Producing Early Modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616.
In Producing Early Modern London, Kelly J. Stage reconsiders the relationship between city, stage, and dramatic genre by bringing together several threads of scholarship to construct a complex, insightful book. In the tradition of city comedy scholars Theodore Leinwand, Jean Howard, and others, Stage focuses on city comedy as a genre, but this is not merely a genre study. Instead, Stage argues that the development of this sub-genre coincided with the development of London, and, perhaps most importantly, the ways the city's residents conceived of the places and spaces they inhabited. Unique here is Stage's idea that city comedies "perform" the city rather than represent or even mimic it. She investigates how, "London plays communicate with their audiences in a performance of their own city" (6). In a well-argued, theoretically grounded study, she claims that London plays popular from 1598-1616, "produce an imagined and reframed London on stage... [that] becomes meaningful in the actions in the play, the audience's experience of the play, and the audience, script, and performers' collective knowledge of the London outside the theater" (8). Through a thoughtfully wrought theoretical framework and extensive close readings of representative plays, she asks readers to consider a specific moment in London's and the stage's history through a lens of place theory.
This volume adds to a growing amount of work on the intersection of early modern drama, theatrical practice, and place theory, like Nina Levine's Practicing the City (2016). Stage devotes the introduction to breaking down dense theories of place and space. She turns to the likes of the philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre and Yi-Fu Tuan, a humanistic geographer, to distinguish between "place," a specific, familiar area on which people bestow meaning, and "space," an abstract concept of an area that lacks specific social value, but that reinforces hierarchical power and control. The differentiation becomes useful as she traces characters' movements through staged representations of London, where place knowledge (knowing city streets and names) intersects and sometimes competes with spatial knowledge (knowing how to navigate a city via an abstract concept of it). Throughout, this sometimes remarkably complex distinction highlights how London comedies recreate and comment on not only the city itself, but, more importantly, the negotiation of life within it. In deploying these ideas, Stage demonstrates that the city comedy sub-genre can help us understand how Londoners conceived--and conceived of--their city in relation to themselves and larger cultural perspectives. Stage shows us that knowing early modern London like the audience, actors, and playwrights knew it is quite impossible, but that pursuit of such understanding can be fruitful. She writes, "The plays I examine produce concepts of urban structures that use comedy and its prescribed order as a matter of form, and yet they often still hold out a dark, self-referential, convention-aware critical eye. This duality is what I see as productive... of urban awareness and... theatrical development" (15).
Stage organizes her study into chapters focused on different experiences of the city as they are represented in various city comedies. Smartly, the chapters each focus on two or three plays in general chronological order, demonstrating simultaneous developments in dramatic form and the city itself. In chapter 1, Stage turns to two early London comedies, Englishmen for My Money (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), to show that while city comedies sometimes create a legible representation of London, they also demonstrate the alienation and chaos of the urban experience. In her reading of Englishmen, Stage posits that London comedies assume indexical familiarity with specific urban places like the Royal Exchange and St. Paul's, but provide knowledge of these places via characters' negotiations of the represented city. She connects this play to Jonson's Every Man Out by showing how they position the theater and the city as both a place and a space, "at once familiar and estranging" (71). Chapter 2 turns the focus to the directional Ho plays--Eastward, Northward, and Westward--to show that city comedies that "look back at London from beyond it" explore not only London's relationship to the world outside of it, but also help to produce "official narratives of urban control" (85). Stage returns to the city to discuss localism and specific urban knowledge as tools of resistance in the city in Chapter 3. She looks at Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl (1611) and Jonson's Epicene (c. 1609) as dramatizations featuring citizens overcoming London's daily challenges by subverting the power structures that craft the urban space. Though Stage does not include much discussion of gender or class in other chapters (which is somewhat of an oversight given the variety of characters she discusses), here she shows them to be hierarchical forces in urban space taken on--and to some extent, taken down--in these plays.
The strands of Stage's argument come together in chapter 4 and in a fascinating reading of Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (c. 1613). She positions the play as the ultimate and final true London comedy, but what is most important here is how she characterizes the symbiotic and productive relationship between play, text, and city. In her words, "the text makes the city in its struggle to contain London, and the city makes a text that struggles to contain its excessive plot" (190). In tracing the frantic but contained movements through urban space in this convoluted play, Stage shows how its disorderliness mirrors an increasingly fractured sense of London. She therefore proves Chaste Maid to be last London comedy because there could be no more London comedies; the city and its stage could no longer manage to represent it. The city comedy sub-genre bursts through its boundaries just as London was bursting past its walls and historical and social limits.
Stage's study has implications for several critical approaches currently employed within the field, including theater history, place/space studies, performance theory, and audience studies, to name a few. The author situates a small piece of the social and geographical history of London and the role the theater played in it in a broad and complex context that invites us to consider how these approaches intersect. Because of its thorough inclusion of paradigmatic plays and various theoretical approaches, Producing Early Modern London offers a fresh perspective on an oft-studied city, its stage, and a genre that produced--and was produced by--them.
Reviewer: JESS LANDIS
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|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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