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 to 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.’

This sort of tricksiness certainly wasn’t confined to the indoor playhouses, but it was a feature of plays written for companies of boy players. Perhaps something about the artificiality of the form encouraged playwrights to toy with their audiences. Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (Blackfriars, 1600) and John Marston’s Antonio and Mellida (Paul’s, 1600) both start with introductory scenes in which the children argue over the parts they will play – in Antonio and Mellida one adolescent boy is deeply affronted that he has a to act a woman’s role: ‘I, a voice to play a lady!’.

But for sheer fourth-wall destructiveness, nothing beats Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, first performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at Blackfriars in 1607. Beaumont fused together his dramatic fiction and the ‘real’ theatrical context of performance in an eye-poppingly original way. He didn’t just confine the play’s meta-theatrical tricks to the opening scene. As the boys of the Children of the Queen’s Revels prepare to stage an arch city comedy called ‘The London Merchant’, two forthright theatregoers in the front row of the pit, a grocer and his wife, interrupt the show to insert their servant Rafe into the story. With his mates Tim and George, young Rafe sets off on a Quixotic mission of knight-errantry. His quest fantasy shares the stage with the domestic narrative of ‘The London Merchant’, which the cast-members are attempting to perform as smoothly as they can. But the couple in the pit refuse to be silent, and tempers understandably begin to fray…

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is astonishingly, gloriously odd. The story unfurls on a dizzying number of levels. These include the romantic comedy plot which is hijacked by Rafe, the chivalric quest Rafe undertakes with his friends, the fantastical hybrid story that emerges when these strands meet, the apparently ‘real’ frustrations of the beleaguered theatre company, as well as the running commentary from the grocer and his wife in the auditorium. And alongside this polyphony there is the actual, paid-up audience, who are drawn into this madness and made participants in a bold re-invention of theatrical form.

As avante-garde theatre producers know to their cost, energetic novelty is not to everyone’s taste. When the play was printed in 1613, six years after its unsuccessful first performance, the publisher Walter Burre explained that the Blackfriars audience, not understanding the work’s ‘privy mark of irony’, had ‘utterly rejected it’.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

We need a certain knowingness to appreciate The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is partly about the experience of watching a play. If we don’t pick that up, the giddy leaps between the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ will simply leave us bewildered.

In our own time, mould-breaking playwrights have often found a sympathetic reception among students and intrepid early-adopters before achieving widespread acceptance. Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958) garnered plaudits when it toured to university towns before being shot down by London’s theatre critics. Fleet Street was still reeling from the shock of John Osborne’s radical Look Back in Anger two years previously: it was not about to embrace postmodernism.

It might be a bit much to call The Knight of the Burning Pestle postmodern, but it’s not far off. In fact, the Renaissance did have an artful little moment of late-onset self-consciousness. This was ‘mannerism’, a sixteenth-century visual aesthetic that by the 1590s and 1600s had spread to poetic literature. Characterised by a conscious artificiality and an awareness of its own formality, mannerist literature and art enjoyed a vogue among fashionable men about town and bohemian intellectuals at the Inns of Court.

A mannerist portrait: ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, c. 1590 (Skokloster Castle, Sweden)

A mannerist portrait: ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, c. 1590 (Skokloster Castle, Sweden)

It may have been this constituency that Francis Beaumont hoped to attract when he wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play dances gleefully around genres, burlesquing the conventions of fairy-tale romance, picaresque adventure stories and satirical city comedies even as it stretches and challenges the artifice of theatre itself. As a mannerist work it is simultaneously sophisticated, subtle and very, very ironic.

But Francis Beaumont was ahead of his time, and he overestimated the adventurousness of his audience. The theatregoers at Blackfriars, like the reviewers of The Birthday Party, weren’t ready for po-mo.

Not so today. The fourth wall has long been an insubstantial barrier in theatre and film, and Rafe’s desire to play the lead in his own fiction doesn’t strike us as perverse in an era of reality television and global talent shows. The disruptive creativity of The Knight of the Burning Pestle feels alternative and original, but we understand the theatrical language: we know what Francis Beaumont is doing. Comfortable at last with Beaumont’s innovative form, we can recognise the humane heart of The Knight of the Burning Pestle – a surprisingly old-fashioned story of forgiveness, redemption and love.