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  • Inside Shakespeare: Essays on the Blackfriars Stage
  • Janette Dillon (bio)
Inside Shakespeare: Essays on the Blackfriars Stage. Edited by Paul Menzer . Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 2006. Illus. Pp. 244. $52.50 cloth.

In September 2001, a reconstruction of the Blackfriars theater opened in Staunton, Virginia. At the invitation of the Shenandoah Shakespeare's American Shakespeare Center, an inaugural conference was hosted in October 2001 and a follow-up conference was held in October 2003. This volume represents a selection of papers from those two conferences; but as such they are a disappointing collection, since relatively few of them focus on the Blackfriars theater, old or new. The collection opens well, with a full, clear, and succinct historical overview of the London Blackfriars playhouse by Andrew Gurr, which is a model of its kind. The absence of any similar summary account of the theater space, however, is a notable omission, and it is a pity that such a summary was not commissioned if the conferences [End Page 117] did not produce it. Two books on the reconstructed Globe theater in London come to mind, which do very different and important jobs that this collection fails to do: Shakespeare's Globe Rebuilt, edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (1997), and Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe, by Pauline Kiernan (1999). The first, an essay collection, discusses various aspects of the decisions underpinning the reconstructed Globe, while the second presents views on the experience of staging plays there, based on a mixture of observation and discussions with actors. Paul Menzer's afterword to the present Blackfriars collection raises the importance of both these approaches while, curiously, ignoring that the collection he has edited does not address either of them. Reconstructions of early theaters, he rightly notes, "are touchy subjects for many Shakespeareans" (224); while part of their value is certainly as a testing ground for preconceptions about how plays were and can be staged, those using the space for such ends must avoid both "vague invocations of 'what works'" (225) and the pseudoempirical discourse of hard science. The important questions are simple, Menzer argues: "What counts as evidence? And what is it evidence of?" (227). These are certainly the important questions that scholars interested in the new Blackfriars would want to consider, but they will not find any exploration of them here.

In the introduction, Menzer and Ralph Alan Cohen (cofounder of the American Shakespeare Center) formulate the driving question of the conferences: "What kind of 'imaginative space' can we construct for the Blackfriars to approach the subjective experience of playgoing in Shakespeare's London?" (12). This too is an important question, and one which is addressed by several of the essays. Essays are categorized under two headings: "The Blackfriars Playhouse and the Indoor Stage" and "Plays and Playing." The first section contains some interesting essays on important aspects of the early theater and how it fitted into the changing urban environment of early modern London, although the very variable length of the essays (ranging from five to twenty-five pages) produces a somewhat uneven reading experience, with some essays insufficiently substantive to be suitable for publication. The second section, mostly made up of very short studies, has little to do with the Blackfriars or with indoor theaters. Except for John R. Ford's essay, which makes some reference to directing scenes from Twelfth Night in the new Staunton Blackfriars, those pieces are not based on the experience of directing either in the reconstructed Blackfriars (as one might expect by the time of the second conference) or in any similar small indoor theater, so the reflections they contain are in no way specific to the question of what a reconstructed theater might help us to learn about matters of staging. Even the plays selected for staging—Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and King Lear—were all written before the King's Men began to use the Blackfriars and were not (with the possible exception of A Midsummer Night's Dream, if it was commissioned for a wedding) written with any kind of indoor staging in mind. In addition to Ford's essay, Walter...


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