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Po-Mo with Heart: reflecting on The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Will Tosh reflects on Francis Beaumont’s innovative comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which opens for previews at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on 20 February.

Self-consciousness about dramatic form is as old as drama itself. In the fifth century BC, Greek satirist Aristophanes routinely broke theatrical illusion to address his audience as a disgruntled poet. Shakespeare was intrigued by the presence of performance within his plays: in The Taming of the Shrew, a prefatory Induction sets up the whole ensuing comedy as an interlude staged for the benefit of the baffled drunk, Christopher Sly. Other dramatists invest their characters with a fleeting self-awareness about their theatrical identity. In The Duchess of Malfi, most of the major characters come to realise that their torments are so lavishly awful as to be stage-worthy. When the Duchess is shown the ‘bodies’ of Antonio and her children, she cries out that ‘I do account this world a tedious theatre, / For I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will’. Having killed Antonio in a confused gloomy lunge, Bosola is appalled that he has attacked ‘the man I would have saved ’bove my own life’ – ‘such a mistake,’ he acknowledges, ‘as I have often seen in a play.’

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The Globe is a freaking gift to humanity

I just came back from seeing Knight of the Burning Pestle, and if you get the chance please go, it’s a gift for your senses, and so fucking beautiful. Wonderful cast, all big names and Globe regulars. Matthew Needham, whom I had seen in Titus Andronicus played Rafe beautifully, and I didn’t remember I had seen him in Sherlock! Got the chance to tell him how much I loved his performance, and he was a delight. Dean Nolan plays a small but enormous part, and he’s got some moves! Arngeir Hauksson was once again superb on dancing and playing instruments and just being plain hilarious. 

Pauline McLynn and Phil Daniels were utterly amazing, what I was expecting and then some more. 

And to top everything, Rowan Atkinson was seated right behind me! 

Star Wars is a Medieval Romance

Back in grad school I took a class about medieval romances, and I discovered that the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy qualifies as one. But you know what else does? Star Wars, of course!

Medieval romances have held on through popular culture through their invention. In the traditional literary sense, “romance” is a genre that stands between comedy and tragedy. If you can picture a narrative in the shape of a line, tragedy starts off fairly level and then plunges to the depths of “oh shit everybody is going to die.” Comedy takes a dip before the end but rises up, ending with a happy reunion. The line of a romance, however, plummets - rather like tragedy - but, avoiding the worst fate, reaches a state of okay-ness where everybody is happy to be alive but has a lot of unpleasant memories and a less-than-stellar state of things at the resolution. At the end of a romance, you can’t be entirely happy because of everything that’s gone on.

It’s not just the narrative line, though; they have a set of features that populate the scene, including “lovers divided by hair-raising adventures,” “lost families reunited,” “magical elements,” and “hidden or mistaken identities.” 

Medieval romances were quite popular among women. My teacher said that this popularity was not because women are inherently drawn to love stories, but  because female characters were important in these narratives - at least, in a relative-to-the-times sense. You can’t actually have a true, major romance going on in your story without a woman sharing the spotlight. 

You’ll not be surprised to learn that medieval romances were sneered at by Real Writers. They weren’t doing things the Proper Way, for one thing. They were kinda ridiculous, or at least having a lot of fun. And, well, women liked them. They were pretty low-brow, all things considered. And for that reason, they have always been pretty darn popular. They still are today, though we don’t know them by this name.

Read on to discover 14 Elements I Can Remember from Medieval Romances and How Star Wars (Original Trilogy, since the Prequels are closer to a tragedy) Applies.

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