- Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood by Jeffrey Knapp
Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood.
Oxford UP, 2017. 312 Pp.
ANYONE SUCH AS MYSELF WHO WAS EDUCATED in multicultural Birmingham, a stronghold of industry and heavy metal—but within commutable distance of Stratford-upon-Avon—is predisposed to have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with Shakespeare. Prior to ever reading or seeing any of his plays, I’d been taken on numerous school trips to the provincial backwater whose chief selling point was its being the birthplace of the world genius of literature. I was all too quick to nod in agreement when a young, new teacher, keen to ingratiate herself with a bunch of teenagers, informed us that the Bard would be writing for soap operas if he were alive today. An obvious riposte is that Dallas (1978–1991) would likely have aged better with the presence of such a witty and imaginative screenwriter.
Symptomatic of ongoing anxieties surrounding cultural capital, this comparison between modern-day popular culture and early modern drama skirts an underlying issue: was Shakespeare great in spite of or because of his mass appeal? Jeffrey Knapp’s ambitious new book diagnoses a plethora of heuristic strategies that, as he suggests, are the cause and consequence of a confused and confusing critical orthodoxy. Pleasing Everyone seeks to vindicate the artistry of popular filmmaking by unpacking the implicit and explicit grounding of much contemporary scholarship in the Frankfurt school of mechanical reproduction and indoctrination. In so doing, Knapp proposes that Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of mass culture as debased and debasing is predicated on a fallacy that equates its birth with that of advanced industrial capitalism; as he argues, “Renaissance plays and Hollywood movies share an identity that our current theories of modernity and mass culture do not allow them to share” (1).
Disentangling this confusion provides the possibility not only of nuancing our appreciation and understanding of cultural production from across the centuries but also of correcting notions of the popular, since “Renaissance plays help sharpen our focus on mass entertainment by disentangling it from [End Page 171] modernity” (9). For specialists in the Spanish Golden Age, alarm bells may begin to ring at this point: the comedia has not always emerged unscathed from the application of models rooted in contemporary culture to the early modern stage. Firsthand experiences of the manipulation of popular culture by the Francoist regime clearly underpinned the application of the propagandistic model to the early modern corrales, an approach most successfully advanced by José Antonio Maravall and José María Díez Borque. It is no coincidence that Golden Age literature virtually disappeared from the school curriculum when José María Maravall (José Antonio’s son) was made Minister of Education in the 1980s after Spain had returned to democratic rule.
Knapp’s strategy is, fortunately, less deterministic, and he is careful to eschew the twin pitfalls of historical anachronism and parochialism from the outset. He argues that “defining mass entertainment as a cross-historical phenomenon does not mean ignoring the cultural and technological differences between Renaissance plays and Hollywood movies, any more than defining both The Aeneid and Paradise Lost as epics means ignoring the historical dissimilarities between Virgil’s time and Milton’s” (11–12). Pleasing Everyone takes three subjects (the crisis of the individual in the mass; the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure; the confusion of art and junk) frequently assumed to be hallmarks of modernity, and, rather than offering a straightforward comparison between individual films and plays, examines how and why dramatists and directors repeatedly (re)turned to common topics. The analysis that ensues advances two interrelated arguments. First, Knapp posits that filmmakers were not the surreptitious pawns of capitalist machinery that Adorno and Horkheimer frequently presupposed. Rather than indoctrinating (or, in Althusserian terms, interpolating) a passive audience, Knapp suggests that films are often grappling with the same issues of the abuse of power and indoctrination of which they stand accused. Second, Knapp highlights the fact these very same subjects were already being debated in Renaissance England, indicating...