Losing the Plot: Audiences, Scraps of Performance, and Selective Participation

Further to Andy’s post on story, this post asks questions about the nature and necessity of coherent “story”—and of audiences following “plot”—in early modern commercial dramatic performance. It does so by putting literary and archival material into conversation with archaeological discoveries, and as such I’m thankful to Heather Knight of MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) for our discussions, which have helped form these ideas.  The post only aims to float ideas and tease out possibilites, and I warmly welcome comment, correction, and suggestion. I’m grateful to conversations with Andy, Heather, and Morwenna Carr, all of whom have fuelled these lines of enquiry through informative discussions about performance, narrative, and archaeology, and to Tracey Hill’s and Clare McManus’s comments on the post. I’m also grateful to the organisers (Rob Conkie and Paul Salzman) and participants of the “Scrapbook Shakespeare” seminar at Shakespeare Association of America 2018, whose innovative exploration of dramatic scraps and parts have encouraged this “scrappy” mode of thought.


This post raises the possibility that some members of an audience engaged patchily with performance and suggests that, sometimes, both plays and playhouses were structured to accommodate playgoers’ “selective participation.” By looking at descriptions and memories of playgoing, “plots,” Heywood’s Age plays, Peele’s The Old Wives Tale, updates and reminders in several plays, and jigging and fencing, it asks: Might certain early modern plays indicate a different engagement with playhouses and with performance than we ourselves are used to—one that takes performances piecemeal, that dips in and out, that accommodates other activity in or around a playhouse during performance, that partakes of action as and when it captures the imagination?

This approach in part “decentres” the playtext from the performance event in a way familiar from 1980s and 1990s criticism. It also follows the research into “parts” (per Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern) and Stern’s work on the “documents” that make up surviving play materials, and it runs with Richard Preiss’s intervention in “performance” and playing as laid out in Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre (2014), which looks beyond the playbook—and indeed the “play” itself—in imagining early modern performance and its audiences (“the play was . . . an afterthought, and the clown . . . was the main attraction” [9]). Yet it is not designed to argue against the broad significance of the “play” so conceived; it is clear that many of the surviving playtexts do indeed take the spectator through a narrative journey, some more complex than others.

However, I think it is worth extending, even tentatively, recognition of the “fractured” or multifaceted elements that make up “playtexts” to performance and to playgoing itself. One happy result might be that we reconsider overlooked plays and give more time to their apparently unorthodox structures, in turn making us question what a “successful” play looked like.

Andy observes that a play’s canonicity (particularly Shakespeare’s) can sometimes obscure its narrative make-up: “because we’re told that these plays are great, that can have the unexpected effect of making us take their compositional decisions for granted.” Naturally, the reverse is also true. Plays that do not conform to our sense of narrative cohesion or clarity are often dismissed as inferior. Heywood’s Age plays, for instance, (a long-term preoccupation of mine) were scorned as “pot-boilers” by Thomas Holaday in 1951 and have scarcely received critical, let alone popular, attention since their earliest performances. Heywood’s episodic plays dramatise periods of classical history, beginning with Saturn’s rule and the Golden Age through to various major characters of the era, from Jupiter to Jason to Hercules. They offer vignettes, or a series of partly self-contained stories and happenings. While Heywood receives welcome attention in Richard Rowland’s brilliant study, Thomas Heywood’s Theatre [2010], the Ages plays scarcely feature (Marion Lomax’s Stage Images and Traditions [1987] is an honourable and lively exception…). The same judgement or implicit judgement (by omission) on compositional decisions could be said for the reception of even earlier texts such as The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (also a partly episodic play) or indeed even to semi-canonical texts such as Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, whose plot and subplot have been subject to influential critiques in twentieth-century criticism from the likes of T. S. Eliot (and Roberta Barker and David Nichols chart wider negative reactions to the play’s narratives in the twentieth century in “Does Beatrice Joanna have a Subtext?: The Changeling on the London Stage” [EMLS 10.1 {2004}]).

The Ages plays (and similarly, though more narratively determined, Rare Triumphs and Peele’s Arraignment of Paris, to add a couple of early examples) are not dissimilar to Lord Mayor’s Shows—which Heywood also composed—and like those entertainments, which are made up from several different pageants, they allow for audiences to capture parts of performance without necessitating 100% overall narrative digestion or 100% concentration. Spectatorship in parts.

