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The Influence of Children's Stagecraft: Chapel, School, and Popular Performance in the 1580s.

WHILE IT MAY BE AN EXAGGERATION to say that a conversational vacuum exists in general between scholars working on popular adult performance and those working on the children's tradition in the early modern drama, it may be entirely reasonable to say so of the 1580s. Especially in this decade, critics tend to accept as certain the proposition that either the adult tradition was already originating all meaningful playing practices while the children's tradition was, consistently and essentially, derivative and imitative, or that the trades of actor and playwright in the two were already essentially alike. In a decade when the children's troupes were still the preferred entertainers at court, performing relatively longer plays exhibiting classical Terentian structure (e.g., protasis, epitasis, catastrophe, and even in plays like Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, sometimes printed in five acts) as well as engaged in the conversion of indoor spaces for the use of performing plays, a habit of conflating the two traditions, or assuming simply one, has rendered us unable to distinguish emerging practices from those that were lingering, particularly when examining the relationship between players and printed drama.

A central issue to be considered here is to what extent the performance practices of the children's and adult troupes of the 1580s resembled one another or those of the 1590s and beyond. It is, after all, unclear, prior to the 1590s, how adult players treated a scripted play, or how scripts, assuming they existed, encoded the kinds, modes, and methods of playing then, or soon to be, in use. Is it possible that the kind of play performance later associated with the plays of Shakespeare could, in the 1580s at least, initially have only been provided by actors trained in the children's rather than the adult tradition? John Lyly's spectacular, masque-like Ovidian and Terentian plays and musically and syntactically complex dialogues are a case in point. They are, by all accounts, a remarkable entry into the history of scripted drama.

Lyly's classically plotted, tragi-comic, masque-like musical plays date from a decade when few plays can be with certainty linked to adult troupes. They are also exceptional in that they, in an era defined by collaboration and popular theater spaces, are individually authored and associated with indoor "playhouses" (whether at Paul's, the Blackfriars, or at court). The suitability of such plays to private indoor spaces also distinguishes this tradition, particularly in the song schools, from those suited to the large outdoor public spaces. A chapel was both an organization and a physical space in a royal or noble household. In chapels, a place in which the use of books was customary, the auditors were expected to listen to an acoustical event grounded in a pre-written musical or verbal text. The word (scriptural or profane) was as richly laden with meaning as the architecture of the space which, with its highly reflective glass and stone and the enhanced acoustical effects achieved by wooden choir stalls, wainscoting, and choir screens, was conducive to experiments in humanist, classical, and vernacular drama in which the spoken or sung word reworked and deepened the visual spectacle. Much evidence suggests that performance and rehearsal in such acoustical spaces affected conceptions of playing itself, redefining relationships with audiences who were acclimating to experiencing a more text-based (and lengthier) play within an indoor space. Though Lyly's plays are fantastically spectacular, the spectacle functions less like an emblem than as something subject to interpretation. A tumbling display by a young son in 5.1 of Campaspe thus meets with the cynic Diogenes's disdain as he mocks the father for teaching "one of thy sons to rule his legs and not to follow learning" (5.1.26-27). (1)

Lyly's plays are distinctive in comparison to extant adult drama of the 1580s in other ways as well. They were performed by various troupes of children identified as Oxford's Boys, the Children of her Majesty's Chapel, the song school boys of St. Paul's, and an amalgamation of the song schools of Paul's Boys and the Chapel Royal, but never by adults. This association with child actors rather than adults may reflect a more complex aesthetic decision than has been entertained. After all, a clear precedent for an alliance between a published playwright and players in the Tudor era, other than in the anomalous career of the scholarly former monk John Bale, can be found only within the schools and chapels. An early playwright's preference for certain kinds of players thus points to differences in the various troupes' dramaturgy, making one kind of troupe better suited to Lyly's print-friendly, self-consciously literate drama than another.

