Excerpt: Producing Early Modern London

The following has been excerpted from Producing Early modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616 by Kelly J. Stage (January 2018).

 

Introduction

On a chilly winter night in London, I tucked myself into a tiny spot on a hard wooden bench in the first floor gallery of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was there to watch Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), and the brand- new theater was buzzing. My last-minute ticket purchase had me wedged between a wall and a Londoner, and I sat about fifteen feet from the modest sized theater’s stage left. While the audience settled, actors hammed up their pre-show work of lighting candles in chandeliers. When raised up, these bathed the stage in warm, flickering light. The Wanamaker is an intimate, ornate, gorgeous thing. It is constructed of oak (and, at the time, still smelled of it), and it encourages visitors sitting on bare benches to think they will experience something like a night in one of Jacobean London’s private theaters. I waited in the near-dark, wondering what would happen when The London Merchant (the play within The Knight of the Burning Pestle) would begin and three members of the audience would interrupt and ask for a different play—a knightly tale—starring a London grocer’s apprentice.

Although the Wanamaker felt like it could be the Blackfriars—where The Knight of the Burning Pestle premiered and flopped in 1607—my feeling of authenticity that night was misplaced in at least two ways: first, although the planners for the Wanamaker initially thought they were using drawings for a never-built Jacobean private theater in their design, they were wrong. The project managers later realized the drawings were by John Webb, not Inigo Jones, the Jacobean architect. The designs were actually for a much later Restoration-era theater modeled on Jacobean styling and with dimensions similar to Blackfriars.1 Second, and more obviously, any  audience member is four hundred years too late to have genuine feelings about Jacobean playhouses or to be able to compare a real experience in one. As a scholar, I had to wonder why, given these facts, I found the Wanamaker and the experience of that winter night so irresistible. The answer I can offer has to do with this book’s main theoretical focus on the relationship of place and space to early modern London’s comedies and their staging. Visiting this theater seemed to make an audience member think he or she could access, if not the seventeenth century, the dimensions of it. What is important about the playhouse is its meaning as a place, or what John A. Agnew calls the “phenomenological experience of a distinctive coming together in space.”2 Being together in that theater meant the audience had made a conscious choice to see a play with specific performance limitations and rules. The theater largely eschews modern lighting, sound effects, makeup, costuming, and even comfortable seats. These facts of practice and of concrete physical reality—how the place looked, smelled, sounded, felt—as well as the mind-set, experience, and collective energy of the individuals present, dictated what that experience of coming together in space, or of the theater as a place, meant for those few hours I sat in the Wanamaker.

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The audience members, from what I could tell, mostly enjoyed being stuffed together on benches. They were within spitting distance of the stage, although not as close as Jacobean audience members might have been, since theaters frequently allowed a few gentlemen to watch the show from stools on the stage, a practice highlighted by The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Members of the 2014 cast did move through the spectators and some sat with the audience, before and during the performance. Still, not everyone’s phenomenological experience was positive; an online commenter on Michael Billington’s review for the Guardian noted that the smell of the wood from the new theater was pleasantly distracting, but less pleasant were “the old miseries just behind us who had expected velvet upholstery.” Love it or hate it, for me and I assume for the rest of the audience, going to the Wanamaker was the kind of “experience” that Agnew describes in explaining place. That experience for some betrays a desire for authenticity—one I admit to indulging, however misplaced it may have been. Yet my sense of place while in the Knight audience exposed the distance between my contact with the theater in modernity and the early modern reality that I wanted to access. Coming together in that shared space, I found myself placed in postmodernity—not just of the twenty-first century, or of London, or of the Western Hemisphere, but also of theatergoing, of art, and of economy.