Tracey Hill observes that the “qualities of the [Lord Mayor’s] Shows do not always cohere with the artistic values rated for drama” and should be approached “in their own terms” (Pageantry and Power 5, 14). If the Ages plays—and other plays and texts discussed here—suggest a different set of “terms” for audience engagement with early modern drama, then perhaps it is also time to reassess the artistic values we hold in mind for commercial playhouse performance of the period. And that might mean questioning the essential centrality of overall narrative to some play-performances and asking what an audience’s selective participation might mean.

Patchy playgoing

Evidence for selective participation can be found across various contemporary sources. Henry Chettle (via the fictionally-exhumed clown Richard Tarlton) observes rather cryptically in Kind-Hart’s Dream (1593) that

While Plays are used, half the day is by most youths that have liberty spent upon them, or at least the greatest company drawn to the places where they frequent. (C3r)

This curious observation (which I read as youths spending spare time on plays “or at least” in the places where plays take place) begs the question: what exactly were these “youths” doing in (and around?) playhouses if they’re not watching plays?

S. P. Cerasano’s excellent introduction to early modern audiences points out that we today “lack the type of extended commentary” that would allow us “to determine how an audience responded to the whole of one specific play or performance” (196). It remains possible, however, that not everybody did respond to the “whole” of a performance. Indeed, Cerasano summarises our current sense of early modern audiences:

Anecdotal evidence indicates that there was a fair amount of movement into and out of the audience throughout a performance; and also, that the audience was altogether more openly responsive than modern audiences. The famous ‘nut-cracking Elizabethans’ shouted at players, responded to jokes with wisecracks of their own, and (metaphorically) nipped at the heels of the actors standing close to the edge of the stage. Yet . . . there was some sense of etiquette involved in playhouse attendance. [. . .] (“Audiences, Actors, Stage Business,” A Companion to Renaissance Drama, 198)

Cerasano paints a picture of two extremes of audience response: extreme detachment (by exiting and entering) and extreme engagement (by “bantering” and responding to actors). We can take this further in suggesting that perhaps some audience members enjoyed improvised clowning but didn’t care much for long rehearsed dialogues; they may therefore have enjoyed the performances of the comic clown Richard Tarlton but not engaged so much with another plot strand of the play.

If our sense of playhouses runs with the possibility that people could step in and out of play-spectatorship, then “story” or “narrative” becomes a doubly anachronstic approach to certain plays. Perhaps some of the period’s drama was designedly porous and could be dipped into as much as watched from beginning to end.  (As Heather Knight pointed out in response to a draft of this post, this presents a chicken and egg question: do “porous” plays create patchy audience engagement, or vice versa?) Moments such as Tarlton’s clowning, spectacular set-pieces, actorly licence indicated by an “&c” (as in Dr Faustus A-text), or implicit or “lost” jigs and songs from plays offer a type of entertainment that both complements and offers an alternative recreational pleasure to the “play proper”—that is, its beginning-to-end “story.”

Today, when watching a football match (either in the stadium or on TV), some fans go to the toilet, tweet, text, film, and talk (to varying degrees of acceptibility…); in American baseball, this sense of divided attention is even more acute, with frequent refreshment refills during a “match” that is as much an “event.” Some TV viewers enjoy the Superbowl Half Time Show but care far less about the game itself… These modern analogues all suggest that early modern audiences may likewise have had their preferences—not only for what type or genre of play they enjoyed seeing, but on what aspects of any given play performance they focused.

