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Plays and Playcoats: A Courtly Interlude Tradition in Scotland?

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 475-496 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0041

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The reign of Henry VIII saw a flourishing of court drama in England. Recent critical interest has sharpened our awareness of the varied uses of theatricality at the Tudor court, from performance games and disguising through spectacular revels to more and less elaborately developed spoken plays. Henry’s personal interest in performance and his apparent readiness to accept drama as an instrument of debate as well as entertainment seem to have encouraged not only dramatic activity itself, but also the survival of evidence. This evidence suggests an increasing prominence of the courtly interlude through the first half of the sixteenth century: printers published texts from playwrights such as Skelton, Rastell, and Heywood while historical records and anecdotes, along with wardrobe accounts, point to a range of other interludes. Both texts and reports suggest that court theater became a recognized and at times highly developed mode of topical comment. This is a period when court drama played an important role in the assertion, celebration, and critique of royal power.1

If we turn away from Henry’s court and look north beyond the Tudor kingdom, what theatrical culture do we find in Scotland, England’s close but antagonistic neighbor? James IV’s marriage to Henry’s sister Margaret in 1503 had confirmed relations between the two countries and their monarchs as both intimate and conflicted. Both royal establishments acknowledged and exploited the consciously spectacular court culture of the early sixteenth century.2 So did the Stewart courts of James IV and James V support any kind of comparably lively and searching interlude culture? The question is hard to address, primarily because of the difficulty besetting any analysis of early drama in Scotland: the notorious lack of surviving pre-Reformation dramatic texts. Apart from a few fragments from quasi-dramatic games, we have only Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, and the two existing versions of that script document, not a court production but large-scale public, outdoor performances in the 1550s.3 Without scripts the search for a Scottish interlude tradition seems frustrated before it begins.

The picture is slightly less blank than this suggests, however. Lyndsay’s text is complemented by a detailed, vivid, and revealing eyewitness account of what is plainly a court interlude, played before the king and queen at Linlithgow on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1540 and widely taken to prefigure the Thrie Estaitis.4 Dramatizing the complaints of a poor man to a king and his parliament, the play addresses the corruption and oppression exercised by courtiers and, more especially, by the Church. Its vividly direct and immediate acknowledgment of topical events, of its courtly audience and of James V among the spectators, along with the king’s apparent knowledge and approval of its content and his use of the performance as a political tool, all mark this as similar in type to the English courtly interlude.5 Our knowledge of the play rests on a report passed to the English commander of Berwick, Sir Thomas Eure, as evidence of James V’s attitudes to Church reform.6 What can be detected of the play’s reception might indeed suggest that the political courtly interlude was by then a familiar form in Scotland. Eure, who sent details of the play to Thomas Cromwell in London, states without surprise: “thay have hade ane enterluyde played”—he is interested in the political content of the play, not by the fact of its performance. In Scotland there is no surviving notice of the interlude at all, and this very lack of any contemporary comment or reflection might imply that its performance was, in itself, nothing out of the ordinary. What the report certainly reveals is that in 1540 a confident and theatrically sophisticated political interlude was performed at James V’s court, apparently exciting no surprise. Might this suggest a developed but now lost tradition of court interludes in Scotland?

Apart from playtexts and contemporary descriptions, our chief source of evidence for all kinds of early performance comes from records of expenditure, that is, costs and payments. It therefore seems possible that the Scottish royal Treasurer’s Accounts, which survive in a fairly...



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