The tradition of broad comedy has persisted in England for more than a thousand years. The talking ass in an early mystery play, Balaam, Balak and the Prophets, is as familiar as Aladdin or Mother Goose:
Thou wottest well, master, pardy, Thou haddest never ass like to me, Ne never yet thus served I thee; Now I am not to blame.
He is the direct if distant ancestor both of the “Blondin Donkey,” with two acrobats concealed inside the skin, and of the pantomime horse; he is the progenitor of all the other talking animals in popular dramas as celebrated as Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog and Puss in Boots. Noah’s Wife and her “gossips” in Noah are siblings of “the Ugly Sisters” in Cinderella. Herod anticipates all the pantomime villains of the twentieth-century stage. Even by the beginning of the sixteenth century he had become the epitome of bombast; he was the buffoon and the braggart, who wore the most extravagant wig and the most extraordinary costume. In one direction he leads to such monstrous tyrants as Tamburlaine and Richard III, in another to such absurd braggarts as Malvolio in Twelfth Night and the bombastic Captain Bobadil in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour. He is the comic origin of farce and terror.
When Joseph turns to the audience for sympathy, on learning of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, he is the very image of the risible spouse:
Ya! Ya! All olde men to me take tent And weddyth no wyf in no kynnys wyse
He might have been Dan Leno, who, four hundred years later, turns in an intimate aside to the audience. “When she told me the doctor had ordered her to go away for a week, I said ‘Go away for two years.’ ”
There are local references in the “York” and “Chester” cycles, encouraging a sense of community among players and spectators, which are replicated in nineteenth-century comic routines:
Many streets are lighted, and they say that they all shall But I haven’t seen it yet in Walsall
The mechanical serpents of the eighteenth-century theatre “covered all over with gold and green scales”1 are descended from a long line of medieval, and indeed Anglo-Saxon, dragons. The fact that men played the women’s parts for almost five centuries lends a certain antique respectability to the role of the contemporary “Dame.” The tradition of the “good” character making an entrance from the right, and the “bad” from the left, has similarly ancient roots.
When the braggart in the Tudor interlude Thersites addresses the audience with “Aback, geue me roome, in my way do ye not stand” he is anticipating the words of a performer in a modern pantomime, “Get back, get back, don’t crowd the stage.”
Throughout mystery plays, and early comedies, and music-hall, and pantomime, there is the same levelling humour; “low” comedy, of its nature, does not change significantly over the generations. There is the same passion for sudden violence, particularly when directed at infants or figures of authority, and the same mockery of women; there is the same contempt for foreigners, and the same excremental or sexual humour noticeable in the very earliest English dramas. In the nineteenth century salacious performances were known as “bringing out the blue bag.” “Blue” jokes were also the staple of Carry On . . . films, which represent the apotheosis of broad English humour so different from (and perhaps inferior to) Irish wit and French irony.
This may also account for the English affection for the Fool in stage drama. The Fool emerges out of the medieval Vice, wearing a long coat and tall hat, who engaged in insolent or obscene conversation with the audience. He also retained a tincture of the stage devil, with his crooked or “bottle” nose. He is the creature who in one of the mystery plays, The Temptation of Christ, declares to Jesus that “I bequeath thee shitte”; he is the same character, under the name of Sedition, who in John Bale’s King John threatens: “I wyl beshyte yow all yf ye sett me not downe softe.” So he is already touched by the English love for farce and excremental humour in all of its forms.
His origins in England, however, are mysterious. A thirteenth-century psalter has the picture of a Fool sporting a bladder, but the character may have been part of folk-drama or folk-ritual for many years before that. The post of resident fool, in royal court or rich man’s hall, dates from the twelfth century; Henry VIII had a fool, Will Somers, who was partly copied in the dramatic performances of Will Kempe and Richard Tarlton. Characteristically the Fool was dressed in “motley,” a multi-coloured tunic, with ass-head, bells and fool-stick. In early representations, however, he is depicted as only half-clad and munching upon a white disc like a Host; there are other images which represent him as half-human and half-beast. There may be very powerful forces at work here.
