Current Book Project
The Repertory System Before Shakespeare
Playing the Stock Market
In Playing the Stock Market, I examine the ways in which the repertory system galvanized innovation in playing techniques, playhouse design, and playtext production in the generation immediately preceding Shakespeare. Each chapter focuses on one season and one of four playing companies to expose the thematic concerns and staging techniques that set a given company apart. This cross-company exploration surprisingly underscores the fact that it was repetition, revision, and collaboration rather than novelty that produced financial success in this theatrical marketplace. These innovations included the up-cycling of a man-drawn chariot prop in five Lord Admiral’s Mediterranean plays, as well as how trumpet calls correlated thematically with blocking strategies for Pembroke’s players—with politically volatile results.While there are individual biographies of many early Renaissance theatre companies, there is no work yet that has compared them to one another or worked to establish which of their practices were distinct to individual house styles and which were industry norms. Likewise, there has been no explicit attention given to the unique affordances made possible by the repertory system, either in the sixteenth century or today’s theatre industry. Attending to this collaborative process, I show how dramaturgical innovation and literary production were mutually constitutive drivers, as well as how the Elizabethan theatre industry became the engine from which an oeuvre like Shakespeare’s and the cult of authorship evolved.
In late sixteenth-century London, playgoers were spoiled for choice when it came to professional theatre. At its height, there were nearly fifty playing troupes, twelve amphitheaters, nine playhouses, and six inn-yards available to them, some literally across the lane from one another. If an afternoon’s offerings were relatively unknown until a playgoer got to the venue, and proximity was not a factor when selecting entertainment, how did one choose? Scholars have offered a range of labels to clarify the agency of playing companies—from contemporaneous ascriptions such as “players,” “servants,” “men,” and “troupe,” to contemporary economic formations such as “actor-collectives” (Keenan 2014), “syndicates” (Hirschfeld 2004), “teams” (Schoone-Jongen 2008), and “weak fellowships” (van Es 2013)—as a means to account for this dynamic marketplace. While many biographies of specific companies have moved forward the conversation about how troupes did or did not differentiate themselves (e.g., McMillin and MacLean 1998, Bly 2000, Munro 2005, Walsh 2009, Manley and MacLean 2014), there is as yet no comparative study of which staging practices were distinct to individual companies and which were shared amongst them. Without such scholarship we risk making erroneous claims regarding what material practices constituted “Shakespearean performance,” and which did not.Audience theorists contend that playgoers referenced a horizon of expectations established by previous playgoing experiences, personal aesthetic preferences, and topical themes. In Playing the Stock Market, I investigate the ways in which playing companies managed playgoer expectations through the repertory system. It is useful to think of repertory as two-fold to understand how this system for mitigating financial risk affected the composition of plays and innovations in stage technology. Repertory refers to the set of plays collected by a company over time, which would have been inflected by the capabilities of company personnel and popular preferences for particular props, architectural features, and special effects available at a given venue. Repertory also refers to the day-to-day rotation of plays. Rarely performed twice in a week, available records show no signs of pre-determined scheduling; the constant rotation mitigated the effects of intermittent closures due to Puritan protests or plague outbreaks. My book demonstrates that the most financially successful and longest running companies used the repertory system to construct a diverse portfolio of dramatic properties as a means to leverage the risks of innovation against the safety of revising old playtexts.Playing companies were early adopters of the joint-stock model: a cooperative made up of shares owned by stakeholders—which is to say, players. Joint-stock companies used the same model as the Levant Company, a merger of Italian and Turkish merchants in the early 1580s intended to regulate trade with the Ottoman Empire followed later by the now-infamous East India (1600) and Virginia (1606) companies. They were all part of an Age of Projects: a period of new, practical schemes driven by “industry and ingenuity” and motivated “to make money, to employ the poor, or to explore the far corners of the earth” (Thirsk 1978). Rather than rely on the more common guild structure, the playing industry instead coopted this then state-of-the-art financial product of pre-capital Europe. It is therefore necessary to examine the early modern English playing companies as fundamentally economic entities.To date, narratives of Elizabethan theatre history tend to be playwright- and Shakespeare-centric. In response, I define the economic commonplaces of the professional theatre industry before Shakespeare entered the marketplace by following the organizing principle of the period: the companies. When we read plays in repertory—in sets according to the troupes who first performed them—what gets revealed? How did their staging techniques manifest into distinct house styles? And what aspects of the collaborative process were industry norms and which idiosyncratic? For example, a reading of the 1592–93 Strange’s Men season reveals a sudden fad for Mediterranean plays, including The Battle of Alcazar and The Jew of Malta, while a similar survey of the 1587–88 Queen’s Men reveals the company’s distinctive practice of incorporating extra-theatrical spectacles such as tumbling into their performances. In other instances, however, the repertory system set limits on company output, such as when Pembroke’s players, with Ben Jonson, were arrested after a slanderous performance of The Isle of Dogs. Each chapter focuses on one season and one of four major companies to expose interconnections between thematic and dramaturgical concerns that set one another apart. By sketching the Elizabethan theatre’s evolution, I widen our vantage of this dramatic landscape by providing unexamined, anonymous, and even lost plays cultural specificity within their repertorial contexts.
