- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 521-522
[Access article in PDF]
The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare's England:
A Collaborative Debate
The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare's England: A Collaborative Debate. Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001; pp. 215. $54.95 cloth.
It is tempting, as a theatre studies scholar, to be more than a little grumpy about the centrality, still, of Shakespeare and his plays as the subject of books published in our field each year. There is an overproduction of textual analysis and criticism of Shakespeare's corpus, and consideration of performance aspects of the plays remains at best a subset of dominant critical interests. Yet, scholarship in Shakespeare studies is relentlessly vibrant and challenging so that theatre scholars neglect its developments at our collective peril. It is in this context that the innovative format and performance subject of Anthony Dawson and Paul Yachnin's The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare's England: A Collaborative Debate should be appreciated. The two authors start from quite different theoretical perspectives—Dawson as "a theatre historian and practitioner" and Yachnin as a "neo-Marxist" (2)—but with a common goal: "to locate the theatre within a number of different cultural domains in an effort to understand theatrical experience in historical terms" (1). At the heart of the project is their mutual interest in how theatrical pleasure is constructed and experienced.
Since their approaches are radically dissimilar, the authors decided on an unusual arrangement that is worth some elaboration here. The book is divided into four parts, framed by a jointly written introduction and afterword. Each part has two chapters, and each author writes one of the two chapters. In order to provoke the kind of dialogic impulse the authors seek for their project, the eight chapters follow a particular sequence. In the first four chapters (parts one and two), Dawson gets to frame and conclude (that is, chapters one and four) [End Page 521] with Yachnin writing the two middle chapters. This order is reversed for the latter half (Yachnin with chapters five and eight, Dawson with chapters six and seven). How this works can be illustrated by way of part one in the book. Dawson opens the debate with his "Performance and Participation," a chapter that pays particular attention to how "theology represents one important node in the cultural network, and. . . that the theatre's construction of personhood and invocation of participation were contingent on its being embedded within Protestant culture" (29). Yachnin in response insists that theatre must be read in its context of the entertainment market and far from the sphere of theological controversies. To make his case Yachnin establishes a notion of "'the populuxe market,' an area of trade that centered on the selling of popular, relatively inexpensive versions of deluxe goods" (40), drawing the concept of "populuxe" from a historian of eighteenth-century France, Cissie Fairchilds. Yachnin suggests that "the populuxe theatre's commodification of social prestige" (41) was crucial to the development of drama and its appeal to audiences. The book's debate structure is further enhanced by frequent cross-references to each other's arguments. In this way, the reader is summoned to join in the discussion—perhaps to take sides with one or the other writer or, better still and in tune with, the authors' mutual dislike of "univocal kinds of criticism" (209), to add yet another perspective to the broad debate.
This volume has several strengths in addressing theatre scholars in general and Shakespeare-in-performance scholars in particular. The rich examples chosen from many of the Shakespearean plays (as well as some by other contemporary authors) offer some fascinating points of entry into individual texts and could work well as the basis for classroom discussion. Moreover, the book provides, as appropriate, distillations of various critical positions and questions (for example, there is a careful account in pages 31-36 of the debates concerning boy actors). And I particularly admired the book's commitment to the cultural concerns around playgoing and its attempts to think...