The Elizabethan Office of the Revels begins an important section of its yearly account books headed “Christmas, Newyeares tyde, & Twelfetyde” with descriptions of
“Woorkes doone & Attendaunce geven Abowte the new making, Translating, ffytting, ffurnishing, garnishing, setting owte & Taking in againe, Making cleane & safe bestowing of sundry kyndes of Apparell properties, ffurniture, & Implementes for the playes and maskes” (The National Archives; AO3/907, 1574-5).
Piggybacking on this theatrical accounting practice, we’re reprising our own yearly summary to look back at 2018. This was the year the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded period of Before Shakespeare came to end, so we’re also featuring here some highlights from the whole period of the past two-and-three-quarter years: a celebration of things past and a gesturing forward to things to come. We’re also featuring our now-regular Before Shakespeare Christmas Quiz: good luck!
Let’s start at the beginning, when in one of our first posts Andy referred us to the defining characteristics of playhouses—“their sheer number, their architectural and performance function, their attempts to capitalise on the art of theatre, and most crucially the way they were the product of working people as financiers, artists and core audience”—and asked why we don’t think more often, in more detail, about these features.
That’s something we’ve endeavoured to do, in part, on this site. This year we’ve had several chances to muse on the architectural and performance function of playing spaces like the Curtain or the Blackfriars—in part thanks to events we’ve held at these spaces and in part thanks to contributions that open up new aspects of their histories. This takes us back to our first workshop, for which we reimagined the experience of visiting the Red Lion playhouse in the Elizabethan East End in 1567. Sally-Beth MacLean shared new evidence about the playhouse at Newington Butts, and Laurie Johnson, with his book on the subject hot off the presses, introduced us to the neighbourhood and contexts for the playhouse.
Our event at the Curtain in July of this year, in collaboration with MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) and The Stage, allowed us to bring together the archaeological discoveries and artefacts still being uncovered and interpreted, the plays and comic quips related to the playhouse, and array of different forms of performance—including a star turn from Craig Hamblyn and Kiel O’Shea demonstrating sixteenth-century fencing. Our introduction to the playhouse can be found here.
We were also able to think about the history of the First Blackfriars Playhouse in the early weeks of 2018, its shifting ownership and its importance as a playhouse—an importance often elided in theatre historical narratives that frame it as a secondary or courtly space of rehearsal rather than a commercial venue. Derek Dunne has helped expand our sense of how an area can be connected to performance, authorship, and spectacle thanks to an entertaining account of a handwriting competition in the neighbourhood, asking playfully: who was the best writer of Elizabethan London?
Our workshop on the site of the First Blackfriars Playhouse (now the Apothecaries’ Hall) continued this interest in the neighbourhood surroundings of the venue, asking audiences and participants to inhabit the national diversity and occupational variation that characterised the neighbourhood in sixteenth-century London. It also played out questions of female ownership and agency around playing spaces, while exploring the extraordinary repertory of the First Blackfriars with the Dolphin’s Back. Our overview of the playhouse can be found here.
Some of the questions arising from this workshop were important to our appearance at The National Archives in August 2018, where we considered the centrality of women to commercial playing ventures, often overlooked in traditional narratives of the industry. Our research led to a crossover blog post recently with Engendering the Stage that aims to put these figures back into our account of playhouses, which were definitively not “all-male” spaces.
These issues, and indeed this very post, is about archives. Lucy has asked on this blog what it means for historians to present whole documents without any attempt at imposing comment or narrative, an endeavour encapsulated by the fascinating team of early twentieth-century researchers Hulda Berggen Wallace and Charles William Wallace. Callan addressed similar questions via the fragment or scrap, exploring its imposition of narrative by omission. Both of these explorations also involve restoring women not only to the early modern historical register but to the historiographical work done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
We’ve also considered what occurs within these spaces, particularly reappraising the nature of “play” via the idea of “plot.” Andy has asked us to think again about the significance of plot in plays such as Lyly’s Sapho and Phao , and Callan has written about the patchiness of plot and in turn of audience engagement with plays. If we’re thinking again about our narratives of playhouses we must think, too, about narrative in playhouses.
