In our first blog post I raised the question of the defining characteristics of the sixteenth and seventeenth century playhouses: their sheer number, their architectural and performance function, their attempts to capitalise on the art of theatre, and most crucially the way they were the product of working people as financiers, artists and core audience. In this post, I’d like to ask why we don’t talk about these defining characteristics more often.
Part of the problem here is specialisation. Research interests are a vital part of academic inquiry, but they have a tendency to fossilise knowledge, even as they generate it, by tying us into certain time periods, topics or modes of thought that make us lose sight of the bigger picture and wider contexts around them. This seems particularly egregious in the case of the London playhouses: they really weren’t open for that long (let’s say eighty years as a maximum), but academic accounts have not only failed to produce overviews or histories of the playhouses, it never seems to have occurred to anyone to do so. Eighty years really isn’t that long, and without doing this work we are like Jane Austen scholars trying to understand her writing without knowing what a novel is. Andrew Gurr’s work is the noblest attempt at the kind of work I am suggesting, and I sometimes hear practitioners making a similar attempt in drama workshops, but the centre of gravity for such work has always been Shakespeare, leading to, as I’ll suggest below, an inevitable distortion. Scholarly reaction to such work has often been uncharitable, but we only have ourselves to blame if others write uncertainly about a wider picture we have failed to help to sketch.
Another part of the problem is academic writing itself. In my last blog post I took the decision that I could get away with making claims I knew would be contentious so long as I acknowledged and unpacked that contention in the very next sentence. I love the precision and determination with which academic writing tries to identify what is distinctive or new about the things it studies, but often that pursuit of precision of terminology or characteristics itself becomes a barrier to learning, researching and declaring our thoughts. We become so busy trying not to say the wrong thing or to express it in the wrong words that we end up not saying things at all. Perhaps in some cases we end up being unable to think them. In this way academic writing can become an exercise in not thinking, something we should be especially aware of as we teach: the danger of becoming arbiters of what can and cannot be thought. This seems to be at least a partial cause for our failure to take stock of the playhouses as a movement or cultural phenomenon in themselves. It’s always useful to attend to – and consider challenging – the things academic writing and training stops us writing, thinking or proposing to think.
But a final major problem, of course, is Shakespeare (Happy Possible-Birth-and-Definite-Death Day, by the way). Shakespeare has come to stand for – and stand in front of – the playhouses, which is a shame since they were always more important than him, both culturally and historically. He has effaced that which made him possible. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often celebrate things which are characteristics of the drama of his time, mistaking them as distinctively his. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook aspects of his work which are weirdly repetitious, conservative or retrograde. When we celebrate Shakespeare, we often overlook the more challenging creative decisions taken by his contemporaries. Shakespeare wrote at a time when some playwrights filled their work with female characters, or wrote about contemporary London life, or celebrated working people, or repeatedly risked imprisonment in order to encourage audiences to think about democracy or free speech or aristocratic abuses. You wouldn’t necessarily know any of that simply from reading or performing Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare offers us an impoverished view of the London playhouses, and we should surely want to challenge that situation.
Taken together, these various problems – research specialisation, academic writing and Shakespeare’s dominance of the field – have held back historical accounts of the playhouse. Shakespeare in particular seems to make us oddly incurious, wrong-footed and blindsided, skewing and refracting our engagement with the evidence and with these wonderful plays. When we engage with the London playhouses, we focus in on the two decades in which Shakespeare worked, so that we are always joining a historical conversation partway through. Indeed, the problems of specialisation and Shakespeare coalesce to make writing about the earliest Elizabethan playhouses particularly difficult: there simply aren’t that many scholars who are interested in the playhouse who are also knowledgeable about the two decades in which they opened, the 1560s and ‘70s. We also find ourselves trapped in the thinking and priorities of the period that first canonised and celebrated Shakespeare as a great genius, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we still have work to do to unpack the Enlightenment and Romantic ways of thinking about his work and his contemporaries.
I guess my central point is: if you love Shakespeare, the effect he has on the way we understand his world does him a disservice. And if you love theatre, that Shakespearean effect does this great period of theatre-building a greater disservice still. It’s time to start celebrating the movement to build multiple playhouses in and around London as an event in itself. Happy Various-Life-Events Day, Shakespeare, but I hope you won’t mind if we use your Day to celebrate the work that made you possible in the first place.