This book makes three major contributions to the fields of theatre history and performance studies. First, it reorients the conversation away from the biographies of individual plays, poets, and companies, and toward the collaborative process that made those individuals possible. It entails a combination of archival research anchored in payment records from the 1580s and early 1590s, as well as analyses of individual playtexts. Rather than close-read a single text for each chapter, I examine whole repertories—forty-two plays across four companies—to identify dramaturgical trends. Through this middle-distant strategy, I posit a house style for each company. To distill their features, I do close-read two to three individual plays as emblematic of each house style. Drawing from across the canon situates known and unknown texts in relation to one another as well as demonstrates the poverty of authorship as an organizing principle for analysis of drama from this period (cf. Steggle 2015 and Lopez 2014).Second, this book proposes that curation is a hermeneutic best equipped to account for the two unique aspects of repertory as a system: 1) the collective process of selecting plays and 2) the uneven accrual of the plays a company came to own and was associated with over time. The term curation and analyses of curatorial logic come from the field of museum studies and art history (Obrist 2008, 2014; O’Neill 2012; Balzer 2014). I use the vocabulary developed by fine arts practitioners to establish clear criteria for what would have constituted a house style in the Renaissance. I introduce the term house style as referring to the targeted experience produced by the preferred performance strategies of a given company as a collective. My work necessarily draws, therefore, on the disparate fields committed to studying performance as a cognitive ecology rather than an individual endeavor. This is evinced in the scholarship rethinking how architecture conditioned the early modern experience of playgoing (Nardizzi 2013, Yiu 2015), particularizing the rehearsal practices (Tribble 2011; Stern 2000, 2007, and 2009), and enumerating the documents of troupe movement (Keenan 2002, Knutson 1991 and 2001). These sub-fields make the gaps all the more apparent: namely, the need to identify the house styles of individual companies that shaped the marketplace in which Shakespeare would come to train.Third, my book offers repertorial curation as a paradigm for framing the meaning made by the scheduling of plays under the rubric of the playing company rather than by genre or theme. Perhaps one of the most mysterious aspects of the repertory model is how a company—operating collectively, without a director, under the aforementioned conditions, and premiering new material on one rehearsal (at best)—decided what play to put on each day. A framework like repertorial curation is necessary because, otherwise, assumptions stemming from audience behaviors entrenched in a post-eighteenth-century model—under the proscenium arch, in a black box, with choreographed moments for applause whether audiences appreciate the event or not—creep into the stories told about the theatre of earlier periods. The geography of the theatre landscape of England also challenges the entrenched notion that, as historically-situated individuals, we “don’t always click” or select for the same reasons (Balzer 2014).
