Minor plays

One of the concerns of Before Shakespeare is the impact of the canon on contemporary performance, editorial practice and theatre history. Dramatists, like playhouses, are often divided, either explicitly or implicitly, into groups deemed major or minor. Over the next four weeks, we’ll be publishing papers from the 2019 annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America’s  in Washington DC. Our second paper comes from Eoin Price and was written for a seminar on ‘Shakespeare and “Minor” Dramatists’ (note the sceptical quotation marks), with thanks to all the seminar participants for a fruitful discussion, and particularly David McInnis and Tom Rutter for organising and chairing us so effectively. Follow the links to read the other posts in the series, by Robert Stagg, BK Adams and Andy Kesson.

This post will address the subject of minor dramatists by considering the phenomenon of the minor play. Many of the plays scholars now think are minor (or, to put it more accurately, that they don’t really think about at all) were written by writers often thought of as major dramatists. Conversely, some of the period’s most famous plays have been written by writers who scholars nonetheless tend to treat as minor. Gesturing to the careers of John Fletcher and John Webster, this paper will place the supposedly major plays these playwrights produced next to the larger mass of apparently minor material they also authored. My aim is to shed light on the vexed terms, ‘minor’ and ‘major’ which are so central to this seminar. The broad critical consensus about what constitutes a major dramatist (or, to put it in other terms, a dramatist worth reading or performing) is usually dependent upon the perceived worth of a very small percentage of that author’s known work. In this post, I investigate what we can gain by putting these supposedly minor plays next to the apparently major plays of apparently major dramatists. I also want to query what it is that makes one play receive canonical status when another by the same author does not. My interest, then, is in offering one way (no doubt of many) that might complicate a major/minor binary. Fascinatingly and infuriatingly, the plays and dramatists I discuss are both minor and major at the same time, depending on the frameworks through which they are viewed.

Before I can do any of this, I need to attempt to address some of the different methods by which we might measure majority and minority. I do not intend the following suggestions to be comprehensive, but in the spirit of the seminar, I want to contribute to an ongoing discussion about the quantification of canonical value, by asking not only what is commonly deemed canonical, but why, and how. I suspect that, in the main, many of us working in the area of early modern theatre studies (or, if we must, Shakespeare studies), will have a broad agreement about what constitutes a major dramatist or play, even if our reasons (often undeclared), may vary. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, arguably also Middleton: these writers, the academy seems to have agreed, get to be called major dramatists. But I also suspect that many of us will have contrasting ideas about where exactly to draw the line between the major and the minor, whether we should draw a line, or what we should do to resist the drawing of lines by others. And it also occurs to me that as participants in a seminar called ‘Minor Dramatists’, we are likely to have more permissive ideas about what constitutes a major dramatist than our colleagues elsewhere in the profession, or outside of it. Beaumont and Fletcher, it seems to me, are major dramatists, by many definitions, but they are canonically peripheral in other respects, certainly in relation to the looming presence of Shakespeare. Those of us in this seminar may agree that Fletcher, say, deserves the status of ‘major’ dramatist, but there will be many people inside and outside our profession, who will not agree. If a dramatist fails to obtain the status of ‘major’, by whatever method we may choose to apply, is that to say that they are perforce ‘minor’? The abstract for this seminar suggests that Brome, Heywood, Nashe and Shirley fall short of major status, as it is conventionally defined, but implies that they are not minor either. These writers, perhaps, and presumably many others, exist in the hinterland between the major and the minor (the manor, if you are looking for a portmanteau). So, from the outset, there are questions that we might ask about the efficacy of the terms ‘major’ and ‘minor’ and the ease with which we can slot a particular play or author into a given category.

But whether we like it or not, the terms ‘major’ and ‘minor’ retain power. Being classified as a major writer brings with it a host of benefits. Major writers are more likely to be edited, read, studied, taught, performed, watched, adapted, and quoted. If a play or writer is not conventionally viewed as major then it is usually the job of the editor, scholar, critic, or performer to justify that text or dramatist’s importance. Equally, the term ‘minor’ is a powerful word which can restrict its subject, binding it to a narrow context. Minor dramatists are usually background context which might help better illuminate the canonically central major works our field is more generally interested in. Often, the idea of minority is simply implied. Scholars say a lot about their canonical values by what they choose to write about. But to describe a dramatist as minor is not necessarily to describe a poor, or even an insignificant writer. While they remain contestable, the terms have their uses too. To use them is to acknowledge, rather than to deny or elide, the force of the canon. If we are to use them, though, then the question of how best to apply them remains.