Please turn off your mobile phone

All suddenly they heard a troublous noyes,
That seemd some perilous tumult to desine
Confusd with womens cries, and shouts of boyes,
Such as the troubled Theaters oftimes annoyes
(Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene 4.3.37)

We are used to the description of various activities taking place in a playhouse. Archaeological discoveries at The Rose and Theatre (with more to come forth on the Curtain) have shown an array of food—from seafood shells to berries and nuts—and various drinking vessels (see e.g. Bowsher and Miller, The Rose and the Globe 46-8). Paul Hentzner, on his travels through England in the 1590s (published in Latin in 1612), observed that “In these theatres, fruits, such as apples pears and nuts, according to the season, are carried about to be sold, as well as ale and wine” (Hentzner’s Travels, ed. Walpole, 30). Henslowe’s Rose had a drinking establishment beside it, for instance, which was part of the original collaborative endeavour (the details of which remain murky) with his erstwhile partner John Cholmeley. Play performances in inn spaces such as the Bel Savage, Cross Keys, Bull, or Bell also fundamentally combined theatrical performance with vittailing. There remains a possibility that the “auditorium” area of any of these playhouses was permeable during performance, and there may have been attached or associated spaces by the playhouse for convivial drinking or socialising before reentry. That raises further questions about what it means to “pay” to get into a playhouse—and where exactly within its bounds one would pay it…

Seasoned playgoer Henry Peacham points to non-play-related play when he tells a (possibly fictional) anecdote about the stealing of a purse from under a woman’s petticoat during a play performance, mistaken by the victim as a sexual advance: “What [. . .] did you feel nobody’s hand there[?] Yes, quoth she, I felt one’s hand there, but I did not think he had come for that…” (The Art of Living in London, pub. 1642, A3v). Peacham’s comic anecdote does in fact reflect a wider reputation surrounding playhouses like the Theatre and the Curtain. Such licentious sexual behaviour in and around playhouses is matched in records from the London City Corporation archives, Bridewell, and the Middlesex Sessions (see, for instance, the work of Duncan Salkeld, and Tiffany Stern’s discussion of the Curtain in The Queen’s Men and their Plays).

Spenser’s comments in The Faerie Queene (above) sum up the potential noise, hustle, and bustle among a theatregoing crowd. This is not to say that speeches and set-pieces could not hold attention—plenty of praise for actors suggests that they could and did: see Nashe’s description of audiences in visual awe of a “fresh-bleeding” Talbot (Pierce Penniless), for instance, or Thomas Overbury’s expanded edition of Characters (1616), which tells us, “sit in a full Theater, and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, while the Actor is the Center” (M2v). Yet at the same time, performance was punctuated by other activities—crying or shouting, recognising familiar faces, transactions of both a sexual and commercial (or edible/drinkable) nature, the movement of others and oneself, and the distractions of dress or discussion.

parts of all these

The lack of unbroken attention on the actor is frequently bemoaned. Numerous prologues and commentaries—particularly from dramatists—comment scornfully about audiences who “fail” to engage with the supreme levels of genius presented via performance by the playwright (Jonson and Webster immediately spring to mind…).

There are of course problems with taking such commentary at face value, given its various intents and purposes. Yet if these are more than just snobbish statements of poetic self-defence and justification, descriptions of “distracted” audiences may contain an indication of behaviour in the playhouse, as well as the nature and structure of some of the entertainments on offer there.

Thomas Dekker’s Gull’s Horn Book (1609) explains how individuals might play cards in a playhouse before the play begins and, in an act of deliberate disruption, “throwe the cardes . . . round aboute the Stage” (C4r). In the same section, Dekker points out that a gallant wishing to get his own back on an author who has humiliated him in verse would do best simply to walk out of his play—and take anybody else sitting on the stage with them. The implication is that such an exit during the action is rude and potentially disruptive, but there is no suggestion that it would be impossible or outlandish.

Certainly, Richard Madox in 1582 explains that he and his fellows, unimpressed with the “matter” of one particular offering at the Theatre, simply left after the opening exposition. Entrances and exits were not formalised affairs, and playhouses indeed appear to have been porous things. (See in particular the discussion of jigs below…)

The scrappiness of plays is indicated by Edmund Gayton’s retrospective description of commercial playhouse performance. In the mid-seventeenth-century, looking back to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Gayton explains that “men come not to study at a Play-house, but love such expressions and passages, which with ease insinuate themselves into their capacities.” He name-checks Lingua, Jack Drumm’s Entertainment, Greene’s Tu Quoque, The Devil of Edmonton, “and the like,” and adds a condescending dismissal of populist spectators who mount the stage and make “a more bloody Catastrophe amongst themselves, than the Players did.” Yet, as with Peacham’s purse-stealing anecdote, Gayton’s reminiscing may hit at part of the nature of playhouse entertainment:

