Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Performance Introduction
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • General editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Performance Introduction

    A Strange Stratagem

    The play始s attitude towards magic was a source of concern for several of the SQM actors. Alon Nashman saw Friar Bacon as a powerful prestigitator comparable to Shakespeare始s Prospero, as the publicity for the conference suggested, but others felt the play was just one long extended joke. As Matusiak suggests, the play invites such contradictory responses and they presented a serious challenge to the company, especially to Jason Gray who played Friar Bacon, the “jolly friar” who is also a necromancer and a “wonder of the world” (TLN 212). Following the SQM research process and inspired by McMillin and MacLean始s conception of Queen始s Men dramaturgy [LINK], I encouraged the company to focus on playing their parts rather than worrying about their relation to the whole, and on finding ways to perform the scenes for local affect, embracing the idea that the play may be designed to provide variety rather presenting a unified political or aesthetic perspective. Our treatment of the magic illustrates how this approach played out in practice and created the production始s interpretation of magic in the play.

    From a technical point of view, the magic comes in two kinds: magic that can be achieved by the mimetic skills of the actors alone, and magic that calls for special effects – elaborate props and pyrotechnics. Bacon始s prospective glass is an example of the former. The prince looks at the prop used to represent the friar始s “glass”, we chose a mirror, and the characters he sees appear on the stage beside him. As long as he continues to look at the glass, the audience accept the illusion that they are seeing on stage what he is seeing through the “glass” which their imaginations infuse with magic. The affect is simple and quite charming, relying on a fundamental principle of Elizabethan staging; namely, that the audience can imagine the bare stage to be multiple locations. Another example of magic that relies on simple mimesis occurs earlier in scene 5, when the prince and his friends first meet Friar Bacon and he casts a spell on their swords. Here you can see how the company style arising out of the SQM rehearsal process exaggerated the comical affect of the magic. The text reads:

    Edward Gog's wounds! Warren, kill him.
    [Bacon charms them by magic, so that they are powerless to draw their swords.]
    Warren Why, Ned, I think the devil be in my sheath. I cannot get out my dagger.
    Ermsby Nor I mine. 'Swounds, Ned, I think I am bewitched.
    Miles A company of scabs. The proudest of you all draw your weapon, if he can.--
    [To the audience] See how boldly I speak now my master is by.

    The editor始s stage direction identifies the point where the magical effect begins and the form of stage magic is mimetic rather than technical: to represent it the actors need only mime the action of trying to pull out weapons that are stuck in their sheaths. The original Queen始s Men featured many comic actors and knowing this the SQM company creative process involved a strong emphasis on clowning and physical comedy [LINK]. By this point of the SQM process, the company were skilled at quickly developing comic business and were accustomed to the creative agency granted to them and, improvising in rehearsal, they exaggerated their characters始 physical struggle to remove their weapons. Enjoying this opportunity for physical comedy, they developed it further: Rafe dropped to his knees to help Warren pull out his sword in an action that simulated oral sex. The result can be seen in this video clip:


    The focus on clowning in the SQM productions and the creative freedom given to the actors thus resulted in a broadly comic representation of Bacon始s magic. There is textual justification for these performance choices in the play since weapons are regularly used as a euphemism for penises and Bacon is referred to as the “jolly” friar. However, it is not the only way the magic could have been performed. Warren and Ermsby始s two lines, taken at face value, could be used to represent fear, horror, or wonder at what was happening to them. Miles's sudden courage now he was safe from their weapons seems comic, as revealed in his aside, but the prince始s anger and subsequent violence could have been performed in a more chilling and less slapstick mode, building tension until the mighty and wondrous friar chose to reveal himself. In the SQM production, the comedy continued unabated until the friar spoke and Jason Gray (Friar Bacon) was charged, as he so often was, with the task of changing the mood from broad comedy to something more stately. Such sudden shifts in tone were a common affect in the SQM productions brought about by a commitment to playing the serious and the comic side by side and often simultaneously [LINK], but the broad comedy of much of Bacon始s magic made it harder for Gray to reconcile the jolliness of this street magic with the notion that he was a powerful necromancer and “wonder of the world.”

    While there are always other approaches that could be taken the company始s physical clowning of the magic in scene 5 has plenty of support in the text and is in line with the playful side of the friar始s magic that we had already witnessed in scene 2 when he summons the hostess of the tavern to embarrass the pompous Burden. The comic treatment of the magic became more difficult to process, however, in the climactic brazen head scene (TLN ). Greene invested a great deal of rhetorical power in foreshadowing the power of this “head of brass” that will “yield forth strange and uncouth aphorisms” (TLN 346-347), and yet, at the climactic moment he gives the stage to the company始s principal clown in the part of Miles who is charged with guarding the head while Bacon sleeps. The verbal humor of jokes in the text are obscure and the quarto includes only minimal stage directions to guide the performer, thus requiring careful analysis to deduce the physical comedy it implies. Miles expresses his concern that he might “chance to slumber” (TLN 1611), he tells us he is “well-furnished with weapons” (TLN 1609), and refers specifically to his “brown bill” (TLN 1613-4) or halberd, he sets a “prick against [his] breast” (TLN 1622) presumably the point of his halberd, and then tells himself to “rest” (TLN 1623) Presumably at this point the character falls asleep only to be woken by the prick of his halberd set against his breast since in his very next line he cries out: “Lord have mercy upon me, I have almost killed myself!” (TLN 1625). From this evidence, we deduced that the basic lazziof the scene was of a clown, armed and charged to watch through the night, but who kept falling asleep. The SQM principal clown and master actor Alon Nashman played Miles and was given free rein to develop comic business for this scene. Watching him work on this scene was one of the highlights of the SQM production process for me. He knew Miles fell asleep twice, the first time he exclaims that he has almost “broke [his] pate” (TLN 1613) and the second time he nearly kills himself with his own halberd. Nashman therefore set about to develop comical ways to fall asleep while guarding the brazen head. He first used the frame of the entrance to the stage to lean against as he fell asleep, and the curtains of the stage became a blanket. The second time he lent instead against his halberd and as he fell asleep he dreamed the halberd was his lover, embracing and kissing it, and adding the line: “bouncing Bess ... jolly buttocks”– a reference to Famous Victoriesin which Bess was the object of Nashman始s character始s desire in that play. Aside from this invented reference across the SQM repertoire, Nashman was meticulous in building his physical comedy on evidence in the text. He turned that evidence into the following virtuoso piece of clown comedy:


