The “Merry Devil of Edmonton” and “The Witch of Edmonton”

The following is adapted from the introduction to my adaptations of The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton.

Out of Shakespeare’s Shadow

     That fellow from Stratford casts a long, virtually impenetrable shadow over the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Few today would be able to think of another playwright from the period — I hear a few of you shout “Marlowe”. Fewer still would be able to name a non-Shakespearean play from the period — “Dr. Faustus” one or two yell, as Marlowe peeks out of Shakespeare’s shadow again. But Shakespeare and Marlowe were just two of a multitude of playwrights of the period, and many, many plays of varying quality have come down to us that have nothing to do with Bill the Bard. But how many of those plays ever see a stage today? And how many of those plays have you seen performed? I confess, apart from an occasional bit of trans-Atlantic leakage from the BBC, I’ve never seen a production of a non-Shakespearean Elizabethan play. On the other hand, I’ve lost count of the number of Midsummer Night’s Dreams I’ve tripped over, from Patrick Stewart in a loincloth as Oberon at Stratford in 1977 to Edmonton’s Winter Shakespeare Festival’s production in 2020.

     I don’t think it in anyway diminishes Shakespeare’s genius to suggest that the time is long past for him to yield the stage for an evening or two to some of his illustrious but neglected colleagues. There is so much good and great theatre out there in the world (And I don’t mean just the English Language stage tradition – I dream of seeing a production of Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño !): I can’t help thinking that it is the responsibility of theatre artists to provide, and theatre audiences to demand, a broader view of our shared inheritance of great drama. I am so very grateful that Benjamin Blyth and Danielle La Rose of the Malachites feel the same way and are bringing The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton to the place these plays truly belong: a stage in Edmonton.

The Merry Devil of Edmonton

     The Merry Devil of Edmonton first came into my life as an accidental side benefit of my (possibly) pathological book collecting. A few years ago I was walking home from The Bookseller (96th Street and Whyte Avenue in East Strathcona, hard by the Mill Creek Bridge) examining my latest finds with happiness, when my eye fell with startlement on a title in a small volume of Elizabethan Tragedies: The Merry Devil of Edmonton. “Why have I never heard of this?!” I exclaimed, perhaps aloud. There and then began a decade or so of study, writing, and mild badgering of the Edmonton theatre community about the need to somehow bring the Merry Devil (and, later, The Witch of Edmonton) to the stage in their namesake city in the distant woods of Rupert’s Land. A passing mention of the plays to Danielle La Rose of the Malachites (over frozen haggis, if I remember) about a year ago, led to a staged reading of the two plays at Edmonton’s first Winter Shakespeare Festival in 2020.

     The Merry Devil as it has come down to us is what would be termed a “bad” text. Many passages seem garbled and whole scenes appear to be missing. I have emended one speech, in Act IV, Scene ii, to remedy a generally recognized corruption of the text. Three scenes, those of Fabell disguised as Hildersham meeting the knights in the Rectory of Holy Trinity, of Sir John’s singing in the woods of the Mill Creek Ravine with his friends (the songs themselves are traditional), and of Smug and the Tavern Signs are my own creations. I have added these scenes to clarify very apparent inconsistencies in the play as it has survived. The events in my added scenes are hinted at in the play and the latter two survive in a chapbook version of the adventures of Peter Fabell, Smug the Smith, and his friends. I have little doubt that in some Elizabethan performances of The Merry Devil of Edmonton similar scenes would have been performed.

     Peter Fabell (like most of the characters in The Merry Devil of Edmonton) is a folkloric figure with perhaps some basis in fact. He bears resemblance to the Faust legends, but, unlike Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Fabell traditionally outwits the Devil, saving his own soul (by being buried in the exterior wall of the Church in the Village of Edmonton, in the space between consecrated and unconsecrated ground) while having enjoyed the benefits of his Demonic contract.

     In our play, Fabell is still a young man, just beginning on his magical career of outwitting demons and the older generation. But he is already a powerful trickster figure. With his tricks Fabell helps his young friends overturn the plans of their parents. In fact, Fabell works to effect the transition of his society from the Medieval to Modern — in Marshall McLuhan’s words, “out of the world of roles into the new world of jobs” (The Gutenberg Galaxy, p. 22 in my old Signet paperback copy). Young Raymond, Millicent and their friends, and particularly Fabell, are not willing to quietly submit to the roles prescribed to them by their elders. Instead they set about, with the help of Fabell’s wit and magic, the job of creating their own future, and, in the end, they draw their elders into that world as well.