I have known upon one of these Festivals [festival days], but especially at Shrovetide, where the Players have been appointed, notwithstanding their bills to the contrary, to act that [which] the major part of the company had a mind to; sometimes Tamburlaine, sometimes Jagurth, sometimes the Jew of Malta, and sometimes parts of all those [emphases added], and at last, none of the three taking, they were forc’d to undressed and put off their Tragick habits, and conclude the day with the merry milk-maides [The Two Merry Milkmaids?]. (Mm3r)

His anecdote suggests that this mix of famous and (today) lesser known playtitles of the period lend themselves to “parts”—to episodic disintegration and repurposing. Richard Preiss suspects that the reason for “none of the three taking” is “that the crowd’s real pleasure comes from the constant interchange of subject matter” (Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre 62-3), and for Preiss this moment represents a tussling for authority over the stage—the crowd against the actors. The outcome, he notes, is that “no ‘play’ can actually transpire from start to finish” (63). As this post is suggesting, though, perhaps the sense of a “start to finish” play might itself be flexible in the period. Here it is taken to extremes, and Gayton’s recollection shows plays being divided and repurposed for a desirous crowd in a collage performance. Again, such evidence must be taken with a pinch of salt, may well be exaggerated for effect, and certainly was not regular practice. Yet Gayton nonetheless offers a model of performance where plays, like playhouses, are sometimes piecemeal and adaptable. Anecdotes about crowds shouting for “Friars” in around 1612 at the Curtain also suggest that the audience’s opinion on play choices was indeed occasionally (habitually?) expressed and was quite possibly heeded (Jenny Sager, The Aesthetics of Spectacle 141).

Gayton continues, painting even more ludicrously carnivalesque scenes, to suggest that if the players didn’t heed the audience, then

the Benches, the tiles, the laths, the stones, Oranges, Apples, Nuts, flew about most liberally [. . .] It was not then the most mimical or fighting man, Fowler, nor Andrew Cane [“mimical” actors of the c.1630s] could pacify [the crowd]; Prologues nor Epilogues would prevail; the Devil and the fool were quite out of favour. Nothing but noise and tumult fills the house, until a cogg take ’um and then to the Bawdy houses, and reform them; and instantly to the Bankside, where the poor Bears must conclude the riot… (Mm3r)

[NB: Heather Knight has pointed out that there are no citrus pips found at the Curtain or Theatre digs: why Gayton refers to oranges here therefore remains somewhat mysterious, though Hentzner’s observations, quoted above, show sales of fruits and nuts during a play…]

He elides the differences between the entertainment, recreation, and service industries of London, seeing playhouses as one among a number of activities that might pacify such a mindless crowd—extending to brothels and bearbaiting arenas. This link between playing and other recreational activity, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere (and here), is present in the vast majority of commentary in the period.

More importantly, perhaps, Gayton also links the foundational “parts” of a playhouse—its tiles and laths—with the “parts” of a play: prologue, epilogue, comic actor, fool, devil. These framing devices, performers, and characters are all seen as equivalents to the “nuts” and bolts of the playhouse itself. They are variously assembled elements of playhouse performance. Similarly, the food and snacks on sale for consumption become (rather intrusive) extensions of a performance event. Gayton’s sketch is a radical vision of selective participation, in which each element of a playhouse and its offerings is scrappable and detached from an overarching, coherent narrative.

Plotting pauses

From where are the apples and nuts of the playhouse coming, and what have they got to do with story? We might use these questions to think further about what narrative does for plays in the period. For instance, might plays accommodate pauses in action to enable the selling and consumption of such wares?

There remains a struggle fully to understand surviving playhouse “plots”—not in the sense of storylines but the practical “backstage” document: a skeleton outline used to map out the entrances, exits, and onstage action (probably) during performance. Part of this struggle is that surviving plots do not always make simple, practical sense: the lack of clarity on entrances and exits in particular (where some characters have just left but reenter, or where “plots” do not indicate adequate entrances or signal adequate exits), for instance, might not mean simply that they are unperformable but may present other possibilities.

