DOASKDOTELL DRAMA, MUSICAL OR PLAY REVIEW of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Part II  (also Christopher Marlowe: Edward II)


Author:  Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by Mike Poulton

Title:  Canterbury Tales, part II (1387-1392)

Where seen: Washington, Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, 4/27/2006

Director: Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatwald, Jonathan Munby

Performance time: 160 min + 20 min intermission

Cast: Royal Shakespeare Company, including Nick Barber, Claire Benedict, Dylan Charles, Daon Broni, Christopher Godwin, Michael Matus, Mark Hadfield, Joshua Richards

Music composed by: Adrian Lee

Recording available:

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL:  gays in older literature

Review : This is probably the oldest literary work discussed on this site (except for Homer’s Iliad). The five plus hours are split into two shows that may be seen in any order. At least half of it is accompanied by music and sung, so the effect is that of comic light opera with simple and boxy but clever sets.

High school students usually read some of Canterbury Tales in senior English, and much more of it is read in college introductory English literature courses. This is indeed a matter then of “appreciation of literature.” We all know the form: a frame story of religious pilgrims to Canterbury, and each one is invited to tell a story. The stories are partly narrated and partly acted out on stage, dogma style (like a Lars Von Tier film). Part II begins with the Pardoner’s Tale, which for many people is the most famous. When I took English Lit in the fall of 1962 at George Washington University in Monroe Hall on G Street, I still remember the professor’s partial embarrassment in characterizing the Pardoner as Chaucer’s idea of “a homosexual.” There are the lines about gelding and mare, and some commentators claim that he is a eunuch. The story, of course, involves the selling of indulgences, simony, and the authority of a man, distant from marriage by church law and probably personal inclination, over ordinary people. Chaucer probably saw this as ironic, if common, even in his day.  The tales tend to have prologues and rather intricate plotting, and the Pardoner’s is typical, as he lectures the crowd on sin, and then has three revelers plot against each other, all to do themselves in as in a Hitchcock movie.  The characters represent all walks of life in English society at the time, and their social and gender roles match up with social expectations, just as in our society, at least until recently – and this all makes good satire. There is plenty of visual material in the presentation: a fruit tree was often present, with various backdrops of the sea and heavens. In the Physician’s Tale a man is decapitated. The Wife of Bath is funny and has the longest tale, with a great deal of irony in which a man is forced to sleep with a hag to whom he is not attracted before he can have the woman he wants. There is a lot of talk about maidenheads (PG-13 style) and the desirability of having a virgin, and about What Women Want (the title of a modern movie, literally, around 2000).  The Manciple has angles hanging from the chandeliers, literally. The Summoner acts like a debt collector in the days before the FCPCA and fair dunning of debtors. (I guess they had collection agencies back then, too.) The Parson has the last word in a candlelight devotional. The whole presentation is a bit like a modern art film composed of short stories (like “Nine Lives” perhaps). Maybe this would be a good project for a larger art film. (There was a BBC TV series in 1969).  

Also, I have a discussion of Christopher Marlowe’s last play, Edward II (1592) as performed by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Nov. 2007, here.  The corresponding film is a “Edward II” directed by Derek Jarman from Fine Line Features (1992) with Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan (haven’t seen yet).


Related reviews:


Return to  plays, drama and shows

Return to  home page