Old Plays and the General Reader: An Essay in Praise of the Regents Renaissance Drama Series

By Cathcart, Charles | Early Modern Literary Studies, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Old Plays and the General Reader: An Essay in Praise of the Regents Renaissance Drama Series


Cathcart, Charles, Early Modern Literary Studies


1. Late in the 1970s, acting on a teacher's recommendation, I bought a copy of John Ford's Perkin Warbeck, and there on a spacious page I read the opening line,

Still to be haunted, still to be pursued,

and my love affair with old plays began. The edition I possessed was that of the Regents Renaissance Drama Series. It was published in Britain by Edward Arnold; Cyrus Hoy was the general editor of the series; and the volume's editor was D.K. Anderson. The book cost 70 pence, which was then a significant outlay for someone on a low weekly wage, though not so great an expense as to prevent further purchases. The price was, I believe, a discounted one, and many companion volumes were then available for the same sum in the great London bookshops of Foyles and Dillon's. I now regret that I did not buy more of them.1

2. My emphasis upon the retail price of my Perkin Warbeck is quite deliberate. In this essay I shall commend the Regents Renaissance Drama Series and advocate its merits as a format for presenting the texts of Renaissance plays. It is therefore fair that I also record that the profusion of discounted copies available in the London of thirty years ago hardly suggests a commercial viability to match the scholarly and aesthetic qualities I shall claim for the publishing venture.

3. Series volumes were released in both Britain and the United States, where the publisher was the University of Nebraska Press. The American series - the senior partner in the enterprise - appeared under the imprint of Bison Books. The text and layout were the same as that of the Edward Arnold volumes, though the series in America did not possess the striking cover design of the British paperbacks. These covers displayed a detail from an embroidered bodice - a tiny detail, blown large, in