The Witch of Edmonton

This natural infirmity is most eminent in old women, and such as are poor, solitary, live in most base esteeem and beggary, or such as are witches; insomuch that Wierus, Baptista Porta, Ulricus Molitor, Edwicus, do refer all that witches are said to do, to imagination alone, and this humour of melancholy.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Pt. I, Sec. 2.

     The story of Elizabeth Sawyer, the Witch of The Witch of Edmonton, is a most quintessential tragedy, made even more tragic by the fact that Elizabeth Sawyer was a real woman tried and executed just a few years before the play was first performed. Mother Sawyer was scapegoated and killed for witchcraft. This in spite of the fact that the educated of her time, such as the real-life scholar Robert Burton, writing about what we might term “geriatric depression” in 1621 above were quite convinced that witchcraft was not really a “thing”. Mother Sawyer is a woman far more sinned against than sinning. She is condemned as a witch by neighbours who project their own fundamental ugliness onto her truly superficial ugliness. She wishes nothing else than to cling to her meagre existence, to be left alone, but she is condemned, beaten, and killed by the wealthy and the privileged, while those same wealthy and privileged go about their sinful business. Mother Sawyer so rightly describes that business of the privileged as actual “witchcraft”. Mother Sawyer is a tragic and pitifully realistic counterbalance to the educated and urbane Fabell. Both Fabell and Sawyer deal with the Devil, but it is only in poverty that the Devil truly has full, unrestrained power to do his damage.

     For the Winter Shakespeare Festival, I very heavily abridged the text of The Witch of Edmonton to bring it within the time constraints of the staged readings. This was a quite painful process: there is much poetry in this telling of the true-life tragedy of Elizabeth Sawyer. Much of the abridgement came down to the removal of single words, often of lines or brief speeches, but once of a large portion of a scene. The process was very opposite to that of adapting The Merry Devil, which largely involved adding my feeble creations rather than vandalizing a wonderful and coherent piece of art.

A Note on Locations

     The localities mentioned in the original text of the plays — Edmonton, Waltham, Enfield, Cheston (Cheshunt) — are now neighbourhoods of North London, but in Elizabethan times they were rural towns and villages in their own right. Just so, many neighbourhoods of our Edmonton were their own towns and villages not so very long ago. My own neighbourhood, Strathcona, was once a city in its own right. Since truly human truths are true wherever their story is told, I felt it would be both true and entertaining for modern Edmonton, Canada audiences if I quietly replaced the localities of London, England, circa 1600 with names of neighbourhoods, churches, and other landmarks around my home in 21st century Edmonton.
The Village of Edmonton in the plays, Fabell’s and Mother Sawyer’s home, is the namesake of our City of Edmonton, where so many today are energetically working like Fabell’s cohort, or tragically struggling like Mother Sawyer, to use imagination and wit to invent and reinvent themselves and their home. It has been small but enjoyable work to move the localities from the banks of the Thames to the banks of the North Saskatchewan.

Vanessa and the Mob

     There is a lady who lives in my neighbourhood– let’s call her “Vanessa”. She has a small dog, and she sells slim street newspapers each Saturday outside the “Farmers’” Market just down the Avenue from my house. If you live in Old Strathcona, you probably recognize Vanessa. The vast majority of the shoppers who pass by Vanessa drive cars from the suburbs each Saturday to get their little bit of “local” stuff before driving back to their distant homes. They can afford to shop at the Market. Vanessa can’t afford to buy her groceries at the “Farmers’” Market.

     Vanessa’s dog looks anxious, perhaps anxious to please. She is very calm, but when you talk to Vanessa– really talk to her — you get to know that she has — with reason – plenty of anger in her.

But Vanessa is kind.

     I help Vanessa out sometimes – less than I am able. And Vanessa has helped me, too, out of all proportion to the occasional twenty or collection of empties I’ve given her. She’s a “Street Person”, perhaps, but she’s definitely not “down and out”. Vanessa has a home. I have seen Vanessa survive surgery, eviction, alcoholism, and stuff I suspect but hesitate to imagine. Vanessa and her little dog are survivors.

