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The Cambridge History of British Theatre
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Volume 1 of The Cambridge History of British Theatre begins in Roman Britain and ends with Charles II's restoration to the throne imminent. The four essays in Part I treat pre-Elizabethan theatre, the eight in Part II focus on the riches of the Elizabethan era, and the seven in Part III on theatrical developments during and after the reigns of James I and Charles I. The essays are written for the general reader by leading British and American scholars, who combine an interest in the written drama with an understanding of the material conditions of the evolving professional theatre which the drama helped to sustain, often enough against formidable odds. The volume unfolds a story of enterprise, innovation and, sometimes, of desperate survival over years in which theatre and drama were necessarily embroiled in the politics of everyday life: a vivid subject vividly presented.


‘A valuable contribution to scholarship through nineteen fine essays.'

Source: Sixteenth Century Journal

‘This work makes delightful reading.'

Frederick Tollini Source: Renaissance Quarterly

'… a set that will stand as the most valuable resource on British theater for some time to come. Essential.'

Source: Choice

'… exceptional … destined to prove one of the most erudite, and yet accessible, resources for theatre scholars and students as well as serious theatre practitioners … must be hailed as perhaps the most carefully compiled and comprehensively covered history ever attempted … I know of no library that has any other theatre history (focusing exclusively on British Theatre) on its shelves to challenge this great new work's pole position in the theatre reference stakes … All in all a great work.'