In his study of plots, David Bradley makes several propositions including the assertion “that an actor who leaves the stage in one scene will not normally re-enter at the beginning of the next” (From Text to Performance in the Elizabethan Theatre 41). This is not always universally true (hence Bradley’s “normally”), as in Hieronimo’s re-entry in the revised edition of The Spanish Tragedy (1602) immediately after he departs the stage in the previous scene. These could be mistakes or anomalies, but “plots” and the odd surviving “re-entry” could indicate that fluid or uncertain entrances and exits serve for more purposes than simply clearing the stage for the succeeding scene.

Given our relative lack of understanding about both plot and playhouse interactions with audiences, may there have existed a tacit acceptance in the company of a “break” in (some) performances? We are used to thinking, at least in the early years of Elizabethan theatre, that only indoor theatres employed “act-divisions” in any formal sense. Yet it remains possible that surviving texts and theatrical materials (including plots) elide breaks in the action that allowed audiences to top up, buy snacks, talk, or do whatever audiences did in breaks. Bradley raises the possibility that “the universal reticence of Elizabethan stage-directions” could indicate “that regular conventions of entrances, exits, and stage-groupings existed” that needn’t be explicitly signalled in theatrical documents like plots (25). Might that also be true of pauses in performance?


While playhouse, performance, and audience engagement might be seen as a series of moveable parts by onlookers with questionable motives and attitudes, there are also plays that build “selective participation” into their narrative or dramatic structures.

Heywood’s Age plays, the initial prompt for this post, allow audiences to engage in nonsequential spectatorship, dipping in and out as the episodes unfold. As with Lord Mayor’s Shows (which are divided into different pageants throughout the city not necessarily experienced by all spectators as coherent “Show”), it remains quite possible (arguably likely) that audience members could have brought action in and out of focus as they desired—perhaps due to topping up beer, purchasing seafood, talking, or exiting the main “playing area” (whatever that might look like in any given playhouse) before reentry.

The Brazen Age begins with Hercules beating a dragon, then having a love affair, followed by Homer narrating a dumb show. The second act then moves onto Venus and Adonis, then the Caledonian hunt. And so on and so forth. The periodic choruses from Homer provide opportunities to re-centre the audience and udpate them on the loose “narrative” chronology (see more on this below).

Even a play as invested in a particular form of narrative as The Woman in the Moon (a topic Andy has written about) allows audiences the chance to dip in and out. The play is structured as: 1) creating the first woman; 2) planet after planet taking control of this woman (Pandora) with their respective humour; 3) Nature enforcing a conclusion. In this sense, whole planets’ influences could be missed without losing the broad narrative progress, a factor aided by each ascendent planet providing “updates” as the play goes along. Such an engagement undoubtedly reduces the full aesthetic experience of the play, but that does not make it any less possible that audiences took advantage of the opportunity.

Here’s what happened earlier…

Plays with regular choric or interlude interventions particularly lend themselves to punctuated viewing experiences, as they offer useful updates to audiences who may have lost the plot, so to speak.

Robert Greene provides especially helpful examples; Jenny Sager has argued that Greene’s plays have suffered from literary critics’ distaste for “spectacle” as a serious aesthetic and intellectual mode of drama: “each of Greene’s plays is organised around a specific spectacle or attraction, which functions as a distilled unit of impression, which carries profound thematic implications for the work as a whole, but which also retains its significance outside of that particular representational context” (9). In this, they align with individual pageants within the wider contexts of a Lord Mayor’s Show and to their equivalent centrality on visual devices.

Greene’s work is structured around set-pieces, often visual ones, that allow audiences to enjoy, say, talking brazen heads, thunderbolts, mirrors, or songs and dances as discrete elements while also allowing them to be part of the narrative whole of a play. Greene also includes “ways-back-in” should any audience member have demoted narrative from their viewing priorities. The Scottish History of James IV (c.1590) is governed by a framing device in which the god Oberon presents the play’s “main story” to the newly-hermited Bohan. Both reappear “After the first act,” for instance, to provide a narrative update on the play and perform “a rownd of Faieries, or some pritie dance” (E4r-v). They also then set up the following act. Similarly, speeches such as Ogier’s from Orlando Furioso (1592) remind audiences of what has occurred (or not occurred) in the play: “Brave Peeres of France, sith we have past the bounds, / Whereby the wrangling billows seekes for straits, / To war with Tellus, and her fruitfull mines [. . . .] Now let us seeke to venge the Lampe of France, / That lately was eclipsed in Angelica. / Now let us seeke Orlando forth our Peere, / Though from his former wits lately estrangd . . .” (F2r-v). His speech, coming three-quarters through, offers a reminder to those already tuned in and updates those who may have missed the narrative on where we are with these characters: Angelica’s AWOL, Orlando’s mad, and everyone’s on the warpath to some sort of revenge…

