- Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England by Ellen MacKay
Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Fugitive Histories of the Stage in Early Modern England examines the long history of disaster in the English Renaissance playhouse. Ellen MacKay argues that the various disasters that afflicted the English theatre during this period were no accident but were an anticipated end to a practice built on disappearance and destruction. She reveals how the Elizabethan playwrights added plague and punishment to their preoccupation with 'soundrie slaughters and mayheminges of the Quenes subject' caused by 'engynes, weapons, and powers used in plays' (p. 11).
The catastrophes that led to the demise of English Renaissance theatre were persecution, particularly by the Puritans, plague which decimated the theatres' audience, and fire that destroyed the theatres' buildings. Each disaster seemed to offer a metaphor that gestured towards a decline in the influence and effectiveness of the theatre. Fire was the most absolute of the theatres' practices of obliteration and the number of theatrical fires - such as those that destroyed the Paris Garden, the Globe, the Fortune, and Whitehall in the Renaissance and Restoration - suggests that theatre buildings were particularly vulnerable. But these structures were never built for longevity and were under constant change and repair.
There is very little documentation that surrounds the early theatre and MacKay does not add to it but instead builds her argument on well-known material, from theatre scholars such as E. K. Chambers and A. M. Naglar, and from collected anecdotes, such as that related in a letter from the English courtier Philip Gawdy to his father in 1587. From Gawdy's anecdote - a [End Page 276] mother and baby in the audience were shot and killed by an actor on stage whose gun was loaded with live ammunition - she claims that although there is no such thing as theatre history before Richard Flecknoe's Short Treatise of the English Stage in 1664 'it is certainly not the case that there was no such think as theatre history in the age of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and their cohort' (p. 3), the 'golden age' of early modern theatre. Gawdy's anecdote reveals the long-standing tendency for stoppage and loss; it also was a fulfilment of the early modern England's anti-theatrical prejudices of the time.
The end of the 'golden age' came with the eventual closure of the theatres by Oliver Cromwell in 1642, the ultimate anti-theatrical act. Seven years after these closures, William Prynne lamented the removal of the players from the theatres claiming that the wicked and tyrannical army of Cromwell had acted inhumanly, cruelly, roughly, and in a barbarous manner.
MacKay points to the difference 'between the unresolved nature of the theatre that comes down to us and the history made of it' (p. 196). Both pro- and anti-theatre critics agreed that the theatre could not remove guilt or impress faith; it could not make judgements for either man or God. The re-enactment of crimes on stage could prompt an impulsive confession or some acknowledgement of their offence from anyone in the audience who witnessed their own crime. Although in Hamlet the play-within-a-play established the evidence of Claudius's guilt, MacKay suggests that by using a play-within-a-play, Shakespeare was challenging the effectiveness of such a device for detection, and that he was undermining the moral claims of the theatre. The foisting of this role of judgemental advocate onto the theatre only led it further down the path of disaster.
Persecution, Plague, and Fire is an immensely interesting book but it has problems. First, it is by no means an easy read. The language can be dense and unnecessarily complex, making it difficult to follow. In many cases the analysis does not stand up to close scrutiny, particularly 'think as theatre history' which appears to rely on the anecdotes rather than the facts that stimulated...