Recent Studies in Tudor and Stuart Drama

By Carroll, William C. | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Recent Studies in Tudor and Stuart Drama

Carroll, William C., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900

Reading an entire year's worth of books on Tudor and Stuart drama is a burden, of course (enter here the usual tropes of agony and ordeal), but it has also been an enlightening privilege, and I have a few general observations to make. First, the high quality of so much of the work has been impressive, though one also wonders why some books were ever published. Certain approaches continue to dominate--historicist, feminist, performance and theater history--but I cannot say that I detected any particular new trend this year. In fact, the enormous variety of approaches and interests reminds those of us who work in a particular scholarly niche that there is much to learn from others who work in very different ways. Second, corollary to the first, some are born with humility, and some (all SEL reviewers) have it thrust upon 'em: the range of work is beyond anyone's ability to consider with authority. So caveat lector. Third, one of the real pleasures in doing this review is the unexpected discovery, the book whic h turns out to be revelatory. Several of these books were by authors whose names I hardly knew, but the year's work also brought books from some of the best-known names in the profession--Catherine Belsey, Richard Helgerson, Michael Neil--and it was a pleasure to follow their work in new directions.

Finally--and every SEL reviewer makes a similar comment--the categories of analysis I have employed are fairly arbitrary, as is the division between this review and the "non-dramatic" review in the previous issue by Heather Dubrow. I have appropriated the division between works "Primarily for Scholars" and "Primarily for Students or General Readers" introduced by last year's reviewer, Meredith Skura, though with different subcategories. As is traditional in this review, I have given more space to single-authored books than to collections of essays. I have also exercised editorial privilege in first presenting five books that struck me as unusually interesting--by Mary Bly, Lynn Enterline, Raphael Falco, R. B. Graves, and Helgerson; other readers would no doubt have made different choices. Thereafter, the works reviewed are in no particular order, though I have grouped together a few with similar concerns.


Commentary. Bly's wonderful book, Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage, seeks "to resurrect the operations of an obscure boys' company known variously as the King's Revels or the first Whitefriars, which performed for about nine months in 1607-8" (p. 2). She identifies eight plays written for the company, mostly by new playwrights who were also shareholders: Michael Drayton, Lording Barry, John Mason, Edward Sharpham, Lewis Machin, Gervase Markham, and Robert Armin (Thomas Middleton's The Family of Love was revived from an earlier performance). Bly argues that "the men who ran the Whitefriars syndicate controlled both the tenor and the plots of plays, resulting in a strikingly abnormal repertory"--seven comedies and one tragedy, with five of the comedies featuring "bawdy virgins in the lead role" (p. 3). Moreover, these plays are, she argues, distinctively marked by "a certain type of pun, a queer pun that constructs cross-dressed boy actors as sexually aware and sexually available" (p. 4 ). These puns, in contrast to those employed in other playhouses performing conventional romantic comedies, in effect respond to and also construct a particular type of audience, "an identifiable group of men, and ... when those men gathered together in the theatre, the nature of punning suggests that a sense of community formed around their shared laughter" (p. 5). This community is specific to the Whitefriars liberty, she observes, which was a notorious brothel district, and certainly not to towns outside London.

Bly's book thus takes up a number of provocative and interesting issues in theater history, performance theory, and queer theory. Her proposal for a company's unified commercial sensibility is very suggestive; even as the concept of the "sovereign author," she notes, has been displaced in recent theory, still "we tend to resist imputing strong control to a theatrical company" (p.

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