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


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!


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. 


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 ReappraCanterburysial, 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.

Play Previews: May – August

I usually write a preview post every four months or so. It’s that time again…

MAY is a busy month. I’ll be in London later this week where I will try to see The Globe’s Merchant of Venice starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. I’ll also definitely see the RSC’s A Mad World My Masters at the Barbican. I was finishing my PhD when this was on in Stratford, so completely missed it, so I’m happy to have another chance to see the Constable of the Commonwealth. I’ll be in Stratford later this month too, where I’ll look forward to seeing Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and, if possible, Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice. If I can, I’ll also go back to London for Ninagawa’s Hamlet at the Barbican. It will be busy, then, and there will be a lot that I won’t see. I won’t get to the York International Shakespeare Festival and I’ll miss the Malone Society’s staged reading of King Leir at Somerville College, Oxford. Last year’s event, which I wrote about here, was really good, so I’m sad to miss it.

JUNE sees the opening of two of my favourite plays: Measure for Measure at the Globe and Othello at the RSC. I’ll hope to see both. It’s also an interesting month for staged readings of John Ford. The Globe’s Read Not Dead will produce The Queen in May and follow that up with The Lover’s Melancholy and Perkin Warbeck in June. You can see the full list herePerkin Warbeck is really wonderful, so I’ll try very hard to see it (in the meantime, someone please do a full production). I’ll be in Canterbury at the end of the month for the John Fletcher conference at which there will be a script-in-hand performance of The Two Noble Kinsmen at St Mildred’s Church. The full details, including the conference programme, are available here.

JULY involves another exciting Fletcher event: a script-in-hand performance of The Scornful Lady at The Shakespeare Institute. Middleton’s A Game at Chess also gets a script-in-hand performance in July, at an interesting symposium in Canterbury. I also look forward to the opening of the RSC’s Volpone and to the National Theatre of China’s Richard III which is at the Globe.

AUGUST is harder to preview – I’m sure lots of things will pop up between now and then, but I’ll hopefully also see The Merchant of Venice at the RSC and I’m interested in Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation of the medieval Everyman at the National. I’m sure there’s lots that I’ve missed out or don’t know about and there are some that I’ve ignored (I can’t write about everything!) Let me know what you think!