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The Style of the Boy Actors Ejner J. Jensen O f the many vexing questions of English dramatic history, none is more tempting and none more likely to frustrate inquiry than the definition of the style of acting of a particular period. Because so little can be affirmed on the basis of descriptive testimony, and because available testimony is often slight and inconclusive, our evidence for describing the style or styles that obtained from Elizabethan times up to the closing of the theatres is modest indeed. Yet many writers have offered observations on this problem, and some have argued for their views at surprising length. 1 Now the definition of an acting style or styles for this period is complicated by two facts: (1) That during this period all women’s parts were played by boys or men, and (2) That there existed also at this time whole companies of boy actors. These facts are usually brought into the discussion of Eliza­ bethan acting as though they posed no special difficulty. Alfred Harbage , for example, sees them as offering further proof of his theory: “ My explanation of the apparent adequacy of the boy actor is simply formal acting.” 2 And Bertram Joseph hardly recognizes them as extraordinary considerations: “The Elizabethan actor was a man or boy who was able to seem to his audience the very person, man or woman, whom he represented in the performance of the play.” 3 Recently, however, the second of these facts has received detailed attention from two writers, both of whom relate their discussion of the boy actors to the plays of John Marston. Anthony Gaputi, in a book devoted to Marston as satirist, includes a chapter entitled “ Play­ wright for Child Actors” in which he argues that the boys imposed limitations on Marston which turned him naturally and inevitably to write material suitable for presentation in a “burlesque style.” R. A. Foakes, in an article on the Antonio plays (Antonio and Mellida and Antonio’s Revenge), argues in a similar way that the boys’ acting style restricted the range and power of the drama that Marston— and by implication any playwright— could design for them.4 Neither of these writers was presenting a wholly new case, for Harold Newcomb Hillebrand , in his pioneering study The Child Actors, had suggested in 1926 that while “ the sixty-five years between 1515 and 1580 belong to the children of the Elizabethan theatre, . . . the succeeding period from 1600 to 1616 . . . is a different matter. Then, we shall find, children were on a far different status both with playwright and 100 Ejner J. Jensen 101 public, for they were no longer serious competitors with the men, but apes imitating without equaling, transforming tragedy into bomb­ ast, and meeting their adult rivals only on the plane of light satirical comedy. In a word, the art of the child actors was hardy and vigorous before 1590, and decadent after 1600.” 5 Hillebrand later attempts to reinforce this assertion with the following comparison: “Even ad­ mitting that the Jacobean spectators were as satisfied of the fitness of boys to play women as the Elizabethans had been, surely they found no illusion when boys impersonated men, they who knew Burbage and Alleyne [sic]. Boys on the stage must have seemed to them largely what boys on the stage now seem to us— masqueraders” (p. 271).6 But to compare the child actors unfavorably with Burbage and Alleyn merely begs the question, for while we are fairly certain of how good those two great actors were (they certainly towered above most of their colleagues), we are in no such state of certainty concerning how they were good. Here it is relevant to recall the observation of Alfred Harbage: “ there is extant not a single piece of analytical description of Elizabethan acting in general, or of an Elizabethan actor in a particular role.” 7 I I should like to begin here with a discussion, not of the particulars of the primarily satiric or burlesque style for which Caputi and Foakes argue, but of the largest implications of their theories. For these implications must affect our view not only of Marston’s works but of...


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