CONFERENCE Panel: Theatre History 3: Metre and Repertory

by Romola Nuttall

Disclaimer: this post will be a grossly incomplete summary of a tremendously rich and engaging panel “Metre and Repertory”, which was so full of fascinating facts and questions that I cannot do them justice here.

Robert Stagg’s ‘Metre before Shakespeare’, contested prevailing orthodoxy of Shakespeare as creator and chief innovator of blank verse. As usual, Shakespeare’s looming presence has obscured the longer history of experimental treatment of metre which lies behind him. Stagg zoomed in on uses of the metrically challenging fourteener, generally used for classical literature, like Senecan translations and Chapman’s Homer. The fourteener was a problematic form; we were told that even Jonson found it hard to manage, particularly because of its unhelpful blurring of verse into prose.

Shakespearean 14ers appear to have parodied old fashioned dramas. Their appearance in the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows Shakespeare’s use of the form as pastiche; its mechanical clunkiness is ridiculed, yet reinvigorated, by the rude mechanicals – Stagg’s wordplay not mine! He also raised questions Shakespeare’s blank verse. What do we actually mean by blank verse, is it just an absence of structure or rhyme? Is this kind of formless line itself informed by “the troublesome and undead fourteener”?

Elizabeth Tavares’s paper turned to publication, investigating the language used by title-pages of early printed plays. The title-page was used to claim value for the play it presented, functioning as a marketing tool, often advertising new or newly enlarged texts, and as a way of establishing company ownership.

Title-pages also give “performance history signals”, creating a tension between the newness of the content and the past-ness of precious stagings. There are many references to the sundry, or diverse times a play hath bene performed and acted, sometimes with a pointedly capital A. By doing so, they tap into past and future pleasures which the buyer can experience from reading a play they might have seen performed. Tavares’s helpful graphs showed that this type of declaration increased steadily between 1571 and 1603. Over 80% of the surveyed title-pages reference past performances, and 72% to multiple performances.

Tavares used the title-pages of Titus Andronicus (1594, 1600 and 1611) to demonstrate how acting company ascriptions expanded and contracted. Information concerning companies, rather than playhouses, seems to have been more important to Elizabethan title-pages, while in the Jacobean era they place more emphasis on references to space and place.

Eoin Price gave the closing paper, irresistibly titled, Before Lyly. True to his word, we were treated to an exploration of the under-studied boy companies’ activity and repertory from the mid-1560s to the 1580s, when Lyly began writing for them. Price challenged the standard pigeon-holing of boys’ repertory as courtly, occasional plays. Yes, their court connections generated important cultural capital, but they also had a bigger, popular appeal and they were written for performance in playhouses – albeit the relatively small indoor venues in St. Paul’s and the Blackfriars.

The explosion of playing spaces London witnessed in the 1570s was not limited to the adult companies. Both groups followed official practice of using public playing as rehearsal for court performance and records show adult and boy companies performing at court in the same season. Surviving titles show that thematically there was not much difference between what was staged by the adult and boy companies. As usual for this field, absence of data makes it hard to move beyond our best guesses but Price paper made a convincing case for the boy’s indoor performances as public, an entertaining possibility indeed.

As Lucy Munro, the session’s charming chair said at the end, “my mind is fizzing with all sorts of possibilities!”

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