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Reviewed by:
  • A New History of Early English Drama
  • Odai Johnson
A New History of Early English Drama. By John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, editors. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997; pp. xiv + 560. $49.50 cloth, $25.00 paper.

The influence of Stephen Greenblatt on the field of English Renaissance studies has marked an entire generation of scholars. Indeed Greenblatt—whose foreword stamps the collection—still offers a fine illustration of the complexity of the field with an opening image of Pieter Bruegel’s painting Children’s Games. This painting, writes Greenblatt, “contains many of the basic motifs of early English drama. . . . So many and various are the figures, so fragmentary and multifaceted the represented actions, that it would be virtually impossible to give a single, coherent account of what is happening” (xiii). In the painting’s play fights and tinseled crowns, Greenblatt finds a metaphor that reminds us that theatre is indeed only one game in a wide and rich field of play. “The artist seems to invite us to imagine a space, to attend to the peripheries as well as the center, to understand the complexity of the activities that go on within its confines, and to think about the institutions—church, inns, market stalls, and so forth—that frame these activities” (xiv). This attention to the “peripheries as well as the center” makes A New History of Early English Drama a useful work.

This twenty-five essay collection about English theatre and theatre culture for the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is divided into three sections: “Physical Space”; “Social Space”; and “Conditions of Performance and Publication.” Within these arenas an impressive panel of contributors—including Michael Bristol, Ann Jennalie Cook, Richard Dutton, Kathleen McLuskie—map a highly detailed “deep culture” read that ultimately positions the business of playing as one of the many forms of theatre in a culture of play, performance, authority and spectacle.

The first section features articles largely concerned with theatrical spaces. Though many of the subjects are familiar, what marks this history as “new history” is the positioning of its subject. The Oxford and Cambridge University stages, household occasional drama, the church as a theatrical space, as well as streets, fairs and markets, all stand alone, each receiving critical attention that is refreshingly unconcerned with the greater market of the public theatres. Only one essay in the first section, John Orrell’s “The Theatres,” deals directly with the theatres. It is just this ratio of playhouse to culture that gives the English stage its characteristic complexity.

In the second section, “Social Spaces,” the theatre again recedes into the web of wider and intersecting spheres: court culture, print culture, religious, domestic, civic, popular. Only in the final section does the actual business of playing emerge, with essays on touring schedules, costume practices, personnel, audiences, patronage, censorship, script revision, repertory, etcetera. These articles treat the theatre as one form of performance in a far wider, and infinitely more complex culture.

There is also much about the collection that is good old-fashioned scholarship, such as Roslyn Knutson’s repertory analysis, or Peter Blayney’s “The Publication of Playbooks.” What is new and remarkable about the collection is the backgrounding of the subject in a cluttered canvas whose genealogy is so extensive that even rather dominant playwrights recede. This backgrounding plays out in a no more telling way than the largely absent figure of Shakespeare. A brief survey of the index reveals more textual attention given to Philip Henslowe and Sir Thomas Bodley (a collector of plays) than to Shakespeare.

Indeed, the work is at its best when it is not self-consciously “new.” The essays on costuming, censorship, relations to space, print and popular culture work better than the occasional deconstructions of mid-century Shakespearean scholarship, whose critiques are often unaccompanied by the acknowledgment of the magnitude of the original contribution. Nonetheless, the work is a major collection and an exciting volume that invites us “to attend to the peripheries as well as the center.”

Odai Johnson
University of Washington

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