Theatre Review: Every Man in His Humor, by Ben Jonson

P1000268Humor to us means jokes, stand-up comics, sit-com TV shows, funny movies, comic plays, musical-comedy Broadway shows. To an Elizabethan audience, similar genre of humor existed. But, to that audience humor also meant the body fluids that governed someone’s general personality and emotional outlook on life.   Ben Jonson’s 1598 (revised in 1616) play, Every Man His in Humor combines both of these ideas. But, humor often covers our darkness. In Every Man in his Humor, anger, anxiety, jealous, and insecurity are the internal experiences, which the characters attempt to hide behind the jokes.

For the pain behind humor, in our time, we think of clowns and comics from Charlie Chaplin to Seinfeld, who bring tears of laughter to our eyes. M*A*S*H was a movie, then a TV series, about the horrors and absurdity of the Korea War, in which humor was how the doctors, nurses, and support staff survived. Even joyous Christmas movies, such as Elf use laugher to get us through themes of abandonment, awkwardness, and fear of rejection. Every Man in His Humor, performed at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, Va, gives us two hours of guffaws as fathers try to keep sons from debauchery, husbands and wives fear being cuckolded, lovers face obstacles keeping each other apart, and fools, soldiers, and squires are beaten and browbeaten. Were we not laughing so hard, we might walk away feeling helpless in our own humors. But, this is not Waiting for Godot nor No Exit

We can begin to see the humor awaiting us by reading the program to acquaint ourselves with the characters’ names. Knowell (Christopher Seiler), his son Edward Knowell (Chris Johnston), and their man Brainworm (Allison Glenzer) obviously do not know well and can use their brains only so much. Master Stephan (Benjamin Reed) and Master Matthew (Nathan C. Crocker) seem neutral enough, though they are the insecure fools who make themselves the butt of most jokes. The Kitely family, Thomas (Rene Thornton, Jr), Dame (Sara Hymes), and Mistress Bridget (Lauren Ballad), are not as sharp or fast as their bird-of-prey sir-name suggest (Master Stephan has a whole series of jokes about hawking and falconry early in the play). Their retinue, Thomas Cash (Michael Amendola), George Downright (John Harrell) and his half-brother, Wellbred (Bridget Rue) each are defined by how the Kitelys have provided for them, as each name suggests. The water-bearer, Oliver Cob (John Harrell) and his wife Tib (Lauren Ballard), wander in and out of scenes, doing the grunt work that allows all these city folks to be buffoons. Captain Bobadill (Patrict Midgley) is the soldier who links all these characters, their anxieties, and antics together. Justice Clement (Michael Amendola) will adjudicate the intertwined conflicts, issuing verdicts and clemency to resolve the play.

Naming characters by characteristics of their role was common in Elizabethan theatre, as it today. Rob and Laura Petrie of the Dick van Dyke Show were the petri-dish of 1950’s-60’s suburban homes. Archie and Edith Bunker of All in the Family lived in their Queens row house as if it were a bunker against the threats of 1970’s urban life. Homer Simpsons was the anti-poet of the cartoon epic that probably has as many lines as the Iliad and Odyssey.

The cast for Every Man in His Humor use lots of words, blank verse and rhyming couplets, to convey their jokes. Moreover, how they say these words adds to the ludicrous interactions. Master Matthew, the poet who is always penning (stealing) a good line he hears, recites his poetry with excess affectation and gestures. He carries a quill at all times, both to write his inspirations (and plagiarisms), dust off stools, and fends off critics as it were a sword. Master Stephen grins and grimaces, copying oaths that he hears from Bobadill, to affect an air of authority. Bobadill rants and raves when unopposed, but quickly rolls to the ground when Downright comes at him with a cudgel, or Justice Clements draws ever-larger swords to enact his sentences. Knowell and Thomas Kitely recount their fears with wide-eyes, often seeking support from a cane (Knowell) or whatever piece of furniture he can fall onto (Kitely).   Brainworm slips onto stage silently, in uniform or disguise, and startles the gentry by being right behind whoever turns to find him. To accentuate these exaggerations, those rogue youths who should be all excess in the Windmill Tavern, Edward and Wellbred, are the most reasonable people on stage.

Humor is often is in what is not said, or actions that replace words. Bobadill is foiled when he tries to teach Masters Matthew and Stephan how to defend themselves with swords. Bobadill bludgeons Cob; Downright bludgeons Bobadill; Cob bludgeons Tib; Stephen carried a cudgel, often threatening to use it, but quickly pockets it when threats came his way. These beatings were carried on to the point of absurdity, as the victims curled up on the ground to take the blows. Except, Tib just stood there as if nothing were occurring. Matthew carried a massive book in his satchel, stuffed full of loose papers with poems in progress. On the cover he had written “The Complete Works of Shake Matthew”. From this he quotes numerous lines from Shakespeare’s plays (I recognized Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a couple other that I could not place). This may have been an added inside joke, as Shakespeare performed the role of Knowell in the 1598 production, and all but Twelfth Night had been performed prior to that date. The best schitk was Master Stephan’s inability to figure out how to open the stage doors. Every one of his entrances and exits is delayed as he pushes or pulls the door the wrong way, trying without insight, until someone else gestures which way to exert his force.

By the end of the play, the romantic couple (Edward and Bridget) are united, the fools and gentry set straight, and justice served, not by any Greek, Roman, or Christian god but by the local Justice Clement. We can catch our breath, dry our eyes, and applaud for the curtain calls, each in his humor.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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