Staging the Henrician Court : KEY QUESTION - Is Merry Report a clown or a courtier?

This page last changed on Jan 20, 2010 by Eleanor Rycroft.

Merry Report's status became a central issue for the team as we began to stage the play.  He is nominated a 'Vice' on the title page of The Play of the Weather but nominates himself 'a poor gentleman, dwelleth hereby'.  When we tried to impose overtly Vice-like behaviours upon the role we found that it did not aid our telling of the story, so we opted for a far more straightforward representation of a character who, though irreverent, nevertheless performs his office in accordance with Jupiter's command and to Jupiter's satisfaction.  

However, this choice wasn't necessarily endorsed by audience members who came to see the play and we are particularly interested on your thoughts about whether Merry Report can be seen as a clown or a courtier, and how his character is connected to other Vices found in the plays of the early Tudor period. 

IF Merry Report is called a “vice” in the printed form of the play, then we’d best start asking what they thought they were describing when they used that term:  it certainly doesn’t seem as if he is what those earlier scholars if the twentieth century were talking about.  This fellow is the one who keeps the play moving and who cracks jokes periodically to keep the audience paying attention!  If that’s what a vice is, I’m all for it.  He is more like a music hall comedian than anything else:  “ a song and a dance and a belt in the back” as the old American adage has it.  And the nudging for the tip (bribe) goes along with that, too:  no one disapproves of that in the play.  It just seems like standard practice. Or maybe they are just shrugging their shoulders…

Posted by Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz at Mar 10, 2010 04:40

The problem is the word 'vice' since this seems to indicate that there is something wrong or even evil with Merry Report. It maybe, however, that we are adopting a too modern or simplistic idea of what vice implies. Fansy is a vice in Skelton's Magnificence but it would be difficult to describe him as evel. In a rather different context Lady Mede in Piers Plowman is a vice but she is not so much evil as someone who provokes evil in others. Merry Report is above all merry - and it maybe that Heywood in this play is making fun at a particular godly or evangelical understanding of vice which sees it only as evil or bad.

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Mar 10, 2010 12:53

I think part of the problem is that Heywood uses of the term "the Vice" (for the first time in an extant script) to refer both to the principal comedian of the company and the dominant comic character in an interlude. This usage that later became standard practice and I think it is an illusion of the available evidence that suggests that it was an innovation on Heywood's part. The fact he uses the term without explanation suggests to me that the term was already in use in this way, indeed it may have been for some time. Mischief in Mankind operates as the Vice of that play even though he is not termed so in the text.

At some indeterminable point in theatrical history, the central character in the popular drama accumulated theatrical conventions that were only tangentially connected to morality. The Vice usually remains an equivocator and a trouble causer but is not always an obvious representative of the forces of evil, although there always remains the connection between folly and sin as in the case of Fancy. As Tom suggests, making merry was one of his key theatrical functions.

I would suggest that the development of the conventions of the Vice were already well under way when Heywood wrote his play. Joanne's perception that he operates like a music hall comedian and the prime mover in for the play's action and comedy is spot on. Heywood's innovation might have been to use the conventional Vice in play that was not a morality play. The other strange thing about this Vice is that he does not ultimately deceive the suitors; he actually represents them fairly at the end. But he is still funny throughout and determined to entertain himself and the audience.

Posted by Peter Cockett at Mar 10, 2010 16:20

I just looked the word, vice, up in my ancient OED 1-volume dictionary.  There are many entries, dating from the 16th century, which use vice as the prefix for important positions/jobs.  Certainly, that is what M.Report is, a representative of the ruler...  Isn't it possible to look up the variations on the word via computer and the new OED.  Sometimes, the older OED is a little thin on ME vocabulary.  Vice- seems to stem from the French.

Posted by Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz at Mar 10, 2010 21:39

I think one should examing the earlier scholarship to see how vice was defined there.  In my own work on the morality play (now some 40 years ago), it seemed to me that the earlier scholarship often obfuscated rather than clarified the nature of the individual morality plays.  I guessed then, that the scholarship-particularly around Shakespeare-was too focused on character.  Such a focus simply blinded people to what was going on in the earlier plays, I thought.  That's why I began looking at how literate people were educated and that led me to the rhetorical treatises of the time, Erasmus, for example, who was all the rage...but there were earlier ones which people like Rastell may have been educated in...

Posted by Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz at Mar 10, 2010 21:49

A couple of things.  Greg Walker once raised in rehearsal the idea that perhaps Heywod's Vice was a more of a de-vice, or engine.  Difficult to prove but he certainly operates as an engineer in terms of the play's momentum/direction...

Also, although I absolutely agree with Joanne that scholarship has been too focused on character, I just want to point out a couple of lines in the text that our actor felt were significant for his performance of the Vice.  Following the argument with the Laundress and after he has had to defuse two heated arguments (between the millers and the women), Merry Report says, "Everyman knoweth not what goddes servyce is/ Nor I myself knew yt not before this" (lines 986-7).  When is Merry Report's "this"?  Before being appointed at the very beginning of the play or before the dramatic action which has just occurred?  Is it possible that Merry Report is more Vice-like at the outset but the demands of actually performing his office instigate some sort of change in him?  Is it significant that he shows pity and compassion for the next suitor after this statement, the Boy - who we might expect to be a prime target for sexual innuendo as with the later Tudor plays? 