As another early example, Amadine in Mucedorus (1590; 1611)—in one of the most (if not the most) popular play of (Elizabethan/)Jacobean England—pauses midway to let us know what’s what: “God grant my long delay procures no harm [. . .] My Mucedorus surely stays for me [. . . ] What a thing is firm unfained love [. . .] My father he may make but I must match, / Segasto loves but Amadine must like, / Where likes her best compulsion is a thrall, / No, no, the hearty choice is all in all [. . .] But what me thinks my shepherd is not come?” (D2r). If one were to enter a production of Mucedorus (if we’re lucky enough to get one now—yes please!) at this mid-way point, one would have all the information necessary to understand the plot so far: Amadine’s in love with Mucedorus, whom she is delayed in meeting here, but her father wants her to marry Segasto, whom she doesn’t love… &c.

Even a play as structured around “story” and around revenge—what John Kerrigan sees as one of the most fundamental units of dramatic “exchange” (Revenge Tragedy 4)—as Shakespeare’s Hamlet offers its audiences updates on the play’s progression. Each of Hamlet’s soliloquies essentially assures spectators that no action has yet taken place: they’ve not missed anything… They’re updates on inaction. While in literary and philosophical terms they draw readers and spectators to the extremes of existential contemplation, they also serve dramatic functions—and one of those functions is to punctuate the “narrative” and retune its audiences. “Here’s what you missed last week on Hamlet…” (Not much, yet…)

This reading would also make some further sense of Cymbeline’s curious extended “recognition” scene. While it continues to baffle as to why it repeats in extended detail everything an audience has literally just seen, it could also be summarising the plot for those who have not seen, or followed, everything. (Again, this is a reductively practical reading that overlooks the other, much more interesting, things that the play’s recognition scene is doing, but it doesn’t preclude the possibility that it’s also a function of Shakespeare’s repetition.)

Numerous plays of the period—Elizabethan and Jacobean—are punctuated with these “updates.” They provide anchor points for spectators reengaging with the play’s narrative having been diverted by set-pieces or spectacles or momentary lack of interest or by the playhouse’s other attractions: food, drink, conversation, roving hands, and adjoining spaces from tavern to alley…

(As a colleague pointed out to me, very few people concentrate for 3 hours in a theatre on every narrative or actorly detail, and it’s human to be distracted by other audience members or peripheral details—and that’s in the playgoing environment of most contemporary theatres, which discourage distraction, movement, and interruption.)

Oversaturated with plot

 George Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1592) is in some respects the antithesis of the Ages plays or indeed the “inaction” of Spanish Tragedy or Hamlet. It’s a play focussed on narrative. “Tale” even features in the title and is the essence of the framing device; in the play, travellers find refuge in a country abode and end up whiling away the evening by listening to their host, an “Old Woman,” tell a story: “I am content to drive away the time with an old wives winters tale.”

She entreats her onstage auditors, “you will say hum & ha to my tale, so shall I know you are awake.” She thereby invites them, like the citizens in the later Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), to interrupt the “plot” by making their presence known. However, immediately after the first interruption, the Old Woman impatiently issues a scurrilous rebuke: “either hear my tale, or kiss my tale” [i.e. listen, or kiss my arse] (B1r-v). The play is set up as an investment in story, and it purports to demand uninterrupted attention from its audience. Yet ironically it also both entreats and accommodates interruption.

