Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Functions of the English Vice and Dutch Sinnekens: A Comparison

Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Functions of the English Vice and Dutch Sinnekens: A Comparison

Article excerpt

Two markedly similar conventional dramatic types emerged in the sixteenth century: the Vice in the English moral interludes and the sinnekens in the Dutch spelen van sinne. (1) These dramatic types have been the subject of valuable research, most notably by Bernard Spivack and W.M.H. Hummelen. (2) Yet remarkably, although both traditions gave rise to these negative conceptual characters who were the theatrical stars of their respective traditions, little research has focused on the similarities and differences between the two dramatic types. (3) The claims concerning possible Dutch influence on English drama, moreover, have never yet been investigated in connection with these similar dramatic conventions. (4) Hummelen offers a passing comparison of the sinnekens with the English vices in one article, but he merely claims that the English vices are less stereotypical than the sinnekens. (5) Finally, Peter Happe and Wim Husken 'set out the basis of a comparative study of the Sinnekens ... in late medieval and early Renaissance Dutch drama, and the Vice of the English interludes' but this study has so far not led to more research. (6) In this article I shall continue the research of especially Happe and Husken by presenting a synchronic comparison of these two dramatic types in terms of their functions within the plays. I argue that the Vice and sinnekens are indeed markedly similar yet also substantially different and that they certainly do not support, and if anything argue against, Dutch influence on English drama in the sixteenth-century and, for that matter, vice versa.

The scope of this article does not allow for a detailed introduction of the two dramatic traditions but highlighting a few salient features will allow the reader better to contextualize the following analysis. First, some differences between the two dramatic types are obvious. For example, English drama allows one Vice per play, although he often has minor vices as side-kicks, whereas the sinnekens occur nearly always as a pair and have no real side-kicks. The Vice figure probably emerged in England during the 1530s but the heyday of the Vice roughly spans the period from the 1550s until the 1580s; the first surviving example of an undisputed Vice figure being labelled as such is Avarice in Respublica (performed in 1553). (7) The playwrights and scribes of the Low Countries only started using the word sinnekens regularly in the 1550s but the earliest credible examples of sinnekens date from c 1500; the type therefore seems to develop considerably earlier than the English Vice.

Most English moral interludes were written for and performed by childactors or small, often travelling, troupes of (semi-)professional actors. The surviving plays frequently demonstrate clear links with London, and with the higher echelons of society, and many were presumably written with an in-door hall performance in mind. (8) The so-called rhetoricians (rederijkers) formed the most important literary movement in the Low Countries. These rhetoricians, who gathered in chambers of rhetoric (rederijkerskamers) to write and recite poetry, and to write and perform plays, were almost exclusively male and mainly middle-class artisans and merchants. They were emphatically and proudly amateur and seem to have held professional actors in abhorrence. (9) The rhetoricians were fiercely competitive in upholding the honour and reputation of their chamber and their city or village and frequently organized literary competitions to exhibit their skills. Various prizes were to be won at these competitions, not only for best play, but also in other categories such as grandest entrance into the city, best serious actor, best comic actor, and best fireworks. (10)

These differences in the organization of actors and playwrights did affect the drama in the two countries. For example, the divergence between more outspoken English plays and more moderate Dutch plays can, at least partly, be attributed to the difference in intended performance. …

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