In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Editing for Performance or Documenting Performance?:Exploring the Relationship Between Early Modern Text and Clowning
  • Stephen Purcell

The complexity of the relationship between writing and performance on the early modern stage is particularly evident in its scenes of clowning. A performance tradition that relied upon a combination of scripted and unscripted speech, clowning resists documentation in printed form: indeed, printing turns it into something else entirely. As Richard Preiss has noted in his recent book on early modern clowning,

[a] playbook is not a performance: it is the retrospective fantasy of one, abstracted from the play’s synchronic and diachronic stage lives, privileging certain voices over others, retroactively framing playgoing as a continuous, monological, readerly experience.


It might be helpful to think of the printed record of clowning scenes (and indeed of early modern drama more broadly) along the lines of the “geological metaphor” used by Michael Keefer in his 2007 edition of the play to describe the 1616 text of Doctor Faustus: as “the product of distinct phases of sedimentation and partial subduction” (20). Unlike those of a geological specimen, of course, the layers of sedimentation in a printed text are impossible to separate from one another. The metaphor is nonetheless useful to describe the multiple processes of scripting, performing, transcribing, copying, remembering, rescripting and reperforming that underlie the composition of an early modern playbook.

In 2012, I undertook an exploration of the Doctor Faustus clown scenes in an open workshop with actors from The Pantaloons theater company. This was not an “excavation” of the text: there was no attempt to recover original practice. It was, rather, an attempt to gain an insight into the [End Page 5] structures underpinning such scenes, and to explore the ways in which layers of textual sedimentation might build up through a new process of scripting, improvisation, remembering, and rescripting. The workshop explored the differences between the clowning scenes of the two surviving texts of Doctor Faustus (1604 and 1616), and encouraged the actors to analyze the structure of one scene in particular before generating their own semi-improvised version of it. In order to approximate the process of memorial reconstruction and gain a practical sense of the differences between semi-improvised performance and textual accounts of it, I then asked the workshop audience to take notes and translate the resulting performance back into text. This article gives an overview of some of the ways in which the scene travelled through its various performative and textual forms, and speculates as to the relationship between clowning and text on the early modern stage and page.

The texts of Doctor Faustus bear the traces of the play’s early performance history. The 1616 text, or B-text, is considerably longer than the earlier version, containing 676 additional lines. Recent scholarship has tended to conclude that the 1604 A-text is probably closest to the version of the play that was performed towards the end of Marlowe’s life (c. 1588), and that the B-text represents William Birde and Samuel Rowley’s revised version (for which Philip Henslowe recorded a payment in 1602). The B-text alone includes such episodes as Faustus’s rescue of Saxon Bruno from the Pope (3.1), and the three-scene sequence in which the knight humiliated by Faustus in 4.1, here named Benvolio, plots a revenge that subsequently backfires (4.1, 4.2, 4.3).1 The B-text also features two additional comic scenes, in which the clowns meet the horse-courser who was earlier cozened by Faustus (4.5), and then return in the subsequent scene to be humiliated at the court of the Duke of Vanholt (4.6). Curiously, though, despite the B-text’s greater overall length, the first clown scene, 1.4, is longer in the A-text. This first scene stages the meeting between the play’s primary clown, Robin, and Faustus’s servant Wagner. Wagner’s lines are substantially similar in both texts, but the A-text’s Clown is much more verbose than his equivalent in B. The second clown scene, 2.2, features a similar scenario in both texts—Robin has stolen one of Faustus’s books, and...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 5-27
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.