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:
dear fellow prentices all,
be you warned by my fall:
usurers, bawds, and dice, and drabs,
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.