Beaumont's "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
a dramatic analysis of a production performed May 27, 1986
by Brian Kunde

Note: This analysis is based on notes taken during the performance, written up May 27-28, 1986 as a paper for a class at Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, Santa Clara County, California. The text has been slightly revised for this web version.

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I. General Information. "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" is a play written in 1607 by Francis Beaumont, an English playwright during the reign of James I, and a younger contemporary of William Shakespeare. The play is a comedy, and much of its humor is farcical. The production I saw was at the Mayer Theater, University of Santa Clara, from about 8:00-10:30 P.M. on May 27, 1986. It is described in the program as being an "adaptation by William R. James," who also directed. As far as I could ascertain, the adaptation consisted primarily of replacing topical references in the text that a modern audience might find obscure with more familiar ones -- mostly from Shakespeare (thus remaining "in period"). The other main production personnel were Gary Daines (scene design), Barbara Murray (costume design), Albert L. Gibson (lighting design), Henry Mollicone (original songs and incidental music), and Sheldon Ossosky (choreography).

II. Plot Summary. A grocer and his family and servants go to see a play. The playbill announces the show as "The London Merchant," a hackneyed domestic romantic comedy. Certain it will cast aspersions on his profession, the grocer angrily castigates the "Prologue" (narrator), forces his way onto the stage, and (with the backing of popular opinion) establishes himself and his wife as censors of the performance. They constantly interfere with the play, forcing the Players to incorporate a new character; a knight who will uphold the honor of the grocery business and "do valiant deeds." This is the "Knight of the Burning Pestle" of the title. The grocer's apprentice Rafe, who is good at making "pretty speeches," is recruited to portray the knight. The Players attempt to continue acting their original plot, but are continually forced to bring on Rafe, in his new character, whenever the grocer and his wife are bored or offended by the action. Rafe's presence compels the Players to improvise more and more in order to keep their story moving, to the point where his adventures become a rather disjoined subplot, almost a separate "play within a play." If this isn't enough, the grocer and his wife also stop the action frequently to vent their prejudices, comment on characters, or insist on changes. The crisis of the play occurs when their interference at last gets completely out of hand, which happens at roughly the same time as the two subplots reach their climax.

III. The Major Characters and the Credibility of Their Actions and Motivations.

  • "Prologue." Introducer and scene-setter of the play "The London Merchant;" spokesman of the Players and antagonist of the Grocer. At first he is contemptuous of the Grocer, then cowed into letting him have his way. In their subsequent relations he exhibits exasperation, bluster, condescension, and pleading in response to the Grocer's constant interference. His behavior is completely natural.
  • Citizen (Grocer) and his Wife. Advocates of the honor of their profession and abusive "know-it-alls." In their outrage, bullying, and opinionated judgments of the Players' characters, they seem quite credible. Amusingly, they are also incurable romantics when the romance does not appear to undermine their values, and their innovations are as exageratedly idealized as the plot they find offensive.
  • Rafe (the Grocer's apprentice). A general boob and an Romantic enthusiast of some education. As himself, he is afflicted by stage fright, but proves capable of muddling through anyway: as the "Knight" his character is idealized beyond any connection with reality, even the "reality" of "The London Merchant" -- he comes across as a younger version of Don Quixote.
  • Merchant. Player and character in "The London Merchant." The character he portrays is that of the stereotypical insensitive parent intent on forcing his daughter into an arranged marriage with a favorite of his. His behavior is completely exaggerated, and he acquires realistic motivations only as a Player struggling to maintain his role in the face of constant interference.
  • Jasper. Player, portraying the Merchant's apprentice, who is in love with his master's daughter. An equally stereotypical romantic hero: the comments applied to the Merchant also apply to him.
  • Luce. Player, portraying the Merchant's daughter. The romantic heroine, possibly a bit more willful and forthright than the norm.
  • Humfrey. Player, portraying the Merchant's favorite, a dandyish, effeminate fop who is everybody's butt and victim. The and unsuccessful suitor for Luce's hand in marriage. He too is most real when forced out of character, which in his case happens fairly often. At such times he is a picture of frustration.
  • Merrithought. Player, portraying Jasper's father. His philosophy is to eat, drink and be merry, and he is always singing and joking. He seems incapable of sense or seriousness, though occasionally some hints of wisdom show through. While his character is the most completely unreal, of the Players', he is at the same time the most "real" actor. Not even the Grocer and his Wife can get him to break character: he reacts to their comments the same way he reacts to all the "real" Players.
  • Mistress Merrithought. Player, portraying the wife of Merrithought, practical, shrewish, and unsympathetic, understandably so, as life with Merrithought would drive anyone to distraction. Her character is too extreme to appear real, however. She favors her younger son over Jasper to the point of fanaticism. The younger son is a spoiled brat and momma's boy.

IV. "Theme" Characters and Most Appealing Characters. As might be inferred from the foregoing, the theme of the play appears to be to show up the more ludicrous aspects of the conventional tastes (and the convention drama) of Beaumont's time. Judging from the audience's (and my own) reactions to it, it serves these purposes equally well in our own time. At different points in the play I found myself in sympathy with both "sides." The Grocer and his Wife exemplify the conventional tastes, while the outraged Prologue is the main spokesman for "preserving the sanctity of the drama." Neither, however, are the most sympathetic of the characters. In common with most of the others, they have some appealing characteristics, but they also show a certain callousness and self- importance in connection with their areas of expertise or interest. My feeling is that the characters who most nearly overcome this defect are the relative innocents, Humfrey and Rafe. Humfrey, the "villainous" suitor, appealed because he was everyone's victim, both in his dramatic role and in "reality" -- in which the Grocer and his Wife, by misplaced esteem for him as the "lawful" suitor, completely undermine his role's credibility. Rafe, the apprentice thrust into the role of star actor and exemplar of heroic ideals, appealed both by his sincere efforts to live up his role and his comparative lack of egotism, his enthusiasm generally making up for his failure to "carry it off."

