A Witty Combat (staging)

by T.P. (Thomas Porter) (premiere 1663? pub.1663)

If this curious dramatic sketch is by Thomas Porter he did well partially to disguise his name for it shows every sign of being a hastily written piece. The provenance and performance date are problematic. The London Stage notes a copy with a manuscript cast list indicating Duke’s Company actors, but a later authority, Pierre Danchin, gives the place of production (if any) as “private”.[1] Irrespective of the quality of the play, there are some interesting stage directions not the least of which is the only one I know of with first-person content: “Mr. King and his Wife go off and bring Young Carleton and his mother in, the sence of his gross error did transport me”.[2] Ernest Bernbaum has suggested that the play was co-authored by Mary Moders, the real life subject of the play, in which case the second clause of the direction may be an authorial note that crept into the printer’s copy.[3] On April 15, 1664, Pepys reports going to see a play on the same subject, and indeed acted by Moders herself, called The German Princess. Genest had “no doubt” this was the same play as The Witty Combat, but Milhous and Hume are dismissive.[4] This mystery aside, the play has only one explicit scenic direction: “The Scaene of a Cellar is discovered, wherein sits the Cellarman, by him a little Table, with a lighted Candle, and several sorts of Pots about it”.[5] No other settings are stated, though the play makes several uses of the ‘enter as from X’ format familiar from the pre-Civil War stage. The scenes are numbered and the action skips among various locations. A minimal scenic staging that sought to differentiate these locations would need five different settings, namely: a tavern, King’s house (used for different rooms in that house), Carleton’s house, a street, and a cellar (relieve). However, no individual act requires more than three settings and the stated discovery scene is easily accommodated in the model’s relieve space.

The 1.2 dialogue initially seems to place the entering characters, the Parson and Moders, outside the tavern used for 1.1 (scene divisions mine). The Parson has suggested a “Glass of Malligo” and he then seems to notice the tavern, “look ye yonder,/ there is a door open to Comers surely”.[6] No subsequent exit or re-entrance is marked but the pair apparently enter and hail the landlord. This brief episode may exemplify the use of the forestage as a scenically neutral area unrelated to the background. There is the possibility of other two such uses, in 5.4 and 5.9. In the former, a group of clerks act as a crude choric device, they have no connection with the plot, and their brief appearance is fictionally and theatrically unlocated. In 5.9 two Gentlemen perform a similar plot function. In this case there is a stage direction marking their entrance that provides locational information, albeit couched in pre-Restoration usage: “Enter two Gentlemen as from the Sessions house”.[7] If scenery is intended here, the “as from” direction makes a street setting a logical choice. This would also work well for 5.4, but one must doubt whether this play was conceived with scenic production in mind. There are rare instances in other plays where the forestage may have been used as a transitory, utopic bridge (see staging analyses for Elvira, Mustapha and Juliana). In these cases, however, the point that should be stressed is that spatial anomaly solves a specific staging problem, and lasts only for a few lines. The possible use in Witty Combat is less convincing. If, as I suspect, the play was not written with scenic production in mind, the single scenic stage direction would have been added as an afterthought.

Returning to the tavern scene, Moders and the Parson enter without an accompanying stage direction, the Parson asks for a private room, and surprisingly a stage direction is supplied to the effect that the pair “Exeunt./ And enter again at the other end of the Stage, where there is a Table and Stooles set forth”.[8] This direction and the subsequent dialogue may imply that the scene shifts to the relieve area: “A very pretty close convenient Roome this is assuredly”.[9]This would be a logical supposition, but the need for free access for four actors and the setting props and more importantly the length of the scene inclines me to suggest that it be positioned on the opposite side to the previous tavern scene, possibly further upstage in the scenic area, but downstage of the shutters. It is unlikely in this period that a whole scene would take place in the relieve area. The only other LIF play where this is possibly indicated is another where there are strong doubts about the LIF provenance of the text, namely The Marriage Night (LIF 1667?).


[1] (i) See Restoration Promptbooks William Van Lennep (et al, eds.), The London Stage 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces, five parts, Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1960-68, Part 1, p.55; (ii) Pierre Danchin, The prologues and epilogues of the Restoration 1660-1700, Nancy: Publications Université de Nancy, 1981-88, Part 1, vol.1, p.133.
[2]London: Thomas Roberts, 1663, sig.E3v.
[3] Bernbaum, The Mary Carleton Narratives 1663-1673, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1914, p.26. Bernbaum’s theory is supported by Mary Jo Kietzman in ‘Defoe Masters the Serial Subject’, English Literary History, 1999, vol.66, no.3, pp.677-705.
[4] Rev. John Genest, Some Account of The English Stage, From The Restoration In 1660 To 1830 (10 vols.), vol.1, Bath: H. E. Carrington, 1832, p.51. Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, ‘Attribution Problems in English Drama, 1660-1700’, Harvard Library Bulletin 31 (1983), 38.
[5] Op cit sig.D3r.
[6] Ibid. sig.B3v.
[7] Ibid. sig.F2v.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
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3 thoughts on “A Witty Combat (staging)

  1. Pingback: A Witty Combat (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

  2. Pingback: The Marriage Night (staging) | Restoration Theatre

  3. Pingback: Tarugo’s Wiles (staging) | Restoration Theatre

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