- Early British Drama in Manuscript ed. by Tamara Atkin and Laura Estill
Manuscript studies, drama, theater, medieval, early modern
In a collection of twenty-one essays devoted to early British dramatic manuscripts, one would expect to find discussions that address familiar debates about early plays, introduce newly examined manuscripts related to the drama and theater, offer both theoretical and material considerations of these documents, and detail advances in the technological study of manuscript plays. Early British Drama in Manuscript commendably performs all of these tasks. Editors Tamara Atkin and Laura Estill sequence the essays’ [End Page 185] subject matter in “roughly chronological order” (8) within each of the book’s three sections: “Production” (textual, not theatrical), “Performance,” and “Reception.”
Following the editors’ introduction, Joe Stadolnik opens the volume by examining the Brome Abraham and Isaac as an example of “Impersonal Compilation,” arguing that the aesthetic care with which the scribe copied the pageant play into the miscellany indicates a common practice of individuals enjoying drama as readers and not strictly as spectators. In “The Coventry Playbooks,” Pamela M. King “presents a codicological description of the two Weavers’ manuscripts”—containing the Presentation of the Virgin and Christ’s Debate with the Doctors in the Temple—and offers “a consideration of how radically different as a manuscript and functional material object a working playbook is from the other compilations of plays received as ‘medieval English drama’ ” (34). Alexandra F. Johnston offers a compelling new study of the Towneley Plays, which fundamentally reclassifies and redates the manuscript as a legal document from the 1560s rather than as a “deluxe production” (60) designed to emphasize literary significance. By positioning its codicological and paleographical features within the broader religious and political reforms occurring in the first decade of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, Johnston makes a persuasive case that the manuscript’s provenance involves the enforcement of ecclesiastical orthodoxy in a region with strong recusant sympathies.
Meticulously overturning a prominent theory about the textual transmission and revision of the late sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century witnesses of the Chester cycle, Matthew Sergi argues that the lost exemplar for these manuscripts very likely dates to the late fifteenth century, but he also argues that a radical unknowability resides at the center of our debates about such early texts. The implication seems to be that embracing this unknowability, instead of treating it as the problem we must inflexibly solve, in fact reinforces the rigor with which we make our historical claims. Kirsten Inglis and Mary Polito offer a comparative analysis of the manuscript play Baiazet (ca. 1619) and its revised and printed counterpart The Raging Turke (1631) by Thomas Goffe, examining the methods by which a team of ten note-takers recorded a specific performance of the play at Oxford [End Page 186] and then synthesized the notes into a coherent text. In revisiting theories of playscript abridgement, memorial reconstruction, and touring with reduced troupes, James Purkis examines the John of Bordeaux manuscript (ca. 1592) to demonstrate that multiple theories of working play-text production might easily coexist within the same witness, an argument that joins a growing chorus of scholars offering a welcome corrective to some of the monolithic categories that have continued to ossify since the New Bibliography. William Proctor Williams provides the last essay in the “Production” section, discussing thirteen autograph plays and classical dramatic translations in manuscript by James Compton and Cosmo Manuche, who seem to have written them largely during the Interregnum, some of which focus on Royalist themes. In addition to furnishing brief biographies of the two amateur playwrights and details about the loss and recovery of these documents, Williams reads textual variants in the duplicate copies of The Banished Shepherdess and The Feast to argue that the manuscripts reveal traces of private Interregnum performances that are attuned to very different audiences and milieux.
By considering specific features of the manuscript that contains the only extant copy of John Redford...