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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Early English Comedy

§ 8. The collision of romantic and didactic tendencies in Tudor Drama

The opening of The pardoner and the frere, the curate and neybour Pratte, where the two worthies set forth their claims and credentials, is strikingly parallel to that of The foure P. P. But here, the pardoner, in opposition to the evangelical pretensions of the frere, emphasises his papal commission to the utmost. And the dialogue method reaches its culminating point of humorous effectiveness in an amusing scene where, after each line of the frere’s charity sermon, his rival interjects an appeal to the congregation to contribute to the restoration of the chapel of “swete saynte Leonarde,” and to earn the remission of sins promised by the papal bull. This indirect process of recrimination is varied by bouts of direct personal abuse, till the quarrel reaches its height in a vigorous use of fists, not to speak of nails and teeth. At this point, the parson of the parish enters with an imprecation on the wranglers who are polluting his church, and who have only been restrained from bloodshed by the lack of staves or edged tools. While he deals with the frere, he calls in the help of the lay arm, in the shape of “neybour Prat,” to manage the pardoner, who is also a layman. Prat promises his man a taste of the stocks, while the parson seeks to hale the frere off to prison. It looks as if the two knaves were going to get their deserts, when, by an unexpected rally, they get the better of their captors, and go off with all the honours of war, and an ominous hint of a return visit!

Chaucer had supplied some of the materials for the characters of the pardoner and the frere, and there are also resemblances between the play and the Farce nouvelle d’un Pardonneur, d’un triacleur et d’une tavernière. In Johan Johan, the resemblances to episodes in the Farce de Pernet qui va au vin are so detailed that borrowing on the one side or the other is self-evident. Apart from a number of verbal coincidences, the singular situation of a husband being set to chafe wax while his wife and her lover are making merry together can hardly have occurred independently to two playwrights. The only extant edition of Pernet qui va au vin dates from 1548, but it was then nouvellement imprimé, and it is probable that an earlier issue was available for Heywood’s use. If not, the French play must have been indebted to the English, which is unlikely at this period.

The duped husband, Johan Johan, the central figure of the piece, is admirably sketched. During his wife’s absence, he boasts loudly about the beating that he will give her; but, on her return, he protests that he has been merely talking of beating “stokfysshe in Temmes Street” for a Lenten dish. He suspects, with only too good reason, that Tyb’s frequent visits to Sir Jhan, the priest, have other than spiritual motives, but he unburdens himself only in “asides,” and he dare not refuse to carry an invitation to Sir Jhan to come and share a “pye.” As he starts on his ungrateful errand, he is repeatedly called back by his domineering partner to do various domestic offices. And, when he returns with the wily priest, who has accepted the invitation after well feigned reluctance, Tyb has further orders for him. He has to fetch a pail of water, but the pail has a “clyfte, both large and wyde,” which is not likely to have come by mere accident. So, while the wife and the guest enjoy themselves, the master of the house has to sit at the fire and melt wax to mend the hole. As he ruefully mutters:

  • I chafe the wax—
  • And I chafe it so hard that my fyngers krakks;
  • And eke the smoke puttyth out my eyes two:
  • I burne my face, and ray my clothys also,
  • And yet I dare not say one word,
  • And they syt laughyng yender at the bord.
  • But, when the meal has been ended, and the two feasters, after the “recreacion” of some spicy stories by Sir Jhan, turn to making mock of the wretched Johan, it is too much even for him. In a sudden outburst of valour, born of despair, he rounds upon his tormentors, gives them a drubbing and turns them out of doors—though he hurries after them for fear of further misdoing in Sir Jhan’s chamber.

    Assuming that Johan Johan and Witty and Witless are by the same author, we have thus seen Heywood’s advance from the composition of abstract and prolix dialogue to that of tersely written and realistic farce. In any case, with Johan Johan English drama had come close to the confines of true comedy.