System C

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“Still a Hit After 350 Years”

This article ran in USA Today in 2015. I wrote the play in 2007.

Accomack: ‘Bear and Cub’ still a hit after 350 years

Carol Vaughn

Accomack: ‘Bear and Cub’ still a hit after 350 years

The North Street Playhouse performs “The Bare and the Cubbe” near the site of the original play, which was performed in Pungoteague, Virginia in 1665. Produced by Carol Vaughn and Jay Diem

Think of it as the revival of an old hit — 350 years old, to be exact.

An enthusiastic audience gathered in the waning sunshine Thursday afternoon on the lawn of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Pungoteague, Virginia to watch actors from Onancock’s North Street Playhouse perform “The Bare & the Cubbe,” a three-act play based on the earliest known English-language play performed in the New World.

It was 350 years to the day after the first performance.

That one — staged at a Pungoteague tavern on Sunday, Aug. 27, 1665 — got the actors in trouble, earning them an entry in the county court records.

But the latter-day performance earned nothing but accolades.

“It was a marvelous performance — I’ve been waiting to see it. Today is a wonderful day, with the weather perfect, and the performers were wonderful,” said Bob Behr, a member of the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

North Street Playhouse Artistic Director Terry Bliss concurred, saying after the applause had finally died down, “I just couldn’t stop smiling. It just goes down so many layers — I’m overwhelmed.”

Staged between two ancient sycamore trees, with a curtain strung between them to hide the backstage, it was the first outdoor performance for most members of the all-volunteer cast.

“They rose to the challenge,” Bliss said.

The reason we know about the original play at all is because Edward Martin — an Accomack County resident thought to be a Quaker — brought a complaint against the actors, Cornelius Watkinson, Phillip Howard and William Darby, in court.

The play’s first mention dates to Nov. 16, 1665, when Accomack County court records give the title and the actors’ names, along with a judge’s order that it be performed again at the next session of court.

Darby, the playwright, was to be arrested and held, while Watkinson and Howard were to be detained “until they put in security to perform this order.”

The play was said to have been performed at Fowkes Tavern in Pungoteague, which also served in those days as the location where court was held.

The tavern, which no longer stands, was not far from St. George’s church — that’s why the playhouse decided to put on the anniversary performance there.

The 17th century judge after seeing the performance found the men not guilty of the unspecified charges against them, according to a January 16, 1666 entry in the court records.

Based on those scant facts, a tradition arose and has persisted among Eastern Shore of Virginia residents as to the play’s content, with the general agreement being it likely had a political tone.

With no script surviving, Eastern Shore of Virginia native Cartland Berge, who was active in North Street Playhouse as a teenager, was commissioned to write a new one as part of the Jamestown 400th anniversary celebration in 2007.

Berge’s interpretation is a play within a play, with lots of humor including jokes about bad beer and a feisty barmaid. In it, he tells the story of how the original came to be, including its two performances at the tavern.

“I’m taking the idea that it’s a revolutionary play. England is the bear and the colonies the cub — it’s meant to incite revolution,” Berge said at the time.

The interpretation makes sense in light of actions by King Charles II’s regime toward the colonists during that period, according to scholar Joel Eis, who wrote a 2004 treatise about “The Bare and the Cubbe” called “A Full Investigation of the Historic Performance of the First Play in English in the New World.”

“In the 1660s there was the profound and pervasive rancor toward the British government felt by this colonial enclave as a whole,” Eis wrote, adding, “The Trade Laws passed in the early 1660s, requiring nearly monopolistic trade only with England and mostly in English ships with English crews, was pointed most specifically at the Eastern Shore of Virginia…When the play took place in 1665, bitterness against absentee rule had grown strong throughout much of the settlement on the Eastern Shore.”

Berge, a 2001 graduate of Nandua High School, first heard about ‘The Bare and the Cubbe’ from high school history teacher Dennis Custis and wrote a paper about the play in college, using Eis’ book as a source.

When Bliss sent out the proposal for a new script to playwrights, Berge, who by then was living in New York City, didn’t want to have an unfair advantage because of his long association with North Street Playhouse.

So he wrote the play, his first full-length script, under the alias Howard Studgy — a name taken from one of the early Eastern Shore colonists Eis mentioned in his book.

Berge’s script was chosen from among a half dozen entries — although Bliss almost dismissed it because she didn’t know anything about Studgy and because he lived way up in New York. But everyone she gave the scripts to agreed his was the best interpretation.

“It was funny and it had a modern sensibility about it,” Bliss said.

The play was performed in 2007 and again last spring at North Street Playhouse.

With the 350th anniversary approaching, it was decided to put on one more performance — this time a free one held outdoors near the original site.

Bliss said the 2015 cast, including everyone from a recent high school graduate to retirees to a General District court judge, reflects a cross-section of society similar to those who were involved in the original court case.

“It is very satisfying and makes me very proud that our cast reflects what the early cast was,” she said.