Singing Simpkin and Other Bawdy Jigs: Musical Comedy on the Shakespearean Stage - Scripts, Music and Context.
Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2014. Illus. Music. Bibliog. Index.
This is a very interesting and enjoyable book. I must confess that I wanted to read it quickly and get this review written but I found myself regularly slowed down by sheer delight and the interest of both the dramatic jigs and the writings of the authors about them. This is a very worthwhile book which may be read by anyone interested. in early modern drama, song and popular music, and social history, and by those concerned with contemporary performance of historical material.
There is a good. discussion of the confusing complexities of the term 'jig'. As with other dance- and music-related terms, it has multiple and. sometimes conflicting meanings: is it a dance, is it a type of tune, is it a play, is it a popular term for having sex? It is all those things and more besides. To avoid confusion the authors tend to use the term 'dramatic jig', which they define as 'a musical sung drama sometimes featuring dance'. As an end-piece or sometimes an interlude in plays, dramatic jigs flourished from about the 1570s, lasted through most of the seventeenth century, and had an ongoing influence on some forms of dramatic production such as pantomime. I think there is one interesting descendant that the writers do not mention, the medley. This was a form of comic song that used a number of different tunes in the construction of a performance piece, usually sung by just one person. It was popular from the seventeenth down to at least the mid-nineteenth century, when singer-comedians such as Sam Cowell and Ned Corvan made use of it.
The dramatic jig is a fascinating form, but as with the reconstruction of many past art forms, what we have in these texts is a mere shadow of what the thing was when performed, a ghost of the vehicle on which the actor-comedians rode. There is nothing wrong with exploring and performing these lively texts, but there is an irony in the fact that the more we bring them to life with our stage business, singing, and dancing, the further we get away from the actions and quips that enlivened the performances of Richard Tarlton, Will Kemp, and others. Those actor-comedians were praised in their day for their ability to respond to an audience and for their 'extemporising wit'. It is to the writers' credit that they are aware of this (p. 288), and it is for this reason that the appendix on 'dance instruction' (by Anne Daye) is the least convincing part of the book: 'extensive experience of reconstructing sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century dances' is no guarantee of the veracity of what is reconstructed. When it is asserted that the value of recreative procedures has been widely accepted' (p. 296) one must ask, by whom? Certainly not this writer! As Daye writes, 'we can never have more than a partial understanding of how our ancestors danced' (p. 296)--and we could well add, or how they sang and performed music.
There is a close connection between the theatrical jigs and broadside ballads. The form and tunes of broadside ballads were extensively used for theatrical jigs. Some broadside ballads, usually in dialogue form, were called jigs and could be performed dramatically. Like ballads, theatrical jigs could be made for libellous uses and the book contains some fascinating cases of scripts that survive only in court records. The whole theatricality of the theatrical jig raises fascinating questions about the performance style of such pieces, whether from the perspective of historical interest or in terms of their staging today.
As with a lot of writing about historical popular culture, the writers inevitably resort to supposition. The text is at times peppered with expressions of possibility rather than sound knowledge, and perhaps this is inevitable. There is nothing wrong with the disciplined use of historical imagination, but it is best when this is balanced by a straightforward expression of our lack of knowledge, as it certainly is in the very good section on the music of the jigs towards the end of the book. Cumulative suppositions. can take on the aura of fact.
I have a couple of other minor quibbles. Perhaps because of pressures of space, there is little in the way of a review of previous literature on the subject. In 1929 the American scholar C. R. Baskerville produced a volume called The Elizabethan jig and Related Song Drama. Notwithstanding its limitations - it was heavily influenced by the folklorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century - it remains a work of considerable scholarship and can still he read with profit. Baskerville does not even make it into the index of this book, although, for example, that great literary forger John Payne Collier and the historian of puritanism Patrick Collinson, both do. I would have liked to have seen more assessment of Baskerville's 'seminal treatment' p. (ix ). its limitations and its strengths - he is mentioned, but he is surely the giant on whose shoulders the present writers stand. Last in my set of quibbles, I was surprised to read that The crude combats of the mummers' play' fed into the 'robustly physical gestures and comic business that were part and parcel of the playhouses of Tudor and Stuart London'. Now mumming, with its dressing-up and associated antics, was certainly there, but most, I think, would now agree with Ronald Hutton when he writes of the mummers' play that 'no trace of it has yet been discovered before 1738' (1) It is surprising that such a view could be proposed today by otherwise very well-informed writers.
These quibbles aside, the book strikes a good balance between a learned introduction to the genre and an edition from which performances can be made. Editorial decisions are clearly stated, so there is no ambiguity about what we are dealing with. Where, for example, tunes are suggested and given for pieces that have no tune titles, this is indicated so the user can make his or her own decision about what to use. Sometimes internal evidence has 1.3een used to identify a tune that is not indicated, demonstrating an impressive familiarity with the material. I do not think one could ask more of editors: there is maximum transparency; the whole thing is carried off very well; and there is a great deal of sound sense in the writing. I commend the book to anyone interested in the subject.
(1) Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of kterty England: The Ritual Year 1400- l 700 (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 8. The full investigation is in Ronald Hutton. The Statimis (y' the Sun: A History gf the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 70-80.
Vic GAMMON Newcastle University
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|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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