Post by Dr Lucy Munro
In 1616, a leading dramatist and poet died and was roundly mourned by all of his contemporaries. I have in mind here not Shakespeare, but Francis Beaumont, who died on 6 March 1616 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
‘Francis who?’, you may ask. This question would have confused Jacobean theatre fans, for whom Beaumont was one of the most important dramatists of the day, well known for his collaboration with John Fletcher on plays such as Philaster, The Maid’s Tragedy and A King and No King. Until the eighteenth century, Beaumont and Fletcher were regularly ranked with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson as the leading poets of their day, but they suffered during the nineteenth century, with its desire for aesthetic and moral decorum – their plays are generically ambiguous, indecorously funny and extremely rude – and their reputations have never quite recovered.
Here at King’s, we decided to redress the balance, and to make sure that Beaumont had a least a brief moment in the sun during his anniversary year: Beaumont400. In the week that marked his death we joined forces with the Guildhall Library and Edward’s Boys to celebrate his works from scholarly and theatrical perspectives. Professor Suzanne Gossett, a leading figure in the study of Jacobean drama and a recent editor of Philaster for Arden Early Modern Drama, flew in from Chicago to deliver a keynote talk on ‘Bold Brash Beaumont’ at the Guildhall Library, who also put on a display of their Beaumont-related holdings, including a rare first edition of his play The Knight of the Burning Pestle. We heard papers on Beaumont’s beginnings and endings from Dr Eoin Price and Professor Lois Potter; on Beaumont’s interactions with Jacobean London from Dr Tracey Hill, Dr Sarah Dustagheer and Dr Jacqueline Watson; on early readers of Beaumont’s plays from Dr Simon Smith; and on the queerness of female revenge and childhood in Beaumont’s plays from Dr Katherine Graham and Dr Lucy Munro. And we were also absolutely thrilled that Adele Thomas, who directed a fabulous production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2014, was able to join us by video-link to talk Beaumont.
The conference finished with a rare treat: a chance to see Beaumont’s first play, The Woman Hater, performed by Edward’s Boys in the sumptuous neo-Byzantine chapel at King’s. Based at King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon – the school attended by that other dramatist who died in 1616 – Edward’s Boys present plays originally performed by all-boy playing companies with all-boy casts. The Woman Hater is a highly offensive and outrageously funny comedy featuring a misogynist, an imagined plot against a ruler – performed only a few months after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot – and a man who is infatuated with a fish. Yes, a fish. Director Perry Mills set the play in the 1950s, to a soundtrack fuelled by Dean Martin, and Beaumont’s slick, often filthy dialogue was given both brains and heart by a range of powerful performances.
The March conference was the centerpiece in our attempt to redress the Shakespeare400 balance, but it is not the Beaumont400 event this year. On 28 April, Dr Lucy Munro will give a talk at the Guildhall Library on ‘Beaumont’s London’, and Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe are celebrating the full range of 1616 anniversaries in a season called ‘1616: A Momentous Year’. Their events include staged readings of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady (23 October), and The Coxcomb (13 November), in addition to Fletcher’s Love’s Pilgrimage (12 June) and The Chances (21 August). And on 9 June Professor Gordon McMullan will deliver the annual Sam Wanamaker Fellowship Lecture on ‘Remembering and Forgetting Shakespeare (and Cervantes and Jonson and Beaumont). Or, What 1616 (and 1916) Did for Us’.
Beaumont400 is indeed a momentous year.