Marlowe on the Caroline Stage

By Munro, Lucy | Shakespeare Bulletin, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Marlowe on the Caroline Stage

Munro, Lucy, Shakespeare Bulletin

My starting point for this essay is not Marlowe himself, but William Davenant's 1663 work The Playhouse to be Let, and an exchange between a Player and a Poet that concludes a sequence commenting on the vagaries of audience taste and dramatic fare in the years immediately following the reestablishment of the professional theatre industry. The Poet proposes to attract audiences to the deserted playhouse through "Romances travesti" in which the players "shall present the actions of the Heroes, / (Which are the chiefest Theams of Tragedy) / In Verse Burlesque" (Davenant pt 2, 75). He will, he tells the Player, "introduce such folly as shall / Make you wise; that is, shall make you rich." The Player finally agrees, saying, "Well, we'll be content, like other rich Fools, / To be laught at" (76). But then, intriguingly in the context of the sequence's concern with modish dramatic fashion, he concludes by saying,

   There is an old tradition
   That in the times of mighty Tamberlane,
   Of conjuring Faustus, and the Beauchamps bold,
   You Poets us'd to have the second day.
   This shall be ours, Sir, and to morrow yours. (76)

The references to the titles of older plays are not necessary to make the Player's point, which is that they should revive the old custom of benefit days for playwrights. Instead, they are invoked as shorthand for an older dramatic tradition, one in which, it is implied, actors were real actors--reliant on their own prowess and charisma rather than on foreign novelty--and English drama was really English.

Davenant's references to Marlowe's plays mark, I suggest, both the culmination of a process that had been at work before the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 and a break with it. By the early 1660s, after the Civil War and Commonwealth break in routine professional theatrical activity, Elizabethan drama could function comparatively unproblematically as nostalgia or as shorthand for a past age of theatre. Of the plays mentioned in Davenant's induction, only Doctor Faustus seems to have been performed in the Restoration, and the fact that it was performed at the Red Bull, the only surviving pre-war playhouse, may have added to its lack of fashionable polish. Samuel Pepys saw it there in May 1662 and commented that it was "so wretchedly and poorly done that we were sick of it" (Bevington and Rasmussen 51). However, in the Caroline period the place of older plays was more complex. Theatrical culture might be branding them as old, or even archaic, but it was also dependent on the continuous tradition of performance and reception which they embodied.

We might draw connections between the ways in which old plays functioned in the playhouse and in the printing house. As Alan Farmer and Zachary Lesser have recently argued, the publication of plays in this period was undergoing a series of changes, changes which eventually led to the development of a select canon of classic plays that continued to sell in huge numbers thirty or forty years after their original publication. Moreover, some old plays--including Marlowe's Jew of Malta, Shakespeare and Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen, Fletcher's Wit Without Money and The Night Walker, and Henry Chettle's Hoffman--were published for the first time in the 1630s, as publishers attempted to create "undiscovered classics" ("Canons" 32-5). (1) "These plays," they contend, "are not merely older than but significantly different from Caroline plays, and while they may fall short of contemporary drama in the nicety of form and language (together with the scurrility and ribaldry) favored by a 'witty age' of 'greater curiosity,' they surpass them in a direct and unrefined style appreciated by numerous playgoers and readers" ("Canons" 34-5). (2)

Farmer and Lesser argue that printed drama may have had a "relative independence" from the stage ("Canons" 40; "Popularity" 11-13, 26), suggesting that their group of classics "testifies at least as much to the ongoing demand for these plays as books as to the possibility that they continued to be performed on stage" ("Canons" 40).

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