Source: Amateur Stage

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  • 1 - From Roman to Renaissance in drama and theatre
    pp 1-69
  • View abstract
    Today, the rise and fall of the phantom Roman Empire and its cultural dominion seem far-off events in a sequence hard to imagine, hard to suggest as even tangentially important to a modern history of British theatre. With the single blink of an eye, a contemporary theatre aficionado with interests in scripts, stages and costumes might quickly bypass whole centuries of Roman invasion, occupation and cultural colonialism. Theatres in the towns of Britannia like Verulamium provided sites for entertaining the well-to-do crowd and they also provided a home for communal gatherings of all kinds. In ancient Rome and its provinces, theatres were used for a number of purposes, some of the earliest ones clearly religious. Twenty-first-century theatre historians face a similar challenge in dealing with medieval drama at a time in history when religious faith is suspect in public ceremony and certainly abandoned on stage.
  • 2 - Faith, pastime, performance and drama in Scotland to 1603
    pp 70-86
  • View abstract
    From the fifteenth century, the major Scottish towns enjoyed a rich diet of both processional and static events involving theatrical elements in tableau or scripted form at Corpus Christi. Particularly in the poetry of Dunbar, but also in the 'Christis Kirk' genre, and Gavin Douglas's The Palice of Honour, one can find direct references to play events and descriptions of them, together with allusions, echoes, satires, imitations and evocations of the world of play. A visual imagination which draws poetic and theatrical traditions together shows up in the penchant for set-piece scenes of observed and interpreted spectacle in non-dramatic Scots writing of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This cross-fertilisation of poetry and play goes some way to compensate for the country's lack of playtexts, but it also creates an impression of Scottish cultural homogeneity centred on pastime, performance and drama.
  • 3 - The Bible as play in Reformation England
    pp 87-115
  • View abstract
    One might suppose that the rise in Bible reading and the literacy it engendered during the English Reformation rendered obsolete the demand for popularly produced biblical plays. For centuries such plays had been among the few means by which the general populace learned about the Bible and its stories, the Catholic Church having restricted reading it to those who knew Latin. In tracing the history of biblical drama in Reformation England to about 1580, this chapter discusses the attitudes and policies of early Tudor Protestant authorities on drama, which favoured the treatment of biblical subjects. The chapter considers the scriptural drama of the early Reformation, centring on the plays of its most original and influential figure, John Bale. It focuses on representative biblical plays of different auspices: Mary Magdalene as a typical professional-troupe interlude; Jacob and Esau as exemplary of school drama; Ezechias as illustrating both court and university drama.
  • 4 - Drama in 1553: continuity and change
    pp 116-136
  • View abstract
    Schools and universities were very active in 1553 in promoting dramatic activities. Drama offered training in a number of ways. It helped with public speaking and the art of rhetoric, which was fundamental to Tudor education. The school at St Paul's became very active in the performing of plays, sometimes at court, especially under the mastership of Sebastian Westcott who is thought to have been appointed from February 1553. There is plenty of information suggesting that Cambridge colleges were active in the drama in 1553. During the reign of King Edward there are signs that the performances of the mystery cycles had been affected by the shift towards Protestantism. Compared with other dramatic forms in 1553, the cycles had a special function in religious experience. Though there are moral elements which are used to interpret scriptural history in terms of divine intervention, the main thrust of the cycles is a celebration of celestial justice.
  • 5 - The development of a professional theatre, 1540–1660
    pp 137-177
  • View abstract
    The writing of a theatre history reveals almost as much about contemporary tastes and values as it does about the cultural world of the past. The nationwide phenomenon of theatre was highly disparate but this chapter seeks to trace one of the leading features of the emergent professional theatre: the theatre company. The professionalisation of the theatre was to a large degree produced by the development of theatre companies. The chapter attempts to chart some of the complexity surrounding the development of the professional theatre company, 1540-1660, in particular by looking at its relationship to systems of patronage, to actors, entrepreneurs, playwrights and audiences. The structure of patronage relationships and the notion of household membership was a powerful conditioner of the form, although they were not strictly household employees. The printed playtext captured one version of a text that took a multiplicity of forms over time, and editors of early modern drama have battled with the complexities ever since.
  • 6 - Drama outside London after 1540
    pp 178-199
  • View abstract
    The dominant trend outside London from 1540 to 1642 was the disappearance of late medieval traditions of dramatic activity without the creation of new forms to replace them, so that by the time parliament prohibited public performing in 1642, very little remained. Economic distress in both provincial towns and rural areas contributed to the decline in dramatic activity outside the capital, but the Reformation had the greatest impact. Economic distress in both provincial towns and rural areas contributed to the decline in dramatic activity outside the capital, but the Reformation had the greatest impact. In addition to locally produced dramatic activity, the provinces also enjoyed the visits of travelling players, some of them based in London, others with entirely provincial itineraries. The main road used to move goods from Southampton's port to London passed a few miles east of Winchester, and the connecting road was hilly and poorly maintained.
  • 7 - ‘An example of courtesy and liberality’: great households and performance
    pp 200-223
  • View abstract
