If I were going to have lunch with an English Renaissance dramatist, and it couldn’t be one of the big three (Shakespeare, Jonson, or Marlowe), I’d probably pick Francis Beaumont, since he practically invented meta-theatre. His use of the technique, however, was about 300 years too early, and it bombed in London at the time.
Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle is a very playful piece of theatre that was incredibly innovative for its day. It is a satire of the so-called “city plays” of the era, when Aristotle’s dictum that drama had to be about “great men” was being tested. It’s also a satire of the popular chivalric romances of the day, indeed, you can’t help but marvel at the similarities of one subplot to Don Quixote, though Knight was written in 1607, and an English version of Cervantes’s novel didn’t appear until 1612. It is also, and this is where things get meta, a satire of the audience for these types of plays, and making fun of his audience may have been the fatal blow for Knight of the Burning Pestle.
Beaumont doesn’t just break the fourth wall in this play, he rides right through it. The show that starts out, is really a play within a play, and three “members of the audience” essentially hijack the love story that appears to be the main plot. A well-to-do grocer and his wife think their apprentice Rafe is a talented actor, and order the “players” to include him in the show. They also consistently misconstrue plot elements in the romance, comment over the action, and force the actors to device mock-heroic events (rescuing maidens and fighting giants) for Rafe. Meanwhile the actors on stage portray the affronted reactions of “actors” in the inner play adding yet another meta dimension.
On top off all this, Beaumont parodies other playwrights (including Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V) and layers on an array of bawdy jokes, mostly about syphilis, from the burning phallic symbol of the title, to a poxy Frenchman riding his horse (whores), and the suggestion that the grocer’s wife may be overly fond of boys in general (and of Rafe in particular.) The play (and the play within the play) finally ends when the grocer and his wife demand a tragic ending, and Rafe appears with an arrow through his head (take that, Steve Martin) and gives a rousing speech and dies.
After the theatrical failure of Knight of the Burning Pestle, Beaumont teamed up with another playwright, John Fletcher, and together they became a writing pair as famous as Kander and Ebb or Rogers and Hammerstein of the 20th century. Beaumont and Fletcher had a string of successes until Beaumont’s death in 1616, at the age of 32.