The first two chapters describe the unique affordances inherent to the repertory system and how they enabled companies to cultivate distinctive theatrical experiences. The introduction will define repertory in its late sixteenth-century context, reified with examples from current professional theatre festivals and video-on-demand. In order to establish the kind of work repertory studies can pursue—work that resides in that grey space between questions a historian might ask (who were these playgoers) and those of a literary critic (what audiences did these plays envision)—I delineate a middle-distant strategy of reading a company’s body of work rather than just individual playtexts. It concludes with a series of myths that have become entrenched in Shakespeare Studies and demonstrates how following the numbers upends them.As an initial case of reading thematically, Chapter One, Fads and Foreigners: The Lord Strange’s Men and Their Mediterranean Plays, establishes that this company dedicated a great deal of their resources to cultivating a fad for Mediterranean plays in their 1592–1593 season, just before a major outbreak of plague that closed down the playhouses. A majority of their active properties, including The Battle of Alcazar, as well as nearly all of their new material, like A Looking Glass for London and England, turned to Mediterranean settings in order to examine issues such as the Portuguese succession crisis, Elizabeth I’s marriage proposal from the Moroccan king, and reciprocity as a political posture that threatened Reformation models of communal ethics. The whitewashing produced by an exclusive focus on Shakespeare’s plays has erased our notions of the great number of people of color living in England at this time and the stories such as these circulating about them on its stages—to great financial success.The succeeding pair of chapters examines the political functions of the repertory system. In Chapter Two, Presentation and Polyphony: The Queen’s Men and Their History Plays, I demonstrate the company’s processes of innovation by reading these texts for their staging specialties rather than literary themes. Largely overlooked is the fact that the company toured in two halves when not in London starting in 1587–1588. Thus, I first sketch the extra-theatrical strategies of each branch suggested by the touring record and stage directions. In part because their repertory was infrequently refreshed, I argue these extratheatricals were one of two features that would have distinguished them from other companies. The other was their endemic use of the dramaturgical strategy I term triptychs: the blocking together of three members of the same socio-economic group to collectively voice concerns of the commonwealth. I attend in particular to the starving watchmen in King Lier, the disgruntled Fressingfield merchants in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and the mischievous pages in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. Rather than read the Queen’s Men in terms of conservative propaganda, I argue that their modes of presentation and touring practices made room for political critique from below.In Chapter Three, Personnel and Properties: The Lord Admiral’s Players and Their Supplemented Plays, I recover the strategies of playing for the company routinely imagined as the main rivals of Shakespeare and “his” Chamberlain’s Men by focusing on the repertory from the first half of their career, attending particularly to 1589–1590. Known then as the Admiral’s Players, I trace each instance of the company’s penchant for combining with another, referred to by critics as “amalgamated” or “supplemented” playing. Frequently seen in Court Christmas festivities and premieres of new work—such as the massive personnel requirements of II Tamburlaine the Great, The Wounds of Civil War, and The Reign of King Edward III—these combinations suggest that the company prioritized up-cycled props, pairings with other companies, and consistently new stock (rather than revisions) as distinct features.Extending beyond this historical frame, Chapter Four, Sounds and Sennets: Factional Politics and the Lord Pembroke’s Players, considers elements that limited rather than sponsored repertorial development after 1597–1598 and once Shakespeare was a major factor in the market. I employ the company’s infamous Isle of Dogs fiasco—which caused the closure of a playhouse, the exile of a playwright, and the arrest of a company—as an extreme case of a repertory invested in issues of censorship. I pay special attention to their War of the Roses plays to posit two new staging techniques hitherto unacknowledged as part of the company’s tactics: the extensive use of trumpet calls and blocking arrangements that together emphasized interrelations between political factions. I then juxtapose The Taming of a Shrew and The Taming of the Shrew to demonstrate the ideological consistency of this house style even in the revision of old stock. While the text of the Isle of Dogs is lost, in recovering the company’s indicative manner of presentation I theorize what strategies (symbolic sound and blocking) and political questions to which the Privy Council was sensitive (the efficacy of factionalism) the play may have emphasized—as well as put them at odds with the Master of the Revels.Finally, the Conclusion: The Politics of Appropriation in Titus Andronicus and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay will trace the lives of the two plays owned by four of the five major companies as examples of the collective agency companies exerted. These micro-histories will be contextualized by a summative examination of all of the surviving quarto title pages from this period to demonstrate that these documents are far more reliable markers of popularity for Elizabethan companies rather than authorship. When curated successfully, these repertories had the power to appeal to all stripes of playgoer and political orientation, thus recovering our sense of the Elizabethan playing companies as no longer merely an act of imaginative reconstruction.
