by Derek Dunne
Theatre history isn’t what it used to be. After a stimulating opening plenary by William Ingram entitled ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Theatre History’, the Before Shakespeare conference continued to challenge/re-negotiate/overturn/burn down everything we think we know about those simple things we call playhouses.
The second panel took up the challenge in the form of three diverse papers on ‘Theatre History: Geographies and People’. Laurie Johnson began with the question ‘Who performed at Newington Butts in May 1586?’, giving some indication of the microscopic detail on display throughout. Through a process of elimination and a generous application of Occam’s shaving foam, Johnson posited that some remnant of Leicester’s Men may have taken up residence there briefly, on their way to perform at the court of Elsinore. Along the way we got glimpses of the shifting contours of various playing companies, who themselves were constantly shifting from location to location. Laurie has already contributed a blogpost on Newington Butts, ahead of his new book Shakespeare’s Lost Playhouse: Eleven Days at Newington Butts (Routledge, 2018).
Paul Brown started with a different question: How long was the early modern commute? Brown has mapped out the known addresses of early modern playwrights to test the hypothesis that spatial proximity could encourage professional proximity. A ready example is that of Thomas Dekker and William Rowley, who are known to have collaborated after the latter moves to the same parish as Dekker in Clerkenwell. Brown drew many such artistic connections through parochial proximity, adding new facets to how network theory can help us to understand early modern drama, and this was aided by a super Google map of London with the various authors plotted, so as to better understand their plots.
— Before Shakespeare (@B4Shakes) August 24, 2017
— Elizabeth E. Tavares (@ElizETavares) August 24, 2017
The question I should have asked at the time, and so will put here as a placeholder, is what Paul thinks this means for Kyd and Marlowe’s disastrous shared living arrangements? (If I get an answer in the pub later I shall keep you informed, dear reader.)
Last up was Lucy Rayfield with a rather different geographical perspective, hopping over the Channel to early modern France to take the pulse of early French comedy. Rayfield chose to re-examine a neglected French author from a neglected time period, Charles Estienne (1504-1564), and therefore doubly in need of resuscitation. She showed the influence this author had on French drama and beyond before Shakespeare was even born, and therefore very much on-topic. As well as some juicy biographical detail (including his Guide des Chemins de France (Paris, 1552) described as ‘a Renaissance Tripadvisor), Rayfield showed that Estienne brought Humanist comedy to France for the first time, translating Gl’Ingannati into French in 1549 (a possible but contested source for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). The dedication to this play includes the first usage of ‘theatre’ in the sense of a place to ‘comfortably sit’ and watch a play. Another first is Estienne’s…impressionistic sketches of ancient Greek theatres, drawing on Italian architect Serlio’s work, even pre-publication. Artistic merit aside, this is the first drawing of a theatre in France, again indicating the groundbreaking nature of Estienne’s theatrical influence.
Across the board, these papers established geography as an undeniable factor for anyone who seeks to understand the dynamics of early modern theatre. The exact dimensions of an (which?) early modern playhouse will no doubt continue to be debated long after this conference, but one thing that’s clear is that there is truth to the estate agents’ patter: Location, location, location.
Derek Dunne is the author of Shakespeare, Revenge Tragedy & Early Modern Law: Vindictive Justice (Palgrave, 2016). He is currently working on a new research project focusing on early modern bureaucracy, forgery, and literary production. You can follow him on Twitter via @DerekVindice and @RoguesLicence.