    The students and scholars of early modern theatre have focused primarily on the plays of the public stages, but long before the existence of the Blackfriars, the Rose, or the great Globe itself, private household auspices had offered cultural experiences that differed significantly from their vastly more famous progeny. Theatre historians interested in social history, specifically in the fundamental importance of patronage to the structure of early modern culture, have discovered that household auspices were much more significant in the history of drama than one had heretofore assumed them to be. During the past twenty-five years, many scholars have been working to attribute anonymous early Tudor playtexts to patrons and great household auspices. Feminist criticism has inspired some of the most refreshing discoveries in household patronage, showing that women took a vital role in artistic production in early modern England.
  • 8 - The birth of an industry
    pp 224-241
  • View abstract
    This chapter explores an entertainment industry which playing constituted in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, paying attention to the economic aspects of the playhouses, playing, writing plays, playgoing and the publication of playbooks. These economic aspects supply a meaningful context for understanding how and why the plays have come to admire were originally written and performed. With the rise of the purpose-built playhouses actors had places dedicated primarily to the business of playing, regular sites of theatrical commerce. Actors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries probably had more in common with thespians from every period than they did with contemporary workers in other occupations. Most playwrights were the sons of mechanical men, of bricklayers, glovers, dyers, scriveners, drapers. The 1590s and early 1600s witnessed a comparative boom in the printing of playbooks. Published playbooks were consequential, both in terms of the economics of the publishing industry and in terms of the cultural scene of England.
  • 9 - Theatre and controversy, 1572–1603
    pp 242-263
  • View abstract
    The sixteenth century was a time of great change. Professional theatre companies flourished and a remarkable variety of performance genres and styles came into being, producing great and memorable playscripts that have come to dominate the classical repertory of English-language theatre. Not surprisingly, attacks on theatre's very existence were particularly intense and vitriolic during its first years as part of the professional London entertainment industry. Outbreaks of plague closed the theatres, most notably during 1592-94. Underlying much theatrical debate is the larger social controversy which historians such as Patrick Collinson dub 'iconophobia', the Reformation fear of the power of images. The vitriolic exchange began with an attack on episcopal corruption within the Church of England by Martin, most likely the pseudonym for a number of puritan sympathisers. Earlier attempts to destroy theatre having failed, these puritans appear to have enjoyed some of the Queen's Men's performances and decided to use the players' satiric techniques.
  • 10 - The condition of theatre in England in 1599
    pp 264-281
  • View abstract
    Famine, war, pestilence and death were on show throughout England. The long run of bad harvests created massive price inflation which the government could do nothing to control, and serious famines developed, especially in the north, where heavy eruptions of the plague kept recurring in more isolated pockets. After the massive death-toll from the epidemic of 1593-94, the four years from 1597 to 1600 were thought to be relatively free from plague. Aged twenty-three, John Marston, a student at the Middle Temple, was the first of a new group of younger writers who chose to write for two hungry boy companies, resurrection and new group, the most prolific of whom was to be Thomas Middleton. Marston lived and wrote for the immediate present of the theatre world in London. Playgoing was still a fresh feature of London's social life, and the one thing new writers were sure of was that their audiences were frequent playgoers who knew their favourite repertoire.
  • 11 - Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour : a Case Study
    pp 282-297
  • View abstract
    Every Man in His Humour was first printed as a quarto in 1601, three years after it was successfully staged by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The quarto marks Ben Jonson's shedding of apprentice-status and discovery of an individual voice; the folio text was effected when that voice had come to its full maturity of range and resonance. In the 1598-99 season in which the first performances of Every Man in His Humour were given, the Lord Chamberlain's Men also staged Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Every Man in His Humour is remarkable precisely because it makes a bid to open up any experience to comic scrutiny; but in doing this Jonson perceives that he has to create an innovatory dramatic structure through which to express his new subject. Though the play when staged proved a success, the actors in the Lord Chamberlain's company were apparently wary at first of tackling the piece.
  • 12 - London professional playhouses and performances
    pp 298-338
  • View abstract
    The first step in the adults' attempts to secure a foothold in London came in 1567, when John Brayne, a grocer from Bucklersbury, paid for a permanent playhouse to be erected in the suburbs of London, the Red Lion. In general terms, outdoor playhouses were polygonal structures, with three tiers of covered galleries with bench-seats at different prices offering spectators a choice of view and comfort, but where they might also stand. These galleries surrounded a yard, open to the weather, for standing spectators, in which stood a large stage which sometimes contained a trap door. This chapter presents a list of three case studies such as, The Spanish Tragedy at the Rose playhouse, The King's Men at the Globe, Henry VIII and The Wonder of Women, or, Sophonisba, by John Marston, at the Blackfriars. With limited opportunities to play in London, companies continued to tour, although it was a practice increasingly fraught with difficulty.
  • 13 - Working playwrights, 1580–1642
    pp 339-363
  • View abstract
