CONFERENCE Panel: Circulating Stories

by Callan Davies

Our fourth panel had a wonderful coherence to it, with all four papers complementing each other in fascinating and provocative ways.

First up were two papers on the underappreciated and underdiscussed William Painter and his “play-fodder” (as it has sometimes been dismissed), The Palace of Pleasure (first printed 1566) from Mark Houlahan and Thomas Dabbs.

Both papers noted Stephen Gosson’s contemptuous remark in 1582 that Painter’s Palace had been “ransackt” for the commercial stage, though both took different approaches to exploring what that might mean (accompanied, in both cases, by delightful tabulation!).  For Houlahan, the word is an exaggeration but nonetheless not entirely inaccurate, seeing as 14 plays in our period owe a debt to Painter’s anthology.  Dabbs drew a link between the word “ransackt” and St Paul’s Cathedral–especially considering repairs for the “sacked” building were under debate in these years; that space was the source of conversation, gossip, and exchange of ideas (what Dabbs called “buzz”) and Painter was placed into this environment.

Dabbs went onto suggest that “pleasure reading” was an important part of playwriting in this period (“plays are not church services”), and Gosson was onto something in realising what made a successful play: pleasure.  Enter Painter, whose title page, as Dabbs puts it, “freely admits” that Palace promotes pleasure first and instruction second… His paper explored the geo-spatial and geo-social relationship between works of pleasure fiction and St Paul’s precinct in London: Painter’s Palace found its reception among Elizabethan readers and listeners in St Paul’s, in the same space where sermons echoed and reverberated.  He argued that pre-Shakespearean playwrights successfully formed a template for playwriting by picking up what is read and talked about in the public sphere, what is “pre-received in the desacralized Paul’s precinct,” and capitalised on this “buzz.”

Mark Houlahan used data from the Lost Plays database and Wiggins’s catalogue to show what plays exactly might have ransacked Painter and pointed to the difficulty of knowing what exactly that might mean.  “Painter cast a long shadow,” he showed us, and he focussed attention on what his influence might have been during his own lifetime (having died in 1595).  “Painter-plays” were performed at court, in chapels, in Richmond and in Southwark.  The genres to which he was put are various, but emphasis is notably on high-end material–extravagance, violence, etc.  Crucially, plays seemingly adopt the invitation in Painter’s anthology to “roam widely across space and time.”  Pushing against CS Lewis, who called Palace a “dunghill” that served what he saw as the crude popular drama of the period, Houlahan asks that we pay Painter more detail and consideration.

Moving us further into the realms of publication and printing, Amy Lidster argued for the separation of a print repertory from a performance repertory when it comes to the Queen’s Men.  Her paper set out publication strategies pursued by stationers and printers, noting their burgeoning interest in plays to be read.

She pushed back against London-centricity (as noted by Elizabeth Tavares in her question at the end of the panel) and emphasised the absence of evidence.  Do extant play texts tell us anything about performance repertory?  Lidster argued that what they do suggest is something of a print repertory, which has its various influences and agendas.  She expanded this point during the questions, pointing out the difference between Queen’s Men in performance and print: in print, the Queen’s Men have a fixed identity, they are one company; in performance and on tour, they are (sometimes) split and are fluid and variable…

Kim Gilchrist put print into play, quite literally, in his paper examining the reception of histories on stage.  Working with James Wallace, who acted out various different treatments of history related to Locrine, Brutus, and Roman England, Gilchrist examined the shifting “historical consciousness” among Elizabethan playgoers.

There were many versions of any given historical “story,” he told us, and versions of history were (and are) contingent: upon what audience members had access to, what they read, what they wanted to believe, what harmonised with their various communities.  The textual community to which one belongs affects your response to seeing, for instance, Locrine onstage: what would it mean watching the play firmly in one’s “learned” belief that all is fabrication, and seeing all around you in credulity?

The panel opened up an enormously wide range of questions surrounding reception, performance, and community in the period.  Who was reading and hearing what, and how does reading and hearing affect the creation, reception, and even medium of plays? What sort of communities do texts (spoken or written) create and how might they map onto the playhouses?  Certainly, location and geography seems central to questions of bookselling and playgoing in this panel.  There’ll be plenty of questions flowing over and no doubt “circulating” at the conference and online in the wake of this diverse (but complementary) and fruitful set of papers…

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