The discussion on interactive reading reminded me of a fascinating instance of interactive playgoing in the early modern theatre, scripted into Francis Beaumont’s comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607). Interaction between actors and the audience in theatre history of the early modern stage is often discussed in connection with the role of the clown, who freely improvised and addressed the audience in his jokes. Andrew Gurr in his Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London(1987, 3rd ed. 2004) cites an anecdote about the clown Tarlton, who mocked a man in the gallery — it became a contest of wit between the two men cheered by the entire audience (155-56).
The Knight of the Burning Pestle, performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels in the private theatre of Blackfriars, self-consciously plays around with notions of interactivity, the boundaries between fact and fiction and the audience’s suspension of disbelief in the theatre, as well as with the spatial boundaries between the stage and the audience.
The prologue of the play has only just spoken three lines to announce The London Merchant, when a grocer from the audience climbs onto the stage to interrupt him. He is afraid that this play will be yet another private theatre piece to mock London citizens, and demands that the boys instead perform something “in honour of the commons of the cityâ€ (Ind. 25-26). He determines that a grocer should be the hero of the play, and his wife and apprentice Rafe, still seated in the pit, join in the discussion:
Prologue. What will you have him do?
Citizen. Marry, I will have him—-
Wife. [Below.] Husband, husband!
Rafe. [Below.] Peace, mistress.
Wife. Hold thy peace, Rafe; I know what I do, I warrant thee. Husband, husband!
Citizen. What sayest thou, cony?
Wife. Let him kill a lion with a pestle, husband; let him kill a lion with a pestle.
Citizen. So he shall. Iâ€™ll have him kill a lion with a pestle.
Throughout, the original plot line of The London Merchant is interlaced with the bumbling adventures of apprentice Rafe as the Knight of the Burning Pestle. The grocer and his wife take a seat among the gentlemen on stage, and enthusiastically demand to see more heroic deeds performed by the knight. “Plot me no plots” the grocer grumbles when a boy objects to his request for more knightly adventures (2.3.273), and his wife kindly asks a female character from the main plot to leave the stage for a while, because she longs to see the knight fight first. The two are so absorbed in the adventures that they are unaware of the difference between narrated time and the time of narration, between fact and fiction.
The comedy echoes Don Quixote in a confrontation between the knight and a barber, as well as in its mockery of the popularity of chivalric romances. The taste for romantic knight-errantry is associated in the play with citizen culture, specifically with the repertory of the popular playhouse The Red Bull and its “huffing” style of acting. The grocer’s wife admits that she has never been to â€œone of these playsâ€ in the private theatres, but she is an avid spectator of heroic plays such as The Bold Beauchamps in the public theatres. The Knight of the Burning Pestle constructs a difference between the kinds of plays performed in some of the public amphitheatres, and the more expensive private playhouses such as Blackfriars itself.
The notion of interaction and improvisation is connected to a shift in theatrical tastes, too. Andrew Gurr writes that “in one sense [the improvising clown] Tarlton was old-fashioned even in the 1580s. He based his act on direct address to the audience and exploited the gap between the player and his play-role at a time when plays were generally moving towards the more illusionistic mode of self-contained play” (157). And in 1600, Hamlet in his speech to the players disapproves of precisely this custom of clowns to interact with the audience, since it distracts from the plot:
And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.
The grocer and his wife, however, have not come for the enjoyment of a self-contained play, nor for necessary questions. As Alexander Leggatt remarks, instead of seeing the play as a single coherent experience, they come looking for particular, local effects. They admire the acting of one of the Revels’ boys, and long for scenes that feature a fight, or the death of their hero. They come “expecting, not a carefully crafted total experience, but a series of favourite ingredients,” Leggatt writes. 
The first audiences of The Knight were not amused. According to the publisher of the first edition of the play in 1613, the comedy was “utterly rejected” by the Blackfriars audiences. Some scholars have argued that the play was too satiric at the expense of citizen culture, others think that it was perhaps not satiric enough to please the higher class members of the Blackfriars audience. Perhaps we could also venture that the meta-theatrical on-demand interruptions of the plot were disruptive of the audiences’ enjoyment of that more illusionistic mode of self-contained play that according to Andrew Gurr had come into fashion — perhaps The Knight in its representation of the grocer and his wife’s expectations of a play was too fragmented and Brechtian for the patrons of Blackfriars theatre?
 Alexander Legatt, “The Audience as Patron: The Knight of the Burning Pestle” in Shakespeare and Theatrical Patronage in Early Modern England, edited by Paul Whitfield White and Suzanne R. Westfall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 304-305.
- The play online
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle will be performed by the Shakespeare Institute Players in Stratford-upon-Avon from 18-20 March 2006.