CONFERENCE Panel: Theatre History 1: Texts and Places

by Kim Gilchrist

The first panel of Before Shakespeare kicked off with four fantastic papers that set the tone and the agenda perfectly by opening up underexplored yet fundamental areas of the sixteenth-century performance industries.

Tracey Hill’s paper, “The Theatrical City Revisited,” presented what Hill described as a “revisionist account of the role of the City of London,” suggesting that the City authorities long served a far more positive theatrical force than has traditionally been argued and that the careers of figures such as George Peele demonstrated the “cross-fertilisation” between City pageantry and the professional stage.


Hill also reminded us, agonisingly, that several of the London Inns used for playing throughout the period long survived the Great Fire of London only to be demolished by the Victorians. Think about that next time you’re at Liverpool Street Station.

Stephen Longstaffe, in “Cueing the Queen’s Men, Shakespeare and Falstaff,” argued against recent theories relating to the practice of using cues and cue scripts in early modern performance, suggesting that these studies focus more on reading – that is, rehearsal – than on their usefulness in performance. Longstaffe noted that, for example, in The Troublesome Reign of King John, many of John’s lines are cued by entrances, or by other characters naming him, suggesting that the memorising of cues would be unnecessary as the dialogue itself was designed to trigger responses. In conclusion, we were left with the awkward question “did Will Kemp want to be bothered with the three line cue?”

In “License to Play,” Derek Dunne called for a new understanding of the relationship between authority and theatre, describing a “paper-rich, overflowing, documentary world”.

The slipperiness of the word license was noted: it can mean both “permission” but also the opposite, a sense of illicit excess. Licensing was incredibly important to professional players (and to anyone who wanted to fish, beg, print books, or go bowling). Without a license, actors could not perform, tour, or build playhouses. The centrality of paperwork to early modern activities is demonstrated in The Spanish Tragedy, when the ghost of Don Andrea needs to show his passport when travelling through the afterlife.

Finally, Gwilym Jones spoke on “Storms Before Shakespeare,” observing that ideas of “lost” plays and “lostness” can often apply to aspects of performance for which we have abundant evidence. Principally, stage effects. Yet how to interpret this evidence? What to make of a record from Coventry in 1584 relating to the purchase of starch to make hailstones? Was it rolled into balls like Pizza Express doughballs? A pre-recorded science experiment suggested a more plausible, and explosive purpose.

Then an alarming diagram demonstrated the “swevel,” a device for striking actors with “lightning,” as occurs in A Looking Glass for London and England. In representing the natural world, Jones argued, the natural world was subverted.

Thank you to our fantastic panellists!

One thought on “CONFERENCE Panel: Theatre History 1: Texts and Places

  1. Pingback: A slice of Christmas (b)log | Before Shakespeare

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