Still Harping on Shakespeare

This weekend I had the opportunity to speak to the Swansea branch of the Historical Association at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. I loved it: it’s a real pleasure to talk to people about stuff that I am passionate about. I was asked to talk about Shakespeare and I did, but naturally, I also talked about Beaumont, and Fletcher, and Jonson, and um, Aston Cockayne. I wanted to try and think about some of the writers who are less well remembered and to reflect on some of the processes that led to Shakespeare’s canonization and Beaumont’s marginalization. The PowerPoint slides below give you some idea of the material, if not the general direction of the argument. My claim was that Shakespeare’s centrality ought to be critiqued more often (no surprise for any regular reader of this blog) and that we ought to think about his canonization as political (hence the George Osborne quote). In turn, I suggested that Beaumont and Fletcher’s marginalization was, in part, political: Coleridge repeatedly insisted that Beaumont and Fletcher were royalist lapdogs who lacked Shakespeare’s brilliant ambiguity. That claim has largely stuck, but it ought to be unstuck. I don’t know whether the talk can be counted a success, but I had someone come up to me at the end saying they wanted to read Beaumont so I’m going to count that as a professional highlight.

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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.

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.

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.

WD
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.