A New History of Early English Drama.
One of the things that make this history new is that there are no essays about individual authors and plays. Designed to displace playwrights and plays from their traditionally central position in dramatic history, A New History of Early English Drama focuses instead on "the social and material circumstances" in which the plays "were written, produced, performed, sold, published, patronized, read, censored, ... exploited ... and watched and listened to" (5). It is also designed to displace Shakespeare from his traditional status as "the implicit goal toward which drama before him is seen to move" instead of "a working playwright functioning within the enabling (and inhibiting) circumstances of the playhouse and printing shop" (2). It is a history of "early" rather than "Renaissance" English drama because it rejects the traditional period boundary that separates the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries from that of their medieval predecessors. "Renaissance," the editors argue, is an artifact of the "humanist bias against the prehistory of the Renaissance itself." The more recently favored term "early modern" is also rejected because it implies "that the essence of `the period' is to be found primarily in its relation to a modernity of which of course it could know nothing" (3). This critique of modernity is elaborated in the first essay, "World Pictures, Modern Periods, and the Early Stage," in which Margreta de Grazia situates the book in the history of historical periodization as a postmodern "attempt to offset the modern privileging of time over space" (20-21). Perhaps, she speculates, the reason why 1576, the date of the building of the first public theater in London, is not seen as an epochal moment in history is that a "modern temporal schema tend[s] to subordinate or bar spatial transformations" (15). "To pursue them beyond their documentary value in the annals of stagecraft is to begin to break out of the limitations of modern epochality and the subjectivity it upholds" (20).
The remaining twenty-four essays are divided into three groups. The first of these, "Early English Drama and Physical Space," consists of seven essays, of which only John Orrell's focuses on purpose-built theaters. The other six deal with performances in churches, households, universities, streets and markets, and with printed drama in early libraries. The second section, "Early English Drama and Social Space," describes a variety of social contexts for theatrical production: religious, civic, domestic, royal, literary, and popular. The third section, "Early English Drama and Conditions of Performance and Publication," includes essays on touring, costumes and properties, censorship, audiences, acting styles, personnel and professionalization, authorship and collaboration, the publication of playbooks, patronage and the economics of theater, the revision of scripts, the repertory, and plays in manuscript. The divisions between the three sections and among the individual essays are somewhat amorphous, resulting in a certain amount of overlap, repetition, and sometimes contradiction. This is probably inevitable, given the fact that the editors have rejected the old maps which charted the territory by the traditional divisions of playwright or dramatic genre, and that many of the essays cover new terrain. Nonetheless, a more extensive index would have been helpful, and perhaps a timeline as well. The dates of the establishment of various companies and theaters, for instance, are given in a number of places, but only a few can be found by consulting the index.
Playwrights and plays appear only incidentally in the book, which often focuses on theatrical performances that are not ordinarily called to mind by the term drama. Suzanne Westfall, for instance, emphasizes that "household theater frequently foregrounded the arts of various entertainers that have never been considered in the mainstream of theater history," such as fools, animal managers, acrobats, jugglers, mimes, and minstrels, whose performances are not text-based. She cites records of a land grant awarded to one Roland le Fartere in 1331, for "making a leap, a whistle and a fart" and of "an entertainment performed in 1297 for King Edward I by Matilda Makejoy, a female acrobat and dancer" (45). Anne Higgins provides a richly detailed account of civic processions in fifteenth-century York, and Gordon Kipling describes pageants that celebrated royal entries into cities.
Historical precedents for the deemphasis of plays are provided in a number of the essays. For instance, John Orrell notes that when the first English theater with a perspective set was built in 1605, King James rejected the initial placement of his throne "in the center of the audience where the theatrical illusion would be most nearly perfect" because the other spectators would be unable to view him head-on (65). John R. Elliott, Jr. cites a spectator's account of plays staged for Queen Elizabeth's August 1566 visit to Oxford, which describes the scenery on stage, the decoration of the hall, and the seating of the playgoers but fails to mention either the titles or the authors of the plays. As Elliott concludes, the writer of the account "seems to have considered the playtexts themselves the least important part of the occasion" (71). Similarly, Jean MacIntyre and Garrett P. J. Epp point out that, because costumes were the most expensive investment made by a theatrical company, decisions to revive an old play or commission a new one may very well have been dictated by the company's ownership of the appropriate costumes (278-79).
