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The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England.

The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England. Edited by Marta Straznicky. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. 237 pages.

This wide-ranging collection by many leaders in the field offers state-of-the-art inquiries into the significance of early modern printed plays, including closet drama and the masque. It is well produced, of high quality, and copiously annotated. It can comprise an introduction for scholars and students of the drama to the growing specialties of book and reception history and the New Textualism (combining textual and cultural studies), though it will be challenging for some newcomers.

Marta Straznicky's introduction is particularly helpful in defining the nature and significance of key problems and questions. With regard to the reception of drama and the relation of the theater to society, culture, and the public sphere, early modern historicists have usually focused on playgoing and performance. But it is becoming increasingly clear that evidence concerning play-reading and printed plays is also essential. This volume aims toward a "history of play-reading" that concerns "the relationship between the material forms of playtexts, their production and modes of circulation, and their interpretations, uses, and appropriations by various reading publics" (6). To my understanding the ways play texts affected the evolution of the theater and helped to connect theatrical performance and the larger culture are also important themes in the book that may or may not fit neatly into a history of play-reading. Straznicky notes, in any case, that the groundwork for this history has already been laid, from studies of printing and marketing to those concerning dramatists' interest in writing for publication as well as performance, to the poststructuralist recognition that printed texts are not just imperfect records of past authorial intention but register and relate to their historical moments of printing. The introduction concludes by stressing the importance of plays circulated in manuscript, a topic the collection itself does not take up.

The essays in part 1, "Real and Imagined Communities," classify some kinds of play readers or responses. Cyndia Susan Clegg focuses on play readers as they are constructed and addressed in the prefaces written for hundreds of printed plays. The image of the reader in playbook prefaces is more positive than many contemporary images of playgoers. The prefaces show respect for the discernment readers exercise in their liberty to construct meaning and to judge quality. With the partial exception of Thomas Heywood's voyeuristic reader, play-readers are addressed like readers of other respectable books, and from the 1620s printed plays were offered to them as literary texts by worthy authors. In "Reading Printed Comedy: Edward Sharpham's The Fleer," Lucy Munro compares actual pieces of evidence for three different kinds of response to the printed play texts. The evidence conforms in a general way to the text's preface's specification of kinds of interest readers are likely to have: in the play as a play and in the play's humor. Sir John Harrington bound his copy of the play next to another with similar theme and plot elements (John Marston's The Fawn [1606]) and near other contemporary private-theater plays. This suggests the former kind of interest. A 1639 jestbook compiled by Robert Chamberlain, on the other hand, prints ten jokes from the play without attribution and shorn of contextual detail, suggesting the latter. A copy of the printed text marked up for a downsized performance emphasizing stock characters and humor suggests both. Studies like this, in which the producers' notions of response can be related to actual response, seem to me to be among the most revealing, though perhaps more telling when responses elude expectations.

Straznicky's own essay, "Reading through the Body: Women and Printed Drama," focuses on the ways female play-readers are constructed in printed play prefaces and elsewhere. Again in contrast to negative characterizations of playgoers, women reading in private, away from the public eye, are here depicted as taking an approved pleasure in reading plays, one that is potentially liberating. This thoughtful and perceptive essay contains a wealth of relevant information on women's imputed and reported engagement with printed drama, culminating in the rich example of Margaret Cavendish on reading aloud. Elizabeth Sauer, in "Closet Drama and the Case of Tyrannicall-Government Anatomized," focuses on a kind of drama in which the readers' private recitation was the only normal kind of performance. Sauer places her subject, a translation of George Buchanan's republican Baptistes that was published by Parliament in 1642/43, in the anticourt tradition of closet drama initiated by Mary Sidney, and also relates the play to Samson Agonistes. She attributes the complexity and ambiguity of these plays to their print medium.

Part 2, "Play-Reading and the Book Trade," concerns ways print affected the interpretation of plays and the evolution of drama. Zachary Lesser's impressive essay, "Typographic Nostalgia: Play-Reading, Popularity, and the Meaning of Black Letter," overturns received ideas about the significance of black-letter typeface and reveals the many different meanings publishers' choice of this typeface could have. He focuses on black letter's most important use, "typographical nostalgia": the typeface evoked a longing for traditional popular culture, an illusory past of social unity and authenticity. John Wright's use of black letter in his 1610 edition of The Shoemaker's Holiday is the case study. Lesser endorses critical opinion that the play is overwhelmingly nostalgic and that the publisher, therefore, simply emphasized a given in his choice of typeface. I think it might occur to anyone who finds something trenchant in the play amid the nostalgia that Wright's typeface is more enterprising than this, privileging a particular reading and, in that way, promoting nostalgia as a marketing tool. Wright then could actually seem to be detracting from the critical reflection and public discussion that printed plays generally promote. Alan B. Farmer in "Play-Reading, News Reading, and Ben Jonson's The Staple of News" also focuses on the new emphases plays could have in print editions that appeared some years after stage debut. Farmer stresses that Jonson's play attacks zealous Puritans who read news of the Thirty Years' War looking for signs of God's providence, as well as newswriters with religious agendas who supposedly just made up the news. When the play was first performed in 1626, England was backing the Protestant cause in the war, but when the play was published five years later, English foreign policy had shifted to support Spain. While Jonson's preface to the playtext sought to distinguish his work from the crush of popular news commodities he disdained, the printed play ironically became another voice in the social welter of topical comment.

