William Kempe - Andy Kaufman of the Renaissance
William Kempe was an extremely popular weirdo. He has been described by Shakespeare Researcher Amanda Mabillard as “…one of the most beloved clowns in the Elizabethan theatre (Mabillard).” He was an actor, a dancer of jigs, a physical comedian, a provocateur, and arguably the first Renaissance performance-artist of his day. One of William Kempe’s oddball legacies is a publicity stunt during which he Morris-danced his way over eighty miles from London to Norwich (a month-long spectacle featuring nine-days of performance). Following this, as if to convince disbelievers this spectacle had, in fact, occurred, he published a book about it—a stylized diary excerpt with the exceptionally quirky title: KEMPE’S NINE DAIES WONDER: PERFORMED IN A DAUNCE FROM LONDON TO NORWICH. In this book, he outlines his own reasons for the manuscript’s existence thus: “Wherein is somewhat set downe worth note; to reprooue the slaunders spred of him: many things merry, nothing hurtfull. Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends (Kemp).”
In December of 1958 Kempe acquired the unique position of being a share-holder (one of a core five) in Lord Chamberlain’s Men [a.k.a. Lord Chamberlain’s Servants] along with actor/theatre-owner Richard Burbage and playwright, William Shakespeare. However, it was only a short time later when he took leave of the troupe for academically disputed reasons (one of which was unwelcome improvisations), went on to dance his extended Morris-dance marvel, and eventually turned up acting at The Rose—a fierce rival theatre with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He later toured around the continent in 1601 and then joined another acting troupe called Worcester’s Men upon his return. Details leading to his death from this point going forward are sketchy at best and it is believed, after his waning popularity, Kempe succumbed to the Plague.
It is the purpose of this paper to explore parallels between William Kempe’s singular position in the Renaissance with that of a similar performer in the twentieth century, Andy Kaufman. Like Kempe, Kaufman was also an actor, dancer, provocateur, who played in popular companies (the Saturday Night Live ensemble, ABC, NBC), performed a significant and unforgettable publicity stunt (a tour of America wrestling women), was prone to unwelcome improvisation, and succumbed to a plague of sorts (cancer) with disputed circumstances. What is the common thread that ties these two men together?
CLOWING, JIGS, & IMPROVISATION
A word commonly associated with Kempe was Buffoon, that being a ludicrous figure or clown. We know that Shakespeare wrote parts exclusively for Kempe including Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Peter in Romeo and Juliet, (some say) Falstaff in Henry IV and Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost; all fools and goofs. Likewise, Kaufman’s roles are typically similar fools: Latka, the ‘foreign man’ displaced in a New York City cab company in the TV show Taxi, Tony Clifton—Kaufman’s buffoonish off-key Vegas Lounge singer, and Andy Kaufman’s pro-wrestling villain persona of the same name.
One of Kempe’s specialities was the ‘jig,’ which was essentially a short ‘song-dance-play’ performed at the end of full-length plays (even tragedies) to harmonize and lift the spirit of the audience. He is known to have written three, two of which survive, and the requisite dancing was a particular talent for which Kempe was admired. In the case of Kaufman, although he was a performance artist masquerading as a comedian (some would say vice-versa), he had always characterized himself as a song and dance man. Many of his short comedic performances comprised scripted material, singing, musicianship (he played the bongos), and dancing. In one particular notable performance in character as ‘foreign man’, Kaufman does a call and response bit in nonsense language between the audience while setting down an island beat on bongos. He then proceeds to perform a solo on the bongos which becomes so elevated and exciting, he is inspired to suddenly break away from the drums in a manic arm-swinging legs-flailing dance until such time as he appears to throw his hip out—which brings things to an abrupt and comic end. A compelling case can be made that the ‘jigs’ of each man share similar comic and theatrical sensibilities despite their vast differences in time and setting.
When William Kempe departed from Lord Chamberlain’s men, many scholars opine it was due to Kempe’s penchant for going off-script in improvisations. biography.com says this of Kempe: “…it has been speculated that his penchant for improvising and his earthy jigs may not have appealed to the more refined audience the company was trying to cultivate (William Kemp).” Various academics believe that Shakespeare may have made a backhanded reverence to this behavior in the following quote from the play, Hamlet:
“And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered (Shakespeare, William).”
