How to Know a Good Play From a Bad

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.

Celebrity Marlowe

Note: this blog post considers Doctor Faustus, directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Duke of York’s. I watched the play in preview – the press night is 25 April and the production runs until 25 June. As I saw the show in preview I offer this post as a general discussion of the production and the phenomenon of celebrity casting, rather than as a review. Nonetheless, it contains some things that might be considered spoilers so do bear that in mind.


Celebrity casting has enabled theatre companies to make Shakespeare the hottest ticket in town. Last year the phenomenon of CumberHamlet followed on from the success of Tom Hiddlestone in Coriolanus: these productions traded on the cachet of Shakespeare, for sure, but also on the star appeal of their leading men. Fans flocked to the theatres to see Cumberbatch and Hiddlestone but also, by extension, Sherlock and Loki, as well as Hamlet and Caius Martius. The success of British stage actors in US film and TV has meant that actors who first made their name in the theatre have come to bring additional celebrity appeal: new generations know Ian McKellen as Gandalf and/or Magneto. But this celebrity appeal is not entirely new. When sixteenth-century playgoers attended the theatres they knew they were seeing Edward Alleyn, or Richard Burbage and those playgoers presumably carried with them the memories of past performances and other characters. How much of Alleyn’s Tamburaline did Elizabethan audiences see in his Faustus?

In my experience, modern celebrity casting changes the audience dynamic (and often, the audience composition) but I haven’t picked up on whether knowledge of the identity of the celebrity has much of an effect on an interpretation of the play. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know enough about the actors themselves or the shows they appear in; it might be that more avid fans are making connections I am not able to access. None of this is a problem, of course, but still a potential point of interest. After all, none of these productions depend upon prior knowledge of the actor: presumably, there were people at Hamlet who didn’t know that much about Cumberbatch; presumably people went to see Doctor Faustus in the 1580s without knowing much about Edward Alleyn. And so it was for me as I prepared to watch Kit Harington play Faustus in Jamie Lloyd’s production in the Duke of York’s. I don’t watch Game of Thrones – to me, Jon Snow is a newsreader, not the bastard son of the lord of Winterfell – so I wondered how my limited knowledge of the celebrity of the actor might affect my playgoing experience.

Does it matter that the person playing Faustus is a celebrity? I expected the answer to be ‘not really’ but to my surprise I found that the production very playfully drew on Harington’s star appeal. Although the production begins and ends with Marlowe’s blank verse large swathes of the play have been rewritten by the Irish playwright Colin Teevan. These new scenes replaced much of the comic jesting including Faustus’s visit to the Pope (here played as a visit to the President of the United States). Shortly after Faustus’s encounter with the seven deadly sins (nicely played by Tom Edden) the production took an abrupt about turn. The set – initially, a hotel room – was transformed and Faustus appeared to step outside of the play as he and the other characters abandoned blank verse and early modern English. Time was telescoped so in the instant that Faustus walked through the door of the new set we moved into a future in which he was now a celebrity magician, famous for his illusions. Harington was playing a different version of Faustus, but also a different version of himself and part of the enjoyment for the audience was seeing him revelling in this role by exposing his abs and even, at one moment, his backside. ‘This is what you came to see!’ is the overall effect of this strutting performance.

This, then, was a production that made particular use of its celebrity lead. It was interesting to see how much freer Harington seemed in these scenes. We sometimes talk about blank verse as an empowering theatrical force that helps the actor to realize their part but it arguably often has the opposite effect. For Harington, it seemed like a prison. This is partly because Faustus is much freer when he is flying round the world as a magical illusionist than when bargaining with Lucifer and Mephistopheles, but it is also the result of a struggle with Marlowe’s verse. It’s clear that the production was keen to play around with Marlowe’s text in many ways but I wonder if the verse speaking was treated with too much reverence. The additional scenes made numerous playful topical references including jokes at the expense of David Cameron and Donald Trump and it took a delight in the tacky, the tawdry, and the hollow. Topical jokes got big laughs but they were essentially crowd pleasers. Given the celebrity framework of the production this seemed to me a self-aware comment on the shallow appeal of popularity. The jokes serve their purpose because they get laughs but the laughs quickly dissipate and leave nothing behind; this was not an attempt at complex political satire but rather an exploration of the essential nullity at the core of Faustus.

