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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 323-324

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Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama. By Jeremy Lopez. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; pp. 239. $60.00 cloth.

Drama of the early modern period continues to be the subject of a great deal of published criticism every year, yet much of this scholarship is still little interested in these plays as material generated for performance. Jeremy Lopez's book, however, is emphatically concerned with just that. His topic is the relationship between the conventions of performance and the audience's experience of them. He makes the assumption "that repetition in the commercial theatre is a good index of theatrical success: for a device to become conventional it must be functional and give pleasure" (4). And so the first half of his book provides an energetic discussion of what Lopez identifies as pervasive conventions—puns and wordplay, asides, exposition, echoes, disguise, incest, and excessive violence, among others. By paying especial attention to those conventions playwrights mobilized in order to elicit particular responses, Lopez argues that we will better understand the audiences of the period and what they enjoyed in the theatre.

The four chapters of part one cover a variety of stage conventions, each of which is liberally illustrated by reference both to many plays of the [End Page 323] period and to existing critical discussion of the same convention. Lopez often challenges—or at least modifies—traditional opinion by his insistence on how a convention would have worked (or not) on the stage rather than resorting to the more usual reliance on reading it from the page. Many of the instances he describes would be of much interest to theatre directors who stage plays from this period, since Lopez suggests how the convention might be organized in theatrical space so as to achieve its desired effects.

Part two of his book moves to generic conventions and, thus, the practices of tragedy and comedy, where Lopez strategically focuses on plays few of us would know well, if at all. His subject texts here are Soliman and Perseda (anon.), Sophonisba (John Marston), The Atheist's Tragedy (Cyril Tourneur)—his examples for discussion of tragedy—along with The Captain (Beaumont and Fletcher), How A Man May Choose A Good Wife from A Bad (anon., possibly Thomas Heywood), and Gallathea (John Lyly)—his examples for discussion of comedy. An explicit aim of Lopez's project is to go beyond the texts and playwrights usually taken as representative and, instead, to range much more widely through the period's extant plays: "I do not claim to be discovering new masterpieces or building a new canon, nor even to be establishing a new tradition of audience studies, but rather to be developing an approach to Renaissance drama that will give students of the drama a more accurate picture of the nature, variety, and scope of the drama than the massive Shakespeare text and criticism industry otherwise might" (7). What I admired most in his book was this determination to open up scholarship to a much more inclusive representation of the plays staged in the years investigated (1585-1616). A very few playwrights—most obviously, Shakespeare—have dominated our critical practice and this has affected how performance questions and interests about the early modern stage have come to be framed, if and when they arise at all. Lopez argues regarding Beaumont and Fletcher, for example, "I think they are more important for understanding Elizabethan and Jacobean comedy than anyone has yet given them credit for" (170) and he is right; like him, I am baffled by how we have more or less ignored so many plays by these undoubtedly successful playwrights. The quality of Lopez's close readings of little- or un- known plays could go a long way to inspiring a director to try something other than the usual early modern candidates for a university or other theatre repertoire. Here in this book, then, there is motivation for seeing the period anew, which is a benefit to period specialists, theatre generalists, and practitioners...


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