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Carpe Librum: Combining history, literature, theatre, and storytelling all in Joliffe the Player series

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or maybe an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

A Play of Dux Moraud

Margaret Frazer

Berkley, 2005, pgs. 276

playduxIt is summer, which for many people means beach reading. One friend recently recounted for me the joys of sitting on the beach with P.D. James’ paperbacks and letting the world go by. It got me thinking: Even though I am not going to go sit on the beach, what is my escape reading nowadays? Because I do read a lot of nonfiction, especially about North Carolina. I reread a lot of the same books when I need to visit old friends. Like most bibliophiles I have a stack of “To Read” books. But what has got me beside myself with delight?

Spoiler alert: Anyone who, before now, thought I had esoteric interests that bordered on the absurdly nerdy, by the end of this, you will be shaking your head. It is about to get weird, my friends.

“Only you would find such a niche read,” Elise commented when I showed her my copy of “A Play of Knaves”—the third in the Joliffe the Player series by Margaret Frazer. I had been waxing poetic to her a few weeks earlier about “A Play of Dux Moraud,” the second in the series, and my introduction to the books.  

The Joliffe the Player series follows the trials and tribulations of a troupe of traveling players in England in the 1430s. They perform some useful services for Lord Lovell (in the form of spying and sleuthing), and he takes them under his patronage and makes them officially his players­­­—complete with his coat of arms on their clothing and wagon. The wagon—holding their stage, costumes, tent, food and household goods—is pulled by a mare named Thisbe (from Pyramus and Thisbe). The troupe is composed of Basset, his adult daughter Rose and her roughly elementary school-aged son, Peirs; Ellis, the man Rose is in love with but cannot marry, due to an unfortunate situation with her own missing husband; and Joliffe and Gil. 

Gil starts off his relationship with the players as a favor to  Lord Lovell who has asked them to take him on. Lord Lovell is facing a bit of a problem with his bailiff’s son (the aforementioned Gil) who clearly has no future following his father’s career as a bailiff. 

This is a spinoff series from Frazer’s Dame Frevisse series where Joliffe appeared periodically when needed. Dame Frevisse is the niece of Thomas Chaucer, son of Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, the Geoffrey Chaucer). In a moment of personal disclosure, I should dislose how much I really love Chaucer­­—not as much as I love Shakespeare, but a damn close second. I have spent a lot of time with “The Canterbury Tales” … a lot. They fascinate me endlessly. So a mystery series connected to the Chaucer family, set during the Wars of the Roses (another of my favorites), was right up my alley.

Then I discovered Joliffe the Player books and … wow! It was like someone was writing a book just for me. A traveling group of actors in the Wars of the Roses? They are primarily doing the mystery plays (in “A Play of Knaves,” they do the entire cycle of the Passion for Holy Week twice. They are exhausted.) and older pieces that Joliffe adapts as they go. They have a repertory from which they pull from Pyramus and Thisbe. Frazer takes readers through their daily lives of arriving in a new town, advertising their arrival, arranging a location to perform, securing payment and negotiating with the powers that be. As outsiders they are always the logical suspects for anything that goes wrong; it is easier to blame the interloper than someone you have known your whole life, right? As players, they are neither gentry nor serfs and therefore able to move between classes and talk with everyone. It gives them an interesting perspective I think Frazier illustrates beautifully. 

I love historic fiction—especially set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but primarily the characters in those books either are of nobility or interact with nobility. They lead lives of relative ease and are rarely concerned with finding their next meal. That is part of what I like so much about these books: the Players are deeply concerned with how to acquire food. In “A Play of Knaves,” they are very excited to be given, as part of their payment for performing, the gravy-soaked trenchers from the high table in the hall of the family whose field they are camping in.  The next morning Rose toasts them over an open fire and it is a special treat. They walk everywhere; there is no elaborate travel in comfort for them. 

Frazer knows her history and her literature. “A Play of Dux Moraud” is a reference to an older story that Jollife is trying to adapt for the Players. During the course of the novel, their exploits begin to mirror the play. What Frazer has managed to do is write a book for a niche market, and a book with a fascinating and exhilarating plot that brings to life England in the 1430s for traveling actors trying to educate the populace and feed themselves at the same time. It is an homage to language, literature, theatre, storytelling and human connection all in the package of a paperback mystery.  

Actually, it is brilliant. 

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