by Maddie Buttitta

It has long been recognized that the works of William Shakespeare readily populate modern mediums, especially those of commercial theatre. What is not as readily recognized, however, is the understanding that, unlike the resurgence of productions in both American and English commercial theatre, Shakespeare was only one of many playwrights in the culture in which he and others like him worked: one only has to mention a name such as Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Marston, and numerous others in his (and extended beyond) his company. What also is not as readily recollected, however, are the names of those that came before Shakespeare. Thus, research fellows and investigators Dr. Andy Kesson, Dr. Lucy Munro, and Dr. Callan Davies created the research project “Before Shakespeare”, which elucidates the first thirty years of the Elizabethan playhouses in London, from 1565-1595. I recently had the remarkable opportunity of corresponding with the team via email about the project’s details, its inception, and what comes next.

Q: How did you arrive to studying early modern commercial spectacle?
CD: My interest in spectacle was sparked by my undergraduate degree and particularly by a wonderful course on “Shakespeare’s Spectacular Bodies” run by Pascale Aebischer, who supervised my PhD a few years later. During my Master’s and doctoral research, I became increasingly interested in what effects stage technology has in early modern drama beyond “sensation”—for instance, its philosophical significance—and this led to my current interest in visual and verbal “strangeness” in plays of the 1600s and early 1610s (so a little outside the Before Shakespeare remit!). In more Before Shakespeare terms, though, I’ve been thinking recently about earlier commercial forms of spectacle and their continuing currency in the Jacobean era: Greene’s talking mechanical heads in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and Alphonsus seem to be speaking to dramatists decades after they first found their voice.

Q: Within the realms of early modern commercial theatre, your research interests include spectacle as entertainment. What in the pre-Shakespeare early modern drama constituted as spectacles of the time?
CD: [Robert] Greene’s elaborate devices across many of his plays would certainly qualify as spectacle as entertainment (“Enter Orlando with a leg”), and these types of spectacle populate the plays of our period. Some hostile contemporaries paint a riotous picture of stage spectacle; the Act of Common Council on 6 December 1574, for instance, complains of “engines, weapons, and powder used in plays” (and that’s before The Theatre was built and referring to performances in inns). My work for the project is rooted in the archives, and one thing that fascinates me is the variety of types of entertainment within plays and playing spaces: that Act of 1574 talks of disorders and inconveniences in “plays, enterludes, and shows”—a tellingly broad phrase. A number of early commercial plays are filled with sword fights, jigs, or masque-like dumb shows (such the fairies and “antiques” that open James IV); we also know that playing places frequently hosted fencing prizes (Bel Savage, The Bull, The Theatre, and The Curtain), improvised performances, and other opportunities for recreation. In 1590, Samuel Cox writes a letter complaining about plays and players, in which he equates singing and playing: “men give more to a player for a song, which he shall sing in one hour, than to their faithful servants for serving them a whole year.” Exaggeration aside, these contemporary references suggest a diverse array of performance modes in early playing spaces and by so-called “players”; asking what constitutes spectacle in the period’s drama begs the questions, what is meant by “play” and what might Elizabethans expect to find when they visit “playhouses”? Might a visit to, say, The Curtain, the Cross Keys, or Newington Butts involve a range of recreational activities and spectacles? The PhD student attached the project, Robbie Hand, is also engaging with questions of spectacle; his thesis explores the visual culture of 1580s theatre.

Q: What in your research interests led you to create and be a part of the “Before Shakespeare” project?
CD: The Before Shakespeare project was set up by Andy [Kesson] and Lucy [Munro]; joining as a postdoctoral research fellow, I was thrilled by the opportunity to delve deeper (and further back) into the materials of theatre history, extending the interests of my doctoral research. The project also offered the opportunity to reassess and revisit “known” facts and question what has sometimes been taken for granted in narratives about early modern theatre. Perhaps most keenly, I’m excited about the way Before Shakespeare puts disciplines and approaches into dialogue. Performance, archaeology, and archival research are at the centre of the project; the exchange between them is challenging and stimulating, generating and exploring fresh questions about the period, its playing spaces, and plays.

Q: How did you arrive to studying early modern commercial theatre?
LM: I studied for my BA at the University of Manchester, where Leah Scragg (with whom Andy also studied) ran a wonderful final-year course on Renaissance Drama. We’d all taken a compulsory Renaissance module as first years, so she took for granted that we knew our Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and so on, and introduced us to writers like Robert Greene, John Lyly and John Marston. I became fascinated by these playwrights and the contexts in which they worked, so when I planned to study for an MA I looked for programmes where you could immerse yourself in non-Shakespearean drama, and I ended up writing my PhD on the repertory of a Jacobean children’s playing company, the Children of the Queen’s Revels.

