The World Beaumont Congress

This week I’m attending the World Shakespeare Congress, with hundreds of people from around the world. I thought it would be funny to do some (very light) trolling of the conference hashtag #WSCongress16 by tweeting about Francis Beaumont, who also died 400 years ago this year. Others have joined in – it’s fun to imagine the impossible absurdity of hundreds of Beaumontians gathering together to discuss their favourite author. Several of us have also enjoyed the idea of different factions arguing over the relative supremacy of their writers. So, in some tweets, Marstonians clash with Jonsonians, and Middletonians and Dekkerites either band together or fight each other, depending on who you listen to.

Naturally, these tweets, and others like them, are jokes. To my knowledge, nobody has caused a public disturbance by insisting that James Shirley is better than Thomas Heywood. And yet, jokes have meaning too – these tweets do suggest something about how we conceive of Renaissance dramatists. The focus on single authors – whoever, they might be – often results in the elevation of one chosen individual. Often, this elevation is itself brief. The victim in these instances is not Shakespeare, but the other writers who are left in the shadow of the newly elevated author. This ought not to mean an end to single-author studies, nor to single-author collected editions, both of which offer many great benefits, but those of us interested in the drama of the English Renaissance (and I very much include myself in this) might think of other ways of promoting our subject.

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Tweets to the Tweet

Last month The Shakespeare Institute continued an admirable recent tradition of marathon play readings. Led by Martin Wiggins, The Institute hosted a succession of readings of the complete works of Thomas Dekker and previous years included readings of James Shirley (2015), Thomas Heywood (2014), and Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (2013). Happily, there will be another marathon next year. In a departure from the authorial canon approach, the 2017 marathon focuses on plays written in the decade before Shakespeare. If you’re in Stratford, you can get involved in these readings; having participated in the past I can confirm it is good fun. For those able to make multiple readings it’s also an invaluable opportunity to familiarize yourself with the works of an author, or a particular time period. But even those who cannot attend can still feel involved by following along on Twitter. A number of readers enthusiastically livetweeted the Dekker event and their tweets have been helpfully archived.

What story do these livetweets tell? Well, taken together, they offer a valuable alternative lens through which to view Renaissance drama. Shakespeare quotes (and misquotes) are ten a penny, in this year especially – has anyone else noted how many football commentators are trying to cram in Shakespeare references during Euro 2016? – but you don’t normally get to hear people quoting Dekker. How interesting, then, to see the kind of quotes pulled out for livetweeting. Many of these quotes centre on insults. For example, in The Patient Man and the Honest Whore we see tweets about how tobacco ‘makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox’ as well as references to ‘a withered artichoke-faced rascal’ and a ‘soused gurnet’. But we also get records of fantastically odd phrases like the closing couplet to The Noble Spanish Soldier: ‘Other distractions, time must reconcile./The state is poisoned like a crocodile’.

Perhaps most importantly, the livetweets give coverage to plays and pageants that are rarely read, let alone quoted publicly on Twitter. Pleasingly, Sir Thomas More, which has received considerable attention, but usually for its textual idiosyncrasies or authorial controversies, is treated first and foremost as a play. I think it’s worth emphasizing the usefulness of the work the Dekker Marathon and its livetweeters do in this regard. Although lots of people enjoy reading and watching not-Shakespearean Renaissance plays it’s also true that these plays get disparaged frequently and that our critical efforts to redress the balance often lead to studies that inadvertently obscure the vitality  and interest of the drama itself.

Livetweets are sometimes compared to commonplacing in books in that snippets of text are taken from one context to another, whether to publicize a text (as may be the case in livetweeting) or to serve as a memory aid (as may be the case in commonplacing). Sixteenth and seventeenth-century readers often copied sections from poems, letters, and, indeed, plays, in commonplace books: they might record a passage from a play they thought especially apposite. And just as the Dekker tweets give us access to a different perspective on Renaissance theatre so too do commonplace books and miscellanies, as an exciting new resource helps to prove. DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts is an online, searchable database of extracts from seventeenth-century manuscripts. Even a cursory glance at it demonstrates how differently we might view the reception history of Renaissance plays.

For example, in one manuscript (Folger MS V.a.87) an unknown compiler notes down 524 quotes from ten different plays. Some of those references are to Shakespeare’s plays – The Merchant of Venice (38) and Pericles (36) – but the most frequently quoted plays are ones that are now no longer very often read, let alone quoted. Philip Massinger’s The Maid of Honour is quoted 116 times, John Ford’s The Fancies, Chaste and Noble is quoted 94 times and the J.W.’s The Valiant Scot is quoted 52 times. These examples, together with the Dekker tweets, help to broaden our sense of the reception history of Renaissance drama. Even apparently obscure plays like The Valiant Scot have had some sort of reception history: perhaps we should attend more to the afterlives (or should that be the continued lives?) of these supposedly dead plays.

Comedy Canons

Earlier today The Globe announced their Winter Season and there’s lots to like about it. For the first time Shakespeare occupies the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse alongside his contemporaries, in this case John Webster and John Milton.Curiously, Shakespeare was not performed at the playhouse during its first two seasons but he was the sole dramatist on display during the theatre’s third season. I’ve written before about how this cemented an unfortunate divide between the Shakespearean and the not-Shakespearean so I’m very pleased to see different Renaissance playwrights performed alongside Shakespeare in this space. It’s also very interesting to see that Milton’s masque, Comus, will be performed under the direction of Lucy Bailey. Who saw that coming? Certainly not me.

So far, so good, but it’s notable how many of these plays are tragedies, or else tragic in tone. Since it opened in 2014 the theatre has mostly staged tragedies and this season continues that tradition. In some ways, this sounds logical. The season’s title, Winter Noir, gestures towards but also modifies the title of the Globe’s current Wonder Season. After all, winter is a time of darkness and the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is usually figured as a place of glooming intimacy. Yet seen from another angle, the logic seems suspect. In 2014 the Sam Wanamaker staged the raucous Beaumont comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, to great success – it is the only SWP production to have been granted a revival. A dark, sinister, intimate tragedy it is not. While candlelight might hold an appeal for tragedy it is not an impediment to comedy either. The indoor playhouses produced plenty of comedies alongside the tragedies. The Jacobean indoor playhouses were not filled to the brim with violent death orgies – sorry – but also featured other plays of varying sorts. By the same token, tragedies, of course, were also staged outside. Othello was written several years before the King’s Men were able to perform at the Blackfriars and while it might sound like a quintessential indoor tragedy, The White Devil was first performed outdoors. Equally, that other pillar of Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi – the first play performed at the SWP – was performed outdoors as well as inside, that is, at the Globe, as well as the Blackfriars. It’s also worth remembering that most of the plays we now call ‘domestic tragedies’ – Arden of FavershamA Woman Killed with KindnessA Yorkshire Tragedy – were first staged outdoors.

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A great poster for The White Devil

None of this is news, of course. Everyone knows tragedy is not an exclusively indoor form and the Sam Wanamaker staged a season of Shakespearean tragicomedy last autumn. Yet it is very easy to follow the enticing logic that the indoor theatres were better suited to tragedy than other genres, that tragedy works best indoors, or even that tragedies are essentially superior to other genres (as their prevalence in the modern repertory might suggest). The presence of Milton on the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse stage is an exciting and unexpected step in a different direction for the theatre, but some comedies by John Marston, Thomas Dekker, or Lording Barry (why not?) might offer another worthwhile avenue.

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.

Marlowe

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.

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!