Reading Resolution: “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” by Beaumont and Fletcher

16. A book older than 100 years: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher


List Progress: 2/25

Picture the scene:

You go to see a play. It’s kind of cheesy, but okay overall. But two people sitting in the front row don’t like it and start heckling the actors. They think the play can be done better, and by their employee at that, so they shove their guy up on stage and demand that scenes be written around him. The cheesy play continues with occasional interludes of some random guy spouting high drama and two hecklers commenting on it the entire time. It’s basically a play with its own MST3K treatment written in.

This bit of meta madness is The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

It was written in 1607.

And it’s amazing.

One of the first truly meta plays, The Knight of the Burning Pestle is one of the rare classics that is still actually funny. Not just “I understand why this was amusing to audiences of the time” funny, but something I actually laughed at. I first heard of it when a local theater put on a production (that I was unable to make it to), and having read it, I can see why it is still being performed. And I really want to see this thing on its feet at some point.

I wonder if the play seems funnier to me because I have a theater background and the absurdity of the audience-actor relationship hits home for me, but it was just a great time to read. Rarely do you get to see something this both clever and stupid at the same time, satirizing the middle class culture of the time, the stilted overdramatic constants of the theater, and the absurd fluff that audiences crave and demand.

My only real criticism would be that the fourth and fifth acts drag a bit as they delve into more topical-for-the-time humor that is still amusing but doesn’t ring as timeless as the more meta jokes do. But the ending was so delightfully stupid, with the hecklers demanding a dramatic death scene, that I was back to laughing along. And I want to play the female heckler character so badly.

I don’t have much else to say other than I really liked it. A level of comfort with archaic language is necessary, but with a bit of effort to get started, you’re in for a treat.

Would I Recommend It: Oh yes.

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