- Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage
In seven lucid and tightly-argued chapters, Peter Hyland in Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage considers from a variety of angles the device of disguise, a theatrical convention more popular in the early modern period "than at any time since" (15). While there are stand-alone books on disguise, for example Michael Shapiro's stimulating account of the female page in Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage (1995) and Victor Freeburg's still-useful Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama (1915), there is no sustained exploration of the performance of disguise that also investigates the broader reasons why this convention so strongly appealed to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century audiences. Hyland distinguishes his own approach from that of other critics as follows: "Rather than looking at disguise they have looked through it; in seeking to find what disguise means they have generally ignored what it is or does, or how it is seen" (11). Indeed, that throughout the book Hyland treats seriously the "play" aspect of playing without ever subordinating theatricality to literary or historical concerns means this work should be of significant interest to theatre practitioners as well as to scholars.
Freely acknowledging the "many things we do not really know about early modern performance," Hyland nevertheless convincingly illuminates a "theatrical culture that is distant from our own" via the close reading of early modern plays that are now rarely if ever studied, let alone performed (2; 15). For Hyland, our "disproportionate" focus on Shakespeare, whose works "do not fully reflect the diversity and vitality of disguise plays, or the extent of the fascination they apparently held for their audiences," has been a significant obstacle (5). I consider his careful attention to plays considered marginal to be the book's greatest strength, and Hyland includes such "phenomenally popular" but relatively unknown plays as John a Kent and John a Cumber, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria and Look About You for consideration alongside more canonical works by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton (33).
The book's first two chapters thus paint a far richer picture of early modern theatrical culture from 1576-1642 than is typical. This date range allows him to note how key conventions change over time; for example, he suggests that by the Caroline period, the figure of the multi-disguiser acts with "benevolent or recuperative" intentions, whereas in the Jacobean period multi-disguisers are [End Page 233] often criminal tricksters like Face in The Alchemist (19). He dates the first instances of disguises that dupe the audience as well as the onstage characters to 1609, with Ben Jonson's girl who turns out to be a boy in Epicoene and Beaumont and Fletcher's boy who turns out to be a girl in Philaster. From this point on a number of plays adopt the device of the surprise disguise, although as Hyland observes, once familiar with the potential for disguises to trick the audience, the savvy theatregoer might well come to anticipate such coup de théâtre revelations of "true" identities.
Hyland's next two chapters treat both the practical issues raised by early modern theatrical disguising and the management of the "revelation" moment when a disguise is deliberately—or ineptly, reluctantly, or accidentally—discarded. Suggesting that "it was the company, and not the playwright, that was the real creator of theatrical texts," Hyland argues that the device of disguise was an important vehicle for actorly virtuosity (12). Hyland speculates that the multi-disguise plays especially popular in the early 1600s were probably written to feature actors particularly skilled at impersonation, for example Edward Alleyn, who takes on a number of roles in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria including one that parodies his own famous performance as Tamburlaine. Actors performed changes of identity by altering their gait, voice, or accent and by donning or doffing such prosthetic additions as cloaks, masks, beards, patches, and hoods. Since many of these changes had to be performed quickly—sometimes offstage, sometimes in full view of the audience—the more handily detachable...