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Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's Theater.

Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's Theater, by Matteo A. Pangallo. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. viii + 248. Hardback. $59.95.

Matteo Pangallo uses the term "fan fiction" only once in Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare's Theater (on page 30), but the phrase is instructive for appreciating what this fine book has to offer. Like homemade Star Wars movies on VHS or the massive number of Harry Potter-inspired stories online, Pangallo's archive comprises works of art made by attentive, often enthusiastic consumers. With perhaps surprising frequency, early modern English playgoers drew on their experience of dramatic performance to create plays of their own. This book explores the way these plays, like no other form of evidence, tell us "about how [playgoers] saw or thought they saw the stage from their perspective as theatrical consumers" (26).

In the long first chapter after the Introduction, Pangallo situates these plays, which come to us in various forms of revision and publication, among recent shifts in scholarship on dramatic reception. Whereas earlier scholars addressed playgoers as a group subject to the meaning-making work of playwrights and actors, more recent scholars treat playgoers as "the play's final producers" (27). Surveying the huge amount of evidence that early modern audiences acted as "collaborator[s] in the making of meaning," Pangallo argues that playwriting playgoers simply took that collaboration one step further. In his estimation, composition belongs on the same "scale of interactive response" as reception: audiences make a play's meaning, and it takes just one further step for audience members to write their own plays (51). Readers willing to accept this claim--that playgoers writing their own plays represents a difference in scale rather than kind from witnessing a performance--will gain much from this book. I know I have.

Like their postmodern "fanfic" descendants, plays written by early modern English playgoers have frequently been subjected to the indifference or hostility of "serious" scholars, who find the plays lacking the artistic and dramatic merit of professional plays. One of the most exciting and rewarding qualities of Playwriting Playgoers is Pangallo's insistence that we should not condescend to these playwrights (nor to the past more generally) by assuming that amateurism equals naivety or failure. On at least three occasions, for instance, Pangallo exposes G. E. Bentley as one such condescender, who continually misses out on what amateur plays can show us about early modern theater by assuming their makers' ignorance. Flipping such assumptions, this book explores how the plays of playgoers involve "not mere reaction but creation, an engagement with the stage that produces a fixed record allowing us to glimpse some of the details of that consumer's experience with, and understanding of, the stage" (185). What many scholars have dismissed as inadequately amateurish in fact provides whole new categories of evidence.

On rare occasions, in his attempts to persuade and clarify, Pangallo risks overreading particular pieces of evidence and overarguing the case. This is especially true in chapter 1, where he attempts to put dramatic meaningmaking in the hands of the audience. For instance, citing Edmond Rossingham's claim that the players of the Fortune were fined for "setting up an altar, a bason, and two candlesticks, and bowing down before it upon the stage, and although [the players] allege it was an old play revived, and an altar to the heathen gods, yet it was apparent that this play was revived on purpose in contempt of the ceremonies of the church," Pangallo reads "was apparent" to mean "how the performance of the text was interpreted by the audience" in order to assert that "interpretation creates the ultimate meaning of a play" (37). Perhaps this is so, but by "apparent," Rossingham means "plainly seen," not "subject to interpretation." Just a page later, Pangallo claims that "if a playgoer does not find a play tragic, labeling it 'The Tragedy of...' on a title page is irrelevant to understanding its meaning for that playgoer" (39). Again, it's possible to agree with the claim about the nature of dramatic interpretation (as I do) while noting that, in this hypothetical, a title page genre designation is anything but "irrelevant." As Pangallo shows elsewhere throughout the book, what makes a playgoer's interpretation meaningful and distinct is its relationship, however antagonistic, to governing structures of thought (like genre) and competing agents of interpretation (like acting companies or other playgoers). I mention these minor points to affirm Pangallo's overall argument: the work of playwriting playgoers functions as an extension of the audience's capacity to "make" a play. The fact that that capacity is limited and contingent (a fact not lost on Pangallo) makes amateur plays worth studying.

The composition of the remaining chapters surprised me, in a good way. Given Pangallo's argument that plays by playgoers constitute evidence about the theatrical industry, and given too that the book features Shakespeare's name in the title, I expected discussions of dramatic genre, comparative explorations of intertextuality between professional and amateur plays, and discussions of the politics of performance in the early seventeenth century, when most of the plays in question were written. Fortunately, the book offers far more exciting material. In chapter 2, Pangallo examines two manuscript plays, Walter Mountfort's The Launching of the Mary and Arthur Wilson's The Inconstant Lady to show how each writer revised his play for particular audiences. In both cases, the plays demonstrate how playgoers thought professional plays functioned. In chapter 3, stage directions bear witness to what playgoers understood about theatrical conventions and practices. This chapter best exposes previous scholars' snobbery, because amateurs' lengthy, often highly specific stage directions have long been the subject of ridicule. Pangallo persuasively argues that playgoers were highly attentive and sophisticated, not ignorant. Chapter 4, my personal favorite, takes up plays written by playgoers who were also practicing poets to show how these writers responded to the use of verse (and prose) on stage. Pangallo's analysis of Alexander Brome's old-fashioned use of rhyme in The Cunning Lovers is especially impressive. These arguments may lack a certain (say, Bentleyan) grandeur, but for that very reason, readers will be proud to own this book in thirty years. I'm certainly a fan.

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Author:Lamb, Jonathan P.
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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