London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558 by Anne Lancashire (review)
- ESC: English Studies in Canada
- Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English
- Volume 30, Issue 3, September 2004
- pp. 218-222
- Additional Information
the popular entertainment industry of the 1930s and the way they are treated today in such productions as Southpark’s animated 22-minute retelling of Great Expectations. Sconce notes ruefully that Southpark’s version of Great Expectations was the least popular of all its episodes and has never been rerun. Dickens on Screen ends with a listing of television and film adapta tions made from Dickens’s novels. This filmography is far from complete — omitting, for instance, the 1922 version of Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan as Oliver. It is an odd omission considering that a still from this movie is featured on the cover of Dickens on Screen. Goldie Morgentaler University ofLethbridge Anne Lancashire. London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantryfrom Roman Times to 1558. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 355. Appendices, index, u.s. $70.00 cloth. Given her fearsome scholarship and vast erudition, Anne Lancashire suf fers with surprising grace the stupidities and unproven assumptions that have marred the study of the early English theatre to date. At one point in her latest book she optimistically hazards the view that such preju dices “may finally now be extinct” (25). Alas, they are not: your run-of-mill teacher of theatre history no less than your average textbook introduction to drama still maddeningly repeats the idea that classical theatre traditions completely disappeared from Britain in the Dark Ages, and that theatre was “reborn,” as if from scratch, in the tenth or eleventh century, from “within” the Church. The idea is false and in London Civic Theatre Lancashire proves it so. This book should be required reading for all scholars and teachers of drama and theatre, not only because it establishes many of the facts (and corrects many of the fictions) about theatre in London before 1558, but also because it demonstrates the extent to which Medieval theatre in general was a civic activity, undertaken by secular city authorities and groups for the entertainment of citizens, celebrities, and tourists, while serving (or undermining) a variety of social, political, religious, and military agendas. As Lancashire shows, in the hundreds or thousands of plays, pageants, parades, mummings, variety acts and naumachia exhibited to Londoners 218 | Wise and their guests in the 1500 years before the advent of the Elizabethan public theatres, religion had a minor influence and the Church had no apparent role at all: costumes in London from Roman times through to 1558 were as likely to be designed and built for classical figures like Heracles, Hector and Troilus as for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Historians have also been wont to interpret the lack of surviving playtexts from pre-Elizabethan London as evidence that the city’s theatrical activity before Shakespeare was negligible. Or, generalising on the basis of the provincial English plays that have survived, they have posited a single analogous form of theatre for London throughout the whole of the Medieval and Tudor period. The first assumption is weaker than most based on silence: material fragility and daily use would have made actors’ play-scripts about as likely to survive into the present as their clothing. And the second assumption makes no sense at all: the fifty or so years from which the provincial manuscripts date, c. 1450-1500, can hardly be used to explain the preceding three hundred, especially in a wealthy cosmopoli tan capital like London. (Theatre history shows that “provincial theatre” can differ radically from that of the cultural centre.) Through painstaking examination of the archaeological, archival, and printed evidence from the founding of Londinium to the ascent of Elizabeth— and building on the monumental accomplishments of the University of Toronto’s reed project— Lancashire corrects both. London’s ancient amphitheatre, constructed in 70 a .d., improved in 125, and discovered as recently as 1987, is one of about nineteen or so structures known to have been built by the Romans in Britain. Extant data about first- and second-century theatre are scarce for any part of the Roman empire, and London is no exception. Lancashire nevertheless demonstrates the ways in which theatrical traditions were continuous in London through the departure of the Romans in 410 and even through the decline of Londinium itself...