Some of the essays are self-consciously engaged in retheorizing their subjects; most, however, simply go about the traditional business of history. Informed by the dogged empiricism of patient archival research, they make for slow reading, but they constitute a treasure-trove of information, and they offer well-documented and convincing challenges to a number of traditional assumptions. For instance, John M. Wasson argues that more than half of all vernacular plays of the English Middle Ages and Renaissance were performed not, as is usually assumed, outdoors, but inside churches (25). These included performances by professional actors as well as by choirboys and amateur players from the parishes. Wasson also argues that, contrary to the standard view, drama did not "develop in any chronological order from clergy to folk to professional actors," all of which "existed together throughout the time period under consideration. The last professional performance in a church seems to have been in 1625-26" (35). Peter H. Greenfield refutes the notion that touring the provinces was "a desperate measure taken only in times of plague in London or declining company fortunes." Previous scholarship, he notes, has emphasized the cases when towns expelled players or paid them not to perform, but these "records make up less than 5 percent of the more than three thousand records concerning performance during Shakespeare's lifetime. The "remaining 95 percent ... indicate that entertainers were allowed to play, were rewarded, or were otherwise successful." Players, he concludes, were actually "expected to tour as a normal requirement of their occupation, not as an act of desperation" (251-52). Touring, in fact, "did not begin to decline noticeably until the second decade of the seventeenth century" (253). Kathleen E. McLuskie and Felicity Dunsworth demonstrate that the movement from a system of patronage to one of commerce was much more complicated than we have assumed, and Roslyn L. Knutson shows that the traditional practice of relating plays by dramatist and company obscures important relationships between the offerings in competing repertories.
Traditional notions of authorship are challenged by Jeffrey Masten, who argues that "early modern playwrights were far less interested in keeping their hands, pages and conversation separate than are the twentieth-century critics who have studied them" (361). As a result, the plays resist the "categories of singular authorship, intellectual property, and the individual that are central to later Anglo-American cultural, literary, and legal history" (361-62). Similarly, Eric Rasmussen challenges the traditional editorial practice of attempting to distinguish between revisions made by the authors of plays and those made by others. "The question of authorship," he demonstrates, "can never be satisfactorily resolved" (442); and Paul Werstine decisively refutes W. W. Greg's influential theory of "fowle papers," which posited a "linear model of playtext transmission from author to players" (489).
Standard assumptions about the printed plays are also challenged. Heidi Brayman Hackel points out that, despite Thomas Bodley's often-cited decision to exclude English playbooks from the new public library at Oxford, these books frequently were included in large numbers in private book collections. Barbara A. Mowat, citing examples of printed playtexts annotated for performance that were later reproduced as manuscript playbooks, refutes the standard assumption that manuscript and performance inevitably preceded print (215-16). In what will surely be the definitive study of the publication of playbooks, Peter Blayney demonstrates that there is no evidence for "the supposed reluctance of acting companies to allow their plays to be printed" (386) and the supposed eagerness of stationers "to wrest--honestly or otherwise--a play or two from the supposedly protective clutch of an acting company." "No more than one play in five would have returned the publisher's initial investment inside five years. Not one in twenty would have paid for itself during the first year" (389). In fact, Blayney concludes, the publication of plays was most likely instigated by the players as a form of advertisement to attract paying customers to their playhouses (386). Similarly, Roslyn L. Knutson points out that, despite the "canard of old theater histories ... that players guarded their playbooks from printing in order to keep other companies from acquiring their properties and presenting them on rival stages," the companies actually "left one another's repertory holdings alone" and instead commissioned their own scripts on subjects that had proved popular in competing repertories (469).
Other essays complicate our assumptions about the social hierarchy. Michael D. Bristol argues, "Although it could not accurately be characterized as a dominant culture, the customary practices and forms of expression of the base, common, and popular element of early modern society nevertheless constituted a majority culture" (in Bristol's view, this included the "middling sort"--that is, "wealthy yeoman farmers and successful merchants," and "masters within the various craft guilds or livery companies" as well as the humbler people that the phrase "base, common, and popular" is more likely to call to the mind of a modern reader ). Thus, "Contrary to what earlier historical scholarship has always maintained, notions of hierarchy, subordination, and a `great chain of being' were not the only recognized tenets of social rationality at the time" (234). Regarding the place of women, Diana E. Henderson reminds us that there were aristocratic women who "managed to avoid being confined to any of their numerous homes, much less `the' home," while women "at the other end of the social scale might have no home at all, and they could hardly afford to create gendered space." She also points out that in Southwerk, the district where many theaters were located, "at least 16 percent of households were headed by women" (192).
Strictly speaking, this is not really a new history of early drama, but rather a collection of new historical essays planned by an editorial board consisting of David Bevington's former doctoral students at the University of Chicago as a tribute to his scholarly achievements and in gratitude for his continuing support of their work. As is the case with any anthology, some essays will interest individual readers more than others. Some, such as Peter Thomson's demonstration that modern notions of acting and character are inapplicable to early plays, should be required reading for students, but all will be required reading for scholars in the fields they cover. Most of the writers have already proved themselves as leading authorities on the subjects of their essays, and the younger contributors stand up well in this distinguished company. This is an important book.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
|Previous Article:||"Household Business": Domestic Plays of Early Modern England.|
|Next Article:||The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama.|