Q: In light of the recent 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death-day and the media implosion that followed, it is refreshing to see research being done on early modern commercial theatre before Shakespeare (hence the project’s name). How has your focus on canonical figures in early modern theatre (such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton,Jonson, etc.) weaved into the “Before Shakespeare” project, if at all?
LM: When I’ve worked on canonical figures, I’ve always wanted to put them in dialogue with lesser-known writers. So my PhD and first book looked at Jonson’s plays alongside those of Thomas Middleton, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, John Marston, John Day and others, and my second book on archaic style puts Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson and Milton into conversation with George Chapman, William Cartwright, Anna Trapnel, Robert Southwell and many others. I’m not really, or solely, a Shakespearean – it took me over a decade of going to the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference before I wrote a paper on Shakespeare! In terms of the project, all of us are aware of Shakespeare as a figure who provokes many people’s curiosity about the Elizabethan theatre and has helped to inspire a good number of the approaches that we draw on, from theatre history to early modern race and disability studies. So although we push back against Shakespeare’s dominance of the field, we also acknowledge his importance, as the title “Before Shakespeare” suggests.

Q: What in your research interests led you to create and be a part of the “Before Shakespeare” project?
LM: Much of my research has tried to situate literary and dramaturgical experimentation in terms of the structures of the commercial theatre industry. For instance, my book on the Children of the Queen’s Revels brought together genre theory and theatre history, looking at the ways in which the institutional structures of the playing companies helped to stimulate the development of new or renewed theatrical modes. I’ve also written on material aspects of theatre – for instance a few years ago I published an essay on the uses of stage blood and dismembered body parts on the early modern stage – and on the composition of playing companies and its potential impact on plays in performance. All of these things are feeding into “Before Shakespeare”, which tries to think about mid-late Elizabeth theatre in documentary and dramaturgical contexts, considering the material traces of the playhouses and playing companies in the documentary and archaeological record and bringing that material together with detailed work on the plays as staged – and stageable – texts through our workshops with Dolphin’s Back.

Q: How did you arrive to studying early modern commercial theatre?
AK: I was lucky enough to study The Duchess of Malfi at secondary school alongside a number of Shakespeare plays, and growing up in Canterbury I became familiar with the work of Christopher Marlowe too. Great as Shakespeare was, I found Malfi and Edward II far more immediate in both their writing and their subject matter, so I became intrigued quite early on by the relationship between Shakespeare and his contemporaries and the way the former seemed to have been canonised at the expense of the latter. I then spent a few years working at Contact in Manchester, a multi-arts venue dedicated to bringing theatre, dance, spoken word, comedy, cabaret and music to as wide and diverse an audience as possible, with a particular focus on diversity, accessibility, young people and sectors of the community who are not regular theatregoers. This work made me very aware of how safe and conservative much modern engagement with early modern theatre can be: the classical training that actors receive is a late nineteenth-century invention, anachronistic both for the early modern and contemporary performance scene; of the 400 or so surviving English early modern plays we only regularly perform a small number, and gosh, isn’t it surprising that so many of them are all about men; and of course that in turn has implications for the casting of plays, their production values and their consequent (in)accessibility to audiences. I worked at Contact whilst studying a BA in English and Classics and then an MA in Cultural Theory at Manchester University, the latter including a couple of early modern literature modules taught by the wonderful Leah Scragg. Partway through that MA, I realised that early modern drama united the various things that interested me: the relationships between scholarship and theatre practice, between theatre history and contemporary performance, between experimental and mainstream theatre, between Shakespeare and his contemporaries, between early modern literary values and later literary values.

Q: On your website, you detail one of your research interests being “the reception of early modern writers and the literary canon”. What are some misconceptions regarding the literary canon and these writers that more people of which should be more aware?
AK:The major point or puzzle, for me, is that Shakespeare has come to stand for, and therefore in front of, the achievements of early modern drama more generally, to the detriment of our understanding of Shakespeare as much as anyone else. In a cultural context in which many stories, historical, semi-mythical or entirely fictional, could only be accessed by those who could read or be read to, and under all kind of socioeconomic and political preconditions, ordinary working people built, managed, worked in and paid to access playhouses. In a cultural context in which the public discussion of politics and religion was at best difficult and at worse illegal, these playhouses hosted plays which asked under what conditions you can oppose or dethrone a monarch or question hegemonic forms of Christianity. It’s in the wake of the creation of these playhouses that the English language suddenly hosts a new word, ‘playwright’, and gives the word ‘actor’ the new meaning of ‘somebody who pretends to act’. Shakespeare was a vital part of this whole, but the part has come to stand in for the whole. I don’t think we celebrate often enough that these playhouses happened, that they were an event in themselves.