There is an account, from the middle of the sixteenth century, of a Fool whose “studye is to coine bitter jeastes . . . or to sing bawdie sonnets and ballads.” Another publication, Robin Good fellow: his Mad pranks and Merry jests, outlines a similar Fool whose refrain of “Ho! Ho! Ho!” bears a striking resemblance to that of the giant in nineteenth-century pantomimes and folk-tales. It is interesting that the historian of foolery, Enid Welsford, has determined that Robin himself was a “very English” 2 figure; thus he turns sentiment into sexual insinuation, feeling into farce, and combativeness into grotesque violence. It is characteristic of the Fool, too, that he employs a wholly native cast of speech, using homely phrases and colloquialisms in order to puncture more sophisticated or ornate diction. “Your body ys full of Englysch Laten,” one observes, “I am aferde yt wyll brest.” It is another example of how “low” comedy was easily translated to the English stage. The demand was, then, that “I would have the fool in every act.”
Then the Fool became the clown in pantomime, complete with red-hot poker and string of sausages. The first true clown, Joe Grimaldi, was known as the “Garrick of Clowns” and “Hogarth in Action,” thus testifying to his essential Englishness in a period when “British clowns enjoyed the highest reputation” throughout Europe.3 All the tenderness and violence, the mystery and pathos, of daily life were incarnated in their antics and grimaces. In that sense English “low” comedy has not really changed its nature. As one contemporary theatrical historian has put it, “Most of the stories that continue to this day to hold the stage as pantomime subjects were first performed between the years 1781 and 1832.”4 Clowning can be observed, too, in the art of Charles Chaplin. “I used to watch the clowns in the pantomime breathlessly,” he wrote. “I used to try it all over when I got home. . . . What has happened is that pantomime, through motion picture developments, has taken the lead in the world’s entertainment.” 5 And what could be more English than the exquisite combination of farce and pathos which the “little tramp” exemplified? The abiding presence of the clown can be glimpsed, too, in the comedy and melancholy of Dan Leno, described by Max Beerbohm as “that poor little battered personage, so put upon, with his squeaking voice, and his sweeping gestures, bent but not broken, faint but pursuing, incarnate of the will to live in a world not at all worth living in.” So we return to the Fool himself, who represents “some quality inherent in the English nature” and thus “acquired an essentially English character.”6
In the middle of the tenth century the monks of Winchester produced a manual of instruction, entitled Regularis Concordia. In an embellishment of the Mass at Easter three monks or oblates, dressed as women in order to impersonate the three Marys, arrive at the empty tomb. Another monkish player then questions, “Quem quaeritis in sepulcro, o Christicolae?” (“Whom are you seeking in the tomb, dwellers in Christ?”) The cross-dressing of the Marys would not have been very extensive, and may only have consisted in changing one ecclesiastical garment for another, but it is suggestive nonetheless. It is a matter of speculation whether rituals such as the “Quem quaeritis” sequence carry the seed from which the mysteries and miracles sprang, but the connection cannot be altogether discounted. From southern England, c. 1150, comes an Anglo-Norman drama entitled the Play of Adam; it was performed “devant le puple” and in “asez large place” to hold more than forty actors. The author has added stage directions to the effect that “Not only Adam but all the actors shall be instructed to control their speech and to make their actions appropriate to the matter they speak of.”7 After the eating of the apple, for example, Adam and Eve bend their bodies forward as a token of their sorrow. The devils supply the “low” humour. In the Play of Adam they run about “ per populum”—through the audience—and through the acting area; they dance and gesture throughout the action with a “freedom to improvise and be intimate with the audience” 8 in a manner instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the routines of pantomime or music-hall. Satan himself indulges in comic dialogues with Adam in Anglo-Norman vernacular—“Guste del fruit!” —while the stock figure of “the Jew” is used for comic relief in a scene involving the prophecies of Isaiah. Here then are the primal images of English comedy, outlined in an open area by the west end of the church.
The oldest extant secular play in English is an altogether more libidinous affair, concerning an old bawd with her dog, a clerk, and a young girl of easy virtue. The presence of the dog, who performs tricks, testifies to the early use of a characteristically English stage device. The wicked dame herself would of course be performed by a man en travesti. Dame Sirith seems to have been composed at the end of the thirteenth century, although there must already have been a tradition of comic performance executed by the mimi or histriones who were being criticised by King Edgar as early as 969. Some of these were nomadic clowns or buffoons; others were mimes or minstrels. But the attacks upon them, both sacred and secular, suggest that they were partly associated with those impersonations of the devil who engaged with the audience. The abundance of “penis jokes” in Anglo-Saxon riddles complete with double entendres, and the preoccupation with farting and excrement in later medieval drama, may suggest the nature of their humour. It has continued ever since.