The concerns of the last three essays range across the full period of early modern drama before 1642 and, at least by implication, address the basic theme that printed plays and masques offered a way for popular and elite media and interests to intersect in a public sphere. In "Genre, Early Modern Theatrical Title Pages, and the Authority of Print," Peter Berek derives statistical and lexical evidence from the online Short-Title Catalogue ( to trace attributions of genre in title pages. Designations of genre, it turns out, are more a function of print than theatrical advertisement and generally increase during the period. They tend, as we have seen with other aspects of the print medium, to raise the status of plays and link them with other literature as "works." A later phase involves habits of thought that appropriate generic terms to speak of real-life metaphorical "tragedies," for instance, enacted on "scaffolds" such as sites of execution. As Berek points out, the evolution toward literary status accords with the link identified by historians of the book between print and the rise of the individual author.

Douglas A. Brooks's wry, expansive essay, "Inky Kin: Reading in the Age of Gutenberg Paternity," extends his work in this area of "the construction of individual authorship" (209). Brooks starts from his and others' conclusions that eventually the individual-author-as-father model of the playbook eclipsed the collaborative model of the stage against which it defined itself. He reasons that playbooks written by, or invoking the name of, an admired, dead author-father mark the evolution toward the fetishized form of the literary commodity. Brooks uses the print version of Richard Brome's Antipodes (1640), with its fulsome praise of the recently deceased Jonson, as a paradoxical example that fulfills a historical allegory of the author's growing hegemony and marks a fitting closure to the era of early modern play performance. The plot celebrates performance, since the play-within-a-play is used to cure Peregrine's obsession with reading, an obsession that prevents him from consummating his marriage and becoming a father. But Brome's closing address to the reader asserts that the book of the play represents the author's true version more than any performance.

Lauren Shohet's "The Masque in/as Print" is jammed with rich detail and precedes what will probably be a major intervention, Reading Masques (forthcoming, 2007). Routinely published in cheap editions and recorded by letter-writing spectators, masques were not just for the elite. Masque pamphlets were a bit like news corantos and contributed to the public sphere, including issues of absolutism versus "public politics" (178). Topical issues figured in their symbolism could be deciphered by readers, whose interests were more diverse than those of court groups and whose interpretations more varied. Masque scriptors often showed awareness of such multiple audiences and purposes.

This volume amply demonstrates the importance of printed drama and the necessity of developing the study of it as an intrinsic aspect of the history of the book, the theater, reception, aesthetics, the public sphere, authorship, subjectivity, and other areas--in short, of the study of culture. As a historian of response, I would like to suggest the importance of using evidence about individual responses for these studies. Shohet and Clegg express the fullest acknowledgements here that readers may exercise the prerogative to release or creatively develop response to dramatic material at will. Evidence from the production side--authors, players, publishers, printers, editors, compilers, and such--gains a kind of fulfillment when set beside evidence from the reception side, as shown here in the essays of Munro and Straznicky among others. Responses to particular dramatic material by individual readers, not as sovereign subjects but as agents exercising a measure of freedom that cannot be subsumed under a commercial motive, are essential for an adequate history of reception. I hope that we can find more ways of discovering and collecting responses and of bridging studies of production and of consumption in order to realize the full potential of both for reception history.

But will the state of the evidence for actual reception ever make it feasible to construct a history of early modern play-reading apart from a history of playgoing, or a definition of readerliness distinct from features of responses developed on the basis of attendance at a live performance? Many of the excellent points made here about responses to the reading of plays and masques may also provide valuable indications relevant to the hearing and seeing of them. Moreover, existing evidence of response to drama is often not suitable for defining specifically readerly kinds of response because there is often no way of telling whether a given nugget is based on playgoing, play-reading, both, or neither (that is, hearsay). In the record of actual dramatic response, the two sets of experiences are joined at the hip, and an example of response should not be overlooked because it cannot be unequivocally classified as that of a playgoer or of a play-reader. Unless a great trove of new responses to printed plays unexpectedly appears, we ought to be willing at crucial points to move beyond the distinction between stage and page that has framed not only this collection but the study of the drama for hundreds of years toward an inclusive history of response that makes full use of what we have.

Charles Whitney

University of Nevada

Las Vegas, Nevada
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Author:Whitney, Charles
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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