One key difference between the dramaturgy aligned with Lyly's plays and that associated with the roughly contemporaneous Queen's Men, for instance, is the latter's seemingly superior fit with a tradition of oral performance and oral and visual literacies. Details emerging from studies of the legendary Queen's Men of the 1580s and into the 1590s point to a gestural, iconographic, symbolic acting style. The unusually extensive stage directions in their plays published belatedly in the 1590s underscore such a presentational stagecraft. This company has thus been described as an "actor's theater" rather than an "author's" because it incorporated a number of star performers, including Richard Tarlton and other clowns, and seemed to embrace improvisation and relatively shorter play texts like that of The Three Lords and Ladies of London. The dialogues in the company's printed plays also incorporated much repetition, again suggestive of a rich oral practice. Similarly suggestive of orality, the loosely structured plots offered a medley of entertainments and styles amid abrupt transitions. Just as the plays recall the range and kinds of entertainments that appear in the early records of entertainment, the formation of this company or troupe from some of the more famous players of the day seems to suggest that it was a powerhouse culmination of an earlier performance tradition. Significantly, however, the company's pageant-like staging, jests, displays by rope dancers and acrobats, many improvising clowns, and knock-about physical comedy proved to be difficult to capture in print.

By contrast, Lyly's plays are textually sophisticated. The almost unprecedented preponderance of prose, rather than the then, seemingly traditional, reliance on rhymed fourteeners favored by the Queen's Men, also reflects a new book-like aesthetic. Furthermore, long speeches with complex syntactical structures require a skillful mastery of sound, sense, and rhetoric. The plays also draw on a rich classical tradition of characterization. Lyly provides an array of differentiated characters reflecting a technique that Erasmus in De Ratione Studii had admired in the Roman playwright Terence: using contrasting pairs of characters so that one old man might be "fierce and somewhat crabbed, yet neither stupid nor dishonest" in contrast to another who was "on the other hand, civil and ever placid, and everywhere sure of himself, smoothing everything over as best he can, yet mild in such a way that he is not the least stupid. Likewise the two young men are of conflicting character [.]" (2) It is not merely a pedantic point to observe that Lyly, too, in Terentian manner, provides opposing or differing pairs. In his reimagining and enlarging of the legend of two rivals competing for the love of a mistress in the tragi-comic musical Campaspe, for instance, he introduces and opposes two perspectives: the raw assertion of masculine desire and right of the conqueror Alexander to the aesthetic appreciation of the artist Apelles. In another tragi-comic treatment of myth, Endymion, the protagonist of the main plot is a devoted courtier-lover, who, under a spell, ages into an old man while he sleeps so that his "curled lockes bee turned to gray haires, and ... stronge bodie to a dying weaknesse" (5.1.67-68), and he thus becomes a figure within which youth and age are opposed. Endymion, a loyal lover, also becomes a foil to his youthful, loyal friend Eumenides, and in age, a double to another old man in the play, the ever-faithful Geron. A forgiving, regal Cynthia and a vindictive but refined Tellus are contrasting versions of an aristocratic beloved. Not only Lyly's individuated characterizations but his dialogue, full of witty wordplay and syntactic innovations, point to a different kind of performance tradition, one requiring the ability to portray characters, not just iconic types, and to feel and express interior emotion rather than merely to display or present it.

These were the very skills, along with textual expertise, that were encouraged in the institutions and traditions of the household chapel choir, grammar, and song schools where--in addition to the study of Terence--precise speech-giving and (equally text-centered) exacting, emotionally affecting musical performance were both ideals. In an era of relatively low rates of textual literacy, it is worth noting that song school and chapel boys were taught to read, analyze, study, memorize, and interpret music and Latin literature using song books, grammars, and rhetoric textbooks. The schoolboy's ability to perform scripted parts in high-stakes civic, court, and noble household entertainments, as when Nicholas Udall's pupils from Eton school performed before Cromwell in 1537 or when such troupes dominated Elizabeth's revels calendar in the early decades of her reign, offers a testament to this training. The children who were being initiated into and participating in these highly literate sub-cultures were thus embracing ideals so familiar to modern editors: textual fidelity, book-centered playing, memorization, and individualized characterization. Those who brought singing boys to perform plays at court--including the theatrically gifted William Cornish, who frequently appeared with chapel children in the prefatory entertainments to court masques under Henry VIII, and others associated with song and grammar schools like Nicholas Udall, John Heywood, John Redford, and later Richard Edwards, Sebastian Westcott, and William Hunnis--were creating a newly literate drama that proved to be print friendly.

