The Herbal Bed : literary nostalgia, cinema,


  • Axel Kruse


First performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in May 1996, Peter Whelan’s play The Herbal Bed has become a major success in theatres in London, New York and Sydney. It is so well regarded that it has already become a school text set for senior public examinations in English literature. One explanation for the success of The Herbal Bed is that it combines literary nostalgia and romance with a conservative version of fashionable postmodernism. While it deals with events in Shakespeare’s life, and may seem to be a contemporary achievement in an altogether traditionally literary and poetic kind of drama which descends from Shakespeare, The Herbal Bed is evidence of the assimilation of the codes and conventions of media culture into the contemporary theatre. The most obvious relation between the play and the wider context of film and television is that it appeals to the revival of interest in romance which includes the success of films such as James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996). The Herbal Bed is interesting as evidence that a current direction to literary nostalgia is accompanied by a direction to romantic nostalgia. The construction of romance is in terms of illicit passion, failure, and the view that survival depends on assimilation into an established order of lies and coded repression. In the circumstances, if The Herbal Bed is to be studied in schools as a set piece of English literature it needs to be approached with an interest in late twentieth-century complications in the history of literature and the media, and with an interest in the history of the representation of romance.