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Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare's Time. .

Roslyn Lander Knutson. Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare's Time.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. x + 198 pp. index. illus. bibl. $54.95 ISBN: 0-521-77242-7.

Richard Dutton has argued recently (Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama, 1991) that censorship in early modern England was not a massive attempt on the part of a repressive government to suppress free speech, as one might suppose from a modernist perspective, but was instead a system designed to provide a level playing field for publishers and acting companies in which a wide range of comment on contemporary affairs could be licensed and heard. Roslyn Knutson's argument about the economic competition of the playing companies in Tudor and Jacobean England is of a similarly revisionist cast. It holds up to question the conventional picture in nineteenth-and twentieth-century scholarship of cutthroat rivalry and professional rivalries among players and dramatists, arguing instead for a model of cooperation designed to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. Het model for this cooperative enterprise is the guild. In order to prove her point, she examines ne tworking among players, marketing strategies, and relationships between acting companies and publishers.

Knutson's scholarly work specializes in nuts-and-bolts archival research. She quotes from commonplace books, legal documents, licensing agreements, cast lists, and theatrical anecdotes. She aptly reviews theater history in order to demonstrate how the idea grew, in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship, of personality conflicts in the so-called stage quarrel between Jonson and his critics, of commercial rivalries, of political differences, even of class warfare between the "common players" and the elitist boy companies. Her tone is measured, not harshly polemical. She builds on the work of recent critics like Dutton, Paul Yachnin, and William Ingram in order to downplay the importance of ideological and personal quarrels in favor of commercial cooperativeness. She describes a transition in the 1580s and 1590s from a loose organization of acting companies to one in which increasingly stable companies, profiting from aristocratic sponsorship, saw the virtues of a shared commercial agenda. Sh e differs from Andrew Gurr in seeing not a duopoly of two leading companies (Chamberlain's and Admiral's) but instead a marketplace of variety that manifested itself most of all in a vital and changing repertory. Feudal traditions of hierarchy, kinship, service, and the guild provided the social cohesion making this cooperation possible.

Among Knutson's more compelling revisionist arguments is her contention that the famous "little eyases" passage from Hamlet is to be dated from 1606 or thereabouts rather than 1600-01, in which case its main thrust would seem to be a worry that the boys' satirical portraitures might have the seriously deleterious effect of closing some public playhouses more or less permanently. In a similar vein, she detaches Histrio-Mastix from the highly personal context of the supposed War of the Theatres by insisting that the phy was not by Marston and was nor acted publicly in any of the commercial public playhouses. Poetaster and Satiromastix are similarly removed from the immediacy of the personal quarrels championed in earlier years by Sharpe, Small, Fleay, Penniman, and Harbage.

The old idea of a stage quarrel, then, suffers from the defects of the "old historicism." It revels in personal conflicts among the high-culture literati of the English Renaissance: Jonson, Dekker, Marston, Shakespeare. It pays undue attention to the Globe and Blackfriar's at the expense of the Boar's Head (as championed by Herbert Berry), the Fortune, the Curtain, the Swan. It ignores the importance of touring, about which we have learned so much in recent years from the Records of Early English Drama. It privileges certain plays--Every Man Out of His Humour, Jack Drum's Entertainment, Cynthia's Revels, Poetaster, Satiromastix--at the expense of a large current repertory. It overlooks performances at court. It oversimplifies a divide between popular audiences and those attending the "private" playhouses.

As Knutson forcefully reminds us, drawing on the research of David Kathman, a remarkable number of actors were members of guilds. They were able to apprentice boys, not to the acting companies themselves but to the guilds of which the players were members, though the boys' duties presumably had nothing to do with goldsmiths' or grocers' trades. The players remembered their apprentices in their wills. These circumstances, in Knutson's view, promoted a culture of cooperativeness. Acting companies sometimes performed jointly. They called upon the talents of writers who were readily available to their use, and who often wrote collaboratively. Company repertories overlapped with one another.

The companies were of course in competition with one another in the vital economic sense of needing and seeking audiences, and were no doubt ready to exploit local history, personality clashes, class difference, and all the test as they sought to please a paying clientele that could choose what plays to see. Knutson denies none of this. Hers is a sane, balanced appraisal of the conditions of performance in a time of transition from feudal hierarchical values to those of economic free enterprise. That transition did not happen at once, of course, and could not be expected to be consistent or steady. The value of Knutson's study is that it sees the complexity and variety of the process. No one would call her scholarly work postmodern or "new historical" as that term is generally understood. At the same time it does share with other recent projects in theater history (the REED project, for example) a conviction that history is remarkably local and particularized. Getting at the truth of history, or at least some of that truth, demands that one continually reexamine the truisms of historical generalization in favor of the day to day. Knutson's book tries to do that.
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Author:Bevington, David
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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