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Theater 30.3 (2000) 128-131

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Space Wars

Joseph Roach

Theatre, Court, and City, 1595-1610: Drama and Social Space in London. by Janette Dillon. 2000: Cambridge University Press

IMAGE LINK= Even if all the world were not a stage, the early modern city would suffice. In Janette Dillon's absorbing study of the theatrical reorganization of social space in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean London, the city emerges as a renovated physical stage on which actors from the court and commodity exchanges, inspired by the professionals on the boards of the newly constructed playhouses, modernized their designated roles. They performed as a new class of consumer, not only purchasing an increasing variety of luxury goods but also buying experience itself in the form of commercialized leisure. By reading a small group of generally [End Page 128] neglected plays closely, Dillon shows how the different kinds of spectacle that flourished in newly constructed public spaces transformed the competitive life of aristocrat and merchant alike, "doing the same kind of ideological work, seeking to disguise unacceptable truths as material for celebration." Theatre, Court, and City focuses on two of these spaces in particular: first, the "purpose-built" playhouses (like the Theatre and the Globe) and adaptive-use indoor theaters (like Blackfriars) that sprang up in the "Liberties of London" from the 1570s onward; and, second, the shopping-mall-like "exchanges," namely, Sir Thomas Gresham's Royal Exchange (1566-68), followed by Sir Robert Cecil's New Exchange (1609). Mapping an urbanized culture of competing performances on these early modern landmarks, Theatre, Court, and City promises to account for what Dillon calls the "inextricably symbiotic relationship" between two "worlds apart"--the City of London and the Court.

Dillon's keyword is space. Drawing freely on Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space (1991), she argues that the boundaries of the city existed as subjective frontiers negotiated by performances of various kinds. By 1595-1610, according to this interpretation, such permeability had come to define even the City of London, which still remained both a geographical location at least symbolically defined by ancient walls and a complex of historic attributes defined by civic ritual. Permeability also marked the Court, which was increasingly both a physical site (in Whitehall and the emerging "Town") and a set of appropriable attitudes and practices. Standing between them, Dillon argues, reflecting and provoking them both as in a two-faced hyperbolic mirror, were the new professional theaters and commercial ex-changes. Like the historic Liberties on the outskirts of the city and in odd patches of ground within it (unregulated by city authorities), the theaters and the exchanges occasioned the most compelling performance of commercialized leisure--shopping.

Cecil's New Exchange, in particular, grew up in the liminal social space--at once real and symbolic, like the Liberties--between the City and the Court. Seeking to build on the success and excitement of the Royal Exchange located within the old City walls and correctly forecasting the westward movement of fashionable residential life along the Strand toward Westminster, Cecil employed Ben Jonson to write and Inigo Jones to design a masquelike entertainment, Britain's Burse, which welcomed King James I as the celebrity ribbon cutter at the grand opening of the New Exchange in 1609. In the same year the similarity of theater and exchange struck the playwright Thomas Dekker: "The Theater is your Poets Royal Exchange upon which, their Muses (that are now turned to Merchants) meeting, barter away that light commodity of words." The connection between the exchanges and the modern department store or suburban shopping mall is [End Page 129] one that Dillon does not develop (she remains mostly focused on her time period), but she does document the calculated situation of the New Exchange as "part of the design to appeal to a shopping elite, resident in the court, the Inns of Court and the fashionable houses beginning to spring up west of the city." By the second half of the seventeenth century, this neighborhood had become the combined theater-market district of the Strand and Covent Garden--the teeming locus of the socially produced...


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pp. 128-131
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Archived 2005
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