Comedy Canons

Earlier today The Globe announced their Winter Season and there’s lots to like about it. For the first time Shakespeare occupies the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse alongside his contemporaries, in this case John Webster and John Milton.Curiously, Shakespeare was not performed at the playhouse during its first two seasons but he was the sole dramatist on display during the theatre’s third season. I’ve written before about how this cemented an unfortunate divide between the Shakespearean and the not-Shakespearean so I’m very pleased to see different Renaissance playwrights performed alongside Shakespeare in this space. It’s also very interesting to see that Milton’s masque, Comus, will be performed under the direction of Lucy Bailey. Who saw that coming? Certainly not me.

So far, so good, but it’s notable how many of these plays are tragedies, or else tragic in tone. Since it opened in 2014 the theatre has mostly staged tragedies and this season continues that tradition. In some ways, this sounds logical. The season’s title, Winter Noir, gestures towards but also modifies the title of the Globe’s current Wonder Season. After all, winter is a time of darkness and the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is usually figured as a place of glooming intimacy. Yet seen from another angle, the logic seems suspect. In 2014 the Sam Wanamaker staged the raucous Beaumont comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, to great success – it is the only SWP production to have been granted a revival. A dark, sinister, intimate tragedy it is not. While candlelight might hold an appeal for tragedy it is not an impediment to comedy either. The indoor playhouses produced plenty of comedies alongside the tragedies. The Jacobean indoor playhouses were not filled to the brim with violent death orgies – sorry – but also featured other plays of varying sorts. By the same token, tragedies, of course, were also staged outside. Othello was written several years before the King’s Men were able to perform at the Blackfriars and while it might sound like a quintessential indoor tragedy, The White Devil was first performed outdoors. Equally, that other pillar of Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi – the first play performed at the SWP – was performed outdoors as well as inside, that is, at the Globe, as well as the Blackfriars. It’s also worth remembering that most of the plays we now call ‘domestic tragedies’ – Arden of FavershamA Woman Killed with KindnessA Yorkshire Tragedy – were first staged outdoors.

A great poster for The White Devil

None of this is news, of course. Everyone knows tragedy is not an exclusively indoor form and the Sam Wanamaker staged a season of Shakespearean tragicomedy last autumn. Yet it is very easy to follow the enticing logic that the indoor theatres were better suited to tragedy than other genres, that tragedy works best indoors, or even that tragedies are essentially superior to other genres (as their prevalence in the modern repertory might suggest). The presence of Milton on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage is an exciting and unexpected step in a different direction for the theatre, but some comedies by John Marston, Thomas Dekker, or Lording Barry (why not?) might offer another worthwhile avenue.

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