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  • "Original Practices," Lost Plays, and Historical Imagination:Staging "The Tragedy of Merry"
  • Emma Whipday and Freyja Cox Jensen

In 1594, Thomas Merry murdered his neighbor, Master Beech, by hitting him repeatedly over the head with a hammer. Merry was condemned and hanged, along with his sister, Rachel, who was found to be complicit in the crime. The murder was reported in a news pamphlet—"a booke entytuled A True Discourse of a Most Cruell and Barbarous Murther Comitted by one Thomas Merrey" (August 29, 1594)—and in five broadside ballads published in August and September that year (Knutson and McInnis, "Thomas Merry (Beech's Tragedy)"). In 1600, William Haughton and John Day's "The Tragedy of Merry" (also called "Beech's Tragedy") was performed at the Rose, as documented in Philip Henslowe's Diary (Greg 1: 114). The fictionalized version of the crime played in the same South-wark neighborhood where the murder originally took place.

Despite the evident hold of the murder upon the popular imagination, demonstrated both by the proliferation of ballads and pamphlets capitalizing on "news" of the murder and by the staging of Beech's death six years after the murder itself took place, the contemporary narratives of the murder are lost. None of the texts is extant: we find only their traces in records in the Stationers' Register, and in a series of entries in Henslowe's Diary.

Yet one portrayal of the crime survives. In 1601, the play Two Lamentable Tragedies was published in quarto, attributed to Robert Yarrington (who appears to have been a scribe) (Hanabusa xv–xvi; Greg 2: 208–209). [End Page 289]

The title page describes these two tragedies:

The one, of the murther of Maister Beech a Chaundler in Thames-streete, and his boye, done by Thomas Merry. The other of a young childe murthered in a Wood by two Ruffins, with the consent of his Uncle (Yarrington).

Two Lamentable Tragedies is unusual in representing two interlocking narratives: one set in Padua in the non-specific past, concerning the murder of a ward by his uncle, and the other, a "true crime," set in contemporary London—the tragedy of Thomas Merry. The two narratives are framed and interlinked by narrator-figures: Homicide, Avarice, and Truth.

The relationship between the play performed at the Rose and the surviving playtext has been much debated (Hanabusa xxv–xxviii; Wiggins 305), but whether Yarrington's "Merry" narrative is some form of memorial reconstruction of Henslowe's play, or a separate play altogether, it would seem that both are based on Merry's crime. Indeed, it may be useful to borrow Barbara Hodgdon's term for the relationship between Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew, as "representing different stages of an ongoing theatrical 'commodity,'" of which the exact relationship, chronology, and authorship is impossible to determine (Hodgdon 36). As a later stage of the ongoing theatrical "commodity" of Merry's crime, Two Lamentable Tragedies seems to contain extensive traces of an earlier lost play, yet has itself neither a stage history, nor a recorded relationship with a known author, company, or space. Indeed, it has been suggested that it was never staged, or is even unstageable (Hanabusa xii–xiii).

Two Lamentable Tragedies therefore presents unique opportunities for scholars interested in marginal genres, the possibilities for engaging with "lost" plays, and the role of performance practice as—and as a complement to—research, in the study of early modern drama, culture, and society. This article charts our explorations of these possibilities, a process that shared many of the concerns of Oliver Jones's work in Stratford discussed elsewhere in this special issue, but from a different perspective: Jones seeks to explore and reimagine a space, we, a text. We excerpted "The Tragedy of Merry" from the surviving text of Two Lamentable Tragedies, and, working with a company of professional actors and academics, staged our historical imagining of the play at University College London in March 2014.1 A second production, using a new cast of amateur actors with almost no prior experience of early modern drama, was staged at The Walronds in Cullompton, Devon, in...


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