…Which basically boils down to the idea that those audience members of simple-mind may laugh at a bit of improvised foolery whilst missing an important plot point. Indeed Kaufman was a noted improvisor who, within a skeleton structure, could create a compelling distraction from whatever the proceedings were supposed to have otherwise been. A noted example is when Kaufman appeared as a guest on a June 24, 1980, episode of David Letterman. He arrived in dirty disheveled clothing with a very apparent blob of moisture under his nose. His face appeared dark-eyed and sickly. Never breaking character, Kaufman proceeded to explain he was out of work, had no projects in the future, and for his act he improvised a cockamamie story about breaking up with his girlfriend, losing his children Mark and Lisa, and being fired. Instead of performing one if his signature entertainments, he pathetically appealed to the audience for handouts and was thrown out of the building by the security officers for the show. Exactly how much of this was structured as a ruse and how much was created on the spot is a matter of mystery. But Kaufman is a Kempe Doppelgänger when it comes to the skills and use—perhaps misuse—of comic improvisation.
BECOMING A SHAREHOLDER, LEAVING THE FOLD
Evidence of Kempe’s stature and popularity is the fact that he was invited to, and became a financial shareholder in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men—Shakespeare’s troupe, and considered for the time one of the most prominent ensembles appealing equally to rich and poor alike. Prior to this, Kempe had built his career first rising to high regard with Leicester’s Men. He then joined Lord Strange’s Men, and this group would ultimately become The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. [Note: Kempe never joined the King’s Men.] When he departed and pulled out of his shareholder position (possibly for his unwelcome wanton improvisation being prohibited within the troupe), he no doubt left behind some angry colleagues for they would have had to cover what his financial share would have been. The parallel here with Kaufman is that he began in comedy clubs, worked his way up to a coveted repeating feature guest on Saturday Night Live, and was dismissed from the show during season eight. Dick Ebersol, producer of SNL at the time in 1975 was disenchanted with Kaufman’s tour of wrestling women and an idea arose to have the audience vote whether he should stay or go. The audience decided Kaufman was too unpredictable and unpalatable for them and voted him off the show. So just as William Kempe ultimately found himself performing at the Globe’s rival, the Rose, Kaufman in his time sprung up shortly after his parting of the ways on a comedy show with competing interests to Saturday Night Live called, Fridays. After a rebellious stint at The Rose Theatre for Kempe and Fridays for Kaufman, both men began their public downfall in popularity.
THE BIG PUBLICITY STUNT
We can’t be sure of Kempe’s motivations for the 80-mile nine-day Morris dance, nor can we be sure exactly what it was about wrestling women throughout America so compelled Andy Kaufman. What we can be sure of is that audiences in both cases were fascinated. Kempe is arguably the purveyor of the first publicity stunt of its kind and like Kaufman, merged his on-stage and off-stage personas in the interest of performing as a social commentariat. After parting ways with such a prestigious company as Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Kempe wanted to retain and marshall his fame and fortune so he announced and then set out on his dance from February to March of 1600. He funded his stunt with wagers. In his manuscript which records the event, Kempe calls it his ‘Nine Daies” and does not include rest days. At each stop, Kempe was greeted with enthusiastic cheering crowds which is an indication not only of his fame at the time, but also that his legend preceded him wherever he went. Meanwhile in the Twentieth Century, Kaufman’s legend preceded him as well but the cheering was more like screaming. Kaufman has set himself in the persona of a pro-wrestler villain. He had blurred the lines between who he was as a person and who he was as a character. By pushing the buttons of contemporary feminism and improvising to base audience members of simple mind, his deeper scripted point may have been entirely missed—presuming he had one. Instead of a manuscript to prove his resolve as Kempe had, Andy had a retrospective video: I’m from Hollywood: Andy Kaufman’s Adventures in the World of Professional Wrestling.
