Judith Rosenthal

title.none: Cox and Kastan, eds., A New History of Early English Drama (Rosenthal)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.006 99.01.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Judith Rosenthal, California State University, Fresno,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Cox, John D. and David Scott Kastan, eds. A New History of Early English Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 565. $ 49.50 ISBN 0-231-10242-9. ISBN: $25.00 ISBN 0-231-10243-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.06

Cox, John D. and David Scott Kastan, eds. A New History of Early English Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 565. $ 49.50 ISBN 0-231-10242-9. ISBN: $25.00 ISBN 0-231-10243-7.

Reviewed by:

Judith Rosenthal
California State University, Fresno

Cox and Kastan's superb anthology of new articles on early drama aims at an audience of professors, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates. Their book succeeds because, unlike earlier anthologies, each essay historically situates drama. It is fortunate for me that this collection has been released in time for my own graduate seminar on Early English Drama in Fall 1998.

The Foreward by Stephen Greenblatt praises the work's refusal to take the simple path of the delineation of the linear progression to the literary triumph of Shakespearean drama. Instead of this teleological approach, these essays take on the daunting task of sculpting the complex artifact of early drama, along with its embeddedness in history.

The Introduction by Cox and Kastan acknowledges that their anthology reflects the theoretical shift of the last 25 years in which literary texts are perceived not as formal icons but as contested sites of meaning. Specifically, they argue, the new paradigm views authorial intention as only one of the many often contradictory intentions involved in the production of texts. The 26 essays and 28 scholars in their anthology illustrate the notion that meaning, especially in drama, is inescapably plural and historically constructed. Because drama is always linked to performance, changes in material and cultural history thus directly affect a play's "text." Early drama, in particular, is always radically collaborative because many creators in addition to the playwright are involved, such as actors, scribes, printers, and shareholders of companies.

The first essay by Margreta de Grazia is an excellent meditation on the puzzle of naming early periods. Many of the names we have used arose not until the nineteenth century. She questions the notion of describing the historical period by the term "fifteenth/sixteenth century" drama. Despite the ban by the English Church, Corpus Christi plays -- that most "medieval" dramatic form -- were performed in Kendal well into the seventeenth century. The term "early modern" is difficult because it is committed to the ideological stance of anticipating the modern when much sixteenth-century drama retains its "medieval" traits. Finally, the concept of "medieval" versus "Renaissance" reenacts a humanist bias against the prehistory of the Renaissance itself. The dramatic literature we call "Renaissance" was more continuous than Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) allows.

In contrast to these fuzzy signifiers, de Grazia proposes two spatial events rather than chronological ideology; one event commemorates a playhouse and the other a theatrical convention. The playhouse is The Theatre, the first public commercial theater, built in London in 1576. Earlier toxonomies used Hamlet (1600-01) to mark Shakespeare's transition from early to mature work and Western history's transition from "medieval" to "modern." De Grazia notes that Hamlet has consciousness. His soliloquies have been seen to mark Cartesian solipsism, or "Renaissance" self-fashioning. But why should the Hegelian reading of consciousness (and its ideology of binary oppositions) subordinate spatial events, which are grounded in time? At the end of the period in 1660, the theatrical convention of the proscenium-arched stage triumphs, achieving the condition of modern intelligibility by enframing action for the viewer. By the use of these two period-markers, 1300-1576 and 1576-1660, she carefully avoids the profound antipathy in literary history between temporal consciousness and space.

Part One of Cox and Kastan's anthology, entitled "Early English Drama and Physical Space" corrects many myths and fallacies about theatrical space. John Wasson's "The Early English Church as Theatrical Space" argues that far more than half of all English plays were performed in churches from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. The Record of the Early English Drama (REED) project corrects E.K. Chambers' 1903 assertion that the drama passed from the church to the marketplace. In fact, the last play performed in a church was in 1625-26.

Suzanne Westfall's essay on "Household Theater" addresses "proto-dramatic" texts not earlier considered worthy of study. She argues that household theater deserves a different kind of analysis because of the close personal relationships between performers, patrons, and audiences. Furthermore, unlike commercial theater, the occasional nature of these revels required significant expenses, in part because of their multimediality.

The universities as early staging sites are the subjects of Alan Nelson's piece on Cambridge and John Elliott's piece on Oxford. Diagrams reveal a stage platform, houses, and scaffold seating at Queens' and Trinity College, Cambridge. At Oxford, student plays were performed at college halls primarily to provide entertainment during the long Christmas vacation when they were required to remain in residence. The most distinctive characteristic of the academic theater is the fixity of its locales. The stage platform is always and only the main street of a named city, for example Florence or Bordeaux.

Anne Higgins' brilliant piece on the York Corpus Christi cycle, "Streets and Markets," argues that the yearly performance illustrated the medieval demotic of physical space, with York as a simulcrum of Jerusalem. A topography of status, wealth, occupation, and self-consciousness was mapped into urban space in 1468 when the guilds took over the performances. At first the procession with the host followed a route considered traditional in York, but after 1426 the procession and the plays were separated. The pageant wagons of the Corpus Christi play followed the clockwise route, pausing at the Minster, but then continuing clockwise around the central artisanal precinct to their final station, the Pavement (the largest market). This final site on the Pavement employed the durable tradition of positional symbolism. At the end of the day, the staging of the Last Judgment scene made sense of the actual space: hell to stage left, toward the stinking Shambles (the butchers' street), and paradise to the right, near the Church of All Saints, the burial place of the mayors.

John Orrell takes on the physical description of the theaters per se: those at court, those private, and those public. At court the early buildings of 1520 were intended to evoke the glories of an antique past, a Roman setting for a stately modern encounter. They were round houses of wooden construction with stories of galleries. After the 1580's, a tradition of scenic drama began which was extremely expensive and tinged with "alien" Continental culture. Several private theaters opened after 1576. They were enclosed, unlike the open-air public playhouses. Helpful diagrams of the Globe and Fortune theaters contrast the polygonal and rectangular plans of the two buildings.

