or “The London Merchant”
Written by Francis Beaumont
From Philip Hoare’s biography of Noel Coward (1995):
“In August 1919, Coward played Ralph in The Knight of the Burning Pestle at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a comedy by Beaumont and Fletcher, ‘two of the dullest Elizabethan writers ever known’, Noel claimed. ‘I had a very very long part. But I was very very bad at it.’ Sixteenth-century drama and its phraseology was far removed from Coward’s world. ‘I played that poor apprentice with a stubborn Mayfair distinction which threw the whole thing out of key’, he confessed, at the same time unfairly blaming the director, Nigel Playfair, for lacking seriousness.”
“(2019) Cheek by Jowl reunites with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre on Francis Beaumont’s subversive and darkly funny play within a play. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a breath-taking comedy, hilarious and terrifying in its relevance to a post-expert world where everyone can be famous and anyone can write the story.
‘The London Merchant’ begins, a thoughtful drama about dysfunctional families. But suddenly, from the audience, a grocer and his wife clamber onto the stage and politely explain to the astonished actors that they are a little bit bored and wouldn’t it be better to cheer the evening up with exotic locations and a Knight – indeed their apprentice grocer Rafe is just the man for the job.
Rafe is duly arrayed as the Knight of the Burning Pestle and his chivalric adventures are played out while the domestic drama of the London Merchant struggles towards its conclusion, chronically interrupted by the grocer and his wife who surprisingly get highly involved with its gritty, unpredictable narrative.
Beaumont’s subversive meta-drama burst onto the stage in 1607, at a critical moment when theatre was threatened by a popular movement increasingly hostile to art and culture. A disturbing comedy centuries ahead of its time, it subtly asks questions all the more relevant today: what is art for? Who is art for?”