Epicoene or The Silent Woman by Ben Jonson
Directed by Sam Shammas
Performed at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden
Tuesday July 8th - Saturday July 26th 1997
"...an amazing and wonderful production."
Leila Tannous, BBC World Service (July 1997)
|Born in 1572, Ben Jonson was a friend and contemporary of Shakespeare, and is considered by many critics to be the only English playwright of that period worthy of similar rank. As a man Jonson was arrogant and quarrelsome, but fearlessly warm-hearted and intellectually honest. A moral satirist who delighted in animal vitality and our human aspirations, he nevertheless made it his business to chasten the 'humours' to which society was liable when it escaped the control of discipline and reason. Sixteen of his plays have survived, not including his celebrated court masques: fourteen comedies and two tragedies. His most lauded plays include Every Man in his Humour (1598), Sejanus (1603), Volpone (1605), recently revived at the National Theatre directed by Matthew Warchus with Michael Gambon and Simon Russell Beale, The Alchemist (1610) also revived by the National in 1996 with Bill Alexander directing, featuring Josie Lawrence and Tim Pigott-Smith, Bartholomew Fair (1614), The Devil is an Ass (1616), a recent RSC production directed by Matthew Warchus, and Epicoene (1609). During the reign of James I, Jonson's literary prestige and influence were unrivalled. He died in 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a tombstone bearing the inscription 'O rare Ben Jonson'.|
1. having the characteristics of both sexes; hermaphrodite; androdgynous
2. of neither sex; sexless
The central character Morose, an egotistical old bachelor with a pathological aversion to noise, proposes to disinherit his nephew Sir Dauphine Eugenie, whom he suspects of ridiculing him. He proposes to do this by marrying and begetting an heir, but in order to do so he must find a woman not given to noise, the 'silent woman' of the title. A completely silent one is found in the lovely Epicoene, but remarkably, after the marriage, she regains the use of her tongue. By way of making up for lost time, Epicoene is anything but silent. She proceeds to torment her husband by turning into a loquacious shrew, and his agony is increased when Dauphine and his friends arrive with a rowdy party of guests and musicians to celebrate the marriage. Driven frantic by the hubbub, and having unsuccessfully sought grounds for divorce from a parson and a canon lawyer (in fact impostors planted by Dauphine, who chatter interminably to no purpose), Morose promises to reinstate his nephew as his heir, with an additional reward, if he can free his uncle of the wife who is now the opposite of what he'd hoped. Whereupon Dauphine pulls off Epicoene's wig and reveals that, unknown to everyone else, including the audience, she is a boy whom he has trained for the part.
Epicoene or The Silent Woman was thought by Dryden to be the most perfectly plotted of all comedies. This violent play in which people swap sexual roles also articulates deeper concerns: can one be silent and fully human at the same time? Are there real differences between men and women? Or is gender just a question of the clothes we wear and the timbre of our voices?
It was first performed in December 1609, and was banned two months later by authorities who thought they'd spotted an unflattering allusion to the King's cousin Arbella Stuart. It was revived in 1660, however, and was the first play to be staged following the reopening of theatres when Charles II returned to the capital. For the Restoration dramatists, the play was a supreme model for comedy.
Garrick revived the play next in 1752 and then again in 1776. In the 1776 production, Epicoene was played by a woman, but a torrent of complaints insisting that Garrick was flouting Jonson's intentions meant that after three nights he replaced the leading lady with a man. The play appears again in 1895 and 1909, played by an all male cast.
There have been many productions since then, notably by the Phoenix company in 1924 and by Oxford University Dramatic Society directed by Frank Hauser in 1948 (Epicoene was played by a woman). In this 1997 production, the cast are all male.
"...the play's tightly knit construction and great set speeches, as well as its complex interest in levels of illusion, offer marvellous opportunities to both actors and directors."
RV Holdsworth discussing Epicoene in Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, 1989
"If poets may be divided into two exhaustive but not exclusive classes - the gods of harmony and creation, the giants of energy and invention - the supremacy of Shakespeare among the gods of English verse is not more unquestionable than the supremacy of Jonson among the giants..."
"A gifted lyrical poet, he wrote two of his most successful plays (Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair) in prose... he indeed belongs, securely and brilliantly, to this age as much as to his own."
"His work is a titanic show"
"The practical jokes are full of fiendish ingenuity..."
"When all the female parts are played by - well, by males, it is quite easy to forget (even if you happen to know it beforehand) that Epicoene is really, both on and off stage, a boy dressed up."
Rupert Blakely & Liz Cooke
Sam Shammas Productions
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