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Reviews John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, eds. A New History of Early English Drama. Foreword by Stephen J. Greenblatt. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv + 565. $49.50 (casebound ); $25.00 (paperbound). This collection of twenty-six essays will prove to be indispensable reading for students of early English drama. Nevertheless, it will also disappoint two kinds of readers. First, those who come to this volume expecting a history in the sense of a systematic narrative tracing the chronological development of genres and performance practices will find instead a reference work consisting of autonomous blocks devoted to the social and material conditions that constitute the "body" of early English theater. Second, readers who define drama studies in strictly literary terms, that is to say, as the analysis of individually authored texts with respect to their distinctive formal and thematic qualities, will find essays that aspire to "dislodge authors and scripts from the center of dramatic history" (5). But for those who seek an introduction to the physical, economic, and ideological forces that shaped the many ways in which early drama was performed, apprehended, and preserved, this book will prove to be an invaluable companion. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan have gathered essays that are informative but not pedantic, provocative but not tendentious, insightful but not idiosyncratic, mindful of recent developments in critical theory but not willfully hermetic. In a brief foreword, Stephen J. Greenblatt declares that the notion of history that defines the volume is one that eschews unitary and hence reductive explanations of the bewildering array of phenomena that constitute theatrical experience. The volume thus intentionally "forgoes the satisfaction of linear narrative and literary triumphalism in order to present a more capacious, confusing, and complex picture of early drama" (xiii). The editors stress that their work has been made necessary by recent theoretical projects that have redirected attention from authors as the "solitary producers and sole proprietors ofmeaning" to the volatile social matrix within which plays are produced, disseminated, and understood (1). Nevertheless, one ofthe most refreshing qualities of this anthology is that so many of the contributors make good on the editors' promise to practice a new form of historical contextualization that avoids infatuation with theory for its own sake. Instead, the goal is to "respond to the challenges [of literary theory] by producing not more theory but more facts . . . that will illuminate the historical conditions in which early drama was written, per581 582Comparative Drama formed, read, published, and interpreted" (2). The editors are also to be congratulated for adopting the term early to refer to the entire period from the beginnings of dramatic activity in England until the closing of the theaters in 1642. In intent if not always in practice, A New History ofEarly English Drama seeks to elide the artificial boundary between the "Middle Ages" and the "Renaissance," a distinction that both legitimizes the sixteenth century's bias against its own prehistory and also obscures crucial historical continuities. Cox and Kastan organize the contributions into three categories, each of which emphasizes a different aspect of the material and cultural foundations of the theater. Part 1, "Early English Drama and Physical Space," includes seven essays describing the physical layout and social significance of traditional playing areas. John M. Wasson discusses the use of churches by both amateur actors and traveling professionals. Evidence compiled by the Records of Early English Drama project demonstrates that despite the repeated objections ofbishops, more than halfof all known vernacular plays from the period before 1642 were performed in sanctuaries and churchyards. One might quibble that Wasson reaches too far by including the twelfth-century Ludus Danielis, since investigations by Wulf ArIt, Margot Fassler, and Richard Emmerson anchor the play in the liturgical and political life of Beauvais cathedral. But Wasson 's survey of English parish performances rightly concludes that "drama did not necessarily pass from the church to the marketplace and elsewhere; that it did not develop in any chronological order from clergy to folk to professional actors; and that clerical, folk, and professional actors existed together throughout the time period under consideration " (35). Suzanne Westfall sheds new light on another field typically neglected by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 581-586
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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