Exeter City Council has announced plans to produce a new musical theatre extravaganza to celebrate the city’s UNESCO City of Literature status.
Exeter the Musical, billed as “an ambitious celebration of a better life in the world’s most world-class city”, will also form the principal plank of the city council’s post-pandemic economic recovery package.
The tale, whose full title in Middle English is The Nonnes Preestes Tale of the Cok and Hen, Chauntecleer and Pertelote, is a satirical mock-heroic fable set in a world of talking animals who reflect both human perception and fallacy. It explores the surprising claim that a cockerel can possess the wisdom and book-learning of a scholar.
Its protagonist is Chauntecleer, a proud and boastful rooster who loves to strut and crow in his domain, the yard of a poor country cottage. Chaucer describes him as the “regal cock Chauntecleer in his pasture, like a prince in his hall”, with a comb “redder than a perfect coral” and says “in all the land of crowing there was none his equal”.
The narrative begins with Chauntecleer waking from a dream in which he foresees his approaching doom in the form of a fox. Pertelote, the favourite among his seven hens said to be “very similar to him in colour”, warns him of the folly of human hubris in the ribald, comedic language typical of the tale:
“A dream is nothing but a conceit. Dreams are caused by overeating, by flatulence or by one of the four humours in a person’s body being out of balance.
“Without doubt, this dream which you have just had is because of an excess of your red bile, which causes folk to have nightmares.”
Unfortunately for Chauntecleer, his premonition turns out to be true. A fox “full of sly iniquity” who previously tricked Chauntecleer’s father and mother to their downfall lies in wait for him.
Despite the warning in his dream, the fox succeeds in preying on Chauntecleer’s inflated ego by insisting he would love to hear Chauntecleer crow:
“Chauntecleer began to beat his wings; he was completely taken in by all the flattery and failed to see the treachery that was taking place.”
The fox snatches Chauntecleer in his jaws and flees through the forest with all the animals in the yard giving chase.
The choice of source material for Exeter City Council’s new venture in musical theatre production was inspired by a fourteenth century book of diseases and medicine which has its home in Exeter Cathedral’s library archive.
Rosa Medicinae (Rose of Medicine) was written by John of Gaddesden, a medieval English physician who Chaucer may have had in mind when dreaming up the “Doctour of Phisik” mentioned in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
A spokesperson for Exeter Culture said: “Like so many other ways in which Exeter claimed UNESCO City of Literature status, Chaucer’s passing mention of a character who may have been based on the author of a book, a copy of which is kept in Exeter, places the city at the centre of a rich web of literary connections.
“It doesn’t matter that Gaddesden never lived in or anywhere near Exeter. Or Chaucer.”
A spokesperson for Exeter City Council said: “Exeter is a truly world-class city in every way. We’re sure that, had Chaucer ever heard of us, he would have sent his pilgrims to Paris Street instead of Kent.”
“Every mention of Exeter in the media, never mind the veracity of the story, is more proof of the city’s status as a global leader.”
A spokesperson for Visit Exeter said: “After enjoying all that Canterbury had to offer, we’re sure Chaucer’s pilgrims would have made Exeter their next must-see destination.”
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is also notable for containing the first reference in English literature to an association between practical jokes, hoaxes and 1 April. In the story Chauntecleer is tricked by the fox on “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two”, the 32nd day of March.
Several well-known figures are in line to star in Exeter the Musical, with 1980’s pop legend Rick Astley hotly-tipped to take the role of Chauntecleer. Overlooked local talent Jean Rhys is also rumoured to be considering playing a part.
Those who would like to know how Chauntecleer fares following the chase through the forest will have to wait to see the show when it is staged later this year at Exeter’s Corn Exchange. Tickets go on sale on 6 May.