Consider, for example, the vexed question of a play’s popularity. There are several ways in which we might attempt to measure this. The work of Alan B. Farmer, Zachary Lesser, and Peter Blayney has helped provide a methodology for gauging print popularity, while contributors to volumes by Andy Kesson and Emma Smith and Matthew Dimmock and Andrew Hadfield have helped to confront prejudices about popularity and popular culture, repositioning work previously thought of as minor as majorly significant.[1] Such approaches have made it easier for us to appreciate the success of plays which had traditionally received very little attention, such as Mucedorus (which undergoes sixteen editions from 1598). Similarly, the burgeoning study of lost plays, pioneered by scholars such as Roslyn Knutson, David McInnis, Matthew Steggle, and Martin Wiggins, offers a challenge to ingrained ideas about early modern popularity which focus only on printed play texts.[2] David Nicol’s charming ‘Henslowe’s Diary…as a Blog!’ is a useful accompaniment to such endeavours, as it helps make even more visible the frequent performances of plays which did not make it into print.[3] ‘The Wise Man of West Chester’, for example, frequently outperformed plays like The Jew of Malta, which are now much more famous. By most definitions ‘The Wise Man of West Chester’ is minor (who outside of a theatre history seminar is likely to have heard of it?) but it may not have seemed like a minor play to the audiences who watched it, or to Philip Henslowe, who raked in the money from it. We can see a similar scrambling of the canon in the work of scholars like Laura Estill, whose work on dramatic extracts shows the range of play texts from which early modern readers liked to quote.[4] We have, then a disparity between modern and early modern conceptions of majority and minority, and one of the things we try to do to address this, is attempt to recover evidence of a play’s success in its earliest context.

One of the things that scholarship seems much less likely to do, however, is to think about the chasm between a play’s point of composition or performance and our own time. When constructing, or attempt to challenge the construction of, the early modern dramatic canon, scholars tend to privilege the early modern (or, maybe it is better to say that scholars have privileged the earlier, early modern). We pay more attention to a play’s earliest significance and tend to occlude the long and extraordinary stage lives that some plays enjoyed. In what follows, then I want to examine what might happen if we shifted our focus to that bit in between the modern and the early modern. How might this change our understanding of the status of the early modern canon? Consider, for example, the case John Fletcher. Setting to one side the complex issue of authorship attribution (who he wrote these plays with; how much of them he wrote, etc.), the list below represents the generally agreed upon parameters of the Fletcher canon, in the chronology that accords with their entry in Wiggins’ Catalogue:

Cupid’s Revenge

The Faithful Shepherdess

Philaster

The Coxcomb

The Woman’s Prize

The Scornful Lady

A King and No King

The Maid’s Tragedy

The Captain

All is True

Cardenio

The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn

Four Plays in One

The Honest Man’s Fortune

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Bonduca

Valentinian

The Night-Walkers

Wit Without Money

Love’s Cure

Monsieur Thomas

Love’s Pilgrimage

Beggars’ Bush

The Mad Lover

The Chances

Thierry and Theodoret

The Queen of Corinth

The Elder Brother

The Knight of Malta

The Loyal Subject

The Humorous Lieutenant

Sir John van Oldenbarnevelt

The Custom of the Country

The Bloody Brother

The False One

The Wild-Goose Chase

Women Pleased

The Island Princess

A Very Woman

The Pilgrim

The Double Marriage

The Prophetess

The Sea Voyage

The Nice Valour

The Spanish Curate

The Little French Lawyer

The Maid of the Mill

The Wandering Lovers

A Wife for a Month
Rule a Wife and Have a Wife

The Fair Maid of the Inn

The Noble Gentleman

Fletcher wrote a lot of plays which were preserved either in print or manuscript. But how many of these plays would we deem major, and by what criteria? If we were to list these plays by what we now think of as canonical importance then I suspect we would get something like this:

Cardenio

All is True

The Two Noble Kinsmen

The Woman’s Prize

The Maid’s Tragedy

The Island Princess

Philaster

A King and No King

I’m not using a very scientific methodology, I know, but these are the plays most commonly featured in recent criticism, or the plays most frequently performed (not that any of them are all that regularly staged). In putting Cardenio top I’m acknowledging (and arguably privileging) the energies invested in reconstructing, editing, and performing the play in the last decade. Behind this list I might be inclined to add Bonduca, maybe Valentinian, perhaps a clutch of the boy company plays. The fact that it very quickly gets very tricky to call to attention criticism on most of the other plays is instructive.

The conception of the canon I have very sketchily outlined above (and do have a go at coming up with your own version, I’d love to know what you end up with) is obviously influenced by Shakespeare. Shakespeare either co-writes (Cardenio, All is True, The Two Noble Kinsmen) or directly influences (The Woman’s Prize, The Island Princess) several of the Fletcher plays to have received much extended attention. The other plays I listed – The Maid’s Tragedy, Philaster, A King and No King – were plays that seemed to have been especially successful for the company Shakespeare was a sharer in, while Shakespeare was still alive. So we have here, two shaping canonical forces acting at once: the appeal of a play’s perceived original success on the one hand, and the value attached to Shakespeare on the other. Fletcher’s claim to canonical status seems to rest largely on these two impulses. What is interesting, though, is that this perceived sense of canonical importance does not map very easily on to other time periods. Consider, for example, the case of Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, a play near the bottom of the above list based on chronology but probably also near the bottom based on current canonical status. Rule a Wife and Have a Wife is only a passing reference even in the major Fletcher monographs but it was an extraordinary theatrical success. Wiggins’ catalogue entry only gives us a little sense of the play’s resilience: he notes that it was first performed in 1624 by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars and then, in November of the same year ‘for the ladies at court’ and in December at Whitehall Palace (Wiggins #2141). The only other recorded performance noted in the catalogue is a February 15 1635 Blackfriars performance witnessed by John Greene. The relatively limited information we have about the play’s earliest performances does not condition us to expect that it might qualify as a major play, but a cursory glance at the bounty of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century material confirms that Rule a Wife and Have a Wife was a play of major interest theatrically. The images of Frances Abington in the role of Estifania, and David Garrick in the role of Leon, are merely two examples of many that attest to the long stage life of this now largely forgotten play.

