The Humorists (staging)

By Thomas Shadwell (December 1670; pub.1671)

Shadwell’s first version of this play was withdrawn before it reached the stage or printer. However, it was preserved in a manuscript that was published in 1975 edited by Richard Perkin. It seems that Shadwell had intended to continue the vein of personal satire exploited in The Sullen Lovers but his intended targets forced him to abandon the plan (Perkin suggests they included the King’s mistress, Lady Castlemaine.[1])  In his preface to the printed version Shadwell mounts a spirited defence of his “mangled, persecuted Play” in which he affects surprise that the Town should be so malicious as to “believe that every thing I write, is too nearly reflecting upon persons”.

As far as this website is concerned the existence of two different versions of any play is potentially of great interest. In this case, although the differences relating to physical staging are not revelatory, the stage directions in the MS are often more detailed and help to clarify the stage action. For example in 4.4 the fools Crazy and Drybob scale a garden wall, but only the MS notes when each man leaps down.

As usual, Shadwell supplies little scenic information in either text. Three locations are stated explicitly – a tavern, a garden, and a cellar – of which the last is probably not a scenic setting. However, the other three locations in the play are clear enough. Action in two of these is preceded by stage directions that seem to follow the pre-Civil War pattern in providing locational clues by means of costume or properties: “Enter Crazy in a Night-Gown and Cap”, and “Enter Crazy with a Ladder”[2]. From the respective contexts it is clear that the action takes place in Crazy’s house in the former, and on the street outside Lady Loveyouth’s in the latter.

A minimal scenic production could make do with one chamber setting – to represent the lodgings of Crazy and Lady Loveyouth – a street, a tavern, and most likely a relieve for the garden. In this solution only one wing scene replacement is required: the tavern wings being replaced with garden wings immediately after the tavern scene, 4.1. Providing specific shutters for Crazy’s lodgings in Act 1, while not necessary for plot clarity, would be a simpler matter, they could be replaced easily during any of the first three act breaks.

The most problematic section of the play occurs in Act 4. From 4.2 the action is centred on Lady Loveyouth’s house and quickly moves from the street just outside – balcony and door much involved – through various parts of the house, including a cellar, to the garden and a garden wall. The interesting thing to note, however, is that all these micro changes of location, as it were, are preceded by stage directions that call for a cleared stage. Shadwell specifies a garden and a cellar, but otherwise the cleared stage and subsequent dialogue clarify the situation for an audience if not always for a reader – a cleared stage will always register with an audience, but a reader may not notice the associated direction(s).

Although a cellar is specified a scenic change is unnecessary. It could be supplied by replacing the street shutters after 4.2, but there is no great advantage to be gained by the effort. The cellar scene (4.6) is specified when Crazy and Drybob seek refuge from the pursuing household servants. This is a fictional dark scene and the comedy arises from watching the two dupes stumble about on the relatively bright forestage trying to escape from the locked cellar. The servants then appear in a balcony with lights (another instance of an internal balcony) and discover the dupes. Later when things have calmed down the pair are summoned for judgement. As the various exits and entrances in these Act 4 scenes follow a logical pattern in their use of fictional door assignations, there should be no need to distinguish the cellar scenically.

Only two forestage doors are required for Loveyouth’s house in Act 4. One fictionally leads to the garden, its opposite to the cellar. Entrances and exits from/to elsewhere in the house should be made through wing passageways. Once this pattern is established, the stage action becomes perfectly explicable. Internal changes of location within Lady Loveyouth’s house are marked either by a cleared stage or by clear locational clues in the dialogue, for example “Come Madam, while your Aunt is seeing the fire quench’d on the back-side, let us escape at the fore-door”[3]. The garden is distinguished scenically, but the various parts of Lady Loveyouth’s house are represented by a single setting, a principle familiar from The Adventures Of Five Hours.

No spatial anomaly is implied for the cellar scene. Unlike in Elvira, where I believe the forestage and the scenery must represent briefly different parts of the same house simultaneously, the action in the cellar scene is played against a general chamber setting, which stands for the house. As far as an audience is concerned, the forestage simply becomes the cellar during 4.6. The staging of this scene is easily managed using the LIF model.

As in Act 5 of The Adventures of Five Hours, the duo enter from the wings, grope about, discover the locked door and exit through another wing passageway. The text provides several hints that such a staging is not only possible, but also expected. Theatrically the audience sees two forestage doors; fictionally there is only one, the one through which they originally entered and which has subsequently been locked. However, directions for a cleared stage precede and follow this scene allowing all fictional door assignations to be reset. Feasibly, therefore, Crazy and Drybob could enter from either forestage door without breaking the established stage logic.

A more elegant solution, however, would be for the pair to enter from one of the wing passageways. This way attention need not be drawn either to a fictionally invisible door, or to a door that they are later to declare to be locked. As if in confirmation of this solution, Shadwell has the pair exit the scene with Crazy proposing “We’ll see if we can get out at the Window”[4]. This is a fictional rather than a theatrical exit and is not evidence for a low-level window in the scenery. (Indeed, the only LIF play where such a facility is indicated is in Tuke’s Adventures.)  The speculative window is located fictionally in a supposed part of the cellar that the audience cannot see. Shadwell is using Crazy’s suggestion as a fictional means of getting his actors physically offstage without using either forestage door. That Crazy and Drybob are still trapped as far as the plot is concerned becomes clear a few lines later when Loveyouth’s servants bring the pair onstage (fictionally hauled up from the cellar) for judgement. That such an interpretation springs so organically from the text and the stage action lends weight to the LIF model proposed in these pages.

A two-door forestage with a wing and shutter chamber setting caters for the bustling sequence of entrances and exits in the major part of Act 4. The fictional door assignations in this act are different from other acts where Loveyouth’s chamber appears and where a more central part of the house is implied. However, this is one of the great advantages of Restoration dramaturgy and one should not be surprised when such an advantage is exploited by Restoration dramatists.

The last stage action to be accounted for is the use of the garden wall. It would be possible, if clumsy and counter-intuitive, to stage the play using a balcony as a wall. However, as there is no reason why the garden scene should not be a relieve setting, a practical wall could easily be set in the relieve area just behind the shutter line. The stage directions lend themselves to this interpretation. Both men are instructed to enter frontally, “looking over the Wall”; they then immediately scale the wall and leap down: “Now for my leap of honour” declares Drybob. As no other relieve scene is required in the play a practical wall could be pre-set upstage of the shutter line before the play began. This solution presents no staging difficulties and offers several theatrical advantages.

[1] Shadwell’s The Humorists, Dublin: Laurel House Press, 1975, pp.2-4.
[2] London: Herringman, 1671, p.1, 47.
[3] Ibid. p.59.
[4] Ibid. p.58.


One thought on “The Humorists (staging)

  1. Pingback: The Humorists (scenery) | Restoration Theatre

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s