Wretched Eminent Things

Every once in a blue moon, I write a blog post. I guess tonight is a blue moon. I’m writing in response to the Creation Theatre The Duchess of Malfi, a live theatre production hosted on Zoom, directed by Laura Wright and Natasha Rickman. Enterprising companies such as Creation Theatre have produced online shows during the last year but this was the first one I’ve managed to see. It was an interesting experience, so I wanted to write down a few thoughts. I think it’s important, where possible to create some kind of a record of productions of early modern plays, so this is my attempt to contribute to that broader project. I don’t really have time to do much more than hastily write up some barely legible notes I made during the production, but hopefully they’ll prove better than nothing. If you’d like to chip in with thoughts please do get in touch (perhaps use the comment feature below) as I’d be interested to chat further.


The Duchess of Malfi is often read as a chiaroscuro tragedy that works best by candlelight (the play is perhaps best associated with the Blackfriars playhouse, although the title page of the first quarto tells us it was also played at the Globe). The waiting room into which we entered before this Zoom production began, playfully advised us that to best enjoy the show we should turn off our lights and light a candle. But the show itself subverted these expectations. This was a surprisingly, and pleasingly colourful production in which almost every scene was filtered through a coloured background. Below, for example, you can a scene in which the Duchess (Annabelle Terry), the Cardinal (Giles Stoakley) and Ferdinand (Dharmesh Patel) appear in a light yellow hue.

This approach helped to establish the production’s aesthetic, which is, in the words of the company, a ‘1970’s glam’ inspired by the kitsch Italian horror of that period. On the one hand, the aesthetic bears all the hallmarks of the transgressive ‘Jacobean’ as we have come to expect it, but the brash colours on display did, I think, stand in contrast to the darker Malfis we usually get to see (perhaps best characterized by the 2014 candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production). The brighter, bolder, brasher colours remind us that tragedy happens in multicolour too.


One of the most striking effects of this socially-distanced Zoom production, was the eerie sense of ghostliness it managed to create. Initially, even simple scene changes felt like a bewitching conjuror’s trick, as characters faded in and out of view. More strikingly still, characters appeared to permeate each other. In the image above, the Duchess is confronted by her two brothers. In a conventional production, they might get into her personal space, but in this production, they get into her head, literally. It is a disturbing scene (in this production arguably more disturbing than the more traditionally horrifying Act 4 death sequence, replete though it is with mental and physical torture). There is something queasily horrible about the way the Duchess was trapped on the screen unable to prevent Ferdinand’s violatory encroachment. At the same time, the Duchess floated ethereally, as if just out of reach, as if never quite in his possession.

The corollary of this is that scenes of intimacy and connection were also rendered as spectral, fanciful, wished-for, but not quite achieved. The Duchess and Antonio reached for each other, and their bodies briefly merged, but they reached out and past each other in a way that suggested their desires were thwarted or compromised. Throughout the production the actors had to look at us to look at each other so even what seemed like a regular conversation appeared uneasily off-kilter. A sense of ghostliness ran through the entire enterprise because, of course, the actors were not in the same room as each other.

When characters died, they tended to simply fade away, or fall from our view. Where do they go? Isn’t that a question! In the play’s final speech, Delio (Andy Owens), who entered with the Duchess’ young son (in this production, daughter) spoke lines that felt newly evocative in a production so sharply effective at emphasizing the ghostly, ghastly permeability, and fragility of the human form.

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.

The Duchess, Bosola (Graeme Rose), Antonio (Kofi Dennis) the Cardinal, and Ferdinand (five of the six speaking roles in this pared-down, 1 hour 40 minutes production), melted away like snow prints in the sun, but Creation Theatre left a more lasting memory. This remarkable production leaves more fame behind it.

The Dearth of the Author

This evening (Wednesday, 3 June 8 PM BST) I will be speaking at the Oxford Renaissance Online Seminar. Details of how to tune in to the talk are available here. My talk is about why Philip Massinger was not named in the Beaumont and Fletcher folio of 1647 even though he made a much more significant contribution to the volume than one of the authors named on the title page. In case people have difficulty following my talk, or tuning in to the livestream, I’ve decided to upload a copy here. I’ll take this down at the end of the day. This is a work in progress, part of a wider project I’m calling Shakespeare’s Successors; everyone is welcome to read it (if you do read it, thank you) but please do not save or share the document. Anyone who wants to chat to me about the talk can find me on Twitter (@eoin_price) and email (eoin.price@swansea.ac.uk).