Schoolboys, who had long been the preferred performers of public speeches in city entertainments, were well-positioned to embark on the public performance of classical and classically influenced plays, which began shortly after the institution of the reformed curriculum at St. Paul's in 1509 undertaken by Lyly's grandfather William Lily. By 1525, Eton had also incorporated plays as a standard part of its pedagogy. Wolsey's statutes of 1528 for Ipswich School encouraged, particularly, the imitation of Terence. By the late 1520s, the schoolboys, under the guidance of Lily's surmaster John Rightwise, would perform Terence's Phormio in Latin before Wolsey, its presumed patron, apparently word for word. The promotion of school-training in performance was later assisted by Elizabeth I who favored and patronized such troupes. Sebastian Westcott brought the Children of St. Paul's to court to perform a play as early as 1559, and his troupe performed almost annually thereafter until his death in 1583. Elizabeth's attachment to such troupes and her receptiveness to learned play performance is further suggested in the accounts of the Queen's visit to the University of Oxford in 1566. There she was especially pleased with the comedy Palamon and Arcyte, written by Richard Edwards, then Gentleman of the Chapel and Master of the Children, which was performed in two parts on two different nights. The play itself has not survived, but the accounts report that some declared it even better than Edwards's earlier and extant Chapel play Damon and Pythias. (3)

Lyly's plays appear to be as much a culmination of the children's tradition as the dramaturgy of the Queen's Men seems to be the culmination of the adult's. Damon and Pythias, the only play that survives from those Edwards wrote for the Chapel Children in the 1560s, has many affinities with Lyly's stagecraft. It, too, includes fantastic masque-like visual and auditory effects. An offstage hunt staged for Palamon and Arcyte was so convincing some students thought it was real, and its funeral pyre prompted one student to protest the harm it may have posed to one of the royal costumes. (4) Like Lyly's drama, Damon and Pythias includes learned Latin allusions and phrases, pitiable characters, affecting songs, and witty subplots. Its plotting (strangers tricked by a sycophant, a clever servant, use of Latin) clearly draws upon the classical models of Terence and Plautus studied in the schools, an influence Edwards's prologue implicitly acknowledges when, with a nod to Plautus, it abruptly introduces the play's scene as well as its theme, both Plautine conventions. Lyly's prologues are similarly learned. In his insistence upon acknowledging the context of his fictional Greek worlds, for instance, Lyly appears to be recalling the debates in Terence's prologues about the proper use of Greek sources. Siding with Terence, who repeatedly defended his reuse of old material and his recombination of source plays with borrowed elements from other plays (contaminatio), Lyly embraces and expands upon Terence's creative prerogative and extends the tradition's history of experimentation with a bookish drama.

A more pronounced distinction can be drawn, however, between the free borrowing and redistribution of classical sources in well-wrought schoolboy plays and the hodge-podge plotting evident at this time in the popular tradition. The popular performance practice, as suggested by the medley of two plays provided by the Cardinally players in the Book of Sir Thomas More (c. 1592) or titles like Five Plays in One (c. 1584, lost) found in the Queen's Men repertory, tended to rely on medleys of plots drawn from a variety of sources. The plot of 2 Seven Deadly Sins (ca. 1592-98) thus uses at least three different kinds of sources as it provides a sequence of actions, entrances, and exits for a variety of otherwise unrelated characters and old-fashioned types as Henry VI, the poet and pageant maker John Lydgate, King Gorboduc and his sons Ferrex and Porrex, foreigners like Sardanapas and Arbactas, the classical and mythological Tereus and Philomela, and three of the seven deadly sins. While both traditions thus embraced variety and source borrowing, something more than variety is achieved in schoolboy adaptations. Humanist pedagogic experiments in the Englishing of classical models were participating in the development of a more unified, self-consciously textually literate drama.

