How do we know if a play is good? As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I think a narrow focus on a small number of plays or authors closes off encounters with the startling variety of the English Renaissance dramatic corpus, but even I must admit that at least some of these plays must be bad. I want to say that all plays are worth reading and performing but it sounds like a statistical impossibility that they should all be worthy of our time and attention. There is much to be gained by treating plays as cultural or historical evidence and apparently dry or staid plays can be illuminated by careful historical enquiry but that is not the same as saying that these plays should actually be performed or watched. If ‘bad’ plays are championed then it is likely to damage the enterprise of promoting Renaissance drama: it will be easier to repeat the kinds of cursory dismissal that have blighted obscure plays for so long. Not liking a play is not the same as writing it off and nobody is under any obligation to like anything, but perhaps there are responsibilities for those of us hoping to encourage the reading, performance, and criticism of Renaissance plays.
None of this answers the opening question. While it is reductive to think about things as being simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we might even, perish the thought, have to quote Hamlet on this matter – it seems unhelpfully obtuse to assume that all plays are equally worthwhile. It is often assumed that performance proves the quality of a play. When a play is performed it reveals itself in a different way to when it is read. Indeed, as the plays of the Renaissance commercial theatre were written to be performed it seems logical to say that they might work better in performance than in print. But this is a troublesome assumption in several respects. First, it devalues the reading experience, treating print as inferior, while also ignoring the literary quality of printed plays. Secondly, it assumes that the blame for a bad performance lies with the play and not the performers. I want to consider the implications of this second claim.
As we know, performances are sometimes bad, or are perceived to be bad, for any number of reasons: it might be a directorial concept that doesn’t work, it might be a difficulty with utilising the dimensions of the theatrical space, it might be a misjudged central performance. In the case of old plays there are further problems. It might be that there is a difficulty with the language, or that it depends upon a particular frame of reference that is now past. It might be that the playing conventions familiar to one old dramatist – let’s say, Shakespeare – do not work very well for another writer, with a different linguistic and dramaturgical style. Of course, it might be the play itself, or a combination of factors, but it seems unhelpful to assume that a performance will prove the quality of a Renaissance play.
But what happens when a play is performed repeatedly and is still not successful? This is what I have been thinking about, having watched the RSC’s The Alchemist. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it worked either. Naturally, lots of people will disagree with me and I am not trying to make totalising claims about either the play or the production, but I want to think through my responses: I like the play and think it’s good but performances usually leave me disappointed and I’ve heard a number of people suggesting the fault may lie with the play itself.
My problem with the RSC Alchemist is that, like the other productions I’ve seen, it dragged. Epicure Mammon was funny, as he almost always is, but, with a few exceptions, the rest of the production was fairly strained. The final modernising conceit – Face steps out of his Renaissance-style costume into modern dress and addresses the audience as gulls – was reasonably effective but seemed rushed. I’ve seen that kind of manoeuvre done better elsewhere. It seems to me that Epicure works well in performance because his language is so brilliantly lavish (and this is something familiar to regular Shakespeare audiences) and that the ending is often performed interestingly because directors apparently enjoy the chance to supplement Jonson’s twist ending with a twist of their own. The trouble is that those are relatively small moments in a play that can be over three hours long. Much of the play is dependent on pace, brilliant chemistry between the actors, and sustained over-the-top performances. I don’t think any of this is easy to achieve but the problem is that the play palls without it. Here, I think, the problem is not exactly the play, but that itrequires something unusually difficult to achieve and something substantially different to other plays by, for example, Shakespeare.
Few Renaissance plays get multiple chances. The City Madam and The Witch of Edmonton are just two of the plays written off in the press after a single performance. In the past, The Knight of the Burning Pestle has received that treatment, before the Globe’s acclaimed Sam Wanamaker Playhouse show in 2014 changed the record. In a different way, the same may be true of some of the lesser known Shakespeare plays too. Someone, somewhere in the world, is right now saying that Cymbeline simply doesn’t work on stage. I’m still no clearer how to go about deciding how to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’ plays or what to do with the ‘bad’ ones, but writing them off, especially after a single performance, seems like a bad idea.