Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Alleyn Resurrected

Academic journal article Marlowe Studies

Alleyn Resurrected

Article excerpt

This essay makes four closely related claims, not one of which is in itself particularly surprising, but which together might constitute a useful intervention into scholarly imaginings and theorizations of early modern acting. First, Edward Alleyn was a very good actor with a distinctive style, though there is little evidence for what this technique entailed. Second, there is no evidence that Alleyn's method was ever thought of as "old-fashioned" in the sense of "ridiculous" or even "passé." Quite the contrary, the memory of his acting, and an idea of it as a standard of value, continued to haunt and challenge his theatrical descendants. Third, modern assessments have rightly theorized that Alleyn's acting was characterized by some form of archaism, but have wrongly imagined it in pejorative terms. Both conceptions have their origin in Alleyn's close association with Christopher Marlowe and in the characteristic rhetoric of Marlowe's plays. Fourth, the traditional opposition between Alleyn and Richard Burbage substantiates an ahistorical fantasy of specifically "Shakespearean" theatricality. By thinking around this opposition, we might rediscover some important similarities between the two actors and the playwrights generally associated with them and gain some insight into the way some of the most potent effects of acting depend upon the invocation of theatrical ghosts.

We know that John Sincler was thin, William Rowley was fat, and Richard Tarlton could make spectators roar with laughter simply by poking his head out from behind the stage. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that our knowledge of the physical character of early modern acting ends there. What Mary Edmond's Oxford Dictionary of National biography entry for Burbage refers to as the "only seventeenth-century description of Burbage the actor," Richard Flecknoe's account, hardly seems descriptive: "a delightful Proteus, so wholly transforming himself into his Part, and putting off himself with his Cloathes, as he never (not so much as in the Tyring-house) assum'd himself again until the Play was ended."2 Burbage "himself," briefly, tantalizingly, naked, disappears into-or merges with-the characters embodied in successive generations of theatrical imagination and memory.

Edmond, perhaps following the hint provided by Flecknoe's remark about Burbage putting off his clothes, proceeds to record the travails scholars have faced in dealing with Gertrude's description of Hamlet as "fat":

All the plays have been fruitlessly scoured for a comparable usage, but the Treatise by Nicholas Hilliard (written at about the same time, c. 1600) provides an example. Hilliard explains to aspiring miniaturists that a colour may not "take" because "some sweatye hand or fattye finger" has touched the parchment... (Gertrude clearly proffers a napkin to Hamlet to wipe his forehead and stop the sweat running into his eyes.) Audiences loved a good fight, and William Shakespeare provided a carefully plotted and exciting one: a pordy prince lumbering about the small stage would have provoked derision.3

The portrait in the Dulwich Picture Gallery is not much help. Head and shoulders only, it gives no hint whether a mountain beÛy might lie beyond the edge of the frame, and the identity of the subject as the actor remains uncertain. The nearly comical and somewhat touching effort to defend Burbage from charges of obesity on empirical grounds is symptomatic of an understandable frustration. How infuriating it is, especially in our age of ubiquitous photographic reproduction, to be unable to confirm what the sixteenth century's most famous actor looked like or how he moved as he trod the boards in what has become his most famous role.

It is no wonder, then, that scholars have so latched onto Alleyn as the representative of an early modern acting style, a man for whom we not only have a reliable portrait but also a specific verb, "stalk," used repeatedly and in a variety of contexts, that characterizes the way he moved while performing. …

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