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  • Capital Drama
  • Beatrice Groves (bio)
London in Early Modern English Drama: Representing the Built Environment by Darryll Grantley. Palgrave Macmillan. 2008. £50. ISBN 978 0 2305 5429 0

In a clear allusion to the boast of Elizabethan theatre's most famous besieger, Falconbridge in Thomas Heywood's 1 Edward IV (c.1599) [End Page 392] declares his intention to take London 'And ride in triumph thorough Cheap to Paul's'.1 A pair of abbreviated names replaces the syllabic complexity of Persia's capital as Tamburlaine's 'And ride in triumph through Persepolis' is relocated to London's streets.2 It is a moment that captures some of the complexity involved in the vogue for London-based plays which, as Darryll Grantley's London in Early Modern Drama shows, were performed with increasing frequency in the capital's playhouses from the late Elizabethan period onwards. The implicit allusion to Persia's ancient capital might be seen as an encomium to England's nascent metropolis, but the clipped familiarity of 'Cheap' and 'Paul's' cannot but sound bathetic compared to the aural magnificence of 'Persepolis'. Grantley notes that 'after the Elizabethan period, it is only comedies that are set in London' (p. 7): it is one of this book's many observations about London's place in the drama (such as the fact that Shakespeare and Marlowe are 'notable and curious exceptions' (p. 52) to the growing tendency to use London as a setting, or that private theatres rather than public ones were 'more often the first to offer plays with a strong interest in London' (p. 140)) which could be fruitfully pursued further.

London in Early Modern Drama charts the shifting perception of London from early Tudor to Caroline times, and makes a convincing argument for the importance of the establishment of the theatres in the evolution of this response. London-based plays performed in the capital invite the audience 'imaginatively into the terrain of dramatic action through the evocation of the urban environment that they inhabit' (p. 47) and thus increase both the 'theatrical vigour' (p. 188) of the plays and the audience's control over their interpretation by 'rendering the dramatic narratives more indiscriminately polysemic . . . through the vagaries of individual audience members' experiences of London's spaces' (p. 57). (It is perhaps in an attempt to control this interpretative freedom that so many Caroline plays were set in the areas of development between the City and Westminster: 'Since these localities were relatively new to Londoners themselves, the theatre was participating in the early experience of them along with the audience, and was able imaginatively to occupy and define them' (p. 145).) Before playhouses were established, London is an icon of sin in the drama, but with the advent of London-based commercial theatre the perception of the capital as a centre of vice is tempered by 'a pride in its power and a considerable [End Page 393] positive interest in the reality of the material environment' (p. 12). Grantley argues that this nationalistic pride in the metropolis becomes darker and more complex in Jacobean drama, and yet the implicit glorification of its citizens-in the wit and knowledge they display in negotiating their urban environment-becomes more pronounced. Caroline drama continues this 'celebration of the knowingness and vigour of metropolitan life' (p. 185), but 'shifts the emphasis of its ownership to a more restricted social group' (p. 12).

The strength of Grantley's work lies in his perception of both the continuities and the breaks in this evolving narrative. For example, against the general trend from metaphorical to concrete in theatrical setting (in the transition 'from the moralized geography of the earlier religious drama to the much greater tangibility of topography in the secular plays') Grantley notes that even in seventeenth-century plays 'there is some residual presence of mythic or quasi-mythic associations of place' (p. 13). When in Eastward Ho! the characters are wrecked in locations befitting their situations - Winifred (the unfaithful wife) near St Katherine's (a reformatory for fallen women), her husband Security at Cuckold's Haven, the reprobate Quicksilver near the gallows at Wapping and Sir Petronel Flash on the Isle of Dogs...


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pp. 392-397
Launched on MUSE
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