On the whole, The Old Wives’ Tale is essentially a bingo card of familiar characters and happenings from popular stories and prose romance. As a consequence, its oversaturation of many recognisable narrative units ultimately undermines the centrality of “plot”: not only does it pack in every conceivable fantasy happening, from princesses to ugly sisters to talking wells to magical caves to overpuffed but inept knights, it does so as a collage or assemblage of popular fictions. Do such structures provide anchor points, like the updates described above, that allow audiences to disengage and re-engage? The play’s onstage auditors set up the “tale” to indicate that its narrative is essentially scrappy in the moment when they first interrupt:

OLD WOMAN. Once upon a time there was a King or a Lord, or a Duke that had a fair daughter, the fairest that ever was [. . .] once upon a time his daughter was stolen away, and he sent all his men to seek out his daughter, and he sent so long, that he sent all his men out of his Land.

FROLIC. Who dressed his dinner then?

OLD WOMAN: Nay either hear my tale, or kiss my tale

FANTASTICKE. Well said, on with your tale Gammer.

OLD WOMAN: O Lord, I quite forgot, there was a Conjuror, and this Conjuror could do anything [. . .] (B1v)

The interruption (which perhaps tellingly mentions refreshments!) causes the Old Woman momentarily to “forget” her story of the King and move onto an entirely new “trope” by introducing the character of the conjuror.

The play itself is the Old Woman’s story, and it is likewise composed of various units, memes, and set-pieces that can be interrupted and resumed without being overfussy about precise narrative detail (“a King or a Lord, or a Duke”) or progression. In this, despite its emphasis on “tale,” it is exactly like the series of vignettes that compose Heywood’s classically-inspired plays.


The above models fall partly into line with the “medley” performance described by Sally-Beth MacLean and Scott McMillin in their influential study of The Queen’s Men and their Plays (1998). For MacLean and McMillin, the medley style is “predominantly visual” and “focuses on objects, costumes, the gestures of actors, and patterns of stage movement; to these elements, spoken language tends to be subordinate” (125). Related to this, the Queen’s Men also acted “by brilliant stereotype” (127), making set-pieces and characters legible to the audience through “unmistakable” signs and sounds.

Medley performance accommodates the various licence granted to actors, in particular comic actors, who are afforded scenes of improvisation and a playful relationship with the audience.

A model of selective participation as suggested in this post borrows this sense of medley performance, but it need not “subordinate” the text at the expense of visual style. Indeed, it allows for the many different modes and elements of early modern performance to be put into play alongside spoken word and poetry. Different audience members may well prioritise one element of performance at any given time depending on their mood or preference.

and after the show it’s the after party, and after the party it’s the hotel lobby

The final example of selective participation comes from some of early modern drama’s investment in clowning and jigging. It’s well known that there is a long and celebrated tradition in Elizabethan and early Jacobean drama of improvisational clowning, in which performers “make” extra sections of play by bantering with audiences, performing set routines, and with other forms of verbal and visual humour. I won’t rehearse the nature of clowning and improvisational licence so well studied by the likes of Preiss and Wiles and others. Yet “jigs” continue to offer structural complications to our ideas of early modern “playgoing.”

Many outdoor commercial plays seemingly ended with “jigs,” until they were supposedly outlawed in the early 1610s. In 1612, an order was issued by the Middlesex General Session of the Peace “for Suppressing of Jigges at the ende of the Playes,”

by reason of certain lewd jigs, songs and dances used and accustomed at the playhouse called The Fortune in Goulding Lane, diverse cutpurses and other lewd and ill-disposed persons in great multitudes do resort thither at the end of every play, many times causing tumults and outrages.

The scene, again from a disapproving authority, sounds a lot like one of Gayton’s sketches of playhouse life.

Yet if some of the audience attends the playhouse solely for the jig, what is that section’s relationship with the play and with the building? David Wiles points out in regard to the Sessions order that “these people could not have come if they had not been able to enter the theatre.” He assumes that such entries as the Sessions order refer to a “swelling of the audience by many who could not afford the entry fee for the main play. While some left, others must have entered…” (Shakespeare’s Clown 47). Yet these questions remain open: Have they paid to attend only the jig, or are they paying a lower price for “late entry”? Is the jig opened up to non-playgoers free, and how does that make economic sense? Is it in order to capitalise on profits from food and drink sales or other items? What has made these jig-goers “lewd” and “ill-disposed” (is it drink? from where?)?

