Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Influence of Children's Stagecraft: Chapel, School, and Popular Performance in the 1580s

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

The Influence of Children's Stagecraft: Chapel, School, and Popular Performance in the 1580s

Article excerpt

WHILE IT MAY BE AN EXAGGERATION to say that a conversational vacuum exists in general between scholars working on popular adult performance and those working on the children's tradition in the early modern drama, it may be entirely reasonable to say so of the 1580s. Especially in this decade, critics tend to accept as certain the proposition that either the adult tradition was already originating all meaningful playing practices while the children's tradition was, consistently and essentially, derivative and imitative, or that the trades of actor and playwright in the two were already essentially alike. In a decade when the children's troupes were still the preferred entertainers at court, performing relatively longer plays exhibiting classical Terentian structure (e.g., protasis, epitasis, catastrophe, and even in plays like Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, sometimes printed in five acts) as well as engaged in the conversion of indoor spaces for the use of performing plays, a habit of conflating the two traditions, or assuming simply one, has rendered us unable to distinguish emerging practices from those that were lingering, particularly when examining the relationship between players and printed drama.

A central issue to be considered here is to what extent the performance practices of the children's and adult troupes of the 1580s resembled one another or those of the 1590s and beyond. It is, after all, unclear, prior to the 1590s, how adult players treated a scripted play, or how scripts, assuming they existed, encoded the kinds, modes, and methods of playing then, or soon to be, in use. Is it possible that the kind of play performance later associated with the plays of Shakespeare could, in the 1580s at least, initially have only been provided by actors trained in the children's rather than the adult tradition? John Lyly's spectacular, masque-like Ovidian and Terentian plays and musically and syntactically complex dialogues are a case in point. They are, by all accounts, a remarkable entry into the history of scripted drama.

Lyly's classically plotted, tragi-comic, masque-like musical plays date from a decade when few plays can be with certainty linked to adult troupes. They are also exceptional in that they, in an era defined by collaboration and popular theater spaces, are individually authored and associated with indoor "playhouses" (whether at Paul's, the Blackfriars, or at court). The suitability of such plays to private indoor spaces also distinguishes this tradition, particularly in the song schools, from those suited to the large outdoor public spaces. A chapel was both an organization and a physical space in a royal or noble household. In chapels, a place in which the use of books was customary, the auditors were expected to listen to an acoustical event grounded in a pre-written musical or verbal text. The word (scriptural or profane) was as richly laden with meaning as the architecture of the space which, with its highly reflective glass and stone and the enhanced acoustical effects achieved by wooden choir stalls, wainscoting, and choir screens, was conducive to experiments in humanist, classical, and vernacular drama in which the spoken or sung word reworked and deepened the visual spectacle. Much evidence suggests that performance and rehearsal in such acoustical spaces affected conceptions of playing itself, redefining relationships with audiences who were acclimating to experiencing a more text-based (and lengthier) play within an indoor space. Though Lyly's plays are fantastically spectacular, the spectacle functions less like an emblem than as something subject to interpretation. A tumbling display by a young son in 5.1 of Campaspe thus meets with the cynic Diogenes's disdain as he mocks the father for teaching "one of thy sons to rule his legs and not to follow learning" (5.1.26-27). (1)

Lyly's plays are distinctive in comparison to extant adult drama of the 1580s in other ways as well. …

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