Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence M. Clopper, and David Mills, eds. Cheshire including Chester.
This, the latest contribution to the growing and impressive Records of Early English Drama collection, offers high standards of textual presentation and provides a rich insight into many aspects of dramatic activity in the city of Chester and the county in which it is situated. In spite of the uniformity of outward appearance, however, the individual volumes in the REED collection give very different insights into the individual counties and cities upon which they are focused, and it seems important to draw attention here to the strengths and particular emphases of this new volume.
One of the causes of such a variety of exposure must be the differences in the quality and quantity of the surviving evidence. While the Bristol records are plentiful in the details of payments to individual companies of visiting players, giving an impression that this was an important feature of public entertainment in that city over many years, for example, the Cambridge records yield a wealth of literary texts associated with performances, mostly under the auspices of the university. In each case the corpus of material offers a different window into the past, and drawing conclusions from them and making comparisons about them are delicate arts. But it must also be admitted that differences among the records of different areas might just as well be true reflections of the variable incidence of such local customs as Robin Hood plays or the popularity of rushbearing in certain places.
In the case of the present two-volume Cheshire collection, the window on the past is complicated by the fact that there was an earlier REED edition of material relating to the city of Chester in 1979, which has now been revised, enlarged, and incorporated into the new edition. This means that finds of new material have been embraced. The process of revision for the Chester material also rejects some items in the previous volumes. The grounds for such omissions are not always clear, perhaps leaving questions about why the original items now eliminated were there in the first place. More notable is the reordering of the material. Close sampling of the four years 1579-80 to 1582-83 reveals that in the new edition the sequence of entries in each of the four years differs comprehensively from that in the earlier edition even though the individual items common to both editions and the manuscript references cited are substantially the same.
The development of the new edition is also affected by some changes in editorial policy inevitable perhaps as the work of REED enters its fourth decade. There are some aspects of such a policy that raise questions, and there is also the underlying concern about what has been left out. This is not so much a matter of error, since REED's editorial culture is very demanding of its contributors, as of decisions about what is desirable or appropriate to include to which I return below. Moreover, there may be some anxiety about the absence of context for individual items selected for inclusion.
Before further consideration of these aspects, however, we should pay close attention to the kinds of revelation about drama, the core of the enterprise, which are manifest here. This is not the first REED volume I have had the honor of reviewing, and I am very impressed by the quantity of detail this one presents. There is a very full introduction, surely a valuable advance on some of the earlier volumes, one of which stated quite specifically that there was no attempt to interpret the documents. That this is a conscious change going back some years has been made clear by Sally-Beth Maclean, the executive director of the series, in the recent celebratory volume. (1) There is a detailed list of the nature of the documentation from which the records are drawn. There are also several useful appendices, some of which are factual while others address critical issues such as the interpretation of the Breviaries of Robert and David Rogers, and the historical development of the cycle plays. The introduction itself provides an important overview of the city and county including its topography, economy and the distribution of wealth, and its social life. Though the county has a substantial history embodying Roman, Danish, and Welsh contacts it was never a very rich one and this is reflected in the way in which dramatic activities occurred in this largely agricultural society.
It is a welcome feature of the introductory material that pictorial illustrations of local places are included. I think this adds a good deal to the reader's impression of what the records are about, but I suggest that the quality of the reproduction of the pictures could and should be better. There are some useful maps, a very necessary element considering the quantity of places involved in the records, but these too could be much better presented, notably the illegible reproduction of John Speed's work. There is, it is apparent, a growing interest in the interrelationship between the REED volumes, especially as the journeys of traveling players all over the kingdom can be seen to interlock from volume to volume, and the cartographic aspect is clearly worth much more attention than it has received in the past. The material in the published volumes in this respect is far outstripped by the information to be found on the REED website.
The collection of records allows us insights into many different kinds of public entertainment. While there are still some problems of interpretation of the evidence about the Chester Whitsun Plays, the basic documents about the text of the plays and the banns, the relationship between the guilds and the plays, the route taken by the processional performance, and the underlying civil and religious matters that became matter for public controversy in the sixteenth century are all embodied here. This is especially important with regard to the discovery and inclusion of Christopher Goodman's letterbook, which gives priceless evidence about the Puritan opposition within the city to the production of the Whitsun Plays in the 1570s. Much of the surviving information about the plays themselves is owed to the interest of the city's antiquarians who assembled both the texts of the Whitsun Plays (necessarily not included here) and information about the surrounding circumstances of performance a generation or so after the plays were stopped.