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The field of early English theatre history has experienced significant growth in the last decade. This has been instigated by several company biographies coming into print (Bly 2000, Griffith 2014, Gurr 2009, Manley and MacLean 2014, Munro 2005, Walsh 2009), the wave of digitization projects making the documents of performance widely available through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) and Early English Books Online (EEBO), and new archaeological discoveries led by Heather Knight at the Curtain playhouse dig this past summer. A major AHRC-funded initiative, “Before Shakespeare: The Beginnings of London Commercial Theatre, 1565–1595,” convened several conferences, panel sessions, and special issues over the last two years responding to the burgeoning interest in this archive.Despite this, in addition to the one essay collection (Ostovich et al), the monographs that focus on repertory as a topic (Knutson 1991, Rutter 2017) both begin their study in 1594, once Shakespeare enters the marketplace, and focus only on two or fewer companies to which he was attached in some way as a playwright. In contrast, my book project (a) prioritizes the earliest records of professionally playing in England to trace how this system developed regardless of author, (b) is the first to compare material practices such as personnel and props rather than focus solely on literary themes, and (c) is the first to compare performance practices across several companies in order to determine what practices were and were not distinct to each.Additionally, there is no book in economic history, literary studies, or theatre studies that treats repertory as a system of playing in other cultures or time periods, aside from a cultural study of memory in the Americas (Taylor 2003). This is despite the fact that repertory is a system widely used in the US and UK, and exclusively so in Germany. It was odd even in the sixteenth century: major Italian cities like Venice were using the seasonal model of staging two operas a summer, running one opera until ticket sales sank prohibitively low before starting rehearsal for a second. The joint-stock model upon which the repertory system relied was the same used by early modern trade ventures, as previously discussed, and so is explicitly tied to the economic structures that made global exploration and, by extension, the slave trade possible. Therefore, this study of an early economic model that made theatre possible has wide-ranging implications, from current theatre practices to histories of racialized commerce.To date, my publications have examined the material factors that drove the development of these distinctions. They include how the evolution of the inner-stage technology known as the Heavens influenced the Lord Strange’s Men’s repertoire; the up-cycling of a man-drawn chariot prop in no less than five of the Lord Admiral’s Mediterranean tyrant plays (starring Edward Alleyn); and how specific trumpet calls correlated thematically with blocking strategies for Pembroke’s players. These endeavors counterbalance the ways in which Shakespeare’s biography has muddied the story of the Elizabethan theatrical experience. Having won prizes and featured in special issues, this research agenda’s success reinforces the viability of a book-length study of repertory before Shakespeare.To promote this book’s publication, I will seek out speaking engagements in conjunction with the press’s advertising at academic conferences such as the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA), and the Renaissance Society of America (RSA); the regional Pacific Northwest Renaissance Society (PNRS) and Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conferences; as well as in publications read by Shakespeare and English theatre scholars, such as Shakespeare Quarterly, Renaissance Drama, English Literary History, and Early Theatre. I also have relationships with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Portland Book Festival, at which I anticipate giving public lectures on my research.
Most academic and popular discussions of Elizabethan playing companies remain focused on genres, particularly the English history play, and the role of Shakespeare. Theatre historians have demonstrated, however, that playwrights and playhouses make poor principles of inclusion for study of Renaissance drama. The playing company was the source of collaboratively creative output as much as it was the bearer of financial risk. Playing was also the only profession of the period that operated without the political and economic safety-net of guild infrastructure. By integrating analyses of the material conditions of performance, my work contributes to recent, lively scholarly conversations on original practices as well as how processes of collective decision-making shaped early modern habits of mind.
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