The Duchesses of Malfi

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!

Beginning Beaumont

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A couple of weeks ago, I gave a paper at Beaumont400 entitled Beginning Beaumont. I decided I’d post it here in case anyone who missed it is interested. It’s about the challenges of writing single-author studies, the problems with determining canonical boundaries, and the difficulty of trying to advance a critical argument. I’m happy to talk about all of these things with anyone who’s interested!

SAA 2016

The Shakespeare Association of America conference is usually a useful but punishing experience: useful to meet people, to share ideas, and to be exposed to new ways of thinking; punishing because physically and mentally exhausting. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience: it is very easy to feel alone in a crowd. This year the experience was different for me because, for the first time, I co-organized a seminar. This was my fourth SAA and I’ve had some frustrating experiences in previous conferences – just trying to get a word in can be a challenge when you are a PhD student in a big seminar alongside numerous loquacious high-profile academics. Running a seminar is different. It was scarier than I thought it’d be – I didn’t feel nervous until the morning when I suddenly realized we were in charge of the bloody thing – but it was also a great experience. It’s much easier to meet people (at some seminars I’ve been in I’ve left without properly speaking to everyone) and you get a great perspective on your chosen subject. We were lucky to receive excellent papers that challenged us to think about our topic – reprints, revivals and other renewals of Renaissance plays – in new and surprising ways. We were grateful, as early career academics, to have the opportunity to run a seminar and it’s great to see the SAA supporting early career academics in other ways: Next Gen Plen was again a success and the conference offered contingent faculty grants for the first time. But I can’t help thinking that what was, for me, a profitable conference experience (this time) may have been a frustration or disappointment to someone else. We probably don’t admit to these difficulties as much as we might do. Certainly, I haven’t always done this in the past. I feel a lot more confident and secure in conferences now, but it’s still scary. Twitter has been helpful in giving me more confidence to talk to people (even if it was a shame not to have internet access during the conference itself) but it’s not a substitute for the actual conference experience.

Anyway, there have been some useful reflections written on SAA 2016 already. Steve Mentz has written about communities; Joseph Wallace has written about specialisms. I think it’s useful to look at Shakespeare (and Shakespeare conferences) with a critical eye, so I appreciate these responses. My own response would be somewhat narrower, partly because, unlike previous years, I didn’t put myself under pressure to go to everything. SAA can be a great intellectual experience but it often feels like you’re being beaten over the head with all of the stuff you don’t know. I stuck more to my own subject this year which was better for my well-being, if not my critical development! I was pleasantly surprised to find so many panels and seminars placing Shakespeare in direct dialogue with other Renaissance authors. This wasn’t a major surprise – SAA has always been open to that kind of study – but given the peculiar force Shakespeare is exerting in 2016 it was still pleasing to see that Shakespeare was not utterly eclipsing everything else (giant Shakespeare head aside). For example, in the excellent ‘Race and… seminar Shakespeare sat next to The Spanish Gypsy, The Masque of Blackness, The Jew of Malta, The Fair Maid of the West, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Battle of Alcazar and The English Moor. It was fascinating to see these plays being brought into a variety of conversations with such an important topic. Elsewhere, the wonderful ‘Before Shakespeare: The Drama of the 1580s‘ seminar kept Shakespeare in the picture without making him central. Robert Wilson, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Porter, and ‘Anon’ all featured. And in our seminar topics ranged from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration (including the understudied period between 1642 and 1660) and discussion centred a range of authors and stationers. The final day also featured an excellent panel on Theatre History which opened up valuable discussions about attribution studies and lost plays.

Later this year the International Shakespeare Association’s World Shakespeare Congress will open in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to London. Later still, the British Shakespeare Association Conference will open in Hull. Shakespeare will be celebrated (and why not?) but I’ll be interested to see how not-Shakespearean Renaissance drama features. SAA struck a useful balance, I think, but it remains to be seen how these UK-based conferences handle the topic.

Shax
The face that launched a thousand tweets. Oh, wait, that was the other guy

#beaumont400

I haven’t blogged much recently, partly due to time constraints and partly because I don’t get to see many productions any more. Work prevents me from saying anything of substance but I wanted to record a few things here about an excellent conference I was lucky to have spoken at this weekebeaumont400-logo425x238.pngnd. #Beaumont400, organized by Lucy Munro at King’s College London, cheekily interrupted the #Shakespeare400 celebrations to give some deserved attention to one of the most important writers of Jacobean England: Francis Beaumont, who, like Shakespeare, died in 1616. General information about the event is available here. The programme is here and information about the Edward’s Boys production of The Woman Hater (which I was sadly unable to attend) is here. I’ve storified tweets from the hashtag here although unfortunately my battery died part way through the day which meant I couldn’t livetweet as much as I’d have liked. Still, it gives us a flavour of what went on that day.

It was a great event and I’ve now got a lot to think about. The connections being made between Beaumont and his contemporaries – in the theatre, the city guilds, and the Inns of Court – were really productive and I enjoyed seeing a range of historical and theoretical approaches applied to Beaumont’s plays. As I suggested in my own contribution to the conference, it is important that we try to continue our study of all things Beaumont into future years. For those of you in the UK hoping for a Beaumont fix why not check out the Read Not Dead productions of The Scornful Lady (at Gray’s Inn) and The Coxcomb (at the Globe). If you’re in the US you should check out Brave Spirits Theatre who recently staged The Maid’s Tragedy and plan to produce A King and No King next year. 

Fêting Fletcher

Due to other commitments (read: job) I can’t post much on here at the moment, though I do intend to get back to more regular postings in the future. Luckily for me, a great event was just announced, which means I get to write a post telling everyone how good it will be.

The event in question is a major two day conference focused on John Fletcher, an enormously important and influential Jacobean dramatist (and yes, Shakespeare fans, sometime collaborator with you-know-who). Fletcher is important for a great many reasons though, of which his work with Shakespeare is only a small part. His most famous collaboration was with Francis Beaumont, author of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, with whom he wrote some wonderful and underperformed plays like The Maid’s Tragedy and A King and No King. Some of these plays – Philaster springs to mind – were among the most celebrated of the day. Fletcher proved he could work alone too, taking on The Taming of the Shrew in The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed, in which the women fight back against the tyranny of men.

That’s just scratching the surface too; the plays I’ve mentioned are among the more well-known examples. Fletcher had a hand in around 50 extant plays and collaborated with other writers like Philip Massinger, and Nathan Field. The planned conference will shine a light on a much wider body of work and expose largely unexplored plays to much deserved analysis. I’m hoping to submit something on The Prophetess, a play I read for the first time in the Beaumont and Fletcher marathon of 2013, and I’m looking forward to hearing about what everyone else will be up to.

The organizers Steve Orman (recently awarded his doctorate at Canterbury Christ Church; congrats!) and José A. Pérez Díez (The Shakespeare Institute) are also wonderfully innovative, in that they are co-coordinating a supplementary performance of a Fletcher play. The choices are great and you can get involved by voting for your favourite using the hashtag #teamjohnfletcher or by emailing johnfletcherconference@gmail.com. The conference website is well-worth checking out, so do take a look here where you will find the full CFP plus details on the plays up for selection. My interested in deposed rulers is making me edge towards Beggar’s Bush, but I haven’t voted yet!