Gabriella Infante, PhD Candidate in the Department of English at KCL, recounts an evening of education and entertainment in which the early modern tavern was brought to life as part of King’s Arts & Humanities’ Festival ‘Play’.
Playing cards, ballads’ sheets, wine and beer on tables in a candlelit room welcomed the audience of ‘At Play in the Early Modern Tavern’ last 12th October at Tutu’s. As part of King’s Arts & Humanities’ Festival ‘Play’, the Centre for Early Modern Studies organised an event celebrating the several meanings of ‘play’ in the world of the early modern tavern.
On this occasion, it seemed apt to emphasise the hedonistic features of taverns, such as drinking, courting, and gambling. The three main segments of the event were aimed at celebrating carpe diem over nefarious consequences of extreme drinking, and planned to avoid cautionary tales, by providing a window on the dynamics originating in playful early modern taverns. Drinking and drinking places hold an exceptional place in the cultural identity of England, and it is the early modern age which defined socio-political differences between alehouses, taverns, and inns. Taverns became to assume specific features from the 1550s to the end of the seventeenth century – the period in which the songs, documents, and play performed for this event were produced.
Dr. Emily Butterworth, Lecturer in the French Department and co-director of CEMS, effectively introduced the audience to the diverse world of early modern habits of drinking, by also indicating the timeframe and the social implications linked to each type of drinking place. For her section of the event, students from King’s Music department Matthew O’ Keeffe, William Hester, and Alex Prately performed Jean Richafort’s Trut avant il faut boire, a chanson which describes and enacts the good fellowship of drinking, also reprised in the final section of the event, and insists on the importance of seizing the moment of enjoyment and fun in life car après que serons morts – because we will be dead after anyway.
As a song thought for three trained singers, and therefore created for, and more suitable to, a tavern or an inn, this was different from the second section of the event, planned by Professor Laura Gowing, department of History. King’s former MA students Charlotte Fletcher and Emma Harris and current PhD students Michelle Barnette and Molly Corlett re-enacted bits of defamation cases held in the records of the Consistory Court of London spanning the years 1572-1725. Famous and infamous locations across London, such as the Sun Tavern in St. Martin in the Fields or the Greyhounde Tavern in Soho Fields, were the set of rough verbal exchanges between citizens attending these places. The audience could enjoy a realistic peek into the dynamics of a promiscuous early modern alehouse, where excessive drinking and carefree pursuit of sexual pleasure combined to create dangerous, and illegal, situations.
As a break before the longest and final section of the evening, the ballad Good Ale for my Money and the song Martin said to his Man delighted the audience, particularly eager to read the lyrics and sing along, and to follow the three singers in a further invitation to drink and be merry.
The event ended with excerpts from the play The Walks of Islington and Hogsdon, with the Humours of Woodstreet Compter, by Thomas Jordan. This section was organised by Dr. Lucy Munro and me, both from the department of English, with the invaluable help of director James Wallace. First performed on the stage of the Red Bull in 1641, and then published in 1657, this comedy was also re-thought for the Restoration audience and King Charles II in the 1660s. The scenes selected presented an appealing cohort of gallants, attempting to juggle unhappy marriages, lovers, pregnant whores in taverns of Islington –background to many of their mischiefs. The play, like Laura Gowing’s section, was carefully chosen to convey topographical familiarity and to elicit participation by stressing the relevance of locations for the early modern drinking space.
The purpose of the event was to offer entertainment to a modern audience through accurate re-enactments of early modern life episodes in relation to drinking customs in England. The event managed to convey the importance of taverns as social, as well as political, places of cultural exchange, but its main aim was to explore the meanings of ‘play’ to the early modern mind. And what better way to do that, than in a place where every type of play, from cards to transvestitism, took place? Nunc est bibendum. Now is the time for drinking.