The broad humour of the medieval theatre lies in direct descent from the Anglo-Saxon originals, therefore, and religious plays were filled with “low” comedy. Clerics condemned these dramatic interventions as the work of “fols” who appeared in “visers” or masks to entertain the populace; they were not honouring God, and their true master was the devil. One Tretise of MiraclisPleyinge condemned those who treated divine matters “in pley and bourde,” with additional “ribaudry”; it is a clear indication that broad or obscene material was smuggled within the text and context of sacred drama. The verse dramas commonly called “moralities,” only five of which survive, testify to an advanced and relatively sophisticated theatrical culture in which performers and audience react knowingly to one another.
Make rom, sers, for we haue be longe! We wyll cum gyf yow a Crystemas songe
The fact that the song itself is obscene is an indication of the low comic or pantomimic humour involved in this direct address to the audience; the variety and multiplicity of English drama have always encouraged such excursions and extemporisations. It became one of the salient characteristics of the Elizabethan clown, for example, that he engaged in obscene or witty “back-chat” with the groundlings. In the morality play Mankind, there are jovial references to “pisse” and “ars”; one performer dresses up in a bear-skin before being baited by his companions.
In the great cycles of the “mystery plays,” played upon pageant wagons or in the open streets, there are farce and obscenity of every kind. From the entrance of Garcio at the beginning of The Killing of Abel ,
All hayll, all hayll, both blithe and glad, For here com I, a mery lad!
we are in the world of pantomime. He goes on to inform the spectators that anyone still chattering “must blaw my black hoill bore,” he must blow my black hollow arse. Some of the first words spoken by Cain to Abel are “Com kis myne ars!” When God speaks to Cain “from above,” Cain’s answer is “Whi, who is that Hob-over-the-wall? . . . God is out of hys wit.” This potent combination of obscenity and blasphemy is not unique to medieval English drama, but it flourished in what might be called the native conditions.
The drama of Noah’s Wife, for example, was never so well developed as in England where the comic convention of the shrewish wife has lasted for many generations. In the version of the play prepared by the “Wakefield Master,” Mrs. Noah is lewd and combative. On Noah’s approach she demands, “Where has thou thus long be?” and engages in battle with him in a series of blows with the war-cry “Thou shal thre for two,” I shall give you three hits for two of yours; they engage in a number of fights, in the manner of Punch and Judy, to great comic effect. In another version of the Noah story, played by the water-drawers of Dee, the wife sits down among the “good gossopes” for a drinking session even as the waters of the Flood approach.
NOAH: Welcome, wife, into this boate.
WIFE: And have thou that for thy mote!
So she punches him. Any admirer of English comedy will recognise these scenes as still fresh and still familiar. Even in the mummings or “momeries” there appear men “compleynyng on hir wyves, with the boystous aunswere of hir wyves.” The prevalence and popularity of the subject, however, are not easy to define. Has it to do with some general fear of sexual feeling among the English, incident upon “the beistlie lust, the furious appetite”? As the Wife of Bath puts it:
For trusteth wel, it is an impossible That any clerk wol speke good of wyves
In the mystery plays Eve is scorned for having first tasted the apple, and of course Noah’s Wife is the second mother of mankind. The misogyny latent within the English imagination may derive from buried biblical sources.
Mrs. Noah was of course played by a man, as were the other “good gossopes,” and so we must look to the pageant wagons of the medieval period for the first spectacular manifestations of English “drag.” Combining a fear of the feminine with a latent homo-eroticism, it has been a staple of native humour ever since. The medieval stage convention, particularly of a man dressed as an old or ugly woman, was effortlessly extended into the Elizabethan theatre where Juliet’s nurse and Mistress Quickly became comic heroines. The tradition of boy acting is sufficiently well known, although it might be added that French and Italian drama introduced female actresses with more speed and efficiency than the English. Old habits die hard. When French women appeared on the stage of Blackfriars in 1629 their performance was described by the puritan Prynne as “an impudent, shameful, unwomanish, graceless, if not more than whorish attempt.”