     This evening, as I sit thinking about The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton in my comfortable home in a comfortable neighbourhood of a comfortable Canadian city in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century — a time when all statistical indicators tell us unequivocally that I live in the best of times ever for humans on this planet (despite the quite apparent coming climate apocalypse) — I think of Vanessa and her little dog. And I see that I am Fabell — little but fortunate, not a survivor — and Vanessa is Mother Sawyer, gathering sticks just to survive. I wish so much Fabell had been a totally real person, not largely myth, and that he had used his cunning to help the tragically real Mother Sawyer, even if only with a shilling, or a few sticks, or nothing more than a kind word.

     And if, as it came for Elizabeth Sawyer, the mob ever were to come for Vanessa, in this modern time, in this Gilded Age of (anti-)Social Media in which it seems so easy for mobs to appear, I hope that I would help her, that the whole neighbourhood would help her, that Edmonton would help her, somehow.

     But I wonder . . .

Twin wishes, for these Plays, and for the Reader

     I wish that through my small efforts of adaptation, through the creativity of the actors performing the staged readings at the Winter Shakespeare Festival, and through the publication of my adaptations in a little volume, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and The Witch of Edmonton will have been, first of all, appreciated, if only for an evening, by an audience in Edmonton; and secondly, that at some point in the not too distant future these two plays will be taken up and be given a fuller production — and a new home — by Edmonton’s wonderful community of theatre artists.

     Foibles afflict all of our lives, and we all need distractions from the little and the big things that disrupt our days and nights. I hope you, Reader and Theatre-goer find these two undeservedly unknown plays at least a small, pleasant diversion. Most importantly, may all your future foibles be nothing like Mother Sawyer’s tragedy, and much, much more like Smug’s comedy.

     And if you see Vanessa anywhere in your travels, say “Hello. I hope you’re doing okay.”

     And give her a fiver, for her paper.

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“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: wherein the Freewill Players demonstrate how to properly “tweak” a problematic Shakespearean play.

No spoilers here.

Like the texts of a number of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a little uncomfortable for audiences today.  How can one respond to a happy ending that sees the victim of attempted rape reconciled to her attempted rapist just a few moments after the crime? How can we accept the whole cast going off to celebrate a wedding just after the Bride was almost raped by the Best Man?  Well, as the Freewill Players warn us in the playbill for this year’s production, “we have tweaked Shakespeare’s ending”, and the tweak is, I feel, a profound success.  By means of a final repetition (with slight modification) of a line spoken earlier in the play, the women of the play find freedom in the only way possible: as outsiders, exiles, outlaws from the male social structure of the play.

Much is often made of images of transformation in The Two Gentleman of Verona, of references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses — this thread is made obvious in the name of one of the two Gentlemen, Proteus.  But in this Freewill production, the transformation is wonderfully turned away from the men who are textually the centre of the play, in the final moment — which I hope I haven’t spoiled — in which the ever-present Shakespearean crossdressing female character embraces her femaleness and offers escape to the trapped-in-their-gender-roles women of the play.

The “tweaking” of the ending is textually subtle (unlike the bitter, savage mess the Citadel recently made of The Tempest), just a repetition of a few words from earlier in the play which reveal a wonderful new depth of meaning perhaps inherent in the text.  Certainly, the repeated line serves only to emphasize meanings already conveyed by the body language of the actors.

If I go on, there will be spoilers, so I will end by saying, the performers were uniformly delightful, the sound system had it’s usual glitches, and,

go see Freewill’s Two Gentlemen of Verona!

Witches. In a Church. On a Winter Evening.

                               Wyrd oft nereð
unfaégne eorl      þonne his ellen déah.
Beowulf

There’s something magical about walking through an Edmonton winter evening snowfall to live theatre.  Strathcona theatre-goers are blessed to have available to them the walking part.  But all of Edmonton is blessed by The Malachites (and their friends at The Grindstone) and their hosts, Father Chris Pappas and the Holy Trinity Anglican community who bring us the now-annual winter tradition of Shakespeare in a most beautiful space.  This year it’s a riveting, tempestuous, three-hours-in-a-hard-church-pew-that-feels-like-an-exhilarating-forty-five-minutes-in-a-comfy-chair psychological thriller called Macbeth.

