The Beggar, the King, and the Future of Theatre

Unlikely voices from a UK rock band enter the conversation on the value of digital theatre

Photo by Anthrox Studio

The institution of theatre is undergoing a crisis right now. Artists are struggling to create due to stress of the circumstances, a lack of traditional means of sharing their art, and resources. According to some critics’ definitions of theatre, performance is currently dead, as the form is stripped of its liveness and togetherness. Theatre has undergone changes with each new era, and ephemerality is one element that artists agree makes something “theatre” (though some think even this is gatekeeping accessibility to the medium.) Despite how you view the authenticity of online theatre, one thing is certain: professionals must find new ways to adapt in order to earn a living. While critics scramble to dub certain methods acceptable and others failed, an unexpected player has stepped into the fray. English Rock band Black Midi has revived the radio drama, performing a reading of “The Beggar and the King,” a 1921 play by Winthrop Parkhurst.

The idea of an experimental math rock band choosing to perform a 20th century play tickles me. This act says more about the merits of theatre in this time than those who are currently admonishing artists for trying new things. It proves that plays have inherent and practicable value, even in an era of nontraditional performance. It can connect people through experiencing stories together that other mediums cannot accomplish. Clearly, the members of Black Midi felt this play would convey a message. Listening to it reminded me of what Samuel Beckett had to say about radio dramas: he believed “radio comes out of darkness”; this distinguishes it from theatre, which he posited must have a visual element. But Beckett lived at the height of radio dramas, before Broadway shows like The Encounter were winning Tonys. Developments of the medium have proved that audio design, (yes, including pre-recorded audio,) can be just as theatrical as visuals. Likewise, though The Beggar and the King offers no visual element, the drama is nonetheless transportative due to the type of play it is, the dedicated actors, and sound design.

The Beggar and the King is a one-act with only three characters: The beggar, the king, and his servant. The members of Black Midi were clearly committed to these parts, affecting their voices to fit the roles and leaning into the fable-like feel of the piece, complete with ambient noise and sound effects. It’s a story that seems familiar. The king is annoyed by cries of hunger from the beggar and therefore tortures and threatens him. He refuses to be charitable, despite it seeming the most logical course of action. When the servant informs the king that the beggar’s tongue has been cut out, we do not need a visual to complete the viscerality of the beggar’s performance. His grating spite echoes in the empty chamber of the royal hall as the servant audibly fans the king. When the servant tries to provide help with his meek but supportive tone, this too annoys the king. The setup seems to echo many fairy tales, ancient myths, and Bible stories: powerful people who are unkind to the poor are evil and will suffer consequences. Though in this story, the king does not learn his lesson in the end, and the beggar continues to beg, perpetually hungry. Nothing is resolved, except maybe one lesson is learned. The servant, who remains faithful despite claiming no power, sees that the beggar is unafraid of the king. The actor’s performance here portrays this arc well: starting off pompous from his proximity to power, to concerned at displays of insubordination, to dumbfounded as he realizes the instability of his position. He realizes that the king is only worth what the lower classes afford him, and his power is not divine or necessarily permanent. The trace of uncertainty in the king’s proud voice at this ending is telling. The words of the beggar ring out: “For to be born into this world a beggar is a more unhappy thing than any that I know—unless it is to be born a king.”

This play, though timeless, is incredibly prescient: people are crying out for an end to suffering, and those with fortune and health wish they would just shut up and go away already. To those with privilege, convenience is more important than other people’s lives. It’s easy to see how Black Midi considered it relevant. This is a ubiquitous story, one humanity has yet to learn, and the end of the drama draws on the cyclical nature of this issue. But the wavering in the servant’s voice suggests that he knows a change is coming. While the turmoil of the current moment has many people uncertain, there is hope that recognizing flaws in the current systems will lead to a collective reckoning and subsequent change. Though Black Midi is a UK band, this phenomenon is worldwide. I am grateful the broadcast is available to me as an American listener, as it feels so right for our political situation. But revolution still seems distant, as it remains unrealized in The Beggar and The King.

The timeliness of this work from 1921 must have struck a chord with the members of Black Midi, as they performed it on NTS online radio while raising money for The Global Foodbanking Network. I find it vindicating that they found this piece of art necessary for the moment, and that they were able to raise over 25k for the charity. It is a story so simple that the messages come across just as clearly as if it was staged in a traditional sense. It is also freely accessible, which is in line with the ethos of the piece. At only around 17 minutes (that’s three Quibis), it is worth the listen. Hopefully, the effectiveness of this radio drama from an unlikely source will quell the anxieties that theatre is dead. Let the storytelling traditions continue!

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Rebecca Slaman is a theatre writer and enthusiast. You can follow her on Twitter and contact her on her website.