Producing Early Modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616

Producing Early Modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616

Producing Early Modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616

Producing Early Modern London: A Comedy of Urban Space, 1598-1616


Early seventeenth-century London playwrights used actual locations in their comedies while simultaneously exploring London as an imagined, ephemeral, urban space. Producing Early Modern London examines this tension between representing place and producing urban space. In analyzing the theater's use of city spaces and places, Kelly J. Stage shows how the satirical comedies of the early seventeenth century came to embody the city as the city embodied the plays.

Stage focuses on city plays by George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, William Haughton, Ben Jonson, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster. While the conventional labels of "city comedy" or "citizen comedy" have often been applied to these plays, she argues that London comedies defy these genre categorizations because the ruptures, expansions, conflicts, and imperfections of the expanding city became a part of their form. Rather than defining the "city comedy," comedy in this period proved to be the genre of London.

As the expansion of London's social space exceeded the strict confines of the "square mile," the city burgeoned into a new metropolis. The satiric comedies of this period became, in effect, playgrounds for urban experimentation. Early seventeenth-century playwrights seized the opportunity to explore the myriad ways in which London worked, taking the expected--a romance plot, a typical father-son conflict, a cross-dressing intrigue--and turning it into a multifaceted, complex story of interaction and proximity.


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 lastminute 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 . . .

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