This, in turn, prepared the audience for the darkly effective ending. The play poses a great challenge: how to represent Hell. In Lloyd’s production, Hell was the realization of absence. Right at the end of the play Faustus commits an atrocious act (I won’t say what) but his focus is immediately on his own imminent damnation rather than the effect of his actions on others. Yet he also realizes what he has done and what he has lost and the production ends, not with him being dragged into Hell, but with him spinning in a circle – is this a visual quotation of the ending of Rupert Goold’s The Merchant of Venice? – cradling an imaginary body.

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.

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

Doll Drama

This year, Measure for Measure has been a popular play. After the excellent Cheek by Jowl Russian language Measure came what sounded like a more straightforwardly comic production at the Globe in the summer (I didn’t see it, so will refrain from further comment) and now The Young Vic have offered their own dark take on what is, surely, one of Shakespeare’s best plays. I suppose this recent glut means the play will have to take a back seat for a little while though presumably the RSC will tackle it at some point in Greg Doran’s tenure. I’ll wait for that, though not with too much hope.

Hope, however, was  in abundance for the Young Vic Measure directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. And hope, on this occasion, was rewarded. When it comes to theatre, I’m fairly easily pleased yet somehow usually disappointed. I only really need one moment of brilliance to enjoy and I’ll be pretty happy. This production served up several. It ended, wonderfully, with the eerily awkward comedy of a tableau. The Duke (Zubin Varla) forced each of the cast members into an unlikely and unhappy partnership. This obviously included Angelo (Paul Ready) and Mariana (Cath Whitefield), as well as the Duke and Isabella (Romala Garai), but, more unexpectedly, it meant Escalus (here, played as a woman by Sarah Malin) and Barnadine (Matthew Wynn) were paired and the unhappiness of the situation cast a shadow even over the the one consensual coupling: Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Juliet (Natalie Simpson). It’s a brilliant way to end: funny, but also disturbing, a balance that so many modern productions of early modern plays manage to get wrong. There were lots of other grace notes. For example, in a perfect piece of modernising, Mariana’s doleful tune was transmuted into the Alanis Morisette’s breakup song ‘You Oughta Know’. But my favourite moments involved the use of a large quantity of inflatable sex dolls (that’s a sentence I hadn’t ever imagined having to write).


At the beginning of the production, the stage was filled with inflatable dolls and Escalus and Angelo each unpicked their way through the mass of breasts, open mouths, and erect penises, looking deeply uncomfortable in doing so. Soon after, the novice nun Isabella prayed amidst the plastic bodies creating one of the production’s many scenes of incongruity (throughout the production, the heavy use of video projections was coupled with images from medieval and Renaissance art). But the sex dolls were obviously not just sex dolls. Writing in The Guardian Michael Billington commented on the logic of the design’s excesses:

The plastic sex dolls evoke the hedonistic decay into which Duke Vincentio’s Vienna has fallen. With the installation of his stiff-backed deputy, Angelo, the dolls are swept behind close doors. Thanks to video cameras, however, they are never wholly out of sight and we are constantly reminded of the secret world of vice and torture that exists behind the puritanical facade of Angelo’s city.

But Billington captures little of the extraordinary effect created by these dolls. It’s true that they might, broadly, evoke hedonistic decay but they are not just dolls. They start off as dolls, for sure, but in the sequence to which Billington alludes (the incredible moment when all of the dolls are removed from the stage) they are not merely dolls but bodies. In an interpolated scene, Angelo entered declaiming scripture. An alarm sounded and the big doors at the back of the stage opened. The cast members pushed, shoved, threw, and kicked the sex dolls through the doors – some of these bodies floated up into the air before falling again. It had a kind of graceful beauty, to be sure, but it also struck me as extremely violent and seemed evocative not only of the physical violence to which sex workers are subjected but also the social violence (invisible to many) served down by authority to the detriment of the most vulnerable members of society. Angelo’s restrictive legislation was here seen to have its immediate effect. By suggesting that the dolls evoked the seedy world of ‘vice and torture’ that Angelo tried to hide, Billington, I think, misses the point. It’s not that Angelo wants to hide this corruption – he wants to get rid of it, after all – but that he wants to hide only his own corruption. The biggest problem, then is not with the underworld, but rather with the way in which that world is handled by authority. The dolls are pushed and kicked around not only by the bawd Pompey (Tom Edden) but by everyone in the play and never more terrifyingly than by those who wield authority. At the end of the production, the sex dolls are still visible but by this point they have been shaped into a formation that calls to mind the terrible atrocities of the last hundred years. They are sex dolls, of course, and not bodies, but they speak of a powerful violence that lives, not only in the play’s world, but in our own.


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.