Even more significant in terms of performance differences were the demands such plays imposed upon the actor. Were it true, as has long been assumed, that all adult players had also acquired the training that rendered ideals such as textual fidelity normal, then the attachment of a playwright like Lyly to children's troupes rather than experienced adult performers would seem to have been strangely dismissive of popular actors' expertise. If, however, such training were not yet uniformly essential to the trade of player, then Lyly's affiliation instead with child actors may have been necessary. That would suggest that, by the 1580s, two very different kinds of playing were being practiced in the theater in London and throughout the countryside.

Notably, long before interiority defines Shakespeare's Hamlet, a focus on the representational rather than presentational expression of inner feeling and its performative demands appears in Lyly's plays. Consider for instance the first encounter between the lowly ferryman Phao and the majestic Sappho in Sappho and Phao (ca. 1584), where Phao is awed into silence. Sappho's line has an implicit stage direction to the actor playing Phao when she asks, "Are you dumb? Can you not speak?" (2.3.20). Phao's response clarifies that his silence is an effect of his emotional turmoil: "Madam, I crave pardon. I am spurblind; I could scarce see" (21-22). In his following soliloquy, Phao speaks to himself of his "unacquainted thoughts" as he discovers that "the more thou seekest to suppress those mounting affections, they soar the loftier" (2.4.10-12). A similar exploration of unfamiliar or suppressed emotion occurs in Campaspe (ca. 1583-84) where the painter Apelles also wrestles in a soliloquy with the sudden onslaught of his overwhelming passion for his subject Campaspe: "Unfortunate Apelles, and therefore unfortunate because Apelles! Hast thou by drawing her beauty brought to pass that thou canst scarce draw thine own breath?" (3.5.13-15). Significant here is not simply the intensity of the personal emotion or its expression in a private, nearly seventy lines-long soliloquy, but the keen attention to the ambiguity in the language used to articulate how it feels to become so desperately infatuated with one seemingly unattainable, as here, where to "draw" refers both to the painting of a picture and the intake of a breath. A focus on the emotional content beneath what is visible returns when Apelles later laments that he "must," from now on, "paint things unpossible for mine art but agreeable with my affections: deep and hollow sighs, sad and melancholy thoughts" (3.5.50-52), and then sings a sonnet-length song. As these examples suggest, Lyly's famed mastery of witty conceits in his two-volume popular prose novel Euphues also infuses his dramatic characterizations in performance. Arguably, however, his focus on interiority in the early 1580s was even more sensationally innovative.

The training in dramatic performance that schoolboys received shared with the training in the song schools an interest in honing the skills and particular expressive gifts of the individual performer. The choirboys were expected to sing as children without artificially emulating adult voices. A similar regard for an individualized approach to character can be detected in St. Paul's reintroduction of the method for teaching oratory developed by the influential Roman rhetorician and pedagogue Quintilian. The reliance upon "Quintilian's Rule" in the grammar schools would have an extraordinary impact on the very idea of drama within the school's subculture. In early modern pedagogy, Quintilian seems to have been regarded as important as Cicero and particularly in efforts to provide training in a more empathetic, life-like performance. William Lily's promotion of a Quintilian-inspired mode of performance is attributed to his own study under Pomponio Leto in Italy, where Leto was using a rediscovered full text of Quintilian in his schools. Just as Lily's Grammar would become the common textbook throughout the nation and reshape the teaching of Latin and English, so would Quintilian's method become ubiquitous in the humanist curriculum. The seventeenth-century schoolmaster Charles Hoole, for instance, would continue to commend Quintilian's usefulness to schoolmasters seeking to encourage a performance at once life-like and scholarly. (5) Significantly, Quintilian advocated learning from the recorded examples of the great tragic actors of the distant past, Roscius, Aesopus, or the comic actors Demetrius and Stratocles, rather than simply mimicking contemporary performers. The scholars were thus encouraged to perform authentically without relying on simple, stock tricks. As important to the consideration of what was unique about the impact of this pedagogy on playing characters that were more than mere stereotypes was Quintilian's coaching on empathy and affect. Quintilian encouraged a student or orator to empathize with the causes for which he advocates, to identify with the emotional content of an experience in order to move his audiences, and to search for the motives underlying feelings and outward actions. The contrast to the iconic, symbolic acting in which popular troupes like the Queen's Men excelled in the 1580s was marked.

