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Saturday, 7 August 2010

- Part 5: Representations in Citizens Comedies

Representations in theatre: the rise of the citizens comedy[xliii]

The genre of city or citizen’s comedy might accurately be described as a satirical genre of social types. Within the work particularly of Jonson, Middleton, and Dekker, several social types emerge: the most common one’s being the Citizen or Freeman; the Merchant; the Gentleman or Gallant; and the seemingly endless division of women into wives, virgins, whores or lusty widows - although it has to be said this classification had of women had existed for centuries.

What became apparent in the newly created genre was the impact of money on the type’s ability to present themself. The once quite puritanical merchant class in the City of London found they had access to a source of income hitherto untapped they found ways of increasing displays of wealth in the form of clothing.
That city comedies should prove so popular should not be a surprise either. With the increase in wealth came the increase in theatre attendance for the masses, and previously clever, political and satirical plays gave way to a more gentle but sardonic form of satire. The Histories were still played, but theatre as a form of entertainment led to a change in the appetites of the audience. The gallants and wealthy merchant classes were easy targets for the criminal element of London too, and with the theatres being situation in the middle of the poorer districts, it is inevitable that much of the material relating to city comedies include the themes of fraud, deception, thieves and prostitution – it was simply part of the make up of London during this period. 

Increasingly therefore the types are presented as the subjects of deceitful behaviour, and this is played to increasing comical effect. The rise of the satirical pamphlet alongside the city comedy reinforced these stereotypes, and increased the vocabulary of names and distinctive characteristics of each type. Clothing formed an essential element of this stereotyping, as can be seen in the following examples.
Representations of Citizens and Merchants
In the Shoemaker’s Holiday, Simon Eyre, the principal character begins the play as a shoemaker and ends up, through a series of events as Lord Mayor of London. Eyre is only able to do so because Lacey, a disguised gallant, presents him with the opportunity to make a significant some of money, by introducing him to the relevant contact, and by ensuring that Eyre has the twenty portugues required to carry out the transaction.
The major benefit for Eyre in being made into Lord Mayor is his ability to dress accordingly or more pertinently for his wife to dress accordingly. Eyre says that ‘I shall make thee a lady; here’s a French hood for thee. On with it, on with it, dress thy brows with this flap of a shoulder of mutton, to make thee look lovely.’ (X.140-143) 

Shoemaker’s Holiday contains many clothing references from Lacey’s feathers and jewels; Sybil’s direct reference to the sumptuary laws with ‘I’ll sweat in purple, mistress, for you’ (II.ii.60); to the inclusion of Jane’s shoes as a major motif within the plot. 

In Knight of the Burning Pestle, the Citizen wishes to direct the action from the start. He demands that a more suitable play be staged, and climbs onto the stage with the gallants in order to assert his authority. Here he is asked by the Prologue ‘Are you a member of the noble city?’, which one can only take to mean that he is attired as a Citizen. The Prologue clarifies ‘And a freeman’ (Induction, l10), again implying that the clothing he wears must have represented him as such. His complaint is that ‘This seven years there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you have still girds at citizen’s; and now you call your play, The London Merchant. Down with your title, boy, down with your title!’ (Induction l6-9)
The character of Yellowhammer in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside works on several levels. Yellowhammer is a goldsmith and a citizen, a type in his own right and often satirised as such, but he is also indicative of the citizen who has wealth and now wishes to achieve social status through the marriage of his children. As a result, he and his wife are far more concerned with the legitimacy and status of their grandchildren, than with the actual happiness of their own children. Needless to say his plans are completely thwarted, and his son marries a bawd, his daughter the man he despises.

The depiction of Gallants in city comedies is particularly interesting; their entire persona is entwined with their visual representation. Their clothing, the pipe smoking, the love of feathers and jewels, being seen in all the right places, all serve to offer us a quite vivid impression of the ‘type’ of Gallant. 

The playwrights seem to love satirising Gallants, which creates a kind of perverse irony – the playwright sends him up for wishing to parade around town in his finery, and for his desire to sit right up upon the stage so that he might be seen[xliv]. And yet these are the very people who make the theatre interesting, who form an important part of the audience and certainly who pay the most to see the performance. In turn, one can only assume the Gallant enjoyed this form of notoriety, and enjoyed the notion of sitting on the stage, representing a Gallant, and again of course being seen by everyone. The ‘type’ of Gallant becomes a self-serving mechanism.