Though these matters relating to the play cycle form a large part of the collection and give us valuable information about the process by which the cycle evolved, there is much else of importance in the detail about public performances. There is a large quantity of information about the other public ceremonials and popular customs. These include rushbearing, wakes, fairs, rope dancing and stilt walking, the May Games, the St George's horse race and the Sherrif's breakfast. Perhaps the most copiously represented is the procession of the Midsummer Watch, with its spectacular effects including giants. This event was of great antiquity and it continued to demand much from the guilds of the city well into the seventeenth century and long after they had ceased to participate in the Whitsun Plays. In such presentations elements from the plays such as Balaam and the ass were included. I say "demand" because it is apparent that the fines were used quite frequently to make sure that everyone who ought to take a part, or even just be present, did actually do so. Indeed, this small matter of fines is an indication of one of the ways in which this collection is skewed. Many of the records including a quantity of new ones from the Quarter Sessions are about crimes and offenses of various degrees of seriousness committed by people associated with performance.
Material about public disorder is plentiful in the collection both for the city and the county. Perhaps justifiably, the local authorities here shared with others around the country a fear that stage plays were the occasion of misbehavior, but it must be admitted that there was in Chester a puritanical antitheater lobby that sought to use the fear of disorder as a means to beat down the opposition and to ensure the closure of the Plays. However, the editorial policy also shows that public entertainment of other kinds was the occasion of disorder. Besides references to actual dramatic performances, the collection also includes details of music and dancing and of the misbehavior of individual musicians who came to the attention of the authorities. Thus there are here many instances where the activities of 'pipers' and other musicians give an insight into the criminal underworld. This is shared by the many references to bearbaiting, possibly an even shadier occupation. Men and women associated with this were apparently often involved in criminal activity as well as drunken violence.
There is, I think, some editorial unease about this in the commentary. The first concern is that it is most frequently the offending musicians who can be found in such judicial records. Secondly there is also the great, even excessive length of evidence that surrounds the detail that the perpetrator of a particular criminal act happens to have been a musician. Some of these records appear in the form of the depositions of one or more participants in such criminal activities that take up many pages, but the yield in terms of what is to be learned in relation to public entertainment is not very great. Sometimes the incidents in themselves are very amusing or diverting, but there may still be a question of how useful they really are within the scope of the book. One such episode at Northwich in 1636, rather a plum in itself, involves James Jefferyes, the constable, who makes one think of Elbow, or Dogberry and Verges. He complains that at the time of the bearbaiting there was disorder at the house of William Venables. In the process of correcting it Jefferyes was scoffed and jeered at and suffered much indignity by his own account. This included the singing of a libellous song containing the words "The Constable ere next Assises shall loose both his eares / ffor serving a warrant vpon my Lord Stang his beares" One could make this part of a study of the life and works of constables and indeed of Justices of the Peace, a matter of great public importance in the 1630s as Ben Jonson makes clear in his Tale of a Tub (1633). The Justices, as Shakespeare's Angelo puts it, had to sit through depositions that would outlast a night in Russia. But to attempt such a sociological or historical study would involve looking at many other records not associated at all with public entertainment. At times in the introduction there is a distinct sense that the editors are conscious that they are working within boundaries that might be questioned.
It seems therefore that one has to be discriminating in the interpretation of evidence presented by this and other REED collections. Both the boundaries of selection and the order of presentation of items may give one cause for concern. The stated objectives of the program on the Web site widen the field beyond the purely dramatic to secular music as well as public ceremonial and entertainment. It is here that there may still be some uneasiness about the principles of selection, especially as in the celebratory volume the following explanation is given by Alexandra F. Johnston, the director: "Since the word 'player' and its various Latin equivalents could mean both actor and player of a musical instrument the concept of the project had to expand to include minstrelsy and secular music." (2) Looked at from a pragmatic view this decision is perhaps understandable, but there remains a theoretical ambiguity in relation to the title of the series which refers specifically to "Drama." There is also the problem that to include secular music but usually to ignore records relating to liturgical music does not give full scope to the concern for performance, the stated essential of the series.
However, the richness of the material in this volume and its diversity remain a valuable resource for studies of many approaches relating to drama and performance. At its best this collection enables one to form a view of the variety and longevity of drama and performance in this city and county, and these can be seen at least in part in the light of the social and cultural constraints then obtaining. This is another volume that drama researchers will have to consult of necessity. There is one further offshoot that I think should again be mentioned. Because these records are literatim transcripts local and regional features of language are preserved within them. Such a collection is especially valuable since there is a chronological aspect embodied in the quoted texts and many of the dates can be specified. REED has a knack of creating more work for scholars and there is no doubt in my mind that this linguistic aspect is a very important one.
University of Southampton
(1) Audrey Douglas and Sally-Beth MacLean, eds. REED in Review: Essays in Celebration of the First Twenty-Five Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 48.
(2) Ibid., 31.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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