- Children of the Queen’s Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory
This is a strong, well-written contribution to a genre of books on early theater, which consider particular playing companies in relation to the plays we know they produced and in which theater history and dramatic criticism productively interact. Recent works of this kind have dealt with the adult troupes of the Queen's Men of 1583 and thereafter and, inevitably, with the Chamberlain's/King's Men; Munro's is the first substantial examination of a children's troupe since the work of Michael Shapiro and Reaveley Gair, nearly thirty years ago. The players she studies were the "little eyases" (13) of Hamlet, and for a decade or so they provided some lively competition in the more sophisticated and socially elevated sector of the London theatrical market. [End Page 110]
The book is organized in four chapters, with an introduction, a brief conclusion, and a series of useful appendices covering the repertory, the company's personnel, and what is known about particular occasional performances at court and elsewhere. Three of the four chapters deal with dramatic genres, so that the substance of the book's argument has to do with the company's artistic management, how the plays produced at the Blackfriars and Whitefriars playhouses between 1603 and 1613 set the pace for experimentation and innovation, and how, in R. A. Foakes's phrase, the company threw down its "challenge to the adult stage."1
The company attracted remarkable playwrights and owned some remarkable plays. John Marston, Samuel Daniel, and Robert Daborne were all involved in the company's business. The thirty-eight plays identified by Munro that constitute the surviving repertory include Bussy D'Ambois, The Malcontent, Eastward Ho, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and Epicœne. Wit, cleverness, and daring mark numerous plays, and it has frequently been suggested that the boys' performances, partly as a result of miniaturization, were more parodic and tongue-in-cheek than those of their adult counterparts. Munro wisely avoids attempting to recover the irrecoverable, but she does tell the reader enough to deflect the easy assumption that watching children's companies must have been like going to a school play, with concomitant allowances for talent and enthusiasm, for reach over grasp. Some Elizabethan performances may have matched this rough description; but by the time of Epicœne, the star performer of the troupe, Nathan Field, was in his early twenties, as were several of his colleagues (40). There is nothing quite like the quality of gifted performers at the beginning of their maturity, and it seems entirely likely that audiences attending Whitefriars saw some astonishing acting.
One question to which Munro might have given rather more attention is what kind of commercial enterprise the Queen's Revels was, in relation to its competitors. Henslowe's records for the Admiral's and Worcester's Men indicate that new plays entered the repertory at least once a month; in an annual playing season a company would need between ten and twenty new plays, in addition to revivals of old material. The figures given by Munro show an average of three new plays each year for the Queen's Revels, so that we may ask whether the company played only occasionally or played a restricted season or how complete a theatrical repertory surviving published plays may represent. We are well aware of how little of the Admiral's extensive repertory now survives or was ever printed and of how little we know of the now-vanished plays his troupe must have produced in Shakespeare's working lifetime. The answers to such questions are probably also irrecoverable but precisely affect the completeness of a narrative told on the basis of surviving texts.
Assuming we might have something approaching the whole story, Munro demonstrates that the special nature of the company lay particularly in the kinds of play chosen or provided for production. The repertory's center was that mongrel genre...