Such jigs are confined to the innyard and outdoor playhouse performances, yet if they feature for some as the main attraction beyond questions of cost (ie entry fees) then perhaps these clues point to playhouses embracing a fluid model of spectatorship—and not one that we think of in (loosely) modern terms of paying at the beginning and then watching the entirety of a closed and defined show.

We also know that playing places—Bel Savage, Bell, Theatre, Curtain—hosted fencing prizes (matches), though we lack detail on when exactly this spectator sport would have been on offer to audiences. Should we make something of Dekker’s parallel of pre-theatre card-play with fencing: “Before the Play begins, fall to cards, you may win or lose (as Fencers do in a Prize)…” (Gull’s C4r)? Would it be the same day as a play performance, and if so would part of a play audience have been those fresh from watching a fight? Would some have left for the play but reentered for a jig? What was the fee for watching a fencing prize at the playhouse and is it related to takings from plays?

These questions seem to me to be closely related to those about individuals visiting the playhouse only for the jig.



The questions raised in this post are not designed to argue against narrative, story, or plot as important parts of early modern plays.

Rather, I wanted to raise the possibility that playhouses and their “performances” offered a more varied experience—indeed, a variety-show experience, which pooled different modes and allowed for selective participation on behalf of audiences, any one of whom could zone in and out depending on what took their fancy and digest performances in chunks, from “song” to improvisational clowning or extemporising to jigs to episodes within a play.

We can’t be certain how the paying structure worked for all playhouses, or to what paying audience members had access (beyond the “auditorium” space). We don’t know exactly how the early playhouses accommodated fencing prizes alongside plays and jigs. This absence of information should open up possibilities for narrative—for our narratives about playgoing and for the narrative of plays.

Plenty of questions remain untouched here, including the differences, for instance, between “new” plays and old—with Henslowe’s diary showing that new plays are generally more lucrative. How does familiarity vs novelty affect an audience member’s engagement with a play and its narrative?

Similarly, there are important distinctions between smaller and likely more elite indoor audiences and the louder and bigger outdoor ones. Yet we hear from sources such as Henry Fitzgeffrey’s Notes from the Blackfriars (1617) that indoor audiences were equally distracted. Do plays for different venues incorporate different structural techniques to allow for or respond to selective participation?

Underlying our sense of early modern playgoing remains a broad belief in the integrity and coherence of plays as they are presented in printed or written text: as bounded and whole.

Yet we should remain open to the possibility that audiences did not digest them whole, that they saw some of them as scraps and that a visit to the playhouse was what John Lyly would call a hotchpotch or mingle-mangle of performances. What Francis Bacon said of books may well have appeared true of plays to the playhouse-goer of Elizabethan and Jacobean England: “some [. . .] are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested” (“Of Books”).


Callan Davies

6 thoughts on “Losing the Plot: Audiences, Scraps of Performance, and Selective Participation

  1. If you want to learn more about “selective participation” in open air performances of early modern plays, talk to some Globe stewards about what they’ve seen there!

    Much of what is described in this post is familiar to me as a regular audience member.


  2. Thanks Callan, this is a really helpful way to read ‘Edward IV’, which I have always thought of as baggily digressive but now think is probably episodic, as you describe. Printed as two plays, I have always wondered how it was performed given that length, and I think now maybe it is referred to as ‘Jane Shore’ (Pestle) or ‘Shore’s wife’ (Henslowe) because they selected the Jane Shore episodes for some performances. Maybe in other performances they focused on the battle scenes or Tanner of Tamworth, or other combinations depending on where it was performed and what players they had available? I’d be interested to know if you have any thoughts on that?


    • Thanks Becky–I really your points about Edward IV, which seem to me quite likely… I suppose it also opens up questions about what a “baggily” (nice term!) printed playtext is doing and how it might represent and/or elide these “patchy” performance options–and in turn how it might be edited today, something Sonia Massai explored in her SQ article from last year, “Editing Shakespeare in Parts”…


  3. Pingback: The Curtain Rises (21 July 2018) | Before Shakespeare

  4. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

  5. Pingback: Pass Ye Remote: A Quest for Early Modern Entertainment Through Online Learning Resources | Before Shakespeare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s