1589 Shakespeare's first play (approx.)
1616 Shakespeare's death
1642 closing of the English theatres
1660 restoration of the English theatres
1671 first recorded performance of The Rehearsal
1672 publication of The Rehearsal
By the time Shakespeare died in 1616, the style of English plays had shifted considerably from the early part of his career. The English theatre after Shakespeare's death was just as diverse as today's cable television, so it's difficult to create easy, accurate labels to define entire eras of live entertainment. Whatever we call these plays (city comedies, revenge tragedies, masques, etc.), the Puritans thought they were decadent and dangerous, so they closed the theatres in 1642 when they came to power. Eighteen years later, Charles II reopened the theatres when he was "restored" to the throne; historians dubbed this new era "the Restoration period."
When we think of Restoration plays, we usually think first of the sexually explicit (or "extremely bawdy") comedies of Wycherley (The Country Wife), Congreve (The Way of the World), Farquar (The Beaux' Strategem), Etheridge (The Man of Mode), and the first popular female playwright Aphra Bean (The Rover). But the early part of the Restoration was also populated by the "heroic dramas" of folks like William Davenant and John Dryden. These "heroic dramas" (a term coined by Dryden in his 1670 play The Conquest of Granada) were full of the rhyming couplets of "heroic verse," elaborate plot devises, and extensive visual and musical spectacles. And it was these elements of the "heroic drama" that Villiers (and his crew of collaborators) chose to lampoon in their play The Rehearsal.
While Shakespeare dipped his toe in the lampoon waters with the rude mechanicals' performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Masque of the Nine Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost, and Francis Beaumont took it further in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) by letting "audience members" create a mash-up of their own improv adventure story with the actors' prepared script, Villiers helped to craft the first English play wholly devoted to making fun of an entire genre of other plays. (Crass, commercial plug: the ASC on Tour will be on the road and in the Blackfriars with Pestle in 2009/10; check our website for details.)
Most of you reading these notes have probably never heard of The Rehearsal. If you're at the Blackfriars to see one of our other plays, I encourage you to come back and see the same actors perform this gem of a show that we think we are reviving for the first time in centuries (following in our own footsteps of reviving Pestle for the first professional production in North America in 1999, A King and No King in 2005, and The Blind Beggar of Alexandria in 2008). The Rehearsal is a goofy barrel of fun with a style that's similar to tv shows like: Slings and Arrows, Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Scrubs. It's an irreverent, wacky, and sometimes wild ride that exposes with affection the folly of making theatre. Although a play written by the character Bayes is somewhere at the core of this show, the "play within a play" is more commented on than it is performed. But what does get performed revolves around a kingdom that has two co-kings dethroned by two co-usurpers (because nobody's ever done that), plot points that are whispered (because nobody's ever done that), battles on hobby horses, and spectacular dance numbers (because everyone was doing that).
In my notes for Titus Andronicus, I mention that the ASC has developed an audience who is thirsty for plays off the beaten path, an audience who delights when we unearth plays that are rarely (or never) done by other theatre companies. I chose this play for those of you with that thirst. But I also chose this play for those of you who have been hesitant to take a sip of something this unfamiliar. We want the Blackfriars to be a place where audiences know we're going to deliver superior entertainment - shocking dramas, rip-roaring comedies, and everything in between - whether or not the title is familiar. We want scholars to know we are committed to staging more than just Shakespeare's greatest hits. ASC audiences are incredibly diverse and you are growing larger season after season. We are committed both to hitting you where you're at and to coaxing you down some roads less travelled. I invite you to join us for the play Mr. Bayes says has: "Fighting, Loving, Sleeping, Rhyming, Dying, Dancing, Singing, Crying; and everything, but Thinking and Sense."
Artistic Director and Co-founder
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Actors' Renaissance Season