Thinking about specific writers, it’s always worth noting that Shakespeare gets canonised as a literary great in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when literary greatness itself is an evolving concept. This means that when we ask ‘Is someone a good writer?’, we often inadvertently end up asking ‘In what way are they like (or unlike) Shakespeare?’ Gary Taylor, for example, opens The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton by observing that Middleton writes great comedies, histories and tragedies, a paraphrase of the title of Shakespeare’s First Folio that implies that those three genres are the mark of good writing. In the Romantic period, in particular, literary genius is defined by its independence, its selfhood; the very obvious ways in which Shakespeare’s work intersects with his contemporaries (as adaptation, collaboration, source or echo) meant that those contemporaries had to be purged from his work in order for it to be heralded in terms of genius. It’s worth remembering, in this regard, that the word influence means illness, contamination, an influenza of the soul, of a genius that ought to remain solitary, self-contained and uncontaminated. I’ve written about this process at some length with regards to John Lyly, but to take a very different example, John Webster’s writing is pathologised well into the twentieth century, turned into an illness to be evaluated rather than literature to be explored. Rupert Brooke calls it ‘full of the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots’, T. S. Eliot ‘an interesting example of a very great literary and dramatic genius directed towards chaos’. William Archer, describing Webster’s formal construction of plays, hilariously describes them as ‘not constructed plays, but loose-strung, go-as-you-please romances in dialogue’. That sits very oddly with the time Webster seems to have taken to write some of his plays: he’s much closer to Jonson’s self-conscious model of slow authorship than he is to the more rapid rate of play authorship practiced by Shakespeare, Dekker or Brome. In these responses to one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, I’m struck by the way plot or structure get confused with authorial psychology, often as a result of a direct comparison with Shakespeare in which Shakespeare has already set the terms of the comparison.

Q: What in your research interests led you to create and be a part of the “Before Shakespeare” project?
AK: So the advantage of tending to the earliest years of the playhouses (which we’re dating, not without hesitation, c. 1565-95) is that it allows us to give serious attention to the earliest innovators of this architectural and entrepreneurial form, it lets us take account of the generation working immediately before Shakespeare as well as the years in which Shakespeare first started to write, and it calls attention to a gap not only in scholarly knowledge but also in scholarly curiosity: where are the literary and theatrical histories of the 1560s, ‘70s and early ‘80s? We’re taking advantage of the very fine work that has been done in the last 30 years of our own time in three very different areas: 1) documentary evidence (think REED, Tiffany Stern and Martin Wiggins); 2) archaeological evidence (30 years ago we had none of the early modern playhouses; now we have pretty much all that we might expect to find); 3) theatrical experimentation in early modern drama, especially at London’s Globe, Toronto’s Queen’s Men project and your own Blackfriars Theater. These three areas have generated astonishing changes in the evidential bases of early modern drama, and by bringing them into conversation with one another we hope to build on their achievements in order to theorise and historicise the earliest years of the playhouses.

I should probably say, in case it’s helpful for your postgraduate readers, that this project also grew out of my PhD on John Lyly. I spent the time researching and writing my PhD very aware of big questions that were too big to tackle head on or explore in proper detail, and which current scholarship didn’t seem to be addressing either. I was interested in Lyly as an early novelist and playwright whose work had an unusually wide cultural reach: he’s the most frequently reprinted English literary figure of his time, and he is described as changing the English language, not only in literary composition but even in everyday conversation (and we can see evidence for the latter in the plays of his later contemporaries). Trying to write about these matters (and tackle the fact that this very popular writer then became vilified in the nineteenth century and is not well-known today), I wanted to know more about the literary and theatrical culture in which Lyly grew up and began to write, as well as to understand better what it means to be a literary best-seller, and how we might define such a thing. That latter question resulted in an edited collection, The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England, edited with Emma Smith and featuring a great essay by Lucy Munro, but it’s the first question, this desire to understand better the literary context of the 1560s, ‘70s and ‘80s, that has lead to the Before Shakespeare project. So I’m always telling my postgrads to keep an eye out for the questions that lie just beyond their PhD work, those questions that can’t be answered now but which frame everything else you’re doing, because the unanswered research questions of the current project may one day become the central questions of your next piece of work. That’s not the only way to develop research after a PhD, of course, but I hope it’s helpful to your readers to see one way to do it.

Drs. Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Lucy Munro of the “Before Shakespeare” project will speak at the Masonic Building’s 5th floor on 13 West Beverley St on Friday March 31st 2017 from 4-5 PM.

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