Rule a Wife and Have a Wife is only one example of a supposedly minor play which proved resilient enough to appear theatrically viable for centuries after its first performance. Beggars’ Bush now resides at the fringes of the Fletcher canon but was performed frequently, in different forms until around 1816. It was adapted into droll form and retitled as ‘The Lame Commonwealth’ in Francis Kirkman’s The Wits (1662). The beggar-king Claus even appears on the volume’s famous cover. The play was a staple of the early Restoration stage and was reworked for several theatres, across the eighteenth century. We can see evidence of this reworking in early eighteenth-century promptbooks housed at the Huntington Library and the Harry Ransom Center. Later in the century, the play, always famous for its songs, was adapted into an opera. In 1816 it was adapted again, and renamed The Merchant of Bruges. Like Rule a Wife and Have a Wife this play, and its later stage, has received very little critical attention. If we attend to these plays in more detail we should learn more about what made them so significant. What also interests me about the success of Rule a Wife, Beggars’ Bush, The Chances, and other supposedly minor plays to have sustained theatrical success in this period, is that their success comfortably outstrips that of the plays we tend now to treat as canonical. Not only, then, are some plays that seem relatively unimportant to us, important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but plays which we think are major now did not necessarily seem major then. If we are to get a better handle on the complex politics of the canon, then we must engage more fully with the evidence of centuries between then and now.

Of course, we don’t need a play to have received the approval of eighteenth-century performers and audiences in order for us to consider it as a major play (or in order for us to reject its status as minor). My broader point, then, is about the canons within canons, the sharp differentiation between the handful of plays we exalt and the majority of plays we implicitly consider minor. John Webster seems an especially pertinent example. Rightly or wrongly, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil tower above Webster’s other plays. The irony here is that most of these plays are collaborative comedies. The man T.S. Eliot said could see ‘the skull beneath the skin’ was also an astute observer of the skin above the skull. He wrote of life, in all its vicissitudes and complexities, far more frequently than he ever wrote of death. What might it mean, then, to give Webster his due as a comedian and collaborator? It is striking that the two plays that confirm, for us, Webster’s canonical status are at odds with what he spent most of his life writing. That, surely, has to be a reason to pay greater attention to those ‘minor’ plays, but I suppose it is not necessarily an endorsement of their right to ‘major’ status.

The irony of major status is that it can only be achieved by a minority. We need to have minor plays to have major plays. The question, then, is whether we need major plays, or major dramatists, at all. What do we stand to gain, or lose, when we make a canonical claim? And since there is only so much space in the canon, what do we down, or out, when we move up, or across?

Eoin Price

[1] See, for example Farmer and Lesser, ‘The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 56 (2005), 1-32, Blayney, ‘The Alleged Popularity of Playbooks’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 56 (2005), 33-50; Kesson and Smith, eds. The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England (Farnham, Ashgate, 2013); Dimmock and Hadfield, eds. Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

[2] See, for example, the Lost Plays Database. eds. Knutson, McInnis, and Steggle (https://lostplays.folger.edu/); McInnis and Steggle, eds. Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2014); Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-)

[3] Nicol, ‘Henslowe’s Diary…as a Blog!’ (http://hensloweasablog.blogspot.com/)

[4] Estill, Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century English Manuscripts: Watching, Reading, Changing Plays (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2015). See also, Estill, ‘Introducing DEx: A Database of Dramatic Extracts’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13 (2013), 128-130.

4 thoughts on “Minor plays

  1. Pingback: What is a minor dramatist? or, three types of minority | Before Shakespeare

  2. First sentence: the concerns of “Before Shakespeare” is the impact of the canon on contemporary performance, editorial practice and theatre history..
    Its not possible to get over this first sentence:. Why such poor inferior concerns (leading to nothing) . Why ignoring, neglecting, denying completely the authorship problem ?
    https://studio.youtube.com/channel/UCz4QMuAf1eRRtu9QuX40MoQ/videos/upload?filter=%5B%5D&sort=%7B%22columnType%22%3A%22views%22%2C%22sortOrder%22%3A%22DESCENDING%22%7D
    Are you seriously of the opinion that a Problem of authorship does not exist?
    There seems to be a critical need for a younger new generation.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Mediators of the wor(l)d: editors, Shakespeare, and inclusion | Before Shakespeare

  4. Pingback: Shakespeare as minor dramatist | Before Shakespeare

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