Last night, a new series of Artsnight – the Friday culture programme appended to Newsnight – began with an episode focusing on ‘some Renaissance dramatists neglected because they worked at the same time as William Shakespeare’. Andrew Marr, whose name would not be out of place in a Renaissance comedy, presented the show and interviewed a range of academics and theatre directors. The impulse for the programme was apparently the Renaissance plays recently produced at the RSC’s Swan Theatre and the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This is a good thing: great that we can see these plays, great that they are getting a bit of media attention, great that we have excellent academics talking about them on the BBC.
However, while Marr started well by casting an irreverent look at the tat of Shakespearetown and by announcing an interest in ‘the extraordinary, risk-taking dramatists’ who worked alongside and/or in competition with Shakespeare, he resorted to an unfortunate cliché by describing non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays as ‘soap operas’ and ‘sex romps’. Marr’s opening statements over-emphasised a divide between Shakespeare and everyone else: in such views Shakespeare has always stood apart from his contemporaries. Shakespeare received a bit of a slap in the face, but also retained his usual position of prominence: he remained, for Marr, the isolated genius. It’s not as awkward a rhetorical manoeuvre as the Globe’s description of Renaissance drama as an ‘experiment’ (it is at least crediting the other non-Shakespearean writers) but it’s still unfortunate.
This does make me raise questions about the way in which we talk about Renaissance dramatists. We want to recognize that each writer is an individual, with their own interests, skills, and preoccupations, but we also want to try and link them to their wider theatrical and cultural context. Both approaches are useful, of course, but they come with their own risks. In this documentary, and in the world of literary criticism, Renaissance playwrights are often homogenized and their dramatic canons are quickly reduced to a catchy but not entirely accurate shorthand. John Webster might be the best example: he’s usually defined by his two great, dark, solo-authored tragedies. On the one hand, this is fair enough: they are solo-authored and therefore (perhaps?) more likely to be indicative of his own interests. On the other hand, this results in a skewed sense of a writer who usually worked collaboratively. It also means that Webster is now most associated with a particular brand of tragedy (so no one really talks about the very different co-authored tragedy Appius and Virginia) despite the fact that he made his name collaborating on city comedies and histories. And so it is for a great many other dramatists, about whom we tend to generalize. Similarly, unspecific terms like ‘Jacobean’ also risk reducing a great many varied dramatic canons to a reductive, single trope. I’ll be talking about some of the ramifications of such generalized claims for John Fletcher, later in the week at John Fletcher: A Critical Reappraisal.
UK-based readers can watch Andrew Marr’s Artsnight for the next 27 days. The link is here.