Review: Wit and Science

In 1913, DH Lawrence writes, in a poem familiar to English teachers across the land, ‘When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?’ It’s a familiar refrain for any teacher covering a lesson on a Friday afternoon. Lawrence begins his poem with no description or preamble, only this pitiful rhetorical plea. The next line, however, introduces a delightfully appropriate hunting metaphor:

 

How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart,

My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start

Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,

I can haul them and urge them no more.

 

Writing four centuries before, Redford explodes this ‘quarry of knowledge’ into a heroic, even chivalric enterprise, populating his quest with Wit, Lady Science, Reason and Honest Recreation, to name but a few. Through allegory, his modus operandi, sequences of learning, its wild successes, comically unintended consequences, and many false starts are brought to life in an evocation of classroom life that rings instantly true to any educator.

 

While allegory has a long history in medieval drama it is found to a lesser extent in later renaissance theatre, with the fool one of its few remaining relics by the end of the 16th century. While earlier allegorical plays centre on salvation, with a deliberate end to theatrical ‘gayms’, such as in the Castle of Perseverance with ‘god’ reprimanding the protagonist Mankind at the end, this play’s driving force is educational instruction rather than moral instruction.

 

In another example, whereas  Everyman contains a true psychomachia, a battle for the soul, the battle in this play is for Wit’s mind – and as every teacher knows, this is a battle only won through engaging students – as opposed to appealing to their better natures.

 

This leads us to a crucial difference in how allegory is used in this play, and how, thus, it should be successfully presented on stage. Fundamentally, the allegory in this play dramatises and heroicises the quest for knowledge. Boredom is an enemy, or in this case the giant Tediousness, to be slain and vanquished. Fittingly, mountains must be climbed and allies, Study, Diligence and Honest Recreation, must be heeded.

 

Thus, the joy of allegory in this play comes from appreciating its metaphorical quality: that sometimes reading a textbook does feel like fighting a giant and that succumbing to idleness will leave you comically sullied; sometimes, science can seem as capricious as a flirting woman.

 

It’s not that allegory helps you understand abstract concepts, as was certainly a large part of the aim of much early allegorical drama, or that a disjuncture between the word and the thing leads to important epistemological debate and uncertainty, as in the medieval dream poem Piers Plowman with its linguistic allegory, for example. Wit and Science allows its viewers to revel in the metaphorical representation itself. To an extent it allows us, like a daydreaming schoolboy, to inhabit a ludicrous, rip-roaring world of continuous metaphor, carried along by the momentum of chivalric romance, with full-blooded characters, their desires, twists, turns, loves and losses, rather than abstract, dry, two-dimensional representations.

 

And this is what Edward’s Boys have striven to achieve.

 

The play tantalisingly embraces this idea from the start. With much of the text missing, a prologue is added, but it continues the allegorical effect, providing a frame for what is to come. Perhaps the whole text, beginning as it does with a loudly snoring teacher in a well-worn jacket, with trademark elbow patches, is a dramatic allegorisation of a reverie of pedagogical desperation. As other characters mill about him, poking, prodding and pulling, this world of allegory is born – with the teacher’s authority thrown to the ludus of the playworld.

 

Allegory works by using the vehicle and tenor to create a literary image of a perhaps challenging concept; comedy works by exploiting the relationship between the vehicle and tenor – and of course this is how the allegory was made effective in this production by Edward’s Boys. Whereas some plays can be put in modern contexts on a surface level though costume and setting, re-contextualising through costume is the life blood of allegory, since this ‘vehicle’ must be instantly recognisable to audiences to achieve impact and for the ultimate concept to be understood.

 

In this respect, the company did not disappoint. As Jack Hawkins pointed out in an interview after The Malcontent in March this year, the company often feels more like a sports team than an acting troupe, and this was embraced in the costumes and props used by the cast. A cricket helmet was used to make Hawkins look aptly monstrous as the giant Tediousness, and Ritvick Nagar was memorably dressed in a girl’s netball kit. It will not have been missed by spectating K.E.S. students that Nilay Sah, playing Instruction, wore the initialled tracksuit of our former Director of Sport, known as a notoriously hard task master amongst the students. Costume instantly enabled and indeed energised the allegory, richly bringing the play into the 21st century, whilst also pointing slyly to subtexts. The choice of netball, for example, as the sport of Honest Recreation will have drawn smiles from those who have graced netball courts in years gone by…

 

It must, of course, not be forgotten that much of the life of this play derives from the fact that it was written by a teacher – and was performed by school boys. So much of Edward’s Boys’ success, here and in their other works, lies in the fact that they are children speaking the satire of adults, but here, of course, they are aping the satires and performing the worst nightmares of their own teachers; this adds a richly comic dimension to the allegory being represented, especially as moral points are made by an actor such as Ritvick Nagar whose knowing looks to the audience cut through any sincerity his remarks might as possessed.

 

In this respect, as the boys take on their roles, it’s as though they’re putting on some illicit costume, where the sleeves are so big they drag on the floor – but to extra comic effect. Equally, with actors such as Will Groves in his mischievous, insolent and rampant misbehaviour as Idleness the play points to the classroom chaos sometimes bubbling only slightly below the surface.

 

And this is where the idea of allegory becomes so interesting. Until now, we’ve spoken only of the relationship between vehicle and tenor as a one way street, of vehicle leading to an understanding of the tenor. But the tenor reflects back on the vehicle too, and this is what is at work here. In choosing boys to represent a teacher’s allegory of the quest for knowledge, we’re invited to see the sheer ludicrousness – and comedy – of this vision. If anyone can turn a serious lesson into sheer ridicule, it is surely a group of schoolboys.

 

Amaryllis Barton

King Edward VI School