PLAGUE AND MYSTERY; SOME UNTRUE
“Some scholars conclude that Kempe died from the 1603 plague in London (Mabillard).” ~ “He died a revered but penniless folk hero (Sullivan).” ~ “The date of his death is uncertain (The Reliquary).” ~ “Parish records record the death of "Kempe, a man" in St. Saviour, Southwark, late in 1603. While this is not necessarily the comedian, the record fits his departure from the documentary record (wellknownpersons.com).” ~ “It may be presumed that this comedian was dead in the year 1609 (Shakespeariana).” ~ “‘William Kempe, a man,’ was buried in the church of St. Saviour, Southwark, on 2 Nov. 1603, but there is nothing to show his identity with the actor. The name is a common one in parish registers of the day. Dekker, in his ‘Guls Hornebook,’ speaks of the actor as dead in 1609, and Heywood, in his ‘Apology for Actors’ (1612), says of Kempe and other recent comic players that, ‘though they be dead, their deserts yet live in the remembrance of many (Kemp, William - Wiki).’”
He [Andy Kaufman] passed away in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984, at age 35 (Argetsinger, Amy).” ~ “Kaufman was bisexual…he died not of cancer but AIDS (Getlen, Larry).” ~ “Andy Kaufman’s brother says comedian faked his death (Raftery, Liz).” ~ “56-year-old Lynne Margulies tells us, she was present inside the West Hollywood hospital room when Kaufman passed away in 1984 from a rare form of lung cancer (TMZ Staff).” ~ “Michael Kaufman said he received a letter from his brother, confirming he was alive, in 1999 (Brook, Tom).” ~ “When you go through a tunnel- you’re on a train – you go through a tunnel, the tunnel is dark, but you’re still going forward (Kaufman, Andy).” - Andy Kaufman.
RE-LIVING THE LEGACY
The impact of William Kempe and Andy Kaufman continues to intrigue and delight audiences to this day. Kempe is remembered in a new play, Hey Jig-a-Jig!, by Pat Quorn and produced by Bungay-based theatre company Charmed Life. The play takes a comic look at the ‘why’ of Kempe’s cross-country Morris dance. Cathy Gill, the director of the 2014 show said of its protagonist: “We see Kempe as the first in a long line of troubled comic geniuses — those rare people who have a natural ability to make people laugh but who also have a darker, sadder side (Knights, Emma).” Truer words could not have been said about Kempe, or Kaufman. In 2011, Tom Clare, 33, danced in the footsteps of Kempe to raise money for community projects and bring awareness to Morris dancing. There is a commemorative statue commissioned by Norfolk Contemporary Art Society in 2006, and of course as one of 26 actors in Shakespeare’s original company of players, no comprehensive exposition of Shakespeare can possibly exclude him. Kempe was a character in Director John Madden’s film, Shakespeare In Love, which won an Oscar for best picture of the year.
Famed cinema Director Miloš Forman’s film, Man on the Moon about the life of Andy Kaufman [starring Jim Carrey] premiered to rave critical reviews. Kaufman’s comic legacy is recounted in dozens of popular books and videos. Kaufman’s characters play on television screens in reruns of Taxi, and YouTube videos of his many ‘jigs’ and performances. He remains beloved, revered, and highly regarded as an extremely popular weirdo.
THE AUDIENCE THEN AND NOW
In drawing parallels between William Kempe and Andy Kaufman, it is only fair to also draw parallels between Kempe’s audiences of the Renaissance and Kaufman’s audiences of the twentieth century. How is it that these two outsiders, rule-breakers, oddballs compel us to such an extent that, for a time, we grant them mainstream popularity? Theatre Director David Mamet says, “The audience (before it leaves the theatre and puts on – as do you or I – its wise, critical hat) is the only judge. If the audience members didn't laugh, it wasn't funny. If they didn't gasp, it wasn't surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats it was not suspenseful (Gardner, Lyn).” We want to laugh, we want to gasp, we want to be surprised, and we want to experience suspense. Both Kempe and Kaufman were rare masters of giving us all those things we want.
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