Unlike artistic apprenticeship where skills can be passed on by modeling and without print, the school performer was being trained as an interpreter of texts. In a theatrical milieu that included the pageantry and improvisatory clowning of the Queen's Men, how strange Lyly's plays must have seemed to those unfamiliar with the school and chapel tradition. Similarly, how rich and strange must the encounter with a highly visual and yet hyper-literate performance mode employing Quintilian-inspired method in the representation of Terentian, individuated characters initially have been for some audiences of the 1580s. Those embracing this new dramaturgy were emissaries of a different kind of drama requiring a new style of performance in what was still primarily a residually oral theatrical culture. Lyly's innovations within a classical performance mode, like those of schoolmaster playwrights before him, thus reflect his skillful exploitation of a specific kind of acting training combined with more bookish and classical aesthetics, both of which initially developed uniquely within the educative boy-troupe playing tradition. His plays mark the culmination of a primarily textual tradition just as the Queen's Men's repertory marks the culmination of a primarily oral one. At the same time, both traditions were on the cusp of, or arguably already engaged in, an extraordinary convergence of practices that would transpire throughout the next decade.


(1.) References to Lyly's plays are from John Lyly, Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, ed. G. K. Hunter and David Bevington (1999; rpt., Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); and Endymion, ed. David Bevington, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

(2.) Cited in Edwin Winslow Robbins, Dramatic Characterization in Printed Commentaries on Terence, 1473-1600 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951), 92.

(3.) For the preferred use of children in pageantry and political plays, see Anne Lancashire, London Civic Pageantry: Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 93, 113-14. Damon and Pithias has a relatively large cast (twelve) and stage elements suggesting an extravagant court production; see Richard Edwards, Damon and Pithias, ed. Arthur Brown and F. P. Wilson, The Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957). For the discussion of the productions at Cambridge, see Alan H. Nelson, Cambridge: The Records of Early English Drama, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 2: 243-44; and at Oxford, see John R. Elliott, Jr., Alan H. Nelson, Alexandra F. Johnston, and Diana Wyatt, eds., REED: Oxford, 2 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 1: 113-47. For discussions of early performances at court by children, see W. R. Streitberger, Court Revels, 1485-1559 (University of Toronto Press, 1994), 101, 124, 266; E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 2: 1-76, see pp. 11-14; E. K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903), 2:215: Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 122; Harold N. Hillebrand, The Child Actors: A Chapter in Elizabethan Stage History (Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 1926), 16-17, 40-73. Leicester Bradner, "The First Cambridge Production of Miles Gloriosus," Modern Language Notes 70, no. 6 (June 1955): 400-403. See also Jeanne H. McCarthy, The Children's Troupes and the Transformation of English Theater 15091608 (New York: Routledge, 2017).

(4.) J. S. Farmer, ed., Dramatic Writings of Richard Edwards, Thomas Norton, and Thomas Sackville (London; Early English Drama Society, 1906), 184-85; see also Ros King, ed., The Collected Works of Richard Edwards: Politics, Poetry, and Performance in Sixteenth-Century England, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 83; Nelson, Cambridge: The Records of Early English Drama, 2: 243-44; and Wood, History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford, 2: 158-61.

(5.) Charles Hoole, A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching School (1660), ed. Thiselton Mark (Syracuse, NY: C. W. Bardeen, 1912; digitized U of Michigan, 2008), 66, 180-81; see also John H. Astington, Actors and Acting in Shakespeare's Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 44. Even though Hoole's schoolboys were not being asked to perform publicly, he joined the many humanist schoolmasters who had been promoting both the cultural shift toward literacy and a new taste for a "to the life" performance aesthetics that drew upon the book and classical ideals. Something similar is evident in the remarkable rhetorically based training Ben Jonson received at Westminster. Referring to that training, Neil Rhodes concluded that "what is really striking about this curriculum, whether at Canterbury or Westminster, is that it is intensely verbal and literary, but also that it has a marked emphasis on the performative--in speech, in drama, and in debate," which Rhodes too links to the influence of Quintilian in the grammar school curriculum; see Neil Rhodes, Shakespeare and the Origins of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 52.
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Drama of the 1580s
Author:McCarthy, Jeanne
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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