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!