I have always found Ben Jonson’s humour strikingly modern. Where a lot of other early modern comedies prove entertaining, elaborate, or surprising, Jonson’s are often actually funny. Ushering in the modern age, with its swelling urban population and glut of commodities, perhaps the worlds of Jonson’s work are close enough to our own still to seem fresh. Or maybe he is just a good joke-writer.
Reading the 1626 The Staple of Newes has only increased my fondness for Jonson’s brand of comedy, and it provides another example of the early moderns beating us to something we usually think of as ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’, instances of which I am sure I will never tire of (I especially like reclaiming the ‘black page’ from the eighteenth-century, as is brilliantly done in this post by d i a p s a l m a t a). The Staple of Newes is a city comedy that satirises the very idea of ‘news’ and the selling of news through broadsheets, gazettes, or curantes – themselves all rather ‘new’ phenomena. Running through the play, though, is a familiar Jonsonian trope taken to an extreme level; many of Jonson’s prefaces or epilogues give short shift to quarrelsome critics or unamused audiences, but Staple actually stages disapproval of the play, introducing an ‘intermean’ after every act in which allegorical characters dissect its content.
A few days before reading The Staple of Newes, I watched a DVD of Stewart Lee’s 2012 comedy tour, Carpet Remnant World. Perhaps surprisingly, there are similarities. Of course, it is difficult to compare with any seriousness Lee’s layered irony with Jonson’s 17th-century wit, but the intermean in The Staple of Newes offers a small but amusing point of comparison.
Lee’s Carpet Remnant World is structured by his repeated addresses to the audience, which he splits into two: those who are fans of his comedy and have seen him before – sitting in the centre, before the stage – and those who have been dragged along by their friends – sitting up in the Gods. Every joke is analysed, re-told, and explained for the benefit of the latter, these supposedly unamused and baffled guests. He compares his comedic style, in Carpet Remnant World, to his father’s occupation. His dad, he tells us, spent fifty years ‘driving around the motorways showing people samples of cardboard…not real cardboard obviously…samples of what cardboard could be like’. Similarly, Lee has spent twenty-five years travelling the motorways ‘showing people samples of jokes…’. If this doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Lee’s comedy, he emphasises it by expanding on the ellipsis:
‘…not…see how impossible it is to work this room? You can’t, because down here, I don’t even need to finish that joke off, they’ve thought ‘Oh yeah, samples of jokes…that’ll be the same as…samples of cardboard…samples of what jokes could be like. But up there, they’re just thinking, ‘Why is he talking about cardboard…It’s actually not doable…down here, this is like a vision of what it could be like’.
Besides the fact that it’s just brilliant (and this description is hardly doing it justice), and often very funny, Lee’s meta-comedy prompts you to laugh about the idea of laughing (or not laughing) and depends upon the irony that underpins the entire structure of the show, as well as every single joke: of course, these confused spectators don’t actually exist (or at least aren’t watching his show), and the show isn’t esoteric at all – it’s hitting you right in the face as it disproves the notion that a joke isn’t funny after you’ve explained it. Lee’s made a career from doing exactly that.
Jonson’s detractors, however, certainly did exist, and he spent much ink dismissing them. His contempt for audiences seemed to rest upon the fact that, for Jonson, plays were to be heard, and too many early modern spectators were uninterested, unable to understand, or, indeed, were prevented from appreciating the true genius of the work through the shoddy acting of the company of players themselves. The New Inne, a comedy first printed in 1631, complains that the play’s first audience ‘neuer made piece of their prospect the right way’. In a typically rancorous preface, Jonson wonders
What did they come for, then? thou wilt aske me. I will as punctually answer: To see, and to be seene. To make a generall muster of themselues in their clothes of credit: and possesse the Stage, against the Play. To dislike all, but marke nothing. (*2r)
Frankly admitting the failure of a play might seem a strange way to sell a new quarto, but Jonson, evidently rather upset by the critical failure of The New Inne in the theatre, trusts to the ‘rustick candor’ of the reader, who he hopes will appreciate his book.