We cannot access true authenticity by reproducing a building. The place and the space of the theater in early modern London, whether Blackfriars, Whitefriars, the Globe, the Fortune, or any other, was different from the place and the space that any reproduction could ever inhabit.3 The experience of coming together in an Elizabethan or Jacobean theater would have been tied to locality, to specific moments, to specific plays, and to specific theater practices. That experience was also dependent on the larger space of the surrounding neighborhood, city, region, nation, and beyond. The same holds for attending any theatrical performance, but a playhouse like the Wanamaker invites us to believe that the theater will make a difference in our experience because of the building’s supposed connection to the past. As an audience, we try to access a play—a performance—through different practices, sensory expectations, and physical situations than what our everyday practice normally enables. I sat on my hard bench, and I was perfectly conscious that the Wanamaker in 2014 was not Blackfriars in 1607. Even so, I still liked the idea  hat watching the actor playing Jasper pretending to be a ghost, in period clothing, with white face powder, in near darkness with just a flicker of candlelight would somehow let me have a little feeling of Blackfriars in 1607.4

I wanted to see what the players could do with their new tool. The experience could be deeply intimate or deeply alienating. Andrezj Lukowski, the reviewer for Time Out London, noted a disconnection between enjoying being in the new theater and actually enjoying the play. Lukowski considered the show slow and lacking in energy, with glaring, unchanging lighting. The biggest problem for him was the action itself: “to put it bluntly, the disconnect between the vignette-like scenes is such that it’s often incredibly hard to work out what the hell is going on.” Lukowski expected a rip-roaring seventeenth-century farce in the style of Noises Off, but the play distinctly works in the modes of seventeenth-century romances and London comedies. He added that “It’s still a larf and it’s still a pleasure simply to be in this gorgeous new venue.” Lukowski’s comments are helpful, beyond their value as a review, because his enjoyment of the playhouse indicates that the production seemed worth the price of admission for the architecture—for the place of it—rather than for its content.

Yet the play was also estranging for Lukowski because he does not live in Jacobean London. The Knight of the Burning Pestle depends on the way that the audience understands and reacts to the play’s free use and refashioning, or even misuse, of conventions of early modern London drama.5 Of course, The Knight failed with its first audience in 1607, and so we can recognize that this play has a long-standing problem with audience reception.6 Regardless, Lukowski enjoyed the theater for what it is in our own time: a gorgeous place. In recognizing the enjoyment of experiencing an early modern theater as a special kind of place in the twenty-first century, we realize that the performance in that theater is unrooted for us. The Blackfriars Theater, its dramatic conventions, and the genres the play satirized were a part of the cultural milieu, as were analogues of George the Grocer, his wife Nell, and his apprentice Rafe—the nosy, planted audience members who interrupt the original play in performance. The play pokes at the provinciality of the citizens, the tiredness of The London Merchant’s plot, the strained conventions of the romance, and the pettiness of the gentry and merchant class, all of which are sensitivities for seventeenth-century Londoners. It is not surprising that an audience of twenty-first-century Londoners might not connect with the baseline assumptions that The Knight makes, or might be alienated completely. It begins by assuming audience recalcitrance, and it satirizes spectators—via George, Nell, and Rafe—who object when they don’t like what they see.

 

Notes

1. See Moore, “Sam Wanamaker Playhouse—Review” for details on the theater’s architectural plans and execution.

2. Agnew, “Space and Place,” 317.

3. The opening of Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London, along with the Blackfriars in Staunton, Virginia, and other “replica” theaters, has intensified debates about authenticity and “original practices” production. For a few perspectives see Pye, “Shakespeare’s Globe: Theatre Architecture and the Performance of Authenticity”; Weingust, “Authentic Performances or Performances of Authenticity? Original Practices and the Repertory Schedule”; and Dessen, “‘Original Practices’ at the Globe: A Theatre Historian’s View.”

4. As Don Weingust pointed out to me, even this expectation is probably wrong. The realities of practice in the early modern repertory theaters would probably not allow adjustments to the lighting in the ways that the Wanamaker indulged.

5. For comparison’s sake, Michael Billington of the Guardian had a more favorable review that was less surprised by the material. He had also reviewed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1981 production of The Knight.

6. Critics have often assumed, based on the epistle to Master Robert Keysar by Walter Burre, the printer, which is included in the 1613 quarto edition of The Knight, that the audience was offended by what the play presented. Burre writes that the play was “utterly rejected” (ep. 9) by its audiences, and the run ended eight days in. I tend to assume given Burre’s letter that the playwright’s skewering of city manners and audiences was offensive. That interpretation generally accepts that Francis Beaumont was thumbing his nose at the establishment and too forthright in his critique. It may be the case that the performance was simply bad and or the play was not as avant-garde as it might seem. See John Doebler’s edition of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, 1967 and Sheldon P. Zintner’s introduction to his edition of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, 2004.

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