Playing Companies and the Drama of the 1580s: A New Direction for Elizabethan Theatre History?

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THE 1580S HAS BEEN A PERPLEXING DECADE for theater historians. For one thing, scholars writing surveys or histories of a theater in which the dominant figure, William Shakespeare, does not appear until the following decade, are not quite sure how much of the 1580s to include in their chronological range of materials, if any. Some include all of it (for example, The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama [1580-1642]), some part of it (for example, The Oxford History of English Literature's The English Drama 1586-1642), and some none of it (for example, The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642). The most recent volume of this type, A New History of Early English Drama, covers the 1580s but attempts to avoid the pitfalls of periodic designations altogether by using the term "early" to describe its chronological range.(1)

For scholars interested in plays of high literary merit, a major problem is that the decade lacks sustainable focus from beginning to end. In so far as it is treated as a period at all, the 1580s tends to be carved up into unequal halves to highlight development or change. Critics are fond of referring to the post-1587 period as the "breakthrough years," marking "the expansion" and "flowering" of Elizabethan drama, a time when the first playhouse on the Bankside (the Rose) opens and when the drama emerges from the inexplicable dumbshows, jog-trot verse, mongrel-tragicomedy and primitive stage effects described in such works as The Schoole of Abuse (1579) and The Apology of Poetry (1581).(2) Without denying that the drama of Kyd, Marlowe, and the other University Wits represents a major artistic advancement, this scenario underestimates the extent to which the theater was already a complex, technically sophisticated--not to mention highly popular--institution in London at the beginning of the decade. We need to keep in mind that as early as 1567 England's first known playhouse, the Red Lion, opened in Stepney with an enormous stage, forty feet wide by thirty feet deep, equipped with a trap door and a "turret of Tymber" supporting a floor eighteen feet above the stage which was probably used for ascents and celestial figures.(3) Since the Red Lion discovery effectively dislodges "1576" as the year in which the urban playhouses were established, we are now looking at a London theater industry well into its second decade of operation by 1580. Indeed, by that year at least ten professional acting companies were performing plays, many regularly on weekdays, at nine or ten different commercial playing venues in the London area.(4) When the city politicians and preachers raised a storm of opposition to their existence in the early eighties, the players were sufficiently self-confident and self-asserting to respond with perhaps the first "antipuritan" play of the period, "The Play of Plays." Unfortunately, this play (described by Gosson) has vanished into oblivion along with most others of the 1580s.(5) For the period 1580 to 1589, The Annals of English Drama lists 86 titles, for which 53 texts survive, most of the latter dated in the final years of the decade.(6) Yet these numbers represent a fraction of what once existed. William Ingram offers a plausible argument for upwards of 200 plays written per year in the late 1570s, and I see no reason for a significant decrease during the 1580s.(7)

The implications of this loss for researchers of the 1580s is far-reaching. It certainly raises questions about when, and at what pace, linguistic, artistic, and technological advances occurred during the decade. To be sure, playhouse audiences may not have seen, or heard, anything like Tamburlaine when it debuted on the London stage in the summer of 1587. On the other hand, Peele's Arraignment of Paris was already experimenting with flexible blank verse for court drama as early as 1581, and who is to say that Peele or one of the other Wits did not write blank-verse plays designed for the professional stage between then and 1587 which anticipated Marlowe's poetic dialogue? …