter rambles like she’s Mad Tom in KL or something. As she is still convinced Palamon lives and is in love with her, the doctor suggests that her ‘wooer’ should dress up as Palamon and spend time with her as though he is Palamon, to use ‘falsehood’ to cure the falsehood of her insanity. 

- Oddly, this whole scene is in prose despite featuring a high-status character. Maybe it was an early draft or written in a rush?

Act 5

Scene 1 (first minute or so by Fletch, rest by Shakey)

Arcite and Palamon (along with their knights) each pray to Diana in her temple in Athens. After they’re done, Emilia enters and prays too.

- A scene seemingly designed to show off the special effects of the theatre, with supernatural music, the sound of thunder and battle, doves appearing out of thin air, and a magic tree rising up through the floor.

Scene 2 (Fletch)

The doctor has dressed the jailer’s daughter’s wooer up as Palamon. She seems to have been taken in by the deception and believes him to be Palamon. The doctor tells him to keep up the pretence, even if it means sleeping with her. ‘Wahey!’ says the wooer. ‘Whoa there!’, says the jailer. The daughter – who is still in a state of delusion – is then led away by wooer so that he can shag some sense into her. Then a messenger then in to tell them that the pyramid-off between Palamon and Arcite has started.

- The dodgy sexual politics recalls TS and TGV along with the ‘bed tricks’ of MM and AW (though in those cases it was a woman tricking her husband/fiancée into sleeping with her, whereas this is more in the rape-by-any-other-name The Boat that Rocked vein. A comedy all about DJs forcing themselves onto underage girls in the 1960s. What could possibly go wrong? It also brings to mind the end of Double Falsehood where Violante remains in love with Henriquez after he has raped her (and where he falls in love with her in the process). So if (as I believe) Double Falsehood is derived from Cardenio (the third, lost, Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration) then we’re not exactly missing a masterpiece. Indeed, TNK also shares its problem of attempting to adapt a story to a play by stretching it out and adding an unrelated subplot, resulting in a play thin on incident and where the most interesting bits are the sections added by the authors.

Scene 3 (Shakey)

Rather than us getting to see the Arcite vs Palamon contest, we stay with Emilia as she listens to it from a distance (this is back in the woods, and in near darkness). She can’t bear to see two (or rather, eight) fellas fighting over her in the name of love. She hears various sound effects and eventually a messenger rushes in to tell her that Palamon has won, no, my mistake, it’s Arcite. Emilia decides this is good news, as she liked Arcite (she also liked Palamon, so it would’ve been good news either way). Theseus enters with Arcite and presents Emilia to him (‘Your prize’). Almost as an afterthought, he orders his men to have Palamon and his three knights put to death (it wasn’t a duel to the death, you see, just a game of touch-the-pyramid).

- As mentioned earlier, the decision to put the contest off-stage is odd, even anticlimactic after it’s long build-up, though I expect theatrical productions get around this problem by just sticking it on stage anyway. What’s also strange is the transition from this scene to the next, as they occur in the same location but scene 4 is approximately an hour later. Which makes me wonder whether we’re missing a scene with the jailer and his daughter in which it is established that she has been ‘cured’ (this is mentioned briefly in scene 4, but in a very perfunctory way bearing in mind how much of the play has been dedicated to the daughter). So maybe we’re missing a Fletch scene at this point? 

Scene 4 (Shakey)

Palamon is led on with his knights in preparation for their execution. The jailer pops by to inform Palamon that his (the jailer’s) daughter is cured and due to be married. Having never shown the slightest interest in the daughter before, not even having mentioned her, Palamon is pleased at this news. The executioner raises his axe and then, of course, a messenger rushes in telling him to stop. Pirithous enters with some good and bad news. The good news is that Palamon and his knights no longer have to be executed. The bad news is that this is because Arcite has just been fatally injured whilst horse-riding. Yes, all those lines about Arcite’s horsemanship were all a clever set-up! So now Emilia can marry Palamon and honour is satisfied. Arcite is brought on and tells Palamon he can have Emilia with his blessing. Palamon muses how awful it is when a babe comes between two bros and leads to one of those bros dying; ‘That we should things desire which do cost us the loss of our desire’ i.e. how bad it is that falling in love with Emilia has led to a situation where he wishes he wasn’t in love with Emilia. Theseus shrugs and says ‘that’s life’, Diana the god moves in mysterious ways, and says they’ll all cheer up once Palamon and Emilia are married.

- Pirithous’ description of Arcite’s death is rather lovely, probably the best bit of writing in the play, with the horse being startled by sparks created by its own hooves on the cobbles, and a dramatic description of Arcite struggling to regain control over the animal before it falls on top of him.

Epilogue (Fletch)

One of the cast comes on stage to apologise about the ending.

- Genuinely, I think this is what happens, as he addresses the audience with ‘No man smile? Then it goes hard, I see.’ He then begs the audience to be nice, bearing in mind their previous good work, or the company will go out of business and not be able to put on better plays in future.

So there you go. Not a great play, but its shortcomings are due to its source material not having enough incident to sustain a play, and due to odd decisions in the adaption (i.e. favouring some dull bits and putting the exciting bits off-stage). It all feels a bit drawn-out, except for the end, which is abrupt. The most interesting stuff in it is the stuff regarding the jailer’s daughter, who is by far the most interesting character in the play, but it seems we have Fletcher to thank for that, not Chaucer or Shakespeare (although, as I’ve mentioned, she is basically a dumbed-down copy of Ophelia, like Falstaff in MW is a dumbed-down version of the Falstaff of 1H4.)

And there we are. I’ve done all of Shakespeare. At last. Hooray.

What’s that? More? I hear you crying out for more?

Oh, all right. I’ll do Sir Thomas More too.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh. The ArkAngel of Kinsmen is pretty good and I've heard people use it as a substitute when they're working through the BBC, and will have to do since it seems to be only commercial recording of it. Here's the cast:

    Michael Maloney - Proteus
    Damian Lewis - Valentine (!)
    Lucy Robinson - Julia
    Saskia Wickham - Silva
    John Woodvine - Launce
    Nicholas Murchie - Speed

    And a clip:

    Lewis is a stalwart of the ArkAngels. He's Laertes in Hamlet and Alcibiades in Timon as well as other minor roles.

    Unfortunately even they ignored Sir Thomas More which isn't available anywhere (legal), not even a release of the BBC version with Sir Ian McKellan from the 70s. At least Vivat Rex has a chunk of Edward III in it.