John Ball in Literature and Drama

Ball has had a steady and constant portrayal in literature and drama, particularly since from the eighteenth century onward, though there are notable earlier examples. Sometimes Ball has been the inspiration for characters with a different name (including comedy priests) or for different historical figures. The most famous example is Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II which takes material otherwise associated with Ball to stoke fears and anxieties about popular revolts, radical reformers, and proclamations of ‘all things in common’ (2 Henry VI 4.2.63–67; 4.7.8–9, 15–20).

Similar concerns were taken up in the anonymous play, The Life and Death of Jack Straw (1593/94). As with Shakespeare’s Jack Cade, ‘Parson Ball’ is further remembered for his love of a good drink, a minor but recurring theme in the history of the reception of Ball over the centuries:

What is he an honest man? the devill he is, he is the Parson of the Towne, You thinke ther’s no knaverie hid under a black gowne, Find him a pulpit but twise in the year, And Ile find him fortie times in the ale-house tasting strong beare. (The Life and Death of Jack Straw 1.1.49–54)

In 2020, Beyond Shakespeare performed Life and Death of Jack Straw on Zoom in an era of Covid with an introduction by Stephen Longstaffe, editor of the critical edition of the play with an excellent extended introduction.

A full cast audio is available here.

The Ball-like character in the droll, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, Or the Mob Reformers performed at Pinkethman and Giffard’s Great Theatrical Booth in 1730, similarly enjoys ‘Pint of Brandy’. Brandy may have been a weaker version of the drink than today, but the point remains clear as the play promotes the idea of civil duty to defend the city against the wild mob and potential insurgents.

From the turn of the nineteenth century onward, Ball is a more heroic character. The most influential example is Robert Southey’s dramatic poem, Wat Tyler (1794) which became most famous when pirated and published in 1817 after the now Poet Laureate had renounced his earlier radicalism (see John Ball in English History and John Ball and English Radicalism). In the mid-nineteenth century, there were theatrical performances of Wat Tyler at Chartist social events. Benjamin Brierley’s memoirs recall Easter tea-party performances, in this instance at Failsworth:

From that time we had a tea party and a dramatic performance every Easter Monday for years. Southey’s ‘Wat Tyler’ was our first ambitious effort. After that ‘William Tell.’ Only fancy two armies meeting, fighting, and subverting a government, on three or four planks; and you will think less of the glories of the battlefield, and the dignities of rulers. (Benjamin Brierley, Home Memories and Recollections of a Life [Manchester: Abel Heywood & Son, 1886]), 41)   

There were also other plays in Chartist circles, such as Charles Watkins’ Wat Tyler, which is no longer extant.

The nineteenth century also saw the emergence of novels about 1381, including Pierce James Egan the Younger’s Wat Tyler; Or, The Rebellion of 1381 (1841 with several reprints) which presents Ball and the revolt in language clearly reminiscent of Chartism (see John Ball and English Radicalism). Ball had already featured extensively in Mrs O’Neill’s The Bondman: A Story of the Times [or Days] of Wat Tyler (1833), a sympathetic and sometimes swashbuckling portrayal as the novel, through the character of Ball, navigates fears of a working-class rising and promotes a reformist attitude towards social and political change.

Mrs O’Neill and Egan were part of the development of the legend of Ball and Wat Tyler in a romantic reading of Medieval England familiar then and now through the Robin Hood legend. The associated violence and ideals of Victorian masculinity would also make 1381 suitable historical material for penny dreadfuls and boy’s own magazines.

Ball was not automatically a heroic figure, however; he still had his cultured critics. Alice of Fobbing; or, the Times of Jack Straw and Wat Tyler (1860), written by the Tractarian clergyman and prolific novelist William Edward Heygate, is part theological propaganda, part anti-revolutionary conservatism, with Ball a violent perverter of the ideal church. William Harrison Ainsworth’s three volume (and previously serialised) Merry England: Or, Nobles and Serfs (1874), turns to the old reading of Ball as a seditious conspirator and a crazed religious zealot with little respect for his Christian heritage. While not as polemical as Heygate, the Tractate apologist, Charlotte Mary Yonge, The Wardship of Steepcombe (1896), also claimed that Ball was excessive in his revolutionary zeal. Other conservative readings of Ball and 1381 can be found among the numerous novels, perhaps most famously G. A. Henty, A March on London (1897), which picks up on the old fears of the rowdy mob for a new age of socialists and trade unions.

Yonge had once been an influence on younger William Morris, while in A Dream of John Ball (1886–1887) Morris would in turn influence Yonge’s novel and well as many other novels and plays about 1381 (for more on Morris see John Ball in English History and John Ball and English Radicalism). Annie Nathan Meyer—the American writer with a background in the New York Sephardic Jewish community and liberal Judaism—was especially drawn to Morris for aesthetic reasons which she thought were so appealing that she even hoped (as others did) that he captured something about the historical Ball (Robert Annys: Poor Priest A Tale of the Great Uprising [1901]). In Banner of Saint George (1901), Mary Bramston even seems to have a based a ‘socialist’ leader closely aligned with Ball on Morris himself.

Harriette E. Burch,
Dick Delver: A Story of the Peasant Revolt of the Fourteenth Century (1889)

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was perhaps a peak in the number of women involved in the cultural history of the reception of Ball, partly because the novel format provided a platform for women to write and publish in Victorian England.

Book of the Walthamstow Pageant (1930)

Morris’ influence continued well beyond the First World War, both in terms of explaining Ball as a potentially socialist ‘prophet’ and ‘martyr’ and his famed aesthetics. William Chandler’s play Thirteen Eighty One: An English Tragedy (1927) (dedicated to Morris) provides a clear visual example:

The following is a short discussion of Chandler’s play and Halcott Glover’s popular, Wat Tyler: A Play in Three Acts (1921), and their portrayal of Ball as a ‘prophet’:

Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) also played their part in the reception history of Ball through literature, poetry, and drama. An early post-War example was Charles Poulsen who decided to write (sometimes on stolen toilet paper) about 1381 and issues of revolution and the radical English tradition following an argument with a fellow firefighter. His novel, English Episode, was published in 1946, reworked as a play, The Word of a King, for Unity Theatre (1951), and promoted as a counter to growing American cultural influences.

There was likely indirect CPGB influence on the Laurie Lee (who had gone out to Civil War Spain) in his near forgotten verse play about ‘John Balle’ and the uprising: Peasants’ Priest, which was performed between 21 and 28 June 1947 at the Canterbury Cathedral Festival. While there have been several unpublished and forgotten plays about 1381, there is plenty of material available about another: the popular fringe theatre performance with interests in class struggle and audience participation, Will Wat, If Not What Will? The play was written (in collaboration with the cast) by Steve Gooch and performed at the Half Moon Theatre on Alie Street in the East End of London (26 May–24 June 1972). Reviews, video interviews, photographs, etc. are collected on the Stages of Half Moon website.

The 600th anniversay in 1981 and the 1989/1990 Poll Tax generated a number of dramatic performances (several unpublished). More generally, the drama and violence of 1381 has provided the backdrop for numerous novels in the twentieth and twenty first centuries (typically, as with most novels about Ball and 1381, featuring romance and adventure) which have shown no sign of stopping.

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But if one contemporary novel brings together all the diverse aspects of the reception history of Ball (from detailed antiquarian interests to Ball as a borderline religious fundamentalist), it would be Melvyn Bragg’s Now Is the Time (2015). Indeed, Bragg himself has a strong claim to be one of the most influential figures in the twenty-first century reception of Ball, particularly through his non-fiction work and broadcasting (see also John Ball in Documentaries).

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