Reviving a forgotten playwright for a new era

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Reviving a forgotten playwright for a new era

John Ford shaped the history of theatre, but most of his work is forgotten. Professor Lisa Hopkins has staged a revival of this neglected but fascinating 17th century playwright.

You might have heard of John Ford’s famous play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This graphic, controversial work has shocked audiences since it was first performed in the late 1620s, and has been adapted for film, TV and radio. 

But many of Ford’s other plays have been overshadowed by other dramatists of his era like Shakespeare.

This does a disservice to one of our most fascinating playwrights. Ford’s violent storylines, ambiguous political allegiances and idiosyncratic style help us understand the post-Elizabethan era — which shaped the way we live today. 

The 400th anniversary of Ford’s birth was in the 1980s, when I did my PhD on his life, art and politics. Since then, I’ve written eight book chapters, 13 articles, and 19 programme notes about his work.

These studies, as well as my work with theatre companies, schools and community groups, have helped revive the full range of John Ford’s plays and bring them back to the spotlight for the first time in centuries.

On stage

In 2015, I worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company on the first production of Love’s Sacrifice since 1631. 

A lot of my research on this play is about its roots in the gruesome real-life tale of Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, a famous composer who murdered his wife. 

My work on this origin story influenced the RSC production and was discussed in reviews and previews by the Daily Telegraph and Independent. I explained the story and its connection to Ford’s play in the programme note. The RSC even presented the play with the subtitle ‘based on a true story’.

I’ve also worked with Shakespeare’s Globe Education on their productions of Love’s Sacrifice at Gray’s Inn, as well as The Fancies Chaste and Noble and Perkin Warbeck at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. 

The real Perkin Warbeck was a 15th Century pretender to the English throne, whose claim posed a serious threat to the Tudor establishment. For the Globe programme note, I argued that Ford’s play questioned the legitimacy of monarchical succession by inviting his audience to imagine Warbeck as the legal king. This was highly subversive and even dangerous in Ford’s day — disputes on governance and monarchy were soon to escalate into civil war.

My research has also helped the acclaimed youth theatre company Edward’s Boys revive and perform The Lady’s Trial to audiences across England for the first time since the 17th Century. I edited a version of the play, explaining and translating the archaic English to make it easier to stage and more accessible to modern audiences.

Shakespeare's Globe theatre
Professor Hopkins has worked with Shakespeare's Globe on several productions.

In education

My work has also helped a new generation of students discover Ford’s plays. 

I've found that 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, a disturbing retelling of Romeo and Juliet, can really animate A-level students with its exploration of incest and women's issues. 

I've visited schools to talk about the play and have recorded a lecture for the education resource site Massolit. It was viewed 3,650 times in 2018-19 and is the site’s second most popular non-Shakespeare resource. I also wrote an article on 'Tis Pity for E-Mag.

In communities

Raising Ford’s profile with community groups and the general public is another important part of my work. I’ve given talks that put Ford’s plays in the context of local interests. 

For example, I spoke about the importance of the English/Scottish border in Perkin Warbeck to literary societies in Carlisle and Newcastle, close to where Warbeck staged his famed but unsuccessful invasion of England. I also discussed domestic tragedy The Witch of Edmonton with the 1152 Club of Kirkstall Abbey.

Further afield, I’ve helped bring Ford’s plays to Russian readers for the first time — advising on the translation of Perkin Warbeck and The Lady’s Trial, and writing introductions on Ford’s life and work.

An industry interval

John Ford may be a relatively obscure playwright, but he’s incredibly rewarding. That’s why I’ve spent so long studying his work and helping others appreciate it too.

But Covid-19 has led to an unwelcome interval. Community playhouses and major commercial theatres alike are now closed. It may be some time before the industry recovers.

When it does, I hope to help more theatre companies to stage Ford productions — so more people can discover this enigmatic playwright.

An audience at a theatre

Research team

Lisa Hopkins

Professor Lisa Hopkins

Professor of English and Head of Graduate School

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.