The Four and Twentieth of August! Bartholmew-day! Bartholmew upon Bartholmew! there’s the Device! who would have mark’d such a Leap-Frog Chance now?
When John Little-wit, Ben Jonson’s would-be playwright whose day-job is law-clerking, discovers that a client named Bartholomew Cokes plans to get betrothed in Bartholomew Fair, on the feast day of St. Bartholomew (August 24), he delights in the literary neatness of it all.
The famous Fair, subject not only of Jonson’s greatest play (in my biased opinion – I wrote my dissertation on Bartholomew Fair), but also of many songs, poems, and memoirs, was originally a horse fair located in Smithfield, London, the area of the City devoted to butchers and livestock sales. Hence, an annual fair on the feast day of the saint who was martyred by flaying seems appropriate. Hard by the fair site was the Priory of St. Bartholomew, originally chartered by a court jester-turned-abbot, Rahere, in the 12th century.
There’s also a monument to William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), who was executed at Smithfield. He wasn’t flayed, but his gruesome death by drawing and quartering was grimly similar.
Jonson obviously loved the fair, as he set an entire comedy within its boundaries and peopled it with a wide assortment of lovable rogues, fools, lovers, and madmen. And its central theme is the ironic fact that even though humans are obsessed with creating alternate personas for themselves, it takes very little to strip away those disguises and reveal the true fool underneath. The playwright is so self-absorbed in his literary fantasies that he nearly loses his wife to a pimp; the hypocritical Puritan preacher is exposed for the lustful glutton that he is; the pompous Justice of the Peace tries to disguise himself as a madman in order to spy on the Fair’s vendors, and is exposed as a fraud by the very madman he impersonates.
The play, alas, is rarely performed because it is quite long and has nearly 50 speaking roles. Most productions in the past have had to cut the text severely, and also simplify the play’s many settings. The Stratford Theater Festival had a very successful production in 2009 that featured one of its biggest stars, Lucy Peacock, in the role of Ursula the Pig-Woman, a roast pork vendor who is the sole character in the play who never pretends to be anything she’s not. She boasts of being “a plain plump soft Wench o’ the Suburbs,” and providing Fairgoers with every kind of flesh they desire – namely, pork and prostitutes.
But both the play and the Saint for which it is named remind us that we are all like the Justice, Adam Overdo, admonished after his humiliation by the witty hero of the play, Quarlous:
Remember you are but Adam, Flesh and Blood! you have your frailty, forget your other Name of Over-doo, and invite us all to supper.
The play ends with a puppet-show and a communal feast, appropriate to the waning days of summer, the time of year when we look forward soon to leaving our scantily-clothed, carefree summer activities, putting on more layers, and getting back to the workaday world.
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