Related to ideas of plot are questions of genre, and we continue to be interested to hear discussions about this topic as it relates to this period of English drama. Elizabeth Tavares offered a fascinating revision of what genre might be able to offer critics and historians through a compelling reading of the Lord Admiral’s repertory. In part, her post responds to Andy’s provocation about the place of genre in early commercial playhouses and our categories for it. Lord Admiral’s Men are also the subject of Tom Rutter’s post, which asks (by considering what appeals to audiences) what it means to be in fashion as a playing company.
Contemporary performance is one of the central points of energy, excitement, and urgency for the project, and the past two years have been especially lively. We have built up on our site a breadth of resources related to The Woman in the Moon thanks to two recent productions: by The Dolphin’s Back in August 2017 and by Edward’s Boys in March 2018. We have a series of posts, from programme notes, to plot discussion, to interviews with both casts, that can be visited under our Woman in the Moon tag.
Another growing resource point on the site is our work with Emma Frankland and her Galatea project. We joined Emma and her theatremakers and performers in the first R&D week at Jerwood in August 2016 (and you can read Steve Purcell’s response to one of these afternoons here); late last year we were in Cornwall exploring the play’s two “worlds”—the mortals and the deities. Our Galatea tag will take any interested readers to our full series of posts on the subject (including Before Shakespeare’s first foray into the music business, thanks to an interview with Vicky Abbott that features recordings of the play’s and production’s original songs).
That time of year is always a good excuse to meditate upon otherworldly matters, and our Galatea post on mortals touches on Halloween and sacrifice. We’ve also explored what it means to haunt a playhouse and how we might resurrect forgotten figures of the pre-1560s playing industry.
The Performing Words series continues to grow, and it represents the chance to rethink vocabulary and key terms (critical/historical and early modern) that help us make sense of the growth of the commercial theatre industry and plays around and before Shakespeare. To date, there are 8 entries and an introduction. Comments and engagement (and responses) to these threads are, as ever, very much welcomed:
It has been a year (in fact, nearly three years) of collaborations: with audiences, with practitioners and theatremakers, with other academics, and with other projects. One of our more ambitious collaborative events included teaming up with the brilliant TIDE team just over a year ago. We thought about the representation of immigration in the period’s drama and in the cultural landscape of urban and suburban London. Our workshop explored dramatic as well as legal and documentary evidence (from letters to petitions), in order to build up a dynamic picture of the relationship between immigration and performance in the sixteenth-century capital.
Diversity itself has been another key theme. Our conference brought together a variety of people with different interests and specialisms to think through different points of overlap (and response posts can be found on our Conference tag); Andy reflected on how we can push for different forms of scholarship by thinking creatively about how events or conferences might be run.
This also leads onto broader questions about how diversity (in the most flexible senses of the term) is at the heart of much of the drama and the history that forms the primary material for this project. Appearing at BritGrad, Andy and Emma were able to explore Lyly’s interest in this diversity (something inherent in the play itself) and to model ways of taking it forward in dynamic and ambitious directions. In some ways, that brings us round to an academic conference of 2017, where Shakespearean scholars shared a hotel with a furry convention. The confluence prompted Andy to meditate on the issues of diversity, accessibility, and queerness that formed much discussion at that conference but that could perhaps be better modelled in practice. Like discussion about Galatea, or women playhouse owners, or immigrant identities, there is not only a need to restore marginalised identities to our historical narratives, but to honour and build towards diversity—and equity—in our respective professional practices.
We may be for now technically unfunded, but we look forward to continuing to share research in an open manner on our website, invite discussion and debate, and to host events around London. Stay tuned for more on the latter soon. We have paid thanks above to the monetary funds from the AHRC (and from the University of Roehampton and King’s College) that made the project possible, but we must also heartily thank the other funds that have enabled the last three years: the openness, engagement, and above all the generosity of readers, audiences, and collaborators. Thank you, and have a Merry Christmas and New Year! We leave you with our less-than-accomplished 9 Days of Before Shakespeare rhyme (imagine Queen Elizabeth singing) that structures this year’s Christmas Quiz:
On the first day of Christmas, my nobles’ troupes beguiled me
On the second day of Christmas, my astrologer flirted futilely
On the third day of Christmas, my yeoman acted slyly
On the fourth day of Christmas, inevitably some Lyly
On the fifth day of Christmas, my clown joked very drily
On the sixth day of Christmas, who threw shade on Marley?
On the seventh day of Christmas, those who acted far too noisy
On the eighth day of Christmas, one who had no life of Riley
Callan and Before Shakespeare