A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
 
 
 
 
Eastward Ho!

 

At the Elizabethan Swan Theatre in Stratford, five plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries are being staged in repertory, the most enjoyable so far (with two to arrive later in the summer) being the city comedy by Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston.  Dating from 1605, early in the reign of James I, “Eastward Ho!” recreates Shakespeare’s London as a bustling metropolis, filled with ambitious traders, shady confidence men, and self-serving tricksters, along with honest, thrifty guildsmen, like Master Touchstone. A goldsmith, Touchstone started small and worked his way up to his own shop, where he employs two apprentices, Quicksilver and Golding.  Their names describe them: the former a wastrel and con-man, the latter hard-working and honest.

Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, there are a number of women in the cast, for this play was written for the Children of her Majesty’s Revels, a company of young boy actors. Marston was a sharer in that company, in which boys performed the women’s roles, a  convention of the Elizabethan theater.  The satire and innuendo in which Marston specialized were more acceptable from the mouths of youngsters. Because “Eastward Ho!” satirizes  the selling of knighthoods and the Scots (both identified with James I, who was Scottish), Jonson and Chapman were jailed, but Marston was not.

In what Jonson describes as “a money-get, mechanic age,” the London comedies invariably presented its citizens in get-rich-quick schemes, as do “Eastward Ho!” and Jonson’s “The Alchemist” and “Volpone.” Apprentice Quicksilver, who would rather play tennis than work, describes in detail how to make copper look like gold, while the knight Sir Petronel Flash is selling his wife’s inheritance to finance a voyage to Virginia.  There, he is told by the ship’s captain, Seagull, “gold is more plentiful . . . than copper is with us: and for as much red copper as I can bring, I’ll have thrice the weight in gold.”  He says that Virginians gather diamonds and rubies at the seashore and “all their dripping pans and chamber pots are pure gold.”

Touchstone, whose motto is “work upon that now,” has two daughters.  Addle-brained and socially ambitious Gertrude, with her mother’s encouragement, marries Sir Petronel on his promise of a title (bought) and a castle (nonexistent), only to have him disappear after the wedding to set sail for the ill-fated Virginia venture.  Quiet sister Mildred marries apprentice Golding, whose hard work is rewarded when he becomes a guild member and a deputy alderman.

Among Quicksilver’s other money-making schemes is lending money to fellow wastrels at the gaming houses, and getting payoffs from a usurer, Security, to whom he brings customers desperate for a loan.  An old man, Security has foolishly married young Winifred, who is having an affair with Sir Petronel. In another plot twist, she will in disguise set out with him and the crew on their Virginia voyage.

Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace maintains a lively and entertaining pace for all the goings-on, highlighting the songs and dances and creating a city atmosphere at the opening with street cries instead of the spoken prologue. The cast is uniformly excellent, with the bad characters providing, as usual, the juiciest roles.

As the hoydenish Gertrude, Amanda Drew scorns her humble family and delights in moving up the social scale – until disappointment leaves her suing for shelter.  Billy Carter’s Quicksilver changes his approach as he changes his costume, with each new opportunity to con a victim – until he lands in jail where he becomes as penitent as he was proud. He sings a warning to other apprentices:

Farewell, dear fellow prentices all,

And be you warned by my fall:

Shun usurers, bawds, and dice, and drabs,

Avoid them as you would French scabs.

 

 Like the prodigal son, to whom he is compared throughout, Quicksilver is forgiven.  Geoffrey Freshwater is a stalwart Touchstone, Paul Bentall suitably grasping as Security, and James Tucker skillfully turns the too-good-to-be-true Golding into a likeable human being.