The Beaumont and Fletcher marathon | The Shakespeare blog

The Duchesses of Malfi

This week, the RSC announced its new season of productions. Excitingly, the company will produce The Duchess of Malfi; even more excitingly, it will be directed by Maria Aberg, who directed an excellent production of Doctor Faustus in 2016. Another Duchess of Malfi is no bad thing and this could yet turn out to be a great one. However, I can’t be the only one who is a bit disappointed. Malfi is the only not-Shakespearean early modern play in the season. While it’s a brilliant play, it’s hardly a particularly bold move. In 2010, Lyn Gardner noted that Malfi had become unusually fashionable; seven years later, Webster’s tragedies remain in vogue: the Globe staged Malfi in 2014 and The White Devil earlier this year; Aberg directed The White Devil for the RSC in 2014. The RSC are currently staging Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and they’ve produced Apha Behn’s The Rover and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta in the last couple of years, but this still scratches the surface of a period of phenomenal theatrical creativity.

There are reasons for this, of course. Not everyone loves early modern drama as much as me (fair enough). Theatre companies make commercial choices and they don’t want empty theatres. The RSC’s laudable Scholar’s Pitch project resulted in the full-scale staging of Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice in 2015, but this production was not a commercial success. But the RSC have been adventurous in the past and I hope they will be again. When the Swan opened in 1986 it housed productions of Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.

But while some of the more obscure plays of the period may currently seem like too big a risk there is surely room to expand the repertory further. At the moment, Webster and Marlowe reign supreme (see, for example, Edward II; National Theatre, 2013; Dido, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015; RSC, 2017; The Jew of Malta, RSC, 2015; Doctor Faustus, RSC, 2016; West End, 2016). But there are plenty of other canonical not-Shakespearean early modern plays which would add variety to a modern repertory. We’re overdue another major production of The Spanish Tragedy, for example and I think it’s high-time for some more Beaumont and Fletcher, especially given the success of the 2014 Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle. How about The Maid’s Tragedy, Philaster, or A King and No King? The time would also be ripe for an RSC Tamburlaine, if they wanted to keep within the Marlowe canon.

I’ve been thinking about what scholars can do to help get some of these plays better known. We may not convince the RSC to change their approach, but we can continue to spread interest in early modern plays and to help provide opportunities for actors and audiences to get to grips with the wider early modern canon. In London, the Read Not Dead enterprise continues apace, but it would be lovely to see more opportunities to see rarely performed plays beyond London. To that end, the Playhouse Lab project at the University of Leeds looks very exciting. I’ve also been really encouraged to see actors playing an important part in all three of the conferences I attended this year: Playing and Playgoing at Oxford, Before Shakespeare at Roehampton, and the Cockpit/Phoenix symposium at the London Metropolitan Archives. The three events testify to the importance of practice as research, but they also, more broadly, attest to the value and pleasure of performance. Because so many of the plays we work with as scholars of early modern drama are fun!

After Before Shakespeare

I wrote a blog post for the Before Shakespeare project, reflecting on their recent conference. You can read the full post via the link below.

The Before Shakespeare conference is over. But while the Before Shakespeare project continues, those of us who gathered together in sunny Roehampton at the end of August for four days of presentations and performances are left to contemplate life after Before Shakespeare. Like any good event, the Before Shakespeare conference crackled with […]

via CONFERENCE RESPONSE: After Before Shakespeare by Eoin Price — Before Shakespeare

Yorkshire Tragedies

Towards the end of last year, I watched Happy Valley, a BBC crime drama written by Sally Wainwright and set in North Yorkshire. Series 1 aired in April 2014; series 2 aired in February 2016: both are available on Netflix. There are lots of reasons to recommend it but I want to focus on just one aspect of its success. And being an early modernist, I want to link it back to sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Like the domestic tragedies of Elizabethan and Jacobean London, Happy Valley contends that tragedy happens to ordinary people too. Even ones from Yorkshire.

The early modern plays we now tend to think of as being domestic tragedies (as is often the case, the generic term was coined much later) contested a popular association of tragedy with royalty. Early modern dramatic theorists – many of whom, rather unhelpfully, were antitheatricalists – tend to assume that comedy is the preserve of the everyday and that tragedies were things that happened to kings. The tragedies of the period don’t really accord to these narrow definitions, but nor do they necessarily make it their business to challenge them. But in domestic tragedies like Arden of Faversham (recently attributed, in part, to Shakespeare), lower born figures were made the subject of tragedy. In these plays, the dignity of tragedy is conferred upon the everyday.

