a dramatic analysis of a production performed May 27, 1986
by Brian Kunde
Note: This analysis is based on notes taken during the performance, written up May 27-28, 1986 as a paper for a class at Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, Santa Clara County, California. The text has been slightly revised for this web version.
I. General Information. "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" is a play written in 1607 by Francis Beaumont, an English playwright during the reign of James I, and a younger contemporary of William Shakespeare. The play is a comedy, and much of its humor is farcical. The production I saw was at the Mayer Theater, University of Santa Clara, from about 8:00-10:30 P.M. on May 27, 1986. It is described in the program as being an "adaptation by William R. James," who also directed. As far as I could ascertain, the adaptation consisted primarily of replacing topical references in the text that a modern audience might find obscure with more familiar ones -- mostly from Shakespeare (thus remaining "in period"). The other main production personnel were Gary Daines (scene design), Barbara Murray (costume design), Albert L. Gibson (lighting design), Henry Mollicone (original songs and incidental music), and Sheldon Ossosky (choreography).
II. Plot Summary. A grocer and his family and servants go to see a play. The playbill announces the show as "The London Merchant," a hackneyed domestic romantic comedy. Certain it will cast aspersions on his profession, the grocer angrily castigates the "Prologue" (narrator), forces his way onto the stage, and (with the backing of popular opinion) establishes himself and his wife as censors of the performance. They constantly interfere with the play, forcing the Players to incorporate a new character; a knight who will uphold the honor of the grocery business and "do valiant deeds." This is the "Knight of the Burning Pestle" of the title. The grocer's apprentice Rafe, who is good at making "pretty speeches," is recruited to portray the knight. The Players attempt to continue acting their original plot, but are continually forced to bring on Rafe, in his new character, whenever the grocer and his wife are bored or offended by the action. Rafe's presence compels the Players to improvise more and more in order to keep their story moving, to the point where his adventures become a rather disjoined subplot, almost a separate "play within a play." If this isn't enough, the grocer and his wife also stop the action frequently to vent their prejudices, comment on characters, or insist on changes. The crisis of the play occurs when their interference at last gets completely out of hand, which happens at roughly the same time as the two subplots reach their climax.
III. The Major Characters and the Credibility of Their Actions and Motivations.
IV. "Theme" Characters and Most Appealing Characters. As might be inferred from the foregoing, the theme of the play appears to be to show up the more ludicrous aspects of the conventional tastes (and the convention drama) of Beaumont's time. Judging from the audience's (and my own) reactions to it, it serves these purposes equally well in our own time. At different points in the play I found myself in sympathy with both "sides." The Grocer and his Wife exemplify the conventional tastes, while the outraged Prologue is the main spokesman for "preserving the sanctity of the drama." Neither, however, are the most sympathetic of the characters. In common with most of the others, they have some appealing characteristics, but they also show a certain callousness and self- importance in connection with their areas of expertise or interest. My feeling is that the characters who most nearly overcome this defect are the relative innocents, Humfrey and Rafe. Humfrey, the "villainous" suitor, appealed because he was everyone's victim, both in his dramatic role and in "reality" -- in which the Grocer and his Wife, by misplaced esteem for him as the "lawful" suitor, completely undermine his role's credibility. Rafe, the apprentice thrust into the role of star actor and exemplar of heroic ideals, appealed both by his sincere efforts to live up his role and his comparative lack of egotism, his enthusiasm generally making up for his failure to "carry it off."
V. Techniques of Plot Structure and Dramatic Devices Used. The play's plot, or rather its two plots, are fairly simple in structure, but are made to seem more involved by the complicating factor of disruption. The Grocer and his Wife's interference disrupts the smooth flow of the Players' hackneyed romantic plot, while the episodic quest storyline improvised for the "Knight" keeps getting sidetracked by complicating stratagems introduced by the Players in order to sabotage it so that they can return to the "proper" story. Sometimes the two plots seem to run on entirely separate courses, and at other times they interact and affect each other's progress. However, they remain essentially two stories, and are resolved by separate conclusions.
VI. Design Elements and their Effectiveness. The most notable design element was the scenery. One set was used for the entire play, consisting of a stage painted with pink, grey, and violet checks, a framework of metal ladders and railings supporting a wooden platform (which formed an additional acting area), and striped hangings of pink, orange, and yellow cloth to form walls and backdrops. An easel to the left of the stage held placards indicating scene locations (placed there by the Prologue). The primary scenes were inside and outside the homes of the Merchant and Merrithought, a forest, and an inn. The scenery served well for each purpose. The platform could be used for upper stories of the homes, inside and out, and the stage the lower story, street, or innyard. Forest scenes were indicated by bringing in two plywood trees and changing the lighting. Under "forest" lighting the stage's checked squares turned orange, green, and brown, and the stripes of the hangings suggested a series of tree trunks.
VII. Other Factors Enhancing the Theatrical Experience. The Grocer's party effectively maintained the illusion that they were part of the audience by a number of devices. They entered as the audience did, took seats with it, and for the most part (excepting those who went on stage to supervise and interfere) remained with it. They continued to divided their activities between the stage and seating area, throwing objects at the Players, making disparaging remarks, and so forth. They also signaled intermission and the end of the play by their actions (the convention of dimming the lights was not used, except to indicate night scenes on stage). For intermission, the grocer and his wife announced their intention of going out for a beer (which they did), and at the end of the play they made a few additional comments on it and got up to leave naturally, as members of the audience would.
VIII. The Message. If there is any life lesson or universal truth to be drawn from this play, it is that we all have faults and customary ways of looking at things which are perhaps not very indicative of reality, nor nearly as important as we think they are. In other words, the playwright is indicating that we shouldn't take ourselves overly seriously, by poking gentle fun at our foibles and those of his own profession.
Beaumont's "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
1st web edition posted