Heidi Hackel analyzes the precise location of printed drama in early libraries. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Bodley excluded most English drama as unsuitable "riffe raffe" for the new public library at Oxford. Therefore, texts have survived primarily by their inclusion in the private libraries of the aristocracy.

Part Two of Cox and Kastan's anthology contains essays about social space, or societal structures, and their interaction with the dramatic canon. Paul White's "Theater and Religious Culture" goes beyond the traditional view of the confrontational nature of relations between theater and religion with Protestant zealots striving to suppress a popular pastime and playwrights fighting back by caricaturing religious types on stage. On the contrary, many English subjects (Puritan and non-Puritan) supported the theater, as audience members, sponsors, playwrights, and players until 1642 with the closing of the theaters.

Gordon Kipling argues in "Wonderfull Spectacles: Theater and Civic Culture" that ritual dramas of royal manifestation were acts of public worship. The imagery of Tudor and Stuart monarchs remained products of the earlier tradition based on the pre-Reformation church. Diana Henderson discusses the difficult subject of domestic life in early plays in the light of the radical transformation of the subject by social historians, feminists, and queer theorists. Through a mixture of theater examples, she presents a domestic culture in flux and in fear, anxious about unruly wives, rebellious servants, and disinherited younger sons.

Graham Parry covers court drama from Henry VIII to Oliver Cromwell, arguing that rulers used entertainments as occasions to express shared ideals and common loyalty. Barbara Mowat's essay points out that the boundary we place between drama and literature was porous: acting companies used printed books as playbooks, and playwrights (including Jonson and Shakespeare) drew heavily from their extensive reading. Michael Bristol's "Theatre and Popular Culture" illustrates with specific examples how the ludic and transgressive elements of popular culture pervade dramatic form in early drama. The major shift in this period was from participation in the Carnivalesque to the cultural consumption of plays by the paying audience.

Part Three covers disparate "Conditions of Performance and Publication." Peter Greenfield presents "Touring," a lucrative practice until the Interregnum (however, at least one town, Norwich, paid companies NOT to perform). Jean MacIntyre and Garrett Epp discuss "Costumes and Properties," covering 200 years of theater practice with numerous examples. Richard Dutton's essay on "Censorship" covers the process of slow attrition with which the mystery cycle plays were suppressed, then discusses the stabilizing force of the court standard as applied by the Masters of the Revels. Ann Cook's "Audiences" contrasts the difference among the small exclusive audience at court, to those at aristocratic households, to that of the larger populace at private and public theaters. Peter Thomson's analysis of "Acting Styles" urges that we abandon Bradley and Stanislavsky in our attempts to understand early acting. Elizabethan players were practitioners of presentational acting (although, he emphasizes, the professional theater accomodated a range of styles). W.R. Streitberger looks at the changing attitude toward professional actors and the rise in their status, evidenced by growing court patronage and the increasing publication of plays.

Jeffrey Masten's provocative essay on "Collaboration" first emphasizes the many instances of authorial collaboration in this period: "nearly two thirds" of the plays in the records of the theatrical manager Henslowe "are the work of more than one man." Collaboration was the standard mode of operation in playwriting, not a problem to be confronted only after considering singularly authored plays. Then Masten speculates whether the constellation of meanings surrounding male-male friendship in this period implied closer relationship than co-authorship. How are we to understand Thomas Kyd's denunciation (under torture) of Christopher Marlowe during the time the two lived together and were both writing plays for Lord Strange's Men? And what of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher who, according to John Aubrey, shared a house, playwriting, clothing, and even "one wench...between them" (1:95-96)? Later Fletcher and his friend and collaborator Massinger were even buried in the same grave. Stressing all that we do not yet understand in the complex construction of masculinity in this early period, Masten draws no conclusions. Instead he raises questions. Collaboration, he argues, can be situated at the complicated intersection of homoeroticism, male friendship/conversation, and domestic relations.

Peter Blayney's essay on "Publication" seeks to refute Pollard's 1909 argument about Shakespeare's "bad" quartos for the final time. He argues that the "rush" to publication (strongest in the periods 1593-95 and 1600-01) had little to do with securing a fortune because no more than one play in five returned the publisher's initial investment inside of five years. Kathleen McLuskie and Felicity Dunsworth look at "Patronage," showing the importance of the patron, through specific examples, not only in providing payment (which remain unrecorded), but through a patron's more general influence in a local area. Eric Rasmussen writes about the motivation behind the "Revision of Scripts," usually to reduce playing time. These cuts were made, not by the playwright, but by the players. Additions to scripts were made to keep up with current theatrical trends; for example, Jonson was commissioned by Henslowe to expand Kyd's Spanish Tragedy to meet the new demand for the vogue of psychological revenge. With some plays, such as Marlowe's Faustus, the revisions are so massive that the new Revels series is publishing two complete, and different, versions.

Roslyn Knutson's essay on "Repertory" relies on Henslowe's Diary, the owner of the Rose playhouse in south London. The repertory was a growth industry in 1599-1603. Companies in these years continued strong. By recycling costumes and properties, a company could mount thirty or more productions without much overhead. The final essay by Paul Werstine on "Plays in Manuscript" respects the variety and disuniformity of the extant manuscripts of plays, avoiding the error of Walter Greg's application of his a priori theory of the categories of "fowle papers" and good "promptbooks."

The 26 essays on early drama by leading literary critics and historians in this valuable new anthology are original, even iconoclastic. They correct persistent (even century-long) errors of the past, provoking readers to further investigations of their own.