Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist

Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist

Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist

Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist

Synopsis

This new guide to the English renaissance's most erudite and yet most street-wise dramatist strongly asserts the theatrical brilliance of his greatest plays in performance, then and now. It traces the sources of that phenomenon to Jonson's vision of himself as a poet in the Roman tradition, and to his commitment to the sane and progressive ideals of humanism in a city where a rampant free-market and political authoritarianism made life conflicted, dangerous, and yet darkly, hilariously absurd. In his best plays, all of these forces are crafted into formal structures glittering with wit and provocation. Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist integrates all of Jonson's major plays into the milieu of the turbulent years which produced them, and analyses the way each work examines the issues and challenges of those years: money, power, sex, crime, identity, gender, the theatre itself. It offers a lucid guide to the competing critical views of a playwright who is far more than the obverse of his friend and rival William Shakespeare, and it explains in detail how the undoubted power and energy of these plays in modern performance should be the touchstone of their quality to both critic and reader. The plays discussed include the early Comedies, the Roman Tragedies (Sejanus and Catiline), Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass. Key Features
• The book is an up-to-date introduction to all the major plays, covering the major criticism from a variety of critical perspectives
• Ben Jonson's skill as a writer of brilliantly theatrical drama is emphasised throughout
• Each play is securely and informatively placed in its literary and historical context
• There is a lively account of how the plays have worked on stage in recent productions

Excerpt

This book is concerned only with Ben Jonson’s plays, not his masques, criticism or considerable output of poetry. It makes no sustained attempt to put Jonson’s comedies and tragedies in the context of his other writing, but treats them as freestanding works in their own right, as they are experienced in the theatre. Jonson is not in any case a writer with a consistent viewpoint across his œuvre Although all of his work for the theatre is considered, there is a particular focus on what is normally regarded as the middle part of his career, between Sejanus (1603) and The Devil is an Ass (1616). These are the Jonson texts most frequently studied in further and higher education. They are also, in my opinion, the most innovative, entertaining, profound and brilliant of his plays. I would claim that the comedies, at least, have few rivals in all of English drama.

After an introduction to Ben Jonson and his intellectual and literary inheritance, the following chapters on the plays themselves all take the same format. After a discussion of relevant historical and literary contexts, I offer a commentary on each play. What is distinctive about this book on Jonson is that the principal concern of this section of each chapter is on the audience’s experience of the play in performance. Jonson’s most distinguished twentieth-century editors were denied the experience of fine production in their day. Otherwise they would never have written in 1925 that his comedies are ‘poor in laughter’, and the tragedies ‘poor in passion and in tears’ (HSS II: 127). The theatricality of Jonson’s plays is now belatedly recognised . . .

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