Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the Before Shakespeare project’s first Advisory Board meeting. The above question, posed by Dr Andy Kesson, provides a good example of the project’s opening strategy. The board was keen to interrogate long-accepted terminology from the early modern studies toolbox, sometimes with disorientating effects (on this observer, at least) as apparently secure definitions lost their solidity. So, what is, or was, in the mid-sixteenth-century, a “house”? In early modern usage, or indeed in modern usage, a house can be a room, rather than a building. For example, a tiring-house is a room within a theatrical venue, a house within a (play)house, just as a modern stage manager might ask “how’s the house tonight,” when inquiring about audience numbers. It was noted that the term “playhouse,” commonly applied in modern scholarship specifically to London’s amphitheatres such as the Theatre and Curtain, has distracted us from the interconnections between the variety of performance venues in use at that time; innyards such as the Bel Savage on Ludgate Hill, or the indoor spaces Blackfriars and St Pauls; even the Elizabethan court itself. At this stage, of course, the purpose was to work towards clarifying the project’s questions, rather than to seek answers. In what manifestations does the word “house” appear in early modern documentation? Is it used differently in public and private contexts? When addressing performance spaces, how does it interact with the word “place”? If this serves to illustrate the project’s challenges and exciting opportunities, it’s also worth pointing out that similar questions were discussed regarding the word “play”. It’s exciting to look ahead and speculate how Before Shakespeare might, in eventually reuniting these two words, re-imagine that apparently trustworthy and functional term “playhouse”.
The potential scope of Before Shakespeare was indicated by the number of times the discussion turned not only to performance practices of the early sixteenth and even the fifteenth centuries, but also in looking towards the continent, asking how French, Spanish, and Italian observers, for example, might have employed comparable terminology when talking about not only performance in their own countries, but when writing home about their experiences in London or at the English court. Questions were also raised about the “distinctly Elizabethan nervousness” regarding the “popular,” or general population, and how this may have interacted with the language used to conceptualise, describe, and position not just the performance spaces, but the players themselves. At this stage, it is encouraging to see so many terms and concepts held up to the light and examined for new, forgotten, or overlooked features. My particular research interests for my PhD studies relate in part to the performance of “history” (another example of the sometimes confounding “fluidity” of early modern usage) or narratives that were widely believed to have been historical. As such, I was excited to learn that the Henrician chronicler John Rastell had built a theatrical venue early in the sixteenth century, suggesting intriguing ways that historiographers may also have contributed to commercial theatrical culture. This, of course, is my personal niche. But it indicates another way that, by dismantling the teleology that positions all pre-1590s performance culture as a foggy, monochrome prologue to the main Shakespearean event, Before Shakespeare has the potential to uncover many vibrant and unfamiliar performance traditions and communities, and perhaps also to uncover how these interconnected and shaped one another.
However, just as the terminology of early modern theatre was being deconstructed, one of the key theatrical sites of pre-Shakespearean London was being, figuratively at least, reconstructed before our eyes. This was thanks to a vivid and fascinating tour of the Curtain’s archaeological dig by MOLA’s Heather Knight. As Callan has noted, the term “rectangularity” was unavoidable, confronted as we were by the evidence – literally in bricks and mortar – that this space had not been, as has often been thought, polygonal in the style of the Theatre and, later, the Globe. In fact, it had been a rectangular structure built between two pre-existing walls. It’s a great reminder of the project’s interdisciplinary reach that on the same day the advisory panel undertook the intellectually challenging work of addressing the finer points of terminology, they were also carefully stepping past archaeologists crouching with hand brushes over low walls, a floor “paved” with the knucklebones of sheep, in order to examine the material vestiges of early modern theatre. Particularly evocative for me were the many, many, discarded oyster shells half-submerged in the Curtain’s damp soil. The early modern equivalent of lollipop sticks, or crisp packets. Soil samples have been sent away for analysis, and it will thrilling to discover what they reveal about the habits (hygienic or otherwise) of early modern playgoers. From the oyster shells (almost) crunching under our boots to fundamental questions of language, this first meeting was a productive assimilation of the material and the theoretical.
Kim Gilchrist is studying for his PhD at the University of Roehampton. He has an MA in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, has worked as a researcher for Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and writes regularly for Around the Globe magazine. Kim is also a poet and playwright; his poems have been published in a Guardian anthology, and his comic verse play Forgiving Shakespeare, will be performed in a rehearsed reading at KCL in late 2016.
Fiction & poems: www.ckgilchrist.com