The Staple of Newes already anticipates such audience dissatisfaction. In fact, it pervades the play. The printed text itself constantly encourages the reader to think of the Staple as a performance, scrutinised after each act by four ‘Gossips’ (also a term for Godparent): Mirth, Tattle, Expectation, and Censure. The Gossips speak even before the Prologue is uttered, muttering to each other a casual introduction to the play that is closer to the conversations spectators may well have been having in the theatre audience than it is to any muse of fire. Mirth reminds us that ‘the play is The Staple of News…let’s ha’ your opinion on it…’ (Induction 2-3). She then demands that Prologue find stools for them to sit on, before foreshadowing Jonson’s quarrel with the audience in the preface to The Newe Inne: ‘We are persons of quality, I assure you, and women of fashion, and come to see and be seen’ (ll.8-9).
The following intermeans serve, like Stewart Lee’s running address to the theatre, to deconstruct the play’s comedy through misinterpretation. The Gossips complain about the characters and even criticise the moral voice of the play, Pennyboy Canter; Tattle complains, ‘I cannot abide that nasty fellow, the beggar. If he had been a court-beggar in good clothes, a beggar in velvet, as they say, I could have endur’d him’ (Intermean I, 10-12). Such self-conscious irony is of course nothing new to the early modern theatre, but the extent to which Staple is structured upon it is quite surprising. Setting us up for the fact that the beggar is in fact the wealthy father of the play’s hero, the prodigal Pennyboy Junior, Jonson’s comedy structure typifies this self-referential aspect of early modern drama. The tropes, types, and plots of what Jonson might call ‘mouldy’ tales are all discussed, mocking the tastes of contemporary audiences. Tattle ‘would fain see the fool…the fool is the finest man i’the company, they say, and has all the wit…’. Yet, as Mirth informs her, ‘they ha’ no fool i’this play’ (ll20-26). Indeed, the gossips quarrel over the reputation of the playwright himself, remembering a performance of Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass and more favourably recalling the drunken smith in the popular anonymous play The Merry Devil of Edmonton: ‘Would we had such another part and such a man in this play. I fear ’twill be an excellent dull thing’ (ll.78-9).
The second Intermean extends the call for a Vice character. The enlightened Mirth, though, tells her fellow gossips:
That was the old way, gossip, when Iniquity came in like Hokos Pokos in a juggler’s jerkin, with false skirts, like the knave of clubs! But now they are attir’d like men and women o’the time, the Vices, male and female! Prodigality, like a young heir, and his mistress Money (whose favors he scatters like counters), prank’d up like a prime lady, the Infanta of the Mines’ (Intermean II, 14-20).
Simultaneously defending and belittling his own play, Jonson’s intermeans provide a curious form of comedy. Complaining that the play gets ‘duller and duller’, the audience is of course in on the joke – a joke at their own expense. Gossip Censure even anticipates scandal, or the Censor, by making explicit Jonson’s joke about the name of Staple of News‘s ‘prime lady’, Aurelia Clara Pecunia. Mirth suggests that she might be associated with the Spanish Infanta, Isabella Clara Eugenia:
Censure: Ay, therein they abuse an honorable princess, it is thought.
Mirth: By whom is it so thought? Or where lies the abuse?
Censure: Plain in the styling her Infanta and giving her three names
Mirth: Take heed it lie not in the vice of your interpretation. What have Aurelia, Clara, Pecunia to do with any person? Do they any more but express the property of money, which is the daughter of earth and drawn out of the mines?
(Intermean II, 23-30)
Again, Mirth rescues Jonson’s play from gossip, but perhaps the joke is that Censure could well be quite right. Perhaps in contrast to his usual complaints about the audience, the grumbling gossips indicate Jonson’s acceptance of censure, his mock resignation, like Lee’s, that ‘it’s actually not doable’, working these audiences. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the fact that although Staple ridicules misinterpretation, it is dependent upon it. The self-conscious intermeans allow the audience to laugh about laughing (or not laughing) and indeed The Staple of Newes stitches criticism into the very fabric of comedy; it offers us samples of what a comedy could be like, of what an audience could (not) be laughing at.