    Until the mid 1580s, most commercial drama was written by players for their playing companies. A few players became known chiefly as playwrights: William Shakespeare, Benjamin Jonson and Thomas Heywood. By the late 1580s there were also authors who devoted a significant part of their time to playwriting. The individual careers of Shakespeare, Thomas Dekker and James Shirley illustrate different combinations of the factors that define the work of playwriting during the years 1580-1640. Shakespeare was the ideal model of solo composition, for he was believed to have written most of his plays, and all of the best ones, by himself. It would be easier to identify individual hands in collaborative projects if the playwrights had assigned pieces of the plays by established patterns. Playwrights also wrote non-dramatic literature. Daniel, Drayton, Lodge and Shakespeare wrote sonnet sequences; Christopher Marlowe, Lodge, John Marston and Shakespeare wrote epyllia; Jonson and Marston wrote satires; Jonson wrote epigrams.
  • 14 - Theatre and controversy, 1603–1642
    pp 364-382
  • View abstract
    Two kinds of theatre were in a state of abeyance during the first year of King James's reign. The first was commercial performance in London, the playhouses having been closed when Elizabeth was dying in 1603, and remaining closed on account of increased plague deaths following James's accession. The second was ceremonial theatre, in that James's coronation pageant had to be postponed until the following year. Under King Charles, it becomes more appropriate to speak of an oppositional drama, and theatre becomes an increasingly important forum for the representation of controversial issues. The position of women was an area of controversy that polarised views in very extreme ways. Public-theatre plays like The Roaring Girl, with its redefinition of the cross-dressed heroine, or The Witch of Edmonton, with its revisionist attitude towards women and 'witchcraft', are only two among many that stage debate about the place of women.
  • 15 - The Stuart masque and its makers
    pp 383-406
  • View abstract
    There is probably no literary genre more elusive of reconstruction, more fugitive of interpretation, yet more significant as a cultural symptom than the court masque. In its fully developed form it lasted only from 1604 to 1640; the scripts that survive give a very partial sense of the mix of words, music, scene, dance and audience participation that characterised the entertainments. The Stuart masque most often formed a central part of the court's extended Christmas festivities, alongside plays and other entertainments, though they were also performed at other times of the year. The main entry of masquers had its roots in 'disguisings' or 'mummings' which can be traced back into the Middle Ages, and were an often anarchic part of Christmas revelry at every level of society. The court masque was deeply embedded in traditions of celebration and habits of representation which had a long history.
  • 16 - Clowns, fools and knaves: stages in the evolution of acting
    pp 407-423
  • View abstract
    Distinct from the history of drama, the history of theatre is signposted by transcendent performers, and the first great artist of the English stage was a clown. Although the fool is culturally much older than the clown, he was a later arrival in the Elizabethan professional theatre. His contribution to seasonal celebrations, pastimes and parochial ceremonies is a central one: mock kings, boy bishops, players of May games and morris dancers need their fools. The clown of the play is a clown only insofar as he is a rustic simpleton. Elizabethan drama routinely separated its clowns and fools from its knaves, nor that Jacobean drama routinely replaced fools with knaves. There are knavish clowns and foolish knaves enough in both eras. The knave who is neither fool nor clown, and rarely 'heavy' enough to be a villain, operates in a moral and social isolation that is more Jacobean than Elizabethan.
  • 17 - Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess : a case study
    pp 424-438
  • View abstract
    Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess was a phenomenon, being the most successful play of the Tudor/Stuart era. The play is a transparent commentary, filtered through the allegory of a chess game, on recent relations between England and Spain, about the Counter-Reformation ambitions of the Catholic church, and about the supposed involvement of Spain in the machinations of the most zealous of Catholic orders, the Jesuits. The Black Knight in the play represented Count Gondomar, who until 1622 had been Spanish ambassador in London; he was widely credited with undue influence over King James, both in encouraging his pacifist foreign policy and in promoting greater toleration for Catholics in England. The final act of the play depicts the bizarre and ill-judged episode in 1623 when Prince Charles and the Duke of Buckingham visited Spain, initially incognito.
  • 18 - The condition of the theatres in 1642
    pp 439-457
  • View abstract
    The London theatres had been active for barely eight months of 1642 when their operations were peremptorily halted by order of Parliament. The parliamentary order against stage plays has long been taken as marking the moment at which 'Elizabethan' drama effectively ended. By the time that conditions were restored under which London's theatres could once again open legally, the character of the drama that they hosted had completely altered. The arrival of actresses and the introduction of changeable scenery into the public theatres were only the most conspicuous signs that the plays that would be seen on the stages of 1660 would take forms radically different from those they had possessed before. September 1642 was thus a watershed in the history of English theatre, and marks a sharp discontinuity between two periods of drama. It is evident that political uncertainties were starting to affect the theatres well before parliament's order was issued.
  • 19 - Theatre and Commonwealth
    pp 458-476
  • View abstract
    The outbreak of civil war in 1642 and the subsequent establishment of a commonwealth or republic in 1649 are often assumed to have resulted in a virtual hiatus in dramatic activity. The context for all dramatic production during the ensuing years is that of theatre censorship enshrined in the acts and ordinances of the Commonwealth. The relationship between the written and performed texts of the pamphlet plays represent texts for the theatre, containing the list of dramatis personae, prologues and epilogues, stage directions and details of scene locations. The drama which proved most resilient to state opposition was that which had roots in popular pastime and non-commercial theatre: the interlude, jig or farce, or an entertainment which has been classified rather imprecisely as the drollery. To add to the repertoire of jigs and interludes during the 1640s and 1650s, certain players seem to have begun to abridge popular Elizabethan and Jacobean plays which were subsequently termed drolls.
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