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Renaissance and/or Early Modern Drama and/or Theater and/or Performance: A Dialogue

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 19-28 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0018

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When we were invited to muse about the state of the field, we thought it would be interesting to take these questions up as a dialogue; Barbara agreed to take the first swing at the questions, and Bill then to reply in what we hoped would not turn into a mise en abyme of commentary. Although the “dialogue” itself is a kind of fiction—we wrote back and forth, and forth and back—we’ve tried to preserve some of its flavor here. We so hate talking to one another, after all.


Will’s invitation describes Renaissance Drama as “the annual publication on the institutions of theater and the cultures of performance in early modern Europe,” mentioning also its predecessor journal, Opportunities for Research in Renaissance Drama (which I recall consulting long ago as a graduate student). Given how this description sorts with my interests, I should be reading RD faithfully, and yet I have not been. Wondering why, and being surprised that RD was not online (thus less easily accessible than other journals in the field), I went to the library: after browsing the last ten issues, I checked out RD 35 (2006), dedicated to “Embodiment and Environment in Early Modern Drama and Performance,” edited by Mary Floyd Wilson and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. Each essay in this volume teases out fascinating insights; each also mines the plays for evidence (or evidentiary hints) about early modern performances and how they may have been perceived by auditors/ spectators. I certainly learned a lot. Then it struck me that the models of early modern performance these essays constructed were models of desired performance that relied heavily on textual evidence. Indeed, the dominant paradigm involved imagining that the (early modern) performance was, somehow, located “in” the text. What, I wondered, would any of these essays look like had it taken up a gaze that began with and on the material theater? Did these writers share what Will West referred to as the “practical but productive indefinition under which we carry out our research and publish [in] Renaissance Drama?” And would beginning from a position closer to early modern theater practices generate more clarity, more definition? Or does talking about the institutions of theater and the cultures of performance always take place in an indefinite half-light? And what, exactly, does “cultures of performance” mean or include?


It’s always about desire, isn’t it? I’m sitting here in front of my terminal in rainy Berlin, envious of your trip to the stacks. You’re right of course that Renaissance Drama seems marked by the era of its origins, framing drama as a more or less exclusively written, textual, literary thing that stands in a magisterial relation to the institutions of its use. The assumptions are striking: would anyone say today that we could reverse-engineer the contemporary theater from the text of, say, Waiting for Godot or The Balcony, let alone Hamletmachine or The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World? I don’t happen to think, as critics as divergent as John Russell Brown and Hans-Thies Lehmann seem to, that the relationship between dramatic writing and the institutions and practices of performance is a constant one, either that “the theater” is a privileged and unchanging instrument for insight into or expression of the drama or that from the Greeks to the present the dramatic expresses a single and continuous “discourse” that has been decanted—admittedly in various styles of performance—to the stage in the same ways. Indeed, I wonder whether contemporary theater practice—in which, postdramatically enough, the text’s mimesis is not taken to govern the work of production—might lead us to estrange our assumptions about the necessary relation between text and performance, in ways that might lead to fresh takes on the material practices of theater itself.


Talk about desire! Fresh takes. Isn’t that, in part, what we’re all after? Looking at how studying Renaissance drama and/or early modern performance has changed, perhaps the most obvious move has been from text to context, from close reading to New Historicism and Cultural...

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