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The Play’s Not the Thing

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 37-45 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0003

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In 1973, when i contributed to Renaissance Drama, new series, volume 6, an essay called “Sir Amorous Knight and the Indecorous Romans; or, Plautus and Terence Play Court in the Renaissance,” there was no question that Renaissance Drama was just the venue for my essay. In 1973 (and even in 1975, when the volume was actually published, two years later) there was still such a thing as “The Renaissance.” “Drama” was no less definite. Like “The Renaissance,” “drama” was something you could point to: along with lyric poetry and the novel, it was a literary genre, not that nebulous affair waiting in the wings, “performance.” The chivalric and Ovidian trappings of early sixteenth-century productions of Plautus’s and Terence’s plays in Italy and England, the subject of my article, may have brought to light staging practices and audience sensibilities quite remote from what later ages would understand as “classicism,” but there was no doubting that “The Renaissance” and “drama” were substantial reference points, no less there than “Rome” and “London.”

Taken in hand today, a copy of Renaissance Drama, new series, volume 6, looks its age. The volume is elegantly printed, in letterpress, on heavy textured stock. Running your fingers over a page, you can feel the words as well as see them. Even in 1975, letterpress printing was a rarity, a nostalgic reminder of how books looked when they had been printed by hand. No doubt Northwestern University Press took pride in keeping the tradition going. Two years later, the next time an article of mine appeared in Renaissance Drama (“Landscape with Figures: The Three Realms of Queen Elizabeth’s Country-house Revels,” new series, volume 8), Northwestern University Press had become more practical. The stock was thinner and the printing was slick offset. There was nothing to feel. However charmingly retro the physical aspect of volume 6 may appear today, the contents looked ahead to the electronic age as well as backward to the Gutenberg age. In his preface, guest editor Alan Dessen commended the way several contributors (who included not only such established scholars as G. K. Hunter and Stanley J. Kahrl but also such young Turks as Gail Kern Paster and Catherine Belsey) were turning away from such tired pursuits as sources, antecedents, and influence toward new, more adventurous subjects such as the city as a site for ethical struggle in Roman comedy and in Middleton and Jonson (Paster), and vacillation in Seneca’s soliloquies as a representational mode that enabled internal deliberation and hence the illusion of psychological presence in the tragedies of Marlowe and Shakespeare (Belsey). More expected, by comparison, was Hunter’s argument that All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure show the influence of Shakespeare’s reading of Italian tragicomedies before such plays were adapted and put on the London stage. The comparatively unsophisticated state of criticism of medieval drama provided the leitmotif of Kahrl’s review article of books published since 1946 on the biblical cycle plays of fifteenth-and early sixteenth-century England. (V. A. Kolve’s The Play Called Corpus Christi [1966] is cited as the best and most influential of the lot.)

My own status in the volume I would rate as “Turk in training.” It was circa 1973 that my Georgetown colleague Mark Webb, who had earned a Ph.D. at Yale the same year I earned mine at the University of Rochester, casually asked over lunch, “Has it ever occurred to you that there may be no such thing as ‘essential humanity,’ that people in different times and different places are the products of their culture?” What!?!? Even in 1973, the idea must already have crossed the minds of my forwarding-thinking Rochester contemporaries Cary Nelson (who went on to write Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, 1997), Dianne Sadoff (Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates, 1994), and Leonard Tennenhouse (Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres, 1986). But not mine. (Gail Paster says she never heard the idea mentioned in a seminar at Yale, either, so I don’t feel so bad. I’m not sure where Mark got the notion. He was a modernist.)

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