Transvestism in England was not confined to the stage. During the Feast of Fools the Lord of Misrule chose “twenty or sixty of an hundred lustiguts to serve him” who were dressed in female clothes “borrowed for the moste part of their pretie Mopsies.” The male “mummers” and “hobnobs” of succeeding centuries have also characteristically appeared as women, thus emphasising the levelling or anarchic humour present in folk-drama of every kind.
It was present, too, in the manifestations of populist violence in England. There is a pamphlet of 1649 describing “divers men in women’s apparell” who attacked a group of Diggers in Surrey. One historian has commented that cross-dressing was used “to enforce popular morality, or at least to make it known, to signify it.”9 This may be seen as an inheritance from dramatic or festive transvestism. In Wiltshire bands of peasants protested against the enclosure of common land by dressing as women and calling themselves “Lady Skimmington”; it was a way of breaking class barriers as well as sexual boundaries and testifies, perhaps inadvertently, to the English love of mixing or mingling different forms. Two male weavers in female disguise, calling themselves “General Ludd’s Wives,” led a crowd in the destruction of looms and factories in Stockport; the riots against turnpike tolls and other taxes were led by men in “drag” and became known as the “Rebecca riots.” Foreign observers noted with some alarm the presence of transvestite clubs or public-houses in London. There were transvestite balls and dances; there were also celebrated transvestites, like the Chevalier d’Eon, who preferred to remain in England rather than risk prosecution overseas. The penalty for transvestism in France was public burning, while the presence of various clubs and pubs in England indicates a less censorious attitude. This accommodating response must in large part be derived from the continuing dramatic tradition, in which male cross-dressing was associated with fun and badinage. It may be recalled here that in Shakespeare’s only “English” comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor—a play almost entirely devoted to sexual innuendo and double entendre—Falstaff is dressed up as “the fat woman of Brentford.”
The first Ophelia was played by Nathaniel Field; Lady Macbeth was impersonated by Alexander Cooke; Robert Goffe took the roles of both Cleopatra and Juliet. Even though female actresses were first admitted upon the stage after the Restoration, female impersonators still appeared with them. In 1661 Pepys watched Kynaston in the title role of Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman with “the loveliest legs that ever I saw in my life.” It is part of the English appetite for theatricality and heterogeneity. These female impersonators soon ceased to be credible actors, however; like Tate Wilkinson or James “Nursery” Nokes, they became comic figures instead. A plump and ill-favoured Charles Bannister played Polly in The Beggar’s Opera. In a pantomime of 1702 “my counterfeit Male Lady is delivered of her two Puppets, Harlequin and Scaramouche.” Harlequin himself, in later manifestations, was often dressed as a woman in order that he might deceive the Clown. The celebrated Grimaldi played “Queen Roundabellyana” in Harlequin and the Red Dwarf, Dame Cicely Suet in Harlequin Whittington and the Baroness in Harlequin and Cinderella. He was perhaps the original “drag” performer.
The “Dame” part did not properly emerge until the middle of the nineteenth century, however; she arrived on stage with an actress as “Principal Boy,” a feat of double cross-dressing which is unique to the English theatre. The fact that the Dame has stayed and stayed, still bobbing up in the Christmas pantomime season, is evidence enough for the continuing English fascination with this truly native type. Jefferini played one of the Ugly Sisters at Sadler’s Wells in 1841; George Robey was the “Queen of Hearts,” Malcolm Scott “the Woman Who Knows,” and the celebrated Dan Leno first appeared as Mother Goose on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on Boxing Day 1902. Dan Leno played many women—the spinster, the milkmaid, the put-upon servant—and the supposition that “low comedy” represents the voice of the people is embodied in his small, frail form. One commentator has suggested that Leno’s “insight into the manners and customs of the working class was acute, and his acquaintance with their vocabulary extensive and peculiar”;10 in turn, the audience of the music-hall boxes loved and celebrated Leno as one of themselves. Here we may return to the Dames of the medieval mysteries or the transvestite mummers, in their own way signifying the life of their communities. This may seem a long way from the “drag” acts in local public-houses, or from those television entertainers who intermittently dress as women for comic emphasis, but the same strong English preoccupation is nonetheless present. It is one of those manifestations of the English imagination which elicit wonder and incredulity; it is truly inexplicable but there, perhaps, lies its strength and persistence.
English clowns: Richard Tarlton and Will Kemp