Bartholomew Fair

Performance history

The induction allows for a more specific date of performance than is usual for Renaissance plays; the première took place on 31 October 1614 at the Hope Theatre in Bankside. Entries in the Revels accounts indicate that the performance was repeated at Whitehall for James I the next day. The royal account also lists ten pounds paid to Nathan Field for acting in the play; in the fifth act, Jonson causes Cokes to ask the puppetmaster, "Which is your best actor now...your Burbage...your Field?"

There is no further record of performance until 1661, although it was likely to have remained in repertory to some degree until its anti-Puritan sentiments made it unwise to revive it. (William Oldys reports a traditional view that the inscription on Jonson's tomb ("O rare Ben Jonson") refers to the applause this play received, after the failure of Catiline,[3] indicating some degree of popularity. Samuel Pepys records seeing it four times in 1661, twice with the puppet show and twice without (8 June 27 June, 31 August and 7 September 1661). The play appears to have been revived intermittently through the earlier part of the eighteenth century; after that, in keeping with the waning taste for non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama in general and for Jonson in particular, the play fell into obscurity. It retained a degree of esteem in the study even as it disappeared from the boards; both Isaac Reed and Horace Walpole praised its wealth of invention in their accounts of Renaissance drama. John Brown revised the play and offered it to David Garrick; Garrick refused it, however, and Brown's text is lost.

As with many long-ignored plays, Bartholomew Fair returned to the stage in a production by the Phoenix Society—this one, in 1921 at the New Oxford Theatre. Its first professional revival came in 1949, when George Devine directed it at the Edinburgh International Festival; the next year, the same production appeared at the Old Vic. The puppets in this production were performed by George Speaight. The Bristol Old Vic produced the play in 1966. Terry Hands directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1969; this production included Ben Kingsley as Winwife and Helen Mirren as Win Littlewit. The production, which cut the long text and freely mixed period and modern properties, received generally negative reviews.

Richard Eyre produced the play for the National Theatre; his first production as head of the theatre, it was performed on the Olivier Stage in mid-Victorian costume. David Bamber, David Burke, and Stephen Moore were among the cast. Of this production, Eyre himself writes, "What felt as though it might have been a true popular success … shows itself to be dismal and underachieved."[4]

In 1998, Laurence Boswell directed the play for the RSC at the Swan Theatre. Featuring Zubin Varla and Poppy Miller, the production attempted to update Jonson's cheerfully downscale milieu with "Newcastle United shirts, garish yellow tweed and plenty of atmospheric sleaze" according to The Times; this review was mildly favourable,[5] as were the others. The production was later revived at the Young Vic.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival mounted the New World's first production of the play in 2009, directed by Antoni Cimolino and featuring original music composed by Steven Page.

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