Saturday 30 September saw a unique staging of Thomas Nashe’s only extant whole-authored play, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, in the Great Hall of the Bishop’s Palace in Croydon, where it was first performed in the early autumn of 1592. The performance was a joint venture between the Edward’s Boys company, from the King Edward VI School in Stratford, which, under the direction of deputy head Perry Mills, has been exploring the work of the early modern English theatre boys’ companies for the last ten years, and the AHRC-funded Thomas Nashe Project, which will culminate in a new multi-volume edition of Nashe’s works.
The play itself was written while the 24- or 25-year-old Nashe was briefly part of Archbishop Whitgift’s household, and published in 1600. To the extent that it is known at all, it is for the exquisite lyric, ‘Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss’, a staple of English verse anthologies.
There are no recorded performances of Summer’s Last Will on the public stage, and it is not associated with any particular acting troupe of the period. The published text refers to several players by name, who must have been known to its original audience and seem likely to have belonged to the household. Other parts may have been taken by children of the household, or by boys from one or more of the professional companies.
The structure of the play is simple and, in many respects, ‘undramatic’. That is, not much happens, and what does happen is both obvious and inevitable. All but one of the roles are personifications: Summer is dying and must decide who to leave his crown to. He summons the year’s officers to account for themselves – Spring, Orion, Bacchus, Christmas, and so on – before finally, to no-one’s surprise, making the crown over to Autumn.
Indeed, the one non-personification in the play, the ghost of Henry VIII’s fool, Will Summers, who comments on the action throughout, highlight’s the play’s obviousness with a verbal roll of the eye in his opening speech: “What can be made of Summer’s last will and testament?… He must call his officers to account, give his crown to Autumn, make Winter his executor… God give you goodnight.”
In this light, it is not hard to see why Summer’s Last Will has rarely, if ever, been revived. Should we, in fact, call it a play at all? “’Tis no play neither, but a show”, Will Summers sniffs early on. In terms of theatre history, it looks back to pageant and forward to masque, although whether it helped drive that change or was merely representative of the process is impossible to know.
Moreover, it is a challenging text to perform. It is studded to excess with Latin dicta. Speeches roll on and on, as Nashe indulges both his prodigious verbal energy and his University-learned skill at constructing rhetorical arguments: Orion has 80-odd lines just in defence of dogs; Winter’s main peroration lasts some twelve minutes.
Most critical attention has tended to focus on the character of Will Summers, whose mocking commentary is supremely Nashean in its interruptive mischief. Indeed, Will Summers’ promise to the audience might well be Nashe’s own credo: “Look to your cues, my masters, for I intend to play the knave in cue, and put you besides all your parts, if you take not better heed.”
But in performance, it seems clear that this is very much a play about Summer. He, with his heirs-presumptive Autumn and Winter, are on stage throughout, a fact we lose sight of on the page.
And who, then, is Summer? One answer to that is embedded in the specific circumstances of the play’s first performance. Whitgift’s household was at Croydon because there was plague in London. Summer states explicitly that he has been asked by Elizabeth, who has extended her progress for the same reason, to live a little longer, to put off the inevitable, until she returns.
But Summer, the ageing, increasingly impotent monarch of a golden age railing against his own passing – and against those to whom he might pass his crown – knows he must die, and knows he must settle his succession. If this resonates with our sense of the historical moment in 1592, with a childless 59-year-old Queen on the throne, one can only wonder what that first audience in the Great Hall made of it.
The parallels with Elizabeth herself here are acute. Indeed, they are positively reckless at a time when talk of the succession was forbidden. Nashe gives us a show that, for all its wit and invention, cannot disguise its growing chill of foreboding at what may come next. “A mighty ebb follows a mighty tide,” Summer says. Autumn is upon us. Winter is coming. “The plague full swift goes by;/I am sick, I must die.”
In this sense, I wonder if the obvious pun of Summer’s Will and Will Summers hides a meta pun in the form of a question: will Summer return? And perhaps, too, because Will Summers is the ghost of Henry VIII’s fool, there is a sense in which the play hints at not only the twilight of Elizabeth’s reign, but also at the possible twilight of the Tudor experiment itself, in all its political, matrimonial and liturgical complexity? Dread rises throughout; hope is thin on the ground.
We do not know what Whitgift thought of the performance, but seven years later, on 1 June 1599 he ordered all of Nashe’s writings to be seized and destroyed, and forbade any further publication. Whether Nashe’s career could have recovered is a moot point; he was dead by the end of 1601.
In these circumstances, one wonders whether publication of Summer’s Last Will in 1600 was, if not a faint ‘Fuck you’ to Whitgift, then at least a provocation, a challenge to see if he would order the burning of a text which had been commissioned exclusively for his household and performed in his presence.
It is always eerie to see a play performed in the space for which it was written, particularly one so tied to a specific time of year: it wasn’t just Nashe’s writing that chilled the great oak-roofed chamber as the evening progressed.
Edward’s Boys staged the play in procession the length of the hall, with the audience close on either side, both reimagining the household intimacy of the original performance, and allowing Will Summers full reign to roam among the audience. And if, like me, your sense of what a boys’ company can offer is conditioned by Hamlet’s snide remark about ‘little eyasses’, the production was revelatory.
For all the apparent and admitted difficulties of the text, the 42-strong cast brought it triumphantly to life. They spoke the verse – and the prose – brilliantly, with a profoundly assured sense of the thought-units of early-modern speech. I have certainly seen easier texts spoken with far less clarity, conviction and comfort by A-list actors in marquee productions.
It’s a little invidious to single out individuals from an amateur, if superb, young ensemble, but Dan Power as Will Summer and Rory Gopsill as Summer itself deserve particular praise for their commanding performances. Both are challenges roles for any actor of any age, especially after a mere three shows. Among the lesser roles, Ritvick Nagar (Ver) and Nilay Sah (Back-Winter) tore into their parts with glee, but all the personifications were thoughtfully and wittily characterised and showed not only what it is possible for a boy company to achieve now, but illuminated what must have been their very real achievements in late Tudor England.
If we are all-too inclined to think of pre-Shakespearean English dramatic forms, such as those Nashe is playing with here, as inert things, then, as this production of Summer’s Last Will shows, they are sharp with life. And if further productions result, and I hope they do, they will have a high benchmark to meet.
Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.