Program Notes for The Clown – Kemp’s Jig

Sep 22, 2016 | 30th Anniversary, blog | 0 comments


2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. We musicians have a special place in our hearts for Shakespeare, who loved music, used it in his plays, and frequently referred to it to manipulate the emotions of his audience. We honor Shakespeare this year by exploring the contemporaneous theatrical and musical art of one of his star actors: the stage jig.

Dancing, singing, cross-dressing, off-color humor, fight scenes, and improvised comedy are all the stuff of jigs. These musical skits often performed during the intermissions or at the ends of longer dramatic works, juxtaposed comedy with the serious narrative of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. English jigs were popular from the 1580’s through the mid-eighteenth century, and were also performed on tour in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia as a kind of street theater. We’ll present three jigs for you this weekend, recreating a traveling comedy troupe’s entertainment for the masses.

kemp1Jigs were made popular by professional clowns who danced, sang, improvised lyrics, and the like. Richard Tarleton (d.1588), one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorites, set the standard for clowning. He extemporized comic verse, all while accompanying himself on the pipe and tabor and dancing. Tarleton was famous for his ability to improvise on subjects suggested by his audience, and he studded them with physical comedy and double entendres.

Tarleton’s successor William Kemp clowned with Shakespeare’s troupe the Chamberlain’s Men. He played mostly secondary roles in Shakespeare’s plays, but his time on stage may have been longer than the roles suggest, given that he also improvised comedic material. In addition to his part in a play, Kemp was responsible for providing a Jig or two to follow the performance. Singing Simpkin was published in England soon after the creation of the Chamberlains Men, and is very likely the work of Kemp himself. In any case, it was certainly one of the jigs he performed on Shakespeare’s stage, since it was in his repertory and was performed on his tours through Germany and the Lowlands.

kemp2Kemp’s time with the Chamberlain’s Men was fairly short. By 1600 he had left the troupe and started out on his celebrated Nine Days Wonder, a stunt in which he Morris-danced a journey of about 100 miles from London to Norwich. Our troupe enters the hall to the Kemp’s Jig, a jolly popular tune that alternates between a stately pavane melody and rollicking, antic leaps. We think it perfectly sets the stage for one of Kemp’s famous stage jigs.

Jigs survive today in the form of scripts, printed in broadside format. They consist of rhyming dialog, with instructions that they are to be sung to popular tunes, but no music is provided. Stage instructions are minimal, mostly indicating entrances and exits, insertions of dances, fights, etc. The job of today’s re-enactors is thus to reconstruct both the music and the staging conventions. In this we were lucky to be able to consult the work of scholar-performers Lucie Skeaping, Roger Clegg and Ross W. Duffin. All have done extensive research into the performance of jigs, and provided us with annotated scripts to use as our baseline.

To choose the music, we began by consulting the texts. Sometimes the titles of the tunes are specified, other times the directions are less helpful: “The Tune changeth”, for example. But other times we get a hint, as in the line sung by Wat Gruel to greet Moll: “Good morrow, Mistress trip and go”, citing “Trip and Go”, a lilting ballad tune that fits perfectly with the text of their dialogue about her dancing and singing abilities. Where the script or the dialogue suggests no tune, we have chosen songs or dances that fit the verse. Wherever possible, we chose music that might make a kind of cultural reference, in the manner of Shakespeare. Ballad and country-dance tunes abound in 16th and 17th century publications, and have fanciful names: O Man of Desperation, Bugle Boe, The Gelding of the Devil, etc. We chose Fortune my foe for the lament of the pickpockets in Cheaters cheated. In Singing Simpkin, the mercenary Bluster struts and postures to the tune of Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home, a ballad about a returning war hero. Because these tunes are just that – one line of melody, with no bass line or polyphony – David has arranged them in Renaissance style for our violin band and lutenist. Some tunes, such as The Jewish Dance and Greensleeves, are based on grounds (repeated chord patterns). Our musicians will improvise incidental music as needed for our staging using the famous grounds bergamesca and the passamezzo antico.

kemp3The acting style for jigs is decidedly lowbrow; our characters, after all, are farmers, servants, thieves, and prostitutes! In fact, the “persons” in the jigs, and in Singing Simpkin in particular, closely resemble the stock characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte. The Old Man equates with Pantalone, a miserly old coot who is cunning, but often deceived. Bluster is modeled on Il Capitano, a military type who boasts and struts, but is reduced to a quivering coward at the drop of a hat. Simpkin, the role played by Will Kemp (and in our production, by Steve Player) is a Zanni. This lowbred character is quick-witted, often dressed as a harlequin (Arlecchino) and employs a wide repertoire of lazzi, or physical gags.

The humor is broad, the plots unexpected, and the music is pure Renaissance pop.
We feel like we’ve found the roots of Monty Python, Benny Hill, Roland Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Ricky Gervais, and other purveyors of modern English humor. Getting to know the clowns of early England has helped us to connect the dots – we hope you’ll enjoy making their acquaintance, too!

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