Ben Jonson: a Life

Ben Jonson: a Life
Ian Donaldson
Oxford University Press, 560pp, £25

At the same time as Oxford University Press is publishing this large and handsome biography of the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, Cambridge University Press is poised to issue his complete works in seven serious, scholarly volumes. The combination is inviting, and so, in preparing for this review, I requested advance copies of each. Oxford promptly sent a copy but Cambridge declined, on the grounds that its edition was very expensive and it was sending advance copies to specialist academic journals only.

The gesture is curious, because surely the simultaneous publishing venture is making a claim about status: that Jonson was, as Ian Donaldson writes, "the greatest literary figure that England had ever seen". Implicit in the edition and in the biography is the suggestion that he has wrongly faded from pre-eminence. This is the contradiction - here is Jonson, in all his glory, for the world to see and enjoy; yet, n the other hand, there is the indication that he is too expensive to belong anywhere but on a university library shelf. It is peculiarly fitting, however, because Jonson was deeply ambivalent about publication and the reception of his literary efforts.

He achieved great fame as a playwright but dismissed what he called the "loathed stage"; he seems to have coined the word "playwright", and it indicates his own conception of the job: akin to a wheelwright, one who makes wheels. He wrote fast and for money, and considered it to be almost manual labour. Yet, in 1616, he issued a grand folio of his own writings. Called Workes, it prompted some mild teasing from his contemporaries. As Donaldson writes: "In his determination to seek early publication for so many of his plays and other writings, Jonson differed from most of his theatrical and literary contemporaries." But even after the publication of the 1616 folio "he continued - like many of his aristocratic and gentlemanly contemporaries - to circulate his poems in manuscript".

Jonson was a divided and troubled figure. In contrast to Shakespeare, whose biography suggests a cautious, law-abiding person, there is
a roughness to Jonson's life that is constantly engaging. He was a big man - nearly 20 stone when he was in his mid-forties - and was descended from a family of feuding marauders in the Scottish borders. His father had died by the time he was born, and his mother remarried a successful bricklayer. He grew up in the centre of London in an area Donaldson describes as a "maze of alleys and courtyards", which have since been cleared to make way for Trafalgar Square. He went to Westminster School, where the classes were in Latin and the school day ran from 6am prayers to the end of lessons at six in the evening, and he seems to have started, but never completed, a course of study at St John's College, Cambridge.

It was a tense, divided world, and Jonson's life mirrors the tensions of his times. He was recruited into the army in 1591 and fought in the Netherlands, where he killed an enemy soldier in single combat. In 1597, he collaborated on a notorious and now lost play called The Isle of Dogs, for which he was arrested. The following year he killed an actor in a duel. He was put on trial but managed to escape execution by displaying his knowledge of Latin. While in jail, he converted to Catholicism, but returned to the Church of England in 1610.

The life tumbles on, in swerves and leaps, a race through contradictions. His plays are marked by what Donaldson calls a "curious blend of high idealisation and satirical gloom", and they are weirdly divided works, startling even now. Volpone, which was first performed in March 1606 at the Globe by Shakespeare's own company of players, the King's Men, celebrates a ruthless and charismatic conman, irresistible and quick, and ends with his equally ruthless punishment. The plots of his plays are brilliant and baffling. In Epicœne (1609), a man called Morose longs for silence yet chooses to live on a noisy street in central London. He is tormented by his nephew and finally marries a silent woman, but she turns out to be both an unstoppable talker and a boy dressed in drag.

It is hard to escape the impression, reading Donaldson's absorbing biography, that a single life was not quite enough for Jonson, that these paradoxes are perhaps the product of the strain of trying to occupy too many positions. Even though Jonson knew the Gunpowder plotters who attempted to blow up King James in November 1605, he was also a particular favourite of the king. At Christmas 1604, he was invited to write a masque for the royal entertainments at court. Masques are a strange theatrical form, now entirely out of fashion; they are designed for a single performance, at great cost, and most of them are richly symbolic and directly referential. Jonson continued to write royal entertainments for the next two decades.

In 1615, he was granted a royal pension, and this is why he is often (mistakenly) described as the first poet laureate. In 1628 he suffered a severe stroke but continued to write: he finished his last play when he was 60. When he died in 1637, there was a huge funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was buried - in keeping with his own request - standing upright. "The use of things is all, and not the store," says one of the characters at the close of Jonson's late play The Staple of News, and surely this was a sentiment shared by the playwright. As all this suggests, he couldn't have been more different from his contemporary Shakespeare. Biographies of the Bard tend towards the speculative and the sentimental, partly because he seems to have left only the faintest traces of his presence, and partly because he is so endlessly adored. In contrast to Shakespeare's elegant vacancy, Jonson appears to have been dazzlingly present in his age as well as in his writing. Reading Jonson is an oddly personal experience; he insists that we must come to know him. As Donaldson notes,

Jonson "writes verses constantly to and about himself", and we only know the date of his birthday because he mentions it in a poem ("Upon my birthday, the eleventh of June . . ."). He was funny. His opinions were recorded ("That Shakespeare wanted art"). Perhaps because Jonson is so big, there is little room for anyone else. Donaldson scarcely mentions the playwright's wife, Anne Lewis. She gets one entry in the index, and their children - at least two of whom, perhaps three, died at a young age - are skimmed over.

This biography is undeniably a remarkable achievement, for its depth and for the confident subtlety of its readings. Donaldson appears to know everything about the man. But the question remains: does Jonson last? Should we pay ttention - this much attention - to him? Do we need him?
The answer is yes. Jonson's plays are, or should be, works for our age, an age of credulity, financial trickery and artifice. Shakespeare's plays dream of a world of reason; Jonson's don't. Where Shakespeare's comedies are really romances - all those young lovers running off to the woods, all those islands and coasts and faraway worlds - Jonson's are satires. In The Alchemist (1610), one character, Sir Epicure Mammon, fantasises about endless consumption, sickening and excessive:

. . . I myself will have
The beards of barbels serv'd
instead of salads;
Oiled mushrooms; and the swelling
unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
Drest with an exquisite and
poignant sauce . . .

Jonson's plays look, unblinking, at the world in which he lived, which happens to be the world in which we live: one of rampant capit­alism and unfairness. He was violently and beautifully of the world. When he was in his twenties, his first son - also called Benjamin - died, and Jonson wrote about it, just as he wrote about so much else.

Farewell, thou child of my right
hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee . . .

the poem begins, almost overwhelming in its simplicity, expressing a perfect tenderness towards this child who "so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage". What makes it heartbreaking is both the death of the child and the sense of Jonson, left behind, in the world.

Daniel Swift's "Bomber County: the Lost Airmen of World War Two" is published by Penguin (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.