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

Seattle, WA

BOOK REVIEW - Published in Theater Journal, Volume 68, Number 1, March 2016 (Johns Hopkins University Press)