- The Devil’s House, “or worse”: Transversal Power and Antitheatrical Discourse in Early Modern England
Globes make my head spin. By the time I locate the place, they’ve changed the boundaries.—Marshall McLuhan 1
Recent work on early modern England’s public theatre has been preoccupied with the politics of the drama. 2 Central to this preoccupation is whether particular plays were either critical, subversive or supportive of the government and the dominant systems of belief. This is usually determined through an analysis of the plays, especially of how the play-texts might have been interpreted during the period, and by measuring responses to them by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, the Master of the Revels, the Privy Council, the monarch, and members of the Court. 3 While this essay is also interested in political issues related to the public theatre, it is for the most part not concerned with the drama (the actual plays and their plots that were performed) but with the theatre—the mode of theatrical presentation and its conceptual and material influence on the social world in which the public theatre operated. I am also not particularly concerned with the surreptitiously articulated or openly stated intentions that informed the public theatre and its drama. I have found [End Page 143] that the best way to examine this sociopolitical role of the theatre is by evaluating responses to it in the period’s high-profile antitheatrical debate and in other discourses, like those on the London fashion of female-to-male transvestism, which do not focus on or deal explicitly with any aspect of the public theatre. This examination has led me to discover an important contradiction, the implications of which I hope to explain by the end of this essay.
This contradiction is epitomized by three passages that would be familiar to anyone reading today’s studies on cross-dressing and homoeroticism in early modern England. Published over a thirty-two-year period, the passages are from three representative antitheatricalist polemics: cultural chronicler Phillip Stubbes’s The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), renowned Oxford scholar John Rainoldes’s Th’ Overthrow of Stage-Playes (1600), and Cambridge scholar John Greene’s A Refutation of the Apology for Actors (1615). Here, first, is Stubbes:
Than, these goodly pageants being done, euery mate sorts to his mate, euery one bringes another homeward of their way verye freendly, and in their secret conclaues (couertly) they play the Sodomits, or worse. And these be the fruits of plays and Enterluds for the most part. 4
For Rainoldes, stage-plays must be “cutt off” “sooner” than later because they are the “means and occasions whereby men are transformed into dogges, the sooner, to cutt off all incitementes to that beastlie filthines, or rather more than beastlie.” 5 Greene returns to Stubbes:
Then these goodly pageants being done, euery one sorteth to his mate, each bring another home-ward of their way: then begin they to repeate the lasciuious acts and speeches they haue heard, and thereby infect their minde with wicked passions, so that in their secret conclaues they play the Sodomite, or worse. And these for the most part are the fruits of Plays. 6
Greene probably plagiarized from Stubbes, but this very plagiarism indicates how much Greene thought Stubbes’s censure still accurate; the issues had not changed in the span of thirty-two years. Rainoldes’s assertion, similar to theirs thematically and structurally, helps to put their logic into perspective.
The three polemicists use of “or worse” and “or rather more than beastlie” is problematic and warrants investigation; these terms suggest a transcendence of the idea pervasive in these and all early modern antitheatrical tracts that social identity is predetermined and fixed within a God-ordained hierarchy. The “or worse” and “or rather more than beastlie” point to the dangerous possibility of other immoral, heretical or supernatural supplements, and in effect signify one or more possible practices or identities alternative to those identifiable and namable. The question, then, is what propelled these learned thinkers and devoted moralists to transgress conceptually the Anglican ideology that they purportedly represent? [End Page 144]