Whispers from the Wings

Who dunnit?!

May 9, 2014

Nope, not who killed Master Arden of Faversham but who wrote the thing? A blog or two ago, I sang the praises of the author/thoress of Arden of Faversham. It seems almost criminal that we should be robbed of the opportunity to honour the creator of a piece of work especially if you know anything about the writing process.

The great terrifying Everest of paper, parchment, Word document before you, mocking you to ruin its uniform blankness with the paltry contents of your head. The gut-punching moment when, after the pain and pride of giving birth to a first draft, you realise your feeble offspring has all but expired in the drawer or memory stick you left it in and redrafting feels like an over-extended session of CPR. And that's draft 2. By draft 17, the urge to burn the thing and yourself and take up screen printing or darts is overwhelming. And if, by sheer chance and letting of blood, you do produce worthy of public attention, the last thing you want to do is take your friggin' name off it.

To scan or not to scan, that is the quest(ion)

So who were the Anons through the ages? The author of the epic 10th-century Saxon verse, Beowolf? The 15th-century morality play, Everyman? The fully recommended 19th-century erotic novel The Autobiography of a Flea??! Our genius assistant director of Arden, Sam Caird, tells me they were everywhere in this period. Anon wrote simply dozens of plays, leaving us to set tests to examine verse structure and verbal patterning to solve the mystery of the missing names.

In Arden of Faversham rehearsals, we are sifting through the text forensically - actioning each phrase, honouring the verse. The play has already been lovingly pruned by the awesome double-brained talents of our director, Polly Findlay and fellow brainiac script adapter, Zoe Svendsen, with the dual aim of clarity and speed (it rockets along like a freight) and here and there a line gets snipped or mended.

Still, you can't help, when stumbling on a feminine ending or a blatantly muffled line that ruins the metre, wondering if Anon did it deliberately (as scholars claim) to illustrate the character's inner turmoil, or after spending too many sleepless nights trying to make it scan, just said 'f*ck iambics, Shakespeare can eat my ruff' and went down the pub.

And then you get this:

Ungentle Alice, thy sorrow is my sore;
Thou know'st it well, and 'tiz thy policy
To forge distressful looks to wound a breast
Where lies a heart that dies when thou art sad
It is not love that loves to anger love.

A scene between Alice Arden and her lover Mosby, so beautifully written that experts credit it to Shakespeare. Arden of Faversham is a play deemed to be written by many cooks although the broth seems to have remained decent...

With an Anon at work, there is no body of work to compare it to. You have no clue of style or development - it stands alone bravely, tested by time and each time it gets dusted off; in my mind at least, a little muffled cheer comes from an unmarked grave somewhere - 'me! me! I did that!' Or rather a silent broad smile or even a groan - 'thank Christ I never lent my name to that steaming pile.'

It's easy to forget that a vast amount of our world culture comes from a collective Anon. From storytellers, songs, prayers, myths - crafted and free-formed, invented and embellished round a campfire, to pass the time, honour a hero, the seasons, a god, to endure labour, celebrate wars and chronicle events - massive or domestic - before the great populous could write it down or read it.

We were nations of storytellers and of great listeners; a fading talent in the age of instant technological gratification. Listening is a talent. Beowolf is MASSIVE. The story before it was incarcerated and collated, it was a living creature, evolving from mouth to mouth, memory to memory, abused and embellished by each unique mind that filtered it and passed it on. Which leads me nicely to a new character in out rehearsal room...

The rhyme of the ancient song-mender

John TamsOn Tuesday, we meet the awesome John Tams, musical consultant for Arden but sooo much more. Looking both like a Beat poet and a great eager-eyed hawk, Tams' CV starts when he left school at 15 to work the fairgrounds. A folk musician with three critically-acclaimed solo albums, who then went into acting, both on stage and screen - check him out as poacher Daniel Hagman in TV mega series 'Sharpe'! The ubiquitous man has been musical director for the National, the Globe and of course the RSC but this afternoon, John Tams describes himself as a song-mender.

As the Arden cast sit round this weather-beaten genius straight out of a James Joyce novel, he describes the task of hunting down obscure songs and mending broken verses as you would the leg of a chair, then sending it back out into the world for use. Rich anecdotes break into song whenever cued by memory or request, his cracked sliding voice textured with truth and wit flits from folk ballads about poachers, glass hearts and mass murders.

Image caption: John Tams

'Ere be the news...

These songs, rescued, mended and collated, were of course never intended to be written down but were a form of news - chronicling events, creating myths and legends, ensuring infamous characters never truly died - an early internet if you will - once it was out there, it couldn't be stopped. They are the songs that truly belong to whatever we mean by 'the people'. By remaining anonymous, they belong to us all, passed down, born out of mystery but enduring because they were loved and needed.

A woodcut of the murder of Arden

Image Caption : A woodcut of the murder of Arden

With Arden of Faversham, some Anon (or a group of Anons) plundered Holinshed's historical chronicle (the original source) of the fate of a man called Arden, the centrepiece of a land-grab scandal with a multitude of enemies, murdered by none other than his wife in his own home. Without this play and 'The Ballad of Alice Arden' the case would be a paragraph in the history books. But Anon(s) put words in the dead man's mouth...  

This night I dreamed that, being in a park
A net was pitched to overthrow the deer.
I, upon a little rising hill
Stood quietly watching for the herd's approach
And there me thought a gentle slumber took me
And in the pleasure of this golden rest
A forester had wrapped the net around me
And with that he blew an evil sounding horn 
Then at the noise another herdsman came
With dagger drawn, and bent it at my breast,
Crying aloud, 'Thou art the game we seek.'
With this I waked and trembling every joint
I stood in doubt whether I waked or no,
Such great impression took this foolish fear.
God grant this vision bedeem me any good!

...leaving the audience with deliciously chilling detail which, if not true, simply had to be invented. Like in the chilling murder ballads such as 'Pretty Polly' and 'Lamkin', human instinct is to respond to life's dramas and to make them count.

Whatever the reasons behind Anon's anonymity - scandal, modesty, following a trend? - someone's dunnit and I guess you'll see in May if they dun a good job and whether we've done'em justice. Committing words to paper costs. It costs someone. Someone cared and I like that lots.

by Lizzie Hopley  |  2 comments

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May 20, 11:26pm
Richard Goddard

Stood next to Tams outside a session in a pub at a folk festival a couple of years ago, discussing an etching on the wall of an nineteenth century sea battle. You could almost see the song developing in his mind. The man is a genius. Oh, and thanks for your brilliant performance in Roaring Girl - great fun...

May 22, 7:02pm
Deborah Voorhees

Lovely article. Well written and well thought out--Deborah Voorhees, director/writer of BillyShakespearetheMovie.com and Associate Editor for Multimedia at The Shakespeare Standard.

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