    While the brilliance of his clowning technique is undeniable and its foundation in textual evidence sound, its impact on the audience始s consumption of the play as a whole is worthy of reflection. Nashman turned the 24 lines of the text into 8 minutes of stage action. Friar Bacon始s reaction to the failure of his magic, written in an elevated, stately rhetoric, in comparison lasted only 2 minutes. Jason Gray did his best to shift the tone once again and engage with the serious consequences of his failure but it was an uphill battle following the clown始s comic exigencies. Greene deliberately chose to set broad comedy beside tragedy at this point in the play but did the SQM staging shift the balance too far towards the comic mode? Should this performance be read as the consequence of letting clowns “speak more than is set down” for them, as Hamlet famously complains (TLN ??)? Each viewer will have a differing opinion on these questions, but the consequence of the freedom given to Nashman here and the SQM company始s general encouragement of clowning and physical comedy was undeniably a performance in which magic of the play was not something to be feared or taken too seriously.

    In spite of our best efforts, the lighthearted perspective created on Bacon始s magical powers continued with our performance of the second kind of stage magic, that requiring special effects. In preparation for the production, we attempted to live up to the spectacle promised by the extended stage directions for the destruction of the brazen head, “Here the head speaks and a lightning flasheth forth, and a hand appears that breaketh down the head with a hammer” (TLN 1635-6), and the magical appearance of the tree of Hesperides: “Here Bungay conjures and the tree appears with the dragon shooting fire” (TLN 1197). Stage directions are so rarely explicit in early modern texts that when they give such detail it can be assumed to represent action that happened during the original productions, or at least action the playwright imagined could happen. The stage directions are calling for the representation of spectacular magic and the SQM production invested design time and money to create special effects that could impress the audience and generate a sense of wonder. Unfortunately, in both instances, the impact on the audience fell short of our ambitions. The brazen head was unfortunately constructed only half as big as intended due to a misreading of design drawings by our prop-maker, but did feature a large mouth in which we could place flash paper to represent the lightning. The tree of Hesperides was a beautifully crafted set piece that also featured flash paper to make the dragon breathe fire and branches that could be broken by the spirit in the shape of Hercules. In both cases, however, the mechanics of the magic undermined the power of the effect in performance. Without access to a trap door, Bungay始s conjuring resulted in a devil running on with the tree and placing it stage center. The actor playing the devil set off the flash paper using a hidden switch but the pyrotechnic effect was fleeting and usually resulted in surprised laughter rather than awe. The “hand” that “appears” to strike the brazen head was represented by the arm of an actor reaching through the curtains and striking the head, while releasing a peg backstage which made the head swing down on a pivot. The action and the flash paper in the head始s mouth was sadly equally unimpressive. Perhaps here it was more the imagined image of the hand appearing that came to my mind when reading the text that lead to my sense of disappointment. In place of the gigantic, god-like hand of my imagination the mortal hand of the actor was mundane and bathetic, but perhaps comedy was always Greene始s intention? I still feel, however, that our modern capabilities with pyrotechnics, or at least the confines of our budget and modern safety requirements, limited our ability to capture to the sense of wonder Greene始s stage directions appear to be calling for. It is possible Greene wanted the affect to be comical and impressive simultaneously and with a more spectacular pyrotechnic this double affect would have been achievable. Evidence suggests that Elizabethan theatre was fully capable of mastering special effects of this kind (see Butterworth). This failure further shifted the production始s interpretation of the magic in the play towards the comic. Even the play始s most impressive moments of “necromancy” were funny in our performances.

    The comical interpretation of magic in the SQM productions gave little support to Jason Gray始s commitment to honor the more serious side of his character. Gray and others in the company felt the play could be performed as an epic fable, played in a more serious mode, depicting a proud scholar who practices evil art to gain power only to confront the error of his ways and recant his magic at the end. Jason was constantly looking for ways to construct his character始s arc in this way but the inconsistency in the tone of his scenes proved challenging for him. Early in the play, when he is deeply invested in his magic, he is not prideful, wicked, or dangerous, he is playful, fun, and the celebrated champion of English academia. The tone of his rhetoric shifts when he speaks of the necromantic powers he has employed to protect the kingdom but this tone will quickly shift back again and in the SQM production all the magic on stage was comical, whether intended to be so or not. Friar Bacon is both a proto-tragic hero and a comical trickster. The SQM production undermined the gravitas of his more serious moments and as with all of the repertory productions demonstrated that what might be a binary opposition between the serious and the comic for us, may not have been for the play始s original audience. Perhaps Friar Bacon should be partly understood in relation to the traditions of the morality play with Bacon as its lead Vice character - the primary agent of evil and the principal source of comedy. The SQM production, at least, invited the audience to enjoy the mischief created by Bacon始s magic even while it demonstrated the protestant moral lesson that magic should be rejected in the end. In the playfulness of the repertory productions, the two contrasting interpretations were not mutually exclusive but the intellectual impact of “holding opposing points of view in tension” [LINK TO CritIntro] may have been diluted.