Even in a decade that’s seen Tristram Shandy turned into a film, and Moby Dick and Middlemarch on stage in faithful adaptations, Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy – published in 1621 – is a surprising choice of text on which to base a piece of theatre.
Stan’s Cafe aren’t pretending that their source matter is anything other than a lengthy, dense, and crucially (although some elements touch on the fantastical) non-fiction tome. Instead, they’ve created a fascinating, but tiring monument both to Melancholy with a capital “M”, and to a whole tradition of presenting ideas — a scholarly way of thinking about and understanding the world that’s more usually covered over in impenetrable layers of archival paper.
The free slow of narratives between stage and books sometimes seems to efface, implicitly, the huge gulfs between these mediums and the way we experience them. Cinema experiments, toys with and exploits the printed page’s borrowed prestige — think of the classic Disney framing device of leafing through a beautifully tinted manuscript, “Once upon a time…” — but plays seldom make direct reference to their physical sources. Here, paper is central, and king. The staging echoes the ornate visual machinery of Robert Burton’s printed book, which drew on an already-old fashioned manuscript tradition that had been refined by centuries of pedantic medieval monks. Where more recent works follow a single unbroken strand, early modern texts were constantly aware of the divisions and subdivisions necessary to a rational, complete handling of a subject, and of the many opening out alleyways suggested by the text. Accordingly, the stage is portioned out into an arrangement of easels, each bearing the appropriate heading, subheading or gloss for each theme, their pages flipped over in a constantly rolling calendar of our progress through the book.
The text is split between four narrators, clothed in black, yellow, blue, and red in correspondence to the four humors – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Soft-spoken, mild Graeme Rose takes the role of black-clad author Robert Burton, ruefully claiming his unfitness to speak of worldly matters like love because he’s a scholar and clergyman – a hangover from the medieval modesty topos that saw Chaucer announce his unfitness as a poet in the midst of his more spectacular verse. Still, bookish and scholarly though he is, he’s also completely human, launching into impassioned invectives against physicians, then hastily recanting them lest they refuse to treat him.
Melancholy, as Burton sees it, has manifold causes but fewer cures. His famous discourse in the four humors, and the ways they can be put out of joint. His eventual advice is surprisingly modern — good diet and exercise, although few doctors today would join him in especially recommending rabbits and archery to the purpose. Still, although the text’s three parts each have their own distinct purpose and mood, the play’s divisions aren’t met with similar shifts. The section on love melancholy is particularly effective for its introduction of an arbor, dancing, and Rochi Rampal’s transformation, by means of a wig, into a woman, in a set of simple devices that transform the chapter’s atmosphere. The many other sections – and it does feel like many – tend to blur together, sharpened only by rare deviations from the text format into Latin drinking songs or botanical illustrations.
The crux, the central irony of Burton’s text is that he’s writing about melancholy, to avoid his own melancholy – busyness is the best cure. But Graeme Rose’s Burton, like all the performers, is so subservient to the physical machinery of the text that there’s no sense of his own gloom lifting, of the personality that comes across so strongly in his book in spite of his attempts at compendious authority.
This careful and faithful staging doesn’t claim to be doing anything more than putting this book on stage – programme notes warn “This show is long and full of content. Don’t worry if you find yourself drifting off and thinking of something else.” But although a lot of content and format has been preserved, the production hasn’t found the story that lies in the relationship between reader, author and text. The audience is missing out on the autonomous reader’s power to leaf through and find the consolation they need, to follow the paper trail left by their melancholic author’s own story.