BOOK REVIEW - Published in Theater Journal, Volume 68, Number 1, March 2016 (Johns Hopkins University Press)
SINGING SIMPKIN AND OTHER BAWDY JIGS. MUSICAL COMEDY ON THE SHAKESPEAREAN STAGE: SCRIPTS, MUSIC AND CONTEXT. By Roger Clegg and Lucie Skeaping. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2014; pp. 339.
Singing Simpkin and Other Bawdy Jigs is a new book co-authored by Roger Clegg and Lucie Skeaping for the University of Exeter’s Performance Studies series. It’s a hybrid work that engages social history, musicology, theatre history and stagecraft, and dance. A large part of the book focuses on reconstructions of nine “jigs,” a multi-valent term in this case referring to short, sung comic-dramas portraying stories of social conflict with stock characters resembling types familiar from Attic comedy and the Commedia. The book reinvigorates this lively and little-known form, previously explored in Charles Read Baskervill’s The Elizabethan Stage Jig from 1929. But whereas Baskervill’s study focused predominantly on the texts, Clegg and Skeaping’s book addresses the full range of formal elements of the jig: texts, music, dance, staging, social context, and audience reception.
Methodologically, the book proceeds like an anthropological inquiry, drawing upon a wide range of primary sources—from journal entries to Parliamentary ordinances—to paint first a cultural landscape, within which a series of performance portraits can be reviewed and analyzed. The ambition here, however, is not one of revealing principles or grand theories, but one of discovering and sharing useful knowledge. The inter-disciplinary approach of Clegg and Skeaping is not ruled by any prevailing theoretical doctrine, which allows them to avoid the traps that habit and indoctrination can lay—in particular, traps that would constitute the artifacts in its purview by making them serviceable only to its doctrinal ends. The writing is crisp and jargon-free, and avoids intellectual political correctness. The book is divided into three main sections: 1) A history of the dramatic jig; 2) Scripts and tunes; and 3) Staging. There is also a short appendix written by Anne Daye, which provides notes and dance instructions for three of the book’s jigs, including detailed steps for performing the dances, as well as ancillary stage directions (based on evidence from John Playford’s The English Dancing Master from 1651).
The jig is unique among the various theatrical forms found in England and Europe throughout the 17th century. While sharing the extra-theatrical elements of music and dance with forms such as the Italian Intermezzo, the French Ballet de cour, and English Masque, the jig was not scenically elaborate, nor used to valorize an important or noble figure. Jigs were rude, scurrilous, and bawdy, populated with common characters in scenes of social and sexual high-jinx. They were short, performed mainly as after-pieces, though occasionally as entr’actes and interludes, to both comedies and tragedies (for which the authors provide accounts of some jarring audience response on the move from terror and pity to glee and folly), and the dialogue was sung to popular tunes of the day—a technique that would later ground larger-scale works like Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. Like the French performance genre known as the sotie, jigs were closer kin to carnival-related performance, with an emphasis on clowning, visual gags, double-entendre, and a reversal of the common social order. Indeed, two of the most renowned jig performers were Richard Tarlton of The Queen’s Men, and Will Kemp, the well-known Shakespearean clown. The authors also provide some keen essay into the contributions to the form by both Tarlton and Kemp.
The jig’s beginnings were in London. The book describes performances given at The Curtain, The Red Bull, The Fortune, and The Globe, and details its rising popularity among London audiences. The book also tracks the jig’s migration to Europe, when as early as 1585, English actors took jigs on tour to the continent. But the jig’s popularity was to face a variety of challenges. The book spends significant time accounting the conflict between the traditional literary tradition represented by people like Marlowe, Jonson, and Fletcher, and the upstart, pop-culture novelty of the jig. The book also explores the social and political conflicts animated by the jig, particularly of the rowdy and sometimes lawless behavior of the audiences in attendance. Among those conflicts, the book recounts a 1612 motion from the General Session of the Peace in Westminster which sought to suppress the performance of jigs due to the lewd songs and dances, as well as an Ordinance of Parliament from 1642 calling for performances of jigs to cease. And while such actions did not fully halt performances of jigs (the book provides evidence of continued, covert performances), a growing anti-theatrical prejudice was gaining prominence. The authors cite Jeremy Collier’s well-known “Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage” from 1698, the impact of which aided in the decline of the jig—though its influence would live on in the Pantomime and, later, in Music Hall performance.
The centerpiece of the book is its collection of nine jig scripts and the tunes utilized for the sung dialogue. Each script is preceded by a synopsis, a detailed account of the script’s provenance, sources of the script, commentary on the tunes, and continental variants of the material where relevant. The texts are annotated to elucidate outmoded language, particularly with respect to the wordplay and puns that are so abundant in the texts.
Finally, the book addresses the staging of the jigs, dealing with stage directions and stage business, props and costumes, stage fights and dances, and lengthy attention to the musical elements: musicians, tunes, instruments, and approaches for re-creating the period-style of the music in terms of musical conventions. Musical notation for the tunes is included, as are chords to accompany the tunes. Interested readers may also check out author Lucie Skeaping’s recording The English Stage Jig, performances of five jigs with her musical group The City Waites, to augment the experience provided by the book.
Clegg and Skeaping prove sound guides for this very interesting and little-known topic. This is a book that will be welcomed by most theatre historians and performance studies scholars, as well as most theatre practitioners due to its combination of scholarship and practical dramaturgy. In all, the book is clearly written with a deep respect and admiration for the material it covers.
