Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Meaning of History

I recently wrote about the plethora of history plays that we've been blessed with on some of our most respected stages, and since then I've read handfuls of articles on the topic, but this one got me thinking about our upcoming production here at Bad Quarto: The Life and Death of Jack Straw: A Notable Rebel. If we accept that history is more about the present than it is about the past, and the telling of history tells us more about who we are than who we were, what can the story of the rebel Jack Straw tell us now?

First a little bit of history: Jack Straw is based on the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which was inspired by so many causes that "general uncertainty about the future" is probably the best reason. After suffering the black death, overburdened with taxes due to the Hundred Years' War, and facing the prospect of governance by a weak king (Richard II was only 14 at the time), rebel leader Wat Tyler, inspired by the fiery, what we would call "progressive," political rhetoric of the minister John Ball, led a rebellion that very nearly toppled the throne.

The Death of Wat Tyler at the hands of Walworth, Mayor of London, with
the young Richard II looking on. Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175,
dated c. 1385-1400. 

What I find most interesting about Jack Straw is that Straw can, at best, be described as one of the leaders of the rebellion, which is also known as "Wat Tyler's Rebellion." Straw might not even have existed, but he is the focus of this play, first printed in 1593, which was also a time of uncertainty for England. Despite the successes of the English against the Spanish Armada in 1588, bad harvests, plague, and famine followed, and lacking any marriage prospects and approaching 60, Queen Elizabeth I would die childless, leaving the future of the kingdom precarious. There are more than a few parallels between the late 1580s/early 1590s and 1381, and the anonymous author of Jack Straw seems to be speaking those uncertainties, and most specifically the fears of the groundlings, who he seems to target by placing a lesser figure in the rebellion front and center in the play.

The Life and Death of Jack Straw 1593 title page

When Pollack-Pelzner says (in the New Yorker article above)

Commoners must fight for space on Shakespeare’s stage—and it’s not obvious whether the drunkards and prostitutes who populate the tavern where Prince Hal escapes the burdens of court, for instance, serve as rehearsals for responsive sovereignty, critics of royal ideology, or comic baggage to be shed on the way to the throne. It’s hard to know how sympathetically to view Jack Cade’s populist rebellion against the crown in “Henry VI, Part Two”; or the soldier who complains, of Henry V, “When our throats are cut he may be ransomed and we ne’er the wiser”; or the ferocious warrior women, Joan la Pucelle and Margaret of Anjou, who haunt the first tetralogy. Did Shakespeare prop up the royal system that gave him patronage or expose the crown’s hollow core?

He clearly didn't have Jack Straw in mind, and as he argues that Shakespeare's histories are "wedded" to the "great man" theory of history, Jack Straw smiles back at him. And us. Whoever wrote Jack Straw was able to tap into their present fears and anxieties while scaffolding a message that out and out rebellion leads to ruin (no spoilers here: it's right on the title page). With supporters of Donald Trump burning down the Republican Party as we know it, and with a number of Bernie Sanders supporters on the left threatening to do the same thing to the Democrats, I can't help feeling that this is a message we could all stand to hear.