I’m writing this post on the long train back from Canterbury, where I’ve spent the last few days at John Fletcher: A Critical Reapprasial, a really productive conference at Canterbury Christ Church University, organised by José Pérez Díez and Steve Orman. Some of us live tweeted the conference and you can read about it on Twitter by searching the hashtag #FletcherCan. I want in this post (self-indulgently, perhaps) to reflect on some of the questions and issues which seemed to me most pertinent. This is going to be a sketchy post as I don’t have time to do justice to the subject (and this train is making me sick) but hopefully it might continue and extend the discussion.
One of the main things that struck me about the conference was how the different speakers selected plays from what is an unusually wide and varied canon. The Woman’s Prize featured in a number of papers: it was the main focus for Gabriella Edelstein, Elizabeth Sharrett, and for Gordon McMullan’s plenary. It was also mentioned in numerous other papers. It’s a good, famous play, with a Shakespeare connection, so its prominence makes sense. Perhaps more surprisingly, Valentinian cropped up in a number of papers: Katherine M. Graham offered a detailed analysis of the play’s Phoenix imagery, but it was also central to my paper, and to Astrid Stilma’s discussion. I was slightly more surprised about this: it hasn’t to my mind, received all that much attention, though it’s a wonderful play. Interestingly, two papers focused on The Nightwalkers, a largely-ignored play later revised by James Shirley: Nicola Boyle spoke about it as farce and Christopher Salamone talked about its ghostliness. A number of other plays were also discussed: Pete Malin detailed the performance history of The Chances, Joseph F. Stephenson spoke about Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt, José Pérez Díez discussed Fletcher’s Spanish sources with reference to Love’s Cure, Domenico Lovascio analysed The False One, Clare McManus’s plenary focused on The Custom of the Country, and Malte S. Unterweg and Sandra Clark (who was also a plenary speaker) addressed a broad range of plays, including Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, A Wife for a Month, and The Prophetess. Shakespeare got a look in too, thanks to Eva Griffith’s paper on Henry VIII. So, a fair range of plays were discussed, but the size of Fletcher’s canon meant that many remained on the fringes – Bonduca, for example, which nearly, but not quite made it into the discussions of Fletcher’s politics. Many others, no doubt, passed by without a mention. It’s worth thinking more about which plays we choose to analyse. The canonisation of writers is interesting but curious: you can certainly see The Woman’s Prize as a central part of a literary/dramatic canon (and not necessarily because it’s an especially strong play) but it’s less clear that will be true of The Scornful Lady, say. If Fletcher ever does become ‘canonized’ it will be interesting to see which plays, in practice, contribute to the canonisation and which end up on the periphery.
Some of the other papers took different approaches which involved rethinking Fletcher’s cultural and social contexts. Vimala C. Pasupathi considered some of the ways in which digital resources might illuminate (or obscure) Fletcher’s large canon, while Charles Cathcart addressed the different ways in which attribution studies have served Middleton and Fletcher. Claire Batram and Lucy Munro took biographical approaches, each asking, in different ways, what might be gained by thinking about Fletcher in relation to his family and uncovering interesting information in the process. Elsewhere, Steve Orman thought about Fletcher’s wider cultural/theatrical context by affording the actor and playwright Nathan Field due attention. In doing so, his paper chimed with that by McManus who also thought about the contributions of the actors performing Fletcher plays. These issues, together with many of the other papers, raised interesting questions about Fletcher’s singularity and the extent to which we can make claims which are specific to Fletcher. This was a bit of a concern for me. As I noted in my paper, single author studies might obscure the connections between writers. I could certainly see how Fletcher’s use of Spanish might be distinctive, but I wondered whether some of the claims made to valorise Fletcher might also have been made for other writers too. In the context of the conference, Griffith’s paper was perhaps especially striking as it did more than any other to situate Fletcher alongside other contemporary writers working for different theatre companies. I liked Cathcart’s suggestion that Fletcherians (if they/we can be called) need to be prepared to mimic the boldness of Middleton scholars, even if that boldness might, at times, be problematic. Ultimately, though, I’m in favour of a more integrated approach, in which all writers (Shakespeare included) can receive attention. I’m wary of sounding complacent and self-congratulatory, but it seemed to me that John Fletcher: A Critical Reappraisal was a real success. This is largely down to José and Steve, whose energy and vision enabled a number of fascinating discussions. Though the conference is now over its end represented a beginning and in that spirit I ask: where now?
UPDATE: I created several storifies for #FletcherCan: one for each panel and for each plenary. You can view them all here.