Robert M. Black, PhD
University of Washington
MUSIC REVIEW - Forthcoming in the the (Spring) Journal of the International Assocation of Women in Music:
Hasu Patel: Compositions for Sitar and Orchestra (Multiple Self-Released CDs available via CDBaby, Amazon, HasuPatel.com)
In 2017, Hasu Patel, a world-renowned performer, composer, and educator of Indian classical music, released three CDs of Raga Sangeet (Music of Colors). Each of the discs contain two Raga performances with Hasu on sitar, accompanied by Kalinath Misra on tabla. The performances are elegant and deft examples of music in the Hindustani (North India) tradition, performed in the Gayaki Ang or “vocal song” style. In addition to reviewing music from these new discs, I will also address a recording of one of her three Concertos for Sitar and Orchestra.
A representative example of the music found in Hasu’s new repertoire is from her “Raga: Yaman Kalyan/Raga: Kirwani” CD. The opening composition is a performance of the Yaman Kalyan raga. In Indian classical music, ragas—akin to Western scales, but different in significant ways—are intended to evoke specific moods (rasas). The mood of the Yaman Kalyan is tranquil and devotional. While the raga dictates the melodic framework for the composition, the “taal” is the rhythmic framework. In this collection, Hasu employs the “teentaal” rhythm, a framework consisting of an arrangement of sixteen beats (matras) in four equal divisions. The raga opens with an improvised, unmetered prelude known as the “Alap.” Here, Hasu delicately develops the mood of the raga in a slow and serene manner against a drone created by using the “chikari” strings of the sitar. The sonority is akin to the Western Lydian mode, but creates a mood uniquely non-Western. Passages play over a spacious C/G drone, with frequent ornament around F#. While in Western contexts, the F# would create a dissonance as the tritone above the C (or major 7th above the G), here the sonority strikes a balanced consonance. Following the Alap, the piece moves to the Gat, a metered, composed section where the tabla enters. Over the next eighteen minutes, the piece moves from a slow (Vilambit) and tranquil mingling of sitar and tabla to a fast (Drut) and fervent interplay, with the tabla employing its ability to use melodic attributes through applying finger or palm pressure to the tabla skins to modulate pitch. The piece concludes with an ecstatic dialogue, with both players executing their parts with superb precision. The recording is engineered with care and closely renders each instrument’s nuances.
Other ragas performed in Hasu’s new releases include: the Raga Kirwani, which evokes a melancholy mood; the Raga Charukauns, a raga of grandeur and pathos; the Bhairavi raga, a raga close to the Western Phrygian mode that elicits a mood of peacefulness; the charming and graceful Raga Lalit; and finally, the Raga Darbari Kanada, which summons feelings of devotion and is known to be one of the most difficult ragas to perform. Each of these ragas are performed with exquisite skill and lucidity.
Of special interest is Hasu’s Sitar Concerto Mangal Dhwani (Auspicious Sound), the first of her three concertos for sitar and orchestra. The concerto, from 2014, was commissioned and performed by the Doctor’s Orchestra of Houston. The composition utilizes the traditional concerto format of spotlighting an individual instrument (sitar) with contrasting passages from the orchestra. This concerto employs the Raga Bageswari, a raga intended to conjure the feelings of longing for an absent lover. The work undertakes the difficult challenge of marrying the melodic aspects of the raga, which utilize micro-tones (shrutis) naturally playable on sitar and tabla, with Western scales played by Western instruments built to support a tuning system based on equal temperament. It’s clear from the recording that maestro Patel—in conjunction with conductor Libi Lebel—have crafted the music and rehearsed the instrumentalists to produce authentic classical Indian harmonic texture within the framework of a Western orchestra. The result is a rich and sonically colorful musical experience. Patel’s Mangal Dhwani opens with a brief Alap on the sitar, but is joined shortly by the strings, with woodwind and harp flourishes. The first prominent theme is introduced by the brass and tympani and develops into a contrapuntal exposition with the orchestral tutti, which calls to mind some of Maurice Ravel’s most colorful orchestrations. At approximately the 17-minute mark, the tabla joins with the sitar in an astonishingly fast and virtuosic interlude. The piece builds, via accelerando and crescendo, to a rousing conclusion, with added sparkle coming from the addition of a glockenspiel doubling the melody in its highest register. The only quibble I have is with the quality of the sound recording: the performance seems as if it was recorded using a single microphone placed somewhere in the audience, so the audio fidelity is not what it could be. (I should note that I have heard the forthcoming recording of Hasu’s second Sitar Concerto and the audio quality is superb.)
The compositions in these recordings represent a very high-caliber musical intelligence and talent, and I warmly recommend them to all music-lovers. But more than that, they make a gesture—in their native context, at least—to something greater than pleasure to the ear. These compositions gesture at the sruthi (that which is heard) of the gods. The classical music of ancient India is deeply connected to their Vedic spiritual tradition. The four, foundational Vedic texts of that tradition are indeed filled with songs, and the Samaveda—which is abundant with musical notation—is considered to be one of the world’s oldest surviving musical manuscripts. Finally, it’s worth calling forth here the title of maestro Patel’s Mangal Dhwani concerto: Auspicious Sounds. The word “auspicious,” meaning something “conducive to success,” originates from a Latin word that comes from the ancient near-East practice of observing the flight of birds in order to divine the indications of a favorable blessing. I’d like to suggest that these recordings, bestowed upon us by Hasu Patel, are auspicious musical gestures, full of the power to successfully preserve and propagate the classical music of ancient India. May they continue.
Robert Black is an independent scholar and songwriter. He holds a BFA and MA from Kent State University and a PhD from the University of Washington (Seattle). Additionally, Dr. Black has studied music composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. His portfolio includes original music for plays by Aristophanes, Brecht, Picasso (yes, Pablo Picasso!), Sartre, and Shakespeare. He adapted Godard's film "A Bout de Souffle" ("Breathless") for the stage, which he directed at Kent State University. He is currently completing a theatrical song-cycle based on James Joyce's Ulysses.
Robert Morris Black © All rights reserved.