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Reviewed by:
  • Documents of Performance in Early Modern England
  • C. E. McGee (bio)
Documents of Performance in Early Modern England. By Tiffany Stern. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 362. $95.00 cloth.

Documents of Performance in Early Modern England is an important and fascinating book. Taking as her starting point the uncomplimentary characterizations of playwrights as "'play-patchers'" and "'Cobler[s] of Poetrie'" (1), Tiffany Stern observes that these disparaging terms of reference accurately registered the patchiness of the writing and production of plays in early modern English theaters. The various textual fragments that led to, and through, the performance of a play—each fragment having "a separate home, a separate circulation and, as often as not, a separate writer" (3)—include plot scenarios, playbills, arguments, prologues and epilogues, interim entertainments, songs and masques, scrolls, backstage plots, actors' parts, and the approved "book" (itself only one of four possible copies of the full text). Consisting of "chapters that hover between bibliography and theatre history" (4), Documents of Performance challenges many misconceptions and sheds new light on the personnel and practices of early modern theaters and on the fragmentary character of the texts they required, produced, used, and sometimes saw reproduced in print. What emerges is such a rich sense of the complex makeup of an early modern playtext that Documents of Performance is valuable reading for anyone interested in the editing or textual criticism of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The scarcity of the documents in question complicates the analysis of the specific "patches." From the early modern period, no playbills and only one "property letter for a 'staged' occasion" (186), two "arguments," five actor's parts, and seven backstage plots survive. As a result, Stern has to rely (and does so judiciously) on later playhouse procedures, continental materials, cognate forms (court masques or university productions), and analogous documents—no playbills before 1687 survive, but bills advertising bear-baiting, rope-dancing, a challenge, and a puppet show do. These analogues, along with what is said about playbills in a wide array of other sources, make for an intriguing argument about their content, graphic design, distribution, and residual traces on title pages.

When documents are extant, Stern inspects them closely for the bibliographic evidence they offer concerning performance. First, theater scrolls: evidence of them appears in manuscript and printed playtexts, which set off "the papers that are to be delivered onstage, such as letters, proclamations, bills, verses" (174) by the use of different fonts, quotation marks, large capitals, or marginalia. These features are not, Stern argues, a manifestation of the "'literising' of texts for the page," but signs [End Page 589] of "a would-be stage-property and sometimes a preserved one" (178-79). Generic headings like "the letter" or "a song" identified a passage to be copied in accordance with the font, layout, and other physical features (including ink color) the company desired. Such headings and directions around scrolls, rather than being aimed at the actors, were intended for the scribe(s) preparing scrolls and actors' parts. Second, backstage plots: their physical features—"carefully written," "ornately headed," and "mounted onto placards to be hung on a peg" or "when not in use, wrapped around their playbooks," with information about characters, entrances, and props carefully set off in boxes—were sturdy "public documents designed for performance-use" (209). Probably copied from dictation from the playbook, these plots were "a pooled selection of warnings for things to come" (231) in production; in tandem with the book, they helped the prompter to, as later theater professionals would say, "call the show." Like these "patches," the other documents examined offer glimpses of how the practicalities of producing plays shaped the textual fragments that remain.

Whereas backstage plots were likely "the last creation before performance" (227), another kind of plot may have been the first. The "plot-scenario" presented a list of the characters and a scene-by-scene summary of the story from which the play was to be written. Noting how frequently early modern writers distinguished plot from language, story from dialogue, Stern argues that the author of the scenario need not have been the author...


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pp. 589-591
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