Director Benjamin Blyth has his Anglo-Albertan Malachites fill the space of Holy Trinity’s sanctuary with both external and internal struggles with swords and ambition, drawing the audience in (“come, come, come, give me your hand” says Danielle LaRose’s sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, and she crouches to take an audience member’s hand).  Swords clash, blood flows (a little), and we all, characters in terror and audience in fascination, seem inexorably pulled along by the spun, spinning, and yet to be spun life-fate-threads of the Wyrd Sisters (Monica Maddaford, Jaimi Reese, and Kaleigh Richards).  Sarah Karpyshin’s set design has T-shaped risers thrust the action into the audience down the nave of the church while also dividing this “public” space from the characters’ “private” space in the choir.  And the Witches are ever enveloping all with eerie sound from the aisles.  And so, I must mention the remarkable musical selections and sound design by Danielle LaRose wearing her non-Lady Macbeth hat.

The battle and murder scenes show off Janine Waddell’s wonderful fight choreography without unnecessarily bathing the stage in blood.  (Full disclosure: Ms. Waddell very generously provided fight training for the cast of Guenevere at the Fringe last year, so I’m biased. And some of the sword’s in Macbeth look comfortably familiar.)  Dana Luebke’s costumes are exquisitely Medieval and provide effective shorthand for identifying more minor characters played by doubling-up supporting actors.

Yes, some of the supporting actors are a touch too quiet at times, but there ends my negative criticism. Colin Matty’s Banquo is a twin-like complement to Byron Martin’s Macbeth, Bob Greenwood turns in stalwart and varied performances as Duncan, the Porter and a few other character parts. Young Anna MacAuley is charming in the dual child rolls of Macduff’s daughter and Banquo’s son Fleance (watch for her magical apparition in the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene).  And all the rest do some enchanting things with very original tableaux and expressive backchat.  No matter where you glance, there always seems to be something fascinating happening.

Of course, the centre of the play is the descending spiral of LaRose’ Lady Macbeth and Martin’s Fate-marked Thane of Glamis.  They are wonderful, and — those eyes! On both of them.  Through all their terror, rage, determination, indecision, ambition, laughter, madness, and, yes, moments of tender love, LaRose’s bright and Martin’s melancholy, the eyes of these two brave, tragic souls so marked by the Wyrd spinners of Fate will haunt you as you walk home through the snow.

 

Go see Macbeth.

Wednesday to Sunday at 7:30 until January 19th at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

 

Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

Onegin

Look around
Look around
Look around
Do you see someone worth dying for?

Onegin

I just got home from a wonderful evening in downtown Edmonton.

No, not at that hockey game.

I just got home from an evening of wonder at Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin, an unqualified marvel of theatre.

But . . .

How was it not a full house?!

From the moment the cast walked out from the voms and mingled with the first few rows of the audience (Nadeem Phillip sat with us for a brief discussion of the Edmonton theatre scene which ended with a hasty “до свидания!”) it was clear this was going to be a warm, inviting, fourth-wall-breaking, audience participation piece.

With vodka.

But the mingling and conversation (and vodka) were just the warm up. The fortunate people who chose theatre over hockey this evening witnessed a tour-de-force of acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, lighting and costume design, and just pure theatre.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on Pushkin — or Tchaikovsky — so I really didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be except Russian and so probably dark and probably not a happy ending.  But I didn’t need to know anything in advance. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cast is outstanding, many of them in many roles, but I found Alessandro Juliani most remarkable as the title character, the nihilistic, dark, Russian young man with more wealth than empathy who probably won’t have a happy ending.  But everyone in the cast truly shone and endlessly surprised as they each in turn stepped into the background and joined the orchestra (The Ungrateful Dead), picking up instruments and joining right in. The cast doesn’t just break the fourth wall, they break the side walls and the back wall, too.

Special mention must be made of Chris Tsujiuchi, piano and keyboard player and clearly the leader of the band, who completed his one hundredth performance of Onegin this evening.

The voices of Meg Roe (Tatyana), Lauren Jackson (Olga and others), and Caitriona Murphy (Madam Larin and others) were simply angelic while Jackson’s flamencoesque pas de deux with Juliani was more than a little devilish in a very pleasing way. Josh Epstein as Lensky was lyrically charming until he became tragically pigheaded at the end of the first act. All the darkness of Russian literature suddenly possessed this sunny young poet, and the audience just had to head to the lobby for another Black Russian.

