Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Public' and 'Private' Playhouses in Renaissance England: The Politics of Publication

Academic journal article Early Theatre

'Public' and 'Private' Playhouses in Renaissance England: The Politics of Publication

Article excerpt

Eoin Price. 'Public' and 'Private' Playhouses in Renaissance England: The Politics of Publication. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp x, 95.

Eoin Price has written an engaging short book that all future discussions of indoor performance in early modern England will have to take into account. In three chapters and an epilogue, he charts the development of the language used to describe indoor commercial performance spaces and analyses the complex distinctions between 'public' and 'private' playing. Although the volume will be of interest and relevance to historians of theatre, literature, and the book alike, Price's arguments largely rely on evidence gleaned from printed books and their title-pages. And yet, his study is not exactly an exercise in bibliography, nor is it precisely a work of theatre history (he barely reflects on how indoor and outdoor spaces functioned as performance venues, for instance). Instead, what Price offers is an analysis of the place of indoor staging in the period's theatrical discourse as shaped by stationers and playwrights, and occasionally by government officials, acting companies, or spectators. He is less interested in what early modern players and audiences did in and with indoor spaces than in 'the complex uses that 'public' and 'private' served to Renaissance playgoers and playmakers' (3).

Price shows that the idea of a 'private' commercial performance apparently did not emerge, in those terms, until the early seventeenth century. Even after the publication of a small cluster of plays as staged 'privately' by boys' companies in 1601 and 1602, however, it would take another decade for the term to reappear on title-pages--and, as Price argues, it was not until 1629 that 'private' displaces 'public' as the dominant term in printed playbooks. Between 1629 and 1660, though, a far greater number of plays (64 vs. 8) were advertised as staged privately rather than publicly. In a final twist, once indoor playing became the norm in the Restoration, 'private' disappeared again: all theatrical performances were 'public' at that point, even though they took place exclusively in spaces that, a few decades earlier, would have been described as 'private' (71).

Stationers and authorities, and presumably actors and playgoers as well, were evidently capable of distinguishing between different notions of privacy. Price correctly notes that when referring to performances, 'private' initially meant 'noncommercial'. Private shows were those staged in someone's house, for an invited audience, and 'there was no money collected from the auditors' (13). He argues that this sixteenth-century understanding of private performance remained in place until the turn of the century, when the term became more flexible; the 1601 title-page of Cynthia's Revels inaugurates the idea that a play can be 'privately acted' for a paying audience. But from the evidence Price has amassed, it seems that 'private' could also simply mean 'indoors'--and although he does not quite say so, it appears that this sense emerged somewhat earlier than the 1600s. A 1569 precept issued by the City of London urged 'Innkeepers, table-keepers, taverners, hall-keepers, or brewers' to refrain from hosting plays 'either openly or privately' (13). The aldermen obviously did not mean that innkeepers should stage neither commercial performances nor shows for their friends. Rather, the precept seems to have restricted outdoor ('open') and indoor ('private') performances, which is also why it lists outdoor spaces ('yard, court, garden, orchard') as well as the innkeepers' 'mansion house' as off limits for plays.

Price's discussion of university performances captures this slippery quality of the term 'private' (although many of his sources are in Latin, a significant complication); as it turns out, a college hall could be both a private and a public venue, whereas a college's master's lodgings seem to have been a place only for private performances (15). …

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