Playhouses, Plays, and Theater History: Rethinking the 1580s

By Kesson, Andy | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2017 | Go to article overview

Playhouses, Plays, and Theater History: Rethinking the 1580s


Kesson, Andy, Shakespeare Studies


WHAT IS A PLAYHOUSE, what is it for, and why might you build one in sixteenth-century London? This Forum explores the limits of what is known about the physical spaces, chronology, repertory, and contexts of Elizabethan theater, particularly of the 1580s, and the way those limits are acknowledged, negotiated, and pushed by scholarship. For reasons set out below, it embraces the word "playhouse" as a dynamic term with a wide range of meanings relating to many different kinds of venues that offered space for regular performance to a group of paying strangers--not just in the outdoor theaters that dominate modern theater history, but also the indoor theaters and, crucially, the inns (which may have hosted outdoor and indoor performances). This Forum is an experiment in what might happen if we retheorize and rehistoricize the earliest decades of such playing spaces as a whole, focusing in particular on issues connected to the 1580s, when plays performed in such spaces began to reach print. This essay therefore serves two functions, introducing the essays that follow, while attempting to set out some terms for this process of rehistoricization with reference to three uncertain issues: the spaces themselves, time period, and genre.

As the need to define and defend this use of the word "playhouse" indicates, time period and terminology confound current debate. A self-conscious allergy to anachronism often prohibits theater history from acknowledging the financial motivations and class background of the people who ran and made up the majority of those who watched early modern drama. But it equally often encourages scholars to enthusiastically embrace terms that were used in the period but with very different intent: such words are just as anachronistic, but less self-evidently so. For example, our profession casually employs as neutral literary descriptors terms that were coined in the sixteenth century as class and aesthetic insults ("playwright"; "blank verse"); words that were only slowly becoming dramatic terms ("actor"; "theater"; "author"); as well as words that appear self-evidently theatrical now, but reached beyond or away from theater in the sixteenth century towards reality or sport as often as they referred to drama in the modern sense ("drama," "perform," "performance," "play" and "playing"). As Michael West shows in this Forum, the 1580s seems to have had no term to describe the people who regularly attended performances, and may have made no more distinction between such people and the actors they watched than we might make between one dancer and another. In an attempt to embrace rather than resist this terminological haze, this essay uses the term "playhouse" in the sense just formulated, to refer to any space, inside or outside, newly built or adapted, that regularly staged plays to a paying public. Unlike many accounts of early playhouses, it does not discount spaces that had other purposes; although the inns are often discounted for this very reason, outdoor playhouses were also used for other purposes, as with fencing competitions at the Curtain and Swan. Indeed, the very concept of a space being set aside only for performance depends on the more stable relationships between venues and playing troupes that developed in the 1590s, and itself feels anachronistic for a period in which space was multifunctional: the nave of St Paul's, for example, served as social hub as well as the main approach to the altar. This is one of many key terminological or conceptual distinctions for theater history that Records of Early English Drama, with its sustained exploration of the fluidity of hall and street performance, makes increasingly unsustainable.

Several of the essays in this Forum set out blind spots in our knowledge specifically associated with this early period. As Rory Loughnane makes clear, the problem of earliness has inhibited work on Shakespeare: questions of authorship attribution, coauthorship, generic indeterminacy, and Shakespeare's lack of committed affiliation to any one company have all hampered scholarly inquiry into the early phase of his career. …

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