Running over the Stage: Webster and the Running Footman

By Carnegie, David | Early Theatre, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Running over the Stage: Webster and the Running Footman


Carnegie, David, Early Theatre


Although the frequent stage direction 'passing over the stage' has provoked much discussion as to its precise meaning, (1) 'running over the stage' has attracted much less attention. Indeed, the famous Elizabethan theatrical clown Will Kemp achieved more fame by morris dancing than by running, though in his case heightened by being from London to Norwich. (2) In early modern English drama there are, nevertheless, many kinds of running called for in stage directions. Alan Dessen and Leslie Thomson's Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642 lists roughly 260 examples under the headwords 'running', 'hastily, in haste', and others, divided into four categories. (3)

1. 'enter/exit running/in haste'; this is the largest group, and includes examples such as Enter in haste ... a footman (Middleton, A Mad World My Masters 2.1.6.2-6.3), Enter Bullithrumble, the shepherd, running in haste' (? Greene, Selimus sc. 10; line 1877), Enter Segasto running, and Amadine after him, being pursued with a bear (Anon., Mucedorus B1r), and presumably 'Enter Juliet somewhat fast, and embraceth Romeo' (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet 2.5.15.1).

2. 'runs in/away/out/off; a typical example is Lion roars. Thisbe ... runs off' (Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.253.1).

3. 'runs at someone or is run through with a sword'; examples include 'He draws his rapier, offers to run at Piero; but Maria holds his arm and stays him (Marston, Antonio's Revenge 1.2 [Q 1.4].375-6), and Flamineo runs Marcello through' (Webster, The White Devil 5.2.14).

4. runs over/about the stage'; examples include 'After an alarum, and people running over the stage, enter Osmond, a Tartar, with his sword bloody' (Carlell, Osmond the Great Turk A2r) and 'Some beggars run over the stage' (Brome, A Jovial Crew 4.2; p 431).4

Leaving aside running people through, it is clear that running was a standard and frequent activity on stage; what is less clear is that an important and consistent set of conventions and expectations seems to have surrounded the acting of running and haste, especially in the representation of running footmen (see the first example above). Questions of casting, costume, language, physical activity, and acting are all involved, as well as the related question of how the playwrights' instruction in haste was conveyed to an audience.

These codes can usefully be explored by using the dramatist John Webster's densely punning prose 'character' of 'A Footman' as a guide to both the imaginative and stage representation of running footmen in the early seventeenth century.

'A Footman' by John Webster

   Let him be never so well made, yet his legs are not matches, for he
   is still setting the best foot forward. He will never be a staid
   man, for he has had a running head of his own ever since his
   childhood. His mother (which out of question was a light-heeled
   wench) knew it, yet let him run his race, thinking age would
   reclaim him from his wild courses. He is very long-winded, and
   without doubt, but that he hates naturally to serve on horseback,
   he had proved an excellent trumpet. He has one happiness above all
   the rest of the serving men, for when he most overreaches his
   master he's best thought of. He lives more by his own heat than the
   warmth of clothes; and the waiting woman hath the greatest fancy to
   him when he is in his close trousers. Guards he wears none, which
   makes him live more upright than any cross-gartered gentleman
   usher. 'Tis impossible to draw his picture to the life, 'cause a
   man must take it as he's running. Only this: horses are usually let
   blood on St Stephen's Day; on St Patrick's Day he takes rest, and
   is drenched for all the year after. (5)

In the rest of this essay I shall use excerpts from this 'character' as headings for each section.

'Let him be never so well made, yet his legs are not matches, for he is still setting the best foot forward. …

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