Andrew Wheeler and Nadeem Phillip round out the cast performing a multitude of powerful and memorable “minor” characters with major impact.

I found the choreography of lighting and “theatrical fog” particularly noteworthy. Here the fog is not simply an atmospheric device unto itself, rather, it is also a canvas on which the light is projected, made solid by colour and shadow. So effective.

As I mentioned, I’m embarrassingly not up on Pushkin, but I know poetry when I hear it, and there is poetry — not just verse — in Veda Hille and Amiel Gladsone’s lyrics, poetry which, if not directly channelling Puskin, certainly does the Russian poet credit.

Edmonton’s theatre world is an embarrassment of riches; Edmonton theatre goers are amazing, generous audiences; we are very blessed on both sides of the many, many curtains we have in our city. We all benefited from this remarkable community recently when the very remarkable Hadestown had it’s run on the Shocter stage. And our community was noticed.

Tonight that remarkable theatre community was evident again: as Catalyst Theatre’s catchphrase has it, “Edmonton is our home. The world is our stage.” Tonight Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and we, the audience, were at home on our stage. Our theatrical riches keep increasing, and we don’t need to be embarrassed. We should embrace our riches proudly.

Onegin is playing on the Maclab stage at the Citadel until January 28, 2018. Fill the seats, Edmonton! You’ll be moved. You’ll marvel. You’ll maybe be a little heartbroken.

 

But you won’t be sorry.

 

Malachite Theatre’s Epiphany at Holy Trinity Anglican Church

It was a bitterly cold night outside Old Strathcona’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, but so wonderfully warm and cozy in the Christmas tree (and empty wine bottle)-filled Sanctuary in which the Malachites gave us a laugh-filled and tender gift of a remarkably fresh yet faithful treatment of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Years ago at the Citadel (during the second season of the Shoctor Stage) I saw Twelfth Night with Brent Carver playing Feste and the great John Neville turned out in fairly conventional yellow stockings cross-gartered. As fine as those two long-ago performances were, Colin Matty’s remarkable Feste and Brann Munro’s hilariously unexpected, outside-the-box, and, in the end, heart-rendingly sympathetic Malvolio set a new, very high bar for Twelfth Night.

Merran Carr-Wiggin’s Viola is charming to the point of jerking more than a few tears, Byron Martin’s Orsino is romantically melancholy but not at all lacking in strength, and Danielle LaRose’s Olivia glitters from the eyes to the toes as she transforms from melancholy to love-struck to pragmatically and gently happy. Perry Gratton and William Mitchell are everything Sir Andrew and Sir Toby should be, and Monica Maddaford’s prank-pulling Maria is a perfect, earthy, brainy, trickster string-puller . . . .

Oh, come on: they’re all so good and individual and memorable! Andrew Cormier’s Sebastian, Evan Hall in the dual roles of the Sea Captain and Antonio, Samantha Jeffery in her two roles of Fabian and Valentine, and Phillip Hackborn in his of Curio and the rifle-toting Officer.

And the music! Every single cast member is a singer, many take a turn at Holy Trinity’s grand piano, and Feste even pulls out a harp for one scene. The denizens of the courts of Duke Orsino and Olivia clearly throw themselves into this mid-winter holiday period and, indeed, into life itself. What a raucous romp!

Over a fairly short number of years, Holy Trinity has made itself into a vital part of Edmonton’s arts scene. The wonderful building is host to three venues for the annual Fringe Festival, and it hosts constant literary, dance, visual art, and theatre events.*

Holy Trinity is a phenomenon to be treasured and supported by the whole city.

Just before the play started this evening, Holy Trinity’s Rector (and cast member — he plays the Priest), Father Chris Pappas, started the festivities off with a first small wonderful gift: his hope that Shakespeare by the Malachites in mid-winter will become an annual event at Holy Trinity.

The addition of an annual mid-winter celebration of Shakespeare would be tremendous, but, please, don’t wait: — Twelfth Night continues until January 20th, 2018. Twenty bucks a ticket. Endless fun and tenderness. You won’t find a better entertainment value on any winter evening, cold or otherwise!

_______________________

I’m deeply honoured to have been a part of Holy Trinity’s first ArtSpirit festival in 2013.