Certainly in the Guls Horn-book[xlv], Dekker dedicates a chapter on ‘How a Gallant should behave himself in a Play-house’. Dekker says ‘let our Gallant (having paid it) presently advance himselfe up to the Throne of the Stage. I mean not into the Lords roome (which is now but the Stages Suburbs)… But on the very Rushes where the Comedy is to daunce, yea, and under the stage of Cambises himself must our fethered Estridge, like a piece of Ordnance, be planted valiantly (because impudently) beating down the mewes and hisses of the opposed rascality. For do but cast up a reckoning, what large cummings-in are pursd up by sitting on the Stage. First a conspicuous Eminence is gotten; by which meanes, the best and most essenciall parts of a Gallant (good cloathes, a proportionable legge, white hand, the Persian lock, and a tolerable beard) are perfectly revealed.[xlvi]’.

This marvellous sending up of the Gallant encapsulates what it is to be a Gallant, and simultaneously creates the perfect role model. Indeed Dekker enjoins the Gallant not to get onto the stage until the last minute, ‘for it you should bestow your person upon the vulgar, when the belly of the house is but halfe full, your apparel is quite eaten up, the fashion lost’[xlvii].

Even more amusing is the irony of Dekker advising the Gallant on how to be ‘revenged on the playwright’. Should the playwright satirise his ‘feather’ or his ‘little legs’, Dekker recommends the he merely leave the stage in the middle of the play. He also instructs him not to leave quietly, but to ‘salute all your gentle acquaintance, that are spred either on the rushes or on stooles about you’.[xlviii] 

The irony of Dekker satirising whilst creating the Gallant, typifies the genre of City Comedy.   Clearly here it is essential that you be recognised as one in order to fit the role, and many of the satirical representations of gallants in the plays were based specifically on their choices of clothing.

In The Roaring Girl, Dekker and Middleton set a good deal of the gallants’ action around three shops: the apothecary (selling tobacco, that essential accessory of the ‘man about town’); a feather shop; and a ‘sempster’s’ or seamstresses shop, selling accessories, bands etc. Laxton, Greenwit and Goshawk spend some time engaging in the typical pursuits of their type – smoking, and choosing a ‘spangled feather’. 

However, Laxton must also cozen his way into some money in order to maintain his lifestyle – his target is the female owner of the apothecary, whom he seduces without actually engaging in any physical contact. Laxton tells us that ‘I hate her, but for the means to keep me in fashion with gallants: for what I take from her I spend on other wenches, bear her in hand still; she has enough wit to rob her husband, and I enough ways to consume the money’[xlix]

Its obvious that gallants often raised money to support their lifestyle; perhaps the land had already been sold in order to get them to London and the ‘scene’ in the first place; clothing was a crucial way of demonstrating one’s status; and gallants were not above looking to the citizen’s class they apparently despised in order to obtain this money.

A further depiction in the play includes Moll’s statement that ‘he [Jack Dapper] looks for all the world with those spangled feathers like a nobleman’s bedpost … oh, the gallants of these times are shallow lechers’[l]

Also, Laxton, in hiring his coach to meet Moll asks ‘may we safely take the upper hand on any coached velvet cap or tufftaffety jacket? For they keep a vild swaggering in coaches nowadays, the highways are stopped with them’[li]. His concern here is that the performance of the coach be adequate to best those other gallants and citizen’s out parading their finery. Here a type categorises another type (in her note on the text, Elizabeth Cooks points out that since the cessation of the sumptuary laws, the highways had been crowded with coaches carrying those now able to show off their new acquired finery). This example also illustrates the point of what is fashionable, this was either the item to be seen in, or by contrast has become so commonplace as to be available to anyone on the highway.
Of further interest is Middleton’s introduction to the printed version of the play itself:
'The fashion of play-making I can properly compare to nothing so naturally as the alteration in apparel: for in the time of the great crop-doublet, your huge bombaseted plays, quilted with might words to lean purpose, was only then in fashion. And as the doublet fell, neater inventions began to be set up. Now in the time of spruceness, our plays follow the niceness of our garments, single plots, quaint conceits, lecherous jests, dressed up in hanging sleeves, and those are fit for the times and the termers: such a kind of light-colour summer stuff, mingled with diverse colours, you shall find in this published comedy, good to keep you in an afternoon from dice, at home in your chambers’.[lii]
That Middleton himself should see the structure of the play in such terms reinforces the importance of fashion and of clothing as a representation of class, wealth and status; those not necessarily being the same thing in this period, in that one might be an impoverished landowner with the supposed ‘wealth’ to demonstrate your class, but without the actual means to purchase it. Furthermore, one might be newly wealthy through the sale of land, or through trade, but certainly lack the class or status to be viewed much beyond a foolish gallant or greedy merchant.

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