John Milton’s "Comus" at the Wanamaker Playhouse

The temporary reign of Emma Rice as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe has been sustained by a lively production in the indoor Wanamaker Theatre of John Milton’s masque, Comus, which validates the work’s unexpectedly long professional performance history (shown by the program notes of Jan Piggott). Despite charges against Rice of repudiating one of the Globe’s historical missions of recreating original performance styles, this production, directed by Lucy Bailey, was visually authentic: costumes were Caroline, and the performance made use of characteristic devices from the Inigo Jones/Ben Jonson masque tradition from which Milton’s script directly derived.

The production’s one hour and forty-five minutes (without interval) was enlarged by a new Jonsonian Prologue in comic/satirical vein, in which the historical performers are shown struggling through a final dress-rehearsal, which informs the modern audience of relevant facts about the original occasion: celebration by his family of the Earl of Bridgewater’s inauguration as Lord Lieutenant of Wales. His children are identified as performers, with professional assistance from the musician Henry Lawes. We also learn some awkward facts, such as the recent execution of a close family member for sexual abuse, and the severe social discrimination against mere professionals like Lawes, and even more against the country boy improbably cast as Comus (normally a highly professional actor’s charge). The ultimate pivot to modern views in the Prologue arises when the daughter assigned the Lady’s role balks stridently at her place in this patriarchal society, only becoming reluctantly reconciled to the performance by her father’s authority.

Thereupon the script opens with a brilliant coup de théâtre worthy of Inigo Jones: literally the descent though the theatre’s ceiling of the Attendant Spirit, who delivered his opening speech hovering without obvious support some fifteen feet above the stage. This oration was the most brilliantly delivered of the whole program: with masterly control of the verse and amusing tone of academic condescension to the blatant ignorance of the modern audience to the nuances of classical mythology. Thereafter the plot proceeded normally, but the entry of Comus failed to present him or his crew with anything like the jaded sophistication associated with this classical deity. As a result the powerful, plausible, even convincing arguments raised by Comus against the Lady’s puritanism remained mere fraud rather than the anticipations of Satan’s magnetism, lacking the distinction that ensured the renaming of the masque after its commanding villain. His crew was merely gross, and the seduction of the Lady progressed to a level of physical crudeness totally inconceivable in the original performance, though quite normal in current productions.

Similarly the more elevated debates between the naïve brothers and the Attendant Spirit were treated with veiled irony, turning to camp, with asides inviting audience superiority to the script’s values – an effect that was very well received. The use of music was apt and sustained but lacked full recognition of the delicacy of Lawes’ settings. There was a brief Epilogue in which the Bridgewater children were subjected to an oral exam about what they had learned, a perhaps rather too heavy Jonsonian touch, leading to the Lady’s final oration against patriarchal values.

Overall the production sustained audience interest by its energy, firm control of language, frequent humor, and apt setting. The only substantial criticism was voiced by the Dr. J. A.F. Spence, Master of Dulwich College (location of the Henslowe papers, key to Renaissance theatre practices) who observed to me, that after all the energy and commitment of the production, it was a pity that it did not fully trust communication of the author’s original point of view as sufficient. But of the audience’s acceptance and enjoyment of the event there could be no doubt, a considerable achievement for a genre long considered inaccessible to modern taste.

Hugh Macrae Richmond

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