Merry Report seems to suggest that he might prefer some suitors above others during the course of the play - taking tips from some for instance - this seems certainly to be the suitors' assumption.  Indeed the Laundress fears "my part shalbe the wurst" (lne 951) if Merry Report is biased towards the Gentlewoman.  But he does, as Peter says, report each suit equally and fairly.  I think it might be that Merry Report's office wrings some sort of change to his character. 

Eleanor Rycroft at Mar 16, 2010 15:34

Well, I don't see why a character change of any sort is required in these short plays.  That's an expectation that comes from the later drama which was longer and much more interested in character.  The name, "Merry Report", describes who he is:  a reporter to the higher authority and one who makes merry/ is comic.  Does the play require he be anything else?  Or are actors just accustomed to searching out "motivation"  in the course of their representation?  Does a comedian need to change his character--or be affected by change?  I suspect he just needs to keep the jokes coming and the audience laughing...One can easily overinterpret these morality plays.

Posted by Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz at Mar 17, 2010 02:25

I'm not so much promoting psychological character consistency as interested in why Heywood would include these lines.  He might be making some sort of point about the difficulty of being a good servant to a ruler - the overarching purpose of the play, I think, being to represent monarch-subject relations.  Merry Report thought his job would be all fun and tips, but the management of people actually proves rather arduous.  One of the good things about practice-based research is that it makes you focus on aspects of the text which you might normally gloss over as a reader.  I found it helpful to have an actor ask me 'what's the purpose of me saying this?' - for the play as much as the character - although, as you say, some of these paths of inquiry can prove to be red herrings. 

Eleanor Rycroft at Mar 17, 2010 10:39

It is a curious line. I believe Joanne is right is saying that character development is an anachronism but the line is not easily dismissed as part of the Vice/clown convention. One of the conventions of the Vice identified by Happe and others is that they provide moral commentary on the action in spite of the fact that they are ostensibly representatives of evil and this can explain the first line. But "I myself knew it not before this" is different because it is concerned with his own knowledge and suggests he has learned something. Vices usually know everything. As I said in my paper, this play is different from other moral interludes because it is political rather than moral - it also has characters that are representatives of social types rather than abstractions of moral values. That said, I do not think this justifies building modern character and narrative cohesion around this line. Playing the role of the servant in need of perferment is just one of many games the Vice plays in this interlude. The playfulness is key and this is what Danny discovered in the more comic version according to his interview.

I think one of the pieces of information we are not embracing is that the term Vice was used interchangably with the term Fool. I've just come across a couple good examples in Robert Hornback's book "The English Clown Tradition". We know vices are associated with wooden daggers but St John's College Register of Inventories for 1548-9 has a reference to "a fooles dagger of wodd." Interchangeability of the terms is further enforced by the following reference to in King Edward's Christmas Revels account (1550-51) to "one vices dagger & ladle with a bable pendante....delivered to the Lorde of misrules foole" (Qtd. on pages 80 and 86).

I think the play should be imagined as a series of games the fool plays loosely connected by the narrative. One of the games is that the court fool or vice pretends to be a poor gentleman in search of preferment. Through playing this game the fool/Vice comes to a momentary appreciation of the problems of being a courtier but the effect is local and transitory. Making preferment Merry Report's superobjective that unites the narrative and implies character development does not even satisfy the tenets of psychological realism that demand that all the character's actions should make sense in relation to their objective. His report to Jupiter at the end serves that objective. Here he is doing his job well. But how does flirting with the gentlewoman serve that objective, or mocking the gentleman, or ridiculing the millers, or insulting the laundress?

Posted by Peter Cockett at Mar 17, 2010 17:55

"Spot on, Peter" as y'all say.  The association of vice and fool is stunning, and suggests some other interpretation for the word vice.  Can that be tracked down? 

Another distinction that has always bothered me:  the separation of allegorical and typical characters.  Costumed and speaking, Truth, Virtue, Folly, etc. have always seemed to be simply characters to me.  I wonder if that separation is a necessary bit of analysis trying to find analytic categories for the mass of plays, so many of which are ill understood.

 Just a few thoughts ...

Posted by Joanne Spencer Kantrowitz at Mar 18, 2010 02:37

It is interesting to compare the presentation of the vices and virtues in Everyman - the former need intrepretation while the latter don't - Everyman simply needs to accept their counsel. It is difficult to tie down the distinction between allegorical and typical characters - one way of thinking about it maybe to view vices as metaphoric figures and virtues as more metonymic - ie whereas vices create / incite interpretative pleasure / consumption / chose the virtues are stable / fixed. Bishop Alcock in one of his printed works complained about the dangers of long windy sentences ( and the fact that this is what readers wanted ) and advocated short, simple sentences as inherently more truthful. Are vices the theatrical equivalent of long sentences and the virtues the opposite?

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Mar 19, 2010 13:42

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