V. Techniques of Plot Structure and Dramatic Devices Used. The play's plot, or rather its two plots, are fairly simple in structure, but are made to seem more involved by the complicating factor of disruption. The Grocer and his Wife's interference disrupts the smooth flow of the Players' hackneyed romantic plot, while the episodic quest storyline improvised for the "Knight" keeps getting sidetracked by complicating stratagems introduced by the Players in order to sabotage it so that they can return to the "proper" story. Sometimes the two plots seem to run on entirely separate courses, and at other times they interact and affect each other's progress. However, they remain essentially two stories, and are resolved by separate conclusions.
     The love romance has complicating factors built into is plot, but these are eclipsed by those introduced by interference. The quest story is devoid of complications save those introduced by interference and interaction with the romance. The romance builds to a conventional climax -- separation of the lovers and the apparent dashing of their hopes -- and is resolved in a conventional denouement -- recovery and reconciliation with their families.
     The aimless quest is forced into a crisis by interference -- the "invincible knight" loses a "battle" with Jasper -- which in turn forces the Grocer to improvise a climactic mock- heroic fight with a giant to redeem his protege. It trails off into more aimless episodes afterwards, until the Grocer, noticing that the other story has ended, calls for a melodramatic death scene (over the violent objections of the Prologue, who argues that death has no place in a comedy). Exposition is little used in either plot: its primary appearance is in the Wife's lurid visualizations of scenes to be inserted for Rafe, which are then acted out in notably more prosaic fashion.
     The main dramatic device used is, again, interference, and the reversals of expectations it leads to. It is generally well exploited: in once instance, the Grocer, disapproving of Jasper, muses to himself "I'm going to have Rafe come on and beat him up." Neither plot is ever quite permitted to settle comfortably into its expected pattern. Considerable irony is brought out in the dramatic reversals, as well as in the situations created by the Grocer and his Wife's judgments of the various Players' characters; judgments stemming from their own prejudices, which invariably fly in the face of the way the characters are portrayed.

VI. Design Elements and their Effectiveness. The most notable design element was the scenery. One set was used for the entire play, consisting of a stage painted with pink, grey, and violet checks, a framework of metal ladders and railings supporting a wooden platform (which formed an additional acting area), and striped hangings of pink, orange, and yellow cloth to form walls and backdrops. An easel to the left of the stage held placards indicating scene locations (placed there by the Prologue). The primary scenes were inside and outside the homes of the Merchant and Merrithought, a forest, and an inn. The scenery served well for each purpose. The platform could be used for upper stories of the homes, inside and out, and the stage the lower story, street, or innyard. Forest scenes were indicated by bringing in two plywood trees and changing the lighting. Under "forest" lighting the stage's checked squares turned orange, green, and brown, and the stripes of the hangings suggested a series of tree trunks.
     Costumes were Jacobean (though simplified), elaborately belled and slashed, with tights, ruffles, and funny head and footgear. The Players' costumes were of bright colors with fairly simple color-schemes, as one would expect in a comedy; the clothes of the Grocer's party were more subdued, mostly earth colors, suggesting everyday wear. Humfrey's attire was especially ridiculous, befitting his role. All the costumes added to the effect of the play.
     Makeup was notable for its non-noticeability, but since everybody's features stood out clearly even though I was sitting fairly far back, it must have served its purpose.
     Props consisted of swords, lances, and similar small items, as well as wheeled hobby horses, on which the major characters rode. These were utilized to amusing effect; the stage being sloped, they tended to role "downhill" towards the audience (to the apprehension of the riders), and had to be rescued by the Players or members of the Grocer's party time and again.

VII. Other Factors Enhancing the Theatrical Experience. The Grocer's party effectively maintained the illusion that they were part of the audience by a number of devices. They entered as the audience did, took seats with it, and for the most part (excepting those who went on stage to supervise and interfere) remained with it. They continued to divided their activities between the stage and seating area, throwing objects at the Players, making disparaging remarks, and so forth. They also signaled intermission and the end of the play by their actions (the convention of dimming the lights was not used, except to indicate night scenes on stage). For intermission, the grocer and his wife announced their intention of going out for a beer (which they did), and at the end of the play they made a few additional comments on it and got up to leave naturally, as members of the audience would.
     Theater personnel contributed to the evening by being courteous, polite, and providing cookies at intermission.

VIII. The Message. If there is any life lesson or universal truth to be drawn from this play, it is that we all have faults and customary ways of looking at things which are perhaps not very indicative of reality, nor nearly as important as we think they are. In other words, the playwright is indicating that we shouldn't take ourselves overly seriously, by poking gentle fun at our foibles and those of his own profession.

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Beaumont's "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
a dramatic analysis of a production performed May 27, 1986

1st web edition posted 2/10/96
(updated 2/12/96).
2nd web edition posted 3/12/98.
(updated 5/16/08).

Published by Fleabonnet Press.
© 1986-2008 by Brian Kunde.