Tragedy does not seem to be a generic classification any more: a quick browse on Netflix reveals a variety of different genres – ‘Crime, Action & Adventure’; ‘Cop TV Shows’; ‘Films Featuring a Strong Female Lead’ – but Tragedy is not one of them. Nonetheless, the prevailing sense is that ‘serious’ drama, whatever that might be, is more important than comedy. And serious dramas tend not be set in Yorkshire; their protagonists do not usually have strong regional accents. Happy Valley riffs on the popular Nordic Noir genre which itself draws on older traditions, but rather than opting to set her cop noir in a gritty urban location, perhaps in a major city, Wainwright chose the Calder Valley. The Yorkshire accents are important because regional accents are often mocked or thought indecorous. The clip below, taken from a routine by Michael McIntyre, a popular UK comedian, is one example of the kind of mockery regional accents receive. It’s lighthearted and was apparently enjoyed by its Yorkshire audience, but the cumulative effect of such acts of mockery is to reinforce the sense that regional accents and serious, tragic, art, are incompatible. By challenging this commonplace prejudice Happy Valley participates in a tragic tradition that animated some of the finest writers of the English Renaissance.

In 1605, Thomas Middleton wrote a short play based on a contemporary account of murders committed in Calverley, West Yorkshire, on 23 April of the same year. The title of that play, A Yorkshire Tragedy confers the dignity of tragedy upon those events. The indefinite article suggests a lack of specificity, that this is one tragedy among several, but it is telling that the events are described as a tragedy at all, given the genre’s longstanding associations. The indefinite article is a riposte to tragic expectation; the titles of tragedies typically announce themselves with the definite article: The Spanish Tragedy, The Moor of Venice, The Tragedy of King Lear. The title of A Yorkshire Tragedy signals the play as different from the convention. But the indefinite article does not invalidate tragedy. That Yorkshire is in the title of the play is significant too. At a time when plays imagining the grotesque courts of European cities were becoming increasingly popular, A Yorkshire Tragedy offered a reminder that tragedy could be found further away from the centre of power and closer to home. In writing the play Middleton contributed to the genre of domestic tragedy, following in the footsteps of writers like Thomas Heywood, whose A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603) is set in Yorkshire rather than the Italy of its source material.

Before saying a bit more about how Happy Valley conceives of tragic experience in a way that seems, to me at least, reminiscent of early modern domestic tragedy, I need to issue a SPOILER. The scene I will talk about occurs in Series 1 Episode 4. It’s a wonderful and surprising episode and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may want to watch it, but there’s no way of discussing it without mentioning some significant plot details. In the scene in question, Catherine (Sarah Lancashire), the police sergeant protagonist, rightly suspects something is not well with Helen (Jill Baker) who had tried to get in touch with her the previous day. Catherine is right that Helen is restless but her suspicion that she is the victim of domestic abuse is wrong. The full script of the episode is available here, but the extract below details the exchange:


Look, I don’t want to over step the
mark. And I’m sorry if I’ve got the
wrong end of the stick, but last
night. When you said, “I’m with my
husband” it occurred to me that
maybe you couldn’t speak, and maybe
that was your way of telling me,
and I wouldn’t be doing my job
properly if I didn’t ask, and –


No. My husband isn’t hurting me.


Are you sure?


I know people think he’s a bit of a
rough diamond – and he is!
(she manages a smile)
– but not like that. He’d never do
something like that.


It takes all sorts.


You really have got the wrong end
of the stick.


It’s not always easy to acknowledge
things sometimes, it’s not
something that it’s easy to face up
to, and –


It’s very kind of you to be
concerned. But you really have got
the wrong end of the stick.

CATHERINE’s not convinced.



Silence. They’re looking straight at one another. CATHERINE’s
giving her a chance to tell her the truth; that he is hurting
her. CATHERINE’s just about to speak again when –


My daughter’s been kidnapped.

HELEN can’t believe she’s said it. CATHERINE can’t quite
believe she’s heard it. CLARE comes over and puts a mug down
in front of CATHERINE.



The careful ratcheting of tension leading to Helen’s revelation is followed, seconds later, by the arrival of Catherine’s sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran). It is a comic, potentially bathetic moment; the oblivious Clare punctures the tension with an inappropriate response. But the inappropriateness of the response is part of the point: the cup of tea is comically inadequate in the face of impending tragedy. It’s tempting to register a grim joke here about the stereotypically British– and perhaps especially, Yorkshire – psyche; many a novelty mug has attested that tea solves everything, but it doesn’t save kidnapped daughters.  By the same token, it’s also true that the making and drinking of tea is part of how people begin to confront grief, loss, horror, and despair. Clare’s cheery declaration is at once inappropriate and apt; it doesn’t attenuate tragedy, if anything, it accentuates it. It marks out Happy Valley as a modern domestic tragedy, interested in the ordinariness of tea, as well as the extraordinariness of murder.

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