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William Poel’s 1927 Production of Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me
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William Poel’s 1927 Production of Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me1

On Sunday 10 July 1927, Samuel Rowley’s chronicle history play When You See Me, You Know Me was revived at the Holborn Empire in London under the auspices of William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Circle. First performed by Prince Henry’s Men at the Fortune Theatre in 1604, Rowley’s When You See Me boldly dramatized key events in the reign of King Henry VIII only months after the death of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, in March 1603.2 In particular, the play focuses on the birth and upbringing of the young Prince Edward, aspects of his father’s foreign policy, and the religious upheaval that has come to characterize the final period of King Henry’s reign. These more serious episodes in the play are complemented by comic passages in which the king’s fool, Will Summers, takes a leading role, challenging members of the royal court to engage in contests of witty rhyming banter. Other humorous episodes include the king’s disguised night-walk into London and the ensuing brawl between King Henry and notorious villain Black Will, which results in the king’s arrest. Both men are sent to the Counter prison, where King Henry revels in his own deceptive abilities. Here, as elsewhere in the play, the veracity of the play’s title – When You See Me, You Know Me – is called comically into question.

Although immensely popular in the early seventeenth century, judging by both the topicality of the play’s subject matter and the number of printed editions produced in the thirty-year period after its first performance (1605, 1613, 1621 and 1632), it seems that interest in the play diminished rapidly from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Indeed, the text of When You See Me was not revisited until 1874, with the publication of Karl Elze’s modern-spelling [End Page 19] edition, and there is no record of performance in either the eighteenth or the nineteenth centuries. Poel’s production of When You See Me thus marked an important stage in the history of the play’s transmission and reception, bringing it to life for what seems to have been the first time in over three hundred years.3

The aim of this article is twofold. While in the first instance it serves to illustrate some of the more significant characteristics of Poel’s 1927 production of When You See Me, including aspects of staging, performance and casting, it also seeks to determine why this particular play was chosen, how Poel adapted it for performance, and what effect this has had on contemporary scholarship into When You See Me and its author. More specifically, it examines Rowley’s play in light of the Prayer Book controversy of 1927-28, and suggests how the religious politics of this neglected Jacobean play came to find new and heightened resonance at this time. While Poel’s production was indeed spectacular, as evidenced in the following paragraphs, this article demonstrates how the performance was nevertheless antithetical to the play’s true merits. By silently cutting and altering When You See Me to a great extent, Poel gave a false impression of Rowley’s play – an impression that inadvertently yet severely tainted critical opinion in the late 1920s, and in all likelihood contributed to the play’s continued marginalisation well into the middle of the twentieth century.4

Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Circle was born out of the Elizabethan Stage Society, founded in 1894 with the intention of performing the plays of Shakespeare and a select number of his contemporaries much in the manner that they would have been staged in the early modern London theatres.5 In Shakespeare and the Theatre, Poel laid bare his intentions, stating that the aim of the Society was to revive “the masterpieces of the Elizabethan drama upon the stage for which they were written, so as to represent them as nearly as possible under the conditions existing at the time of their first production” (203-4).6 Such a statement also underlined Poel’s opposition towards contemporary nineteenth...