Woolland, Brian, ed. Jonsonians: Living Traditions. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003. xv+246pp. ISBN 0 7546 0610 4.

Lucy Munro
Keele University

Munro, Lucy. "Review of Jonsonians: Living Traditions". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 11.1-8<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revmunro.htm>.

  1. In a 1972 edition of the journal Gambit, dedicated to the topic Ben Jonson and the Modern Stage, Irving Wardle observed:
    Jonson is neglected: but the odd thing is that while very little of his work reaches the stage, no dramatist of the past exerts a greater or more continuous influence on the modern repertory. Ö One can speak of Jonsonian actors and writers, as one cannot speak of any Shakespearean equivalents. (1)
    As Brian Woolland notes, recent years have seen well-received revivals not only of Jonsonís "middle period" comedies (Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair) but also of lesser-known plays such as Every Man Out of His Humour, The Devil is an Ass, and Eastward Ho. Jonsonís influence remains, however, disproportionate to the frequency with which his plays are revived. Woolland uses Wardleís statement as a starting point for Jonsonians, a collection of essays which both explores Jonsonís influence on later writers and simultaneously challenges our preconceptions about what constitutes the Jonsonian by focusing attention on some of the dramatistís more neglected plays. In his introduction, Woolland welcomes the renewed theatrical interest in Jonson but complains that criticism continues to refuse to relinquish its tendency to approach Jonsonís plays as literature. Jonsonians therefore focuses exclusively on Jonsonís plays as theatre, following the pattern of an earlier book edited by Woolland with Richard Cave and Elizabeth Schafer: Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory (1999). (2)

  2. As Woolland acknowledges, this relatively narrow focus inevitably entails sacrifices: the poet Thom Gunn, for instance, could be profitably considered a Jonsonian if the term was extended to encompass Jonsonís non-dramatic works. Sacrificing the poetry also narrows our conception of the Jonsonian in other ways, privileging the Jonson of the commercial theatre over the Jonson of "The Forest" and the "Epigrams" or the Jonson of the masques. It is also perhaps a shame that Woolland does not make use of Wardleís assertion that one can speak of "Jonsonian actors" as well as Jonsonian writers. Nathan Field, who appeared in a number of Jonsonís plays as an actor, qualifies for this designation in the seventeenth century. Might Harry H. Corbett, who played Sir Politic Would-Be in Joan Littlewoodís Theatre Workshop production of Volpone but is best-known for his role as the younger Steptoe in the TV comedy Steptoe and Son, qualify in the twentieth century?

  3. The question of how one defines the "Jonsonian" is in itself potentially problematic. Is it a question of direct influence? Of intertexual relationships? Of connections in terms of theme, characterisation and ideology? The answer, it seems, is all of the above: Woolland argues that "if present day theatre practitioners are seen as Jonsonian, the term should be seen as implying a plurality of inter-related practices, rather than as constraining and definitional" (2). Such flexibility is welcome, but it is not without its problems, problems that are particularly apparent in those essays dealing with Jonsonís twentieth-century inheritors.

  4. Jonsonians is divided into three sections. The first part aims to extend and problematise critical assumptions about Jonsonís plays and canon by examining relatively neglected plays such as the early comedy The Poetaster, the experimental tragedy Sejanus and the late comedies The New Inn and The Magnetic Lady. The second looks at Jonsonís direct influence on seventeenth and early eighteenth-century dramatists: Nathan Field, Richard Brome, Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Polwhele, "Ariadne", Susanna Centlivre, Margaret Cavendish and Mary Pix. The third section skips over the remainder of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and examines Jonsonian playwrights of the twentieth century: John Arden, Joe Orton, Peter Barnes, Caryl Churchill and Alan Ayckbourn. It concludes with Woollandís consideration of "Jonsonian cinema" as exemplified by Preston Sturgess, Spike Lee and David Mamet.

  5. The most successful of the essays of the first two sections include Woollandís discussion of the potential of Sejanus in performance (timely in the light of Greg Doranís upcoming production for the RSC); Julie Sandersí analysis of Jonsonís Caroline dramaturgy and, in particular, his use of theatrical space; and Alison Findlayís survey of the "Epicoene effect" in Restoration drama by women. Elsewhere, Richard A. Cave valuably explores the way in which The Poetasterís Roman setting makes use of a cultural tradition shared between dramatist and audience. In another essay, his treatment of Nathan Fieldís plays is marred by the occasional factual inaccuracy, but his discussions of A Woman is a Weathercock and Amends for Ladies are among the most illuminating critical accounts of these unjustly neglected plays yet published. In the remaining essays, Carolyn D. Williams explores Behnís "negotiations" with Jonson, and Peter Barnes memorably describes Jonsonís language in the theatre: "On stage his seemingly heavy, clotted verse and prose unfolds like beautiful Japanese paper flowers in water" (46).

  6. The third section also contains much that is illuminating, particularly Woollandís discussion of analogous theatrical techniques in the plays of Jonson and Barnes, and of their similarly ambivalent treatment of jokes and laughter. Cave profitably compares the cruelty of Ayckbournís drama with that of Jonsonís own plays, suggesting that the two dramatistsí handling of comedy and farce betrays a "moral anger" that deepens their playsí critiques of contemporary culture. Morality and comedy are also central to John Bullís discussion of Orton, and to Stephen Laceyís account of Ardenís plays. Several essays draw on the idea of the carnivalesque developed by Bakhtin and refined in recent criticism of Jonson; the most detailed of these is Claudia Maneraís analysis of Churchillís plays Serious Money, A Mouthful of Birds, and The Skriker.

  7. In general, however, the third section is the least successful. The "broad" definition of "the Jonsonian", which profitably informs those essays dealing either with Jonson or with those writers directly influenced by him, elsewhere becomes so vague as to lose its meaning. It is true, as Woolland suggests, that differing interpretations of the term "Jonsonian", which aim to create "a productive dialectic rather than a fudged consensus" (6), are one of the collectionís strengths. However, it is not always easy to see why qualities such as (for example) moral anger, use of farce or the concern to balance popular entertainment with debate about public issues should be Jonsonian rather than (for instance) Shavian or Wildean. A more focused model of Jonsonian influence or intertexuality seems to be required; in its absence, connections drawn by the authors of the essays can seem merely coincidental.

  8. Caveats aside, Jonsonians is a suitably capacious and thought-provoking introduction to the sons and daughters of Ben, and a welcome reappraisal of some neglected areas of Jonsonís own dramatic production.


1 Gambit 22 (1972): 3, quoted in Jonsonians, 1.

2 Reviewed by Matthew Steggle in Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 14.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/stegrev.htm>.

Works Cited

Cave, Richard, Elizabeth Schafer and Brian Woolland, eds. Ben Jonson and theatre: performance, practice, and theory. London; New York: Routledge, 1999.

Steggle, Matthew. "Review of Ben Jonson and Theatre." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 14.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-1/stegrev.htm>

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).