In 1605, several dozen kegs of gunpowder were secreted in a rented subterranean storage area beneath the spot where the new King James I would be seated on his throne. The plotters intended to detonate them in order to punish Elizabeth II's Scots-born designated heir for his failure to put an end to the persecution of Papists in England in spite of being one himself. But someone leaked word of the so-called Gunpowder Plot, the explosives never went off and a man named Guy Fawkes - although not the leader of the conspiracy (that was one Robert Catesby) - had his name forever attached to the event because he was the guy who got caught holding the matches.
Since then, throughout Protestant parts of the British Empire, children have constructed effigies of poor Mr. Fawkes and gone door-to-door begging for "a penny for the Guy" (yes, that is the original derivation of the term "guy" meaning "male person" or "fellow"), with which they would then purchase fireworks. These effigies of Guy Fawkes were then thrown into bonfires on the night of November 5 to be burned "at the stake," followed by community fireworks displays. In some strongholds of particularly virulent anti-Papism, effigies of Pope Paul V were burned as well, since he was erroneously believed to have been a financier of the plot (not that the conspirators didn't try to find backers on the Continent; they just weren't very successful).
Ironically, the original Guy Fawkes managed to dodge the worst bit of his own execution: Sentenced like his co-conspirators to be drawn and quartered after being hanged (as if hanging were not quite lethal nor humiliating enough), he took a great leap off the ladder leading to the scaffold and managed to commit suicide by breaking his own neck. So maybe the scandalized public thought that he needed to be toasted just a little bit as well, to deter future bomber wannabes.
But there's the bit that confuses Americans: Although the ostensible intent of Bonfire Night is to celebrate the preservation of the British royalist social order against homegrown terrorism - it was actually mandatory until 1859, under an Act of Parliament known as the Thanksgiving Act - it's essentially a festive occasion, with lots of stuff burning and exploding and special food treats associated with it. What's more, the Brits seem to have become oddly fond of their anarchist antihero. Over time, Guy Fawkes came to be portrayed as a sympathetic character in 19th-century historical novels and as a sort of "action hero" in children's books of the early 20th century. More recently, J. K. Rowling named Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix in the Harry Potter series Fawkes - presumably for his habit of periodic self-immolation, but the bird is depicted as a brave, deeply loyal and inspiring character. And there's a cynical old joke among the English that Guy Fawkes was "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions."
There's lots more to the story, of course, and it has obviously acquired new pertinence in this age of anxiety over terrorist plots. If you go to the Martel Theater in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film on the Vassar College campus this Friday through Sunday, you can enjoy a taste of Bonfire Night yourself. It's a "concert reading" of a new musical by that title concerning the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot, presented as one of this summer's Martel Musicals by Vassar and New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theater and described in the press release as "a scrappy, hilarious and thought-provoking musical romp through history."
The book, lyrics and musical score, which blends jazz, pop, rock and gospel, are by Justin Levine, and the play is directed by Obie winner Alex Timbers. The pair have previously collaborated on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is slated to move from the Public Theater to Broadway this fall. The cast of Bonfire Night features Drama Desk Award-winner Santino Fontana (Billy Elliot, Sunday in the Park with George), Tony Award nominee John Ellison Conlee (The Constant Wife, The Full Monty), David Rossmer (Children and Art, Fiddler on the Roof, Titanic), Jonathan B. Wright (Spring Awakening), Robert Petkoff (Ragtime, Spamalot, Fiddler on the Roof), Charlie Pollack (Urinetown), Greg Hildreth (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), and Demond Green (The Toxic Avenger). Note that the entire cast is male, although the dying Elizabeth I is one of the characters; the theatrical tradition in Shakespeare's era of male actors undertaking female parts gets paid its due respect here.
Performances of Bonfire Night begin at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 16 and 17, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 18. Tickets are $30.
Then, starting next Wednesday, Powerhouse pulls out the star-power stops as Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright and director John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck) returns to the Mainstage with yet another premiere - his 13th at Vassar since 1985 - titled Pirate. This fully staged production is described as "a funny, provocative and wildly theatrical tale of a guy who keeps showing up. One never knows where the Pirate may appear. But when evil makes its entrance, Pirate may usually be found." (One can't help wondering if this is intended as a lead-in to the next Martel Musical on the Powerhouse agenda: the reincarnation-themed On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.)
The cast of Pirate features Bill Camp (Still Life, Coram Boy, Heartbreak House) as Pirate, Ivan Hernandez (Yank! Romantic Poetry, The Fantasticks) as Nick, Charlotte Parry (Equivocation, Coram Boy, The Real Thing) as Portia and Michael Puzzo (Killing Women, Khartoum, Penalties and Interest, Dirty Story, A Winter Party) as Klaus. Pirate will be performed on July 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31 at 8 p.m. and on July 24, 25 and 31 and August 1 at 2 p.m. There will be a post-show discussion on Tuesday, July 27. Tickets are $35.
To order tickets for either show or find out more about Powerhouse's full summer season lineup, call the box office at (845) 437-7235 or (845) 437-5599 or visit the website at http://powerhouse.vassar.edu. Vassar is also offering $5 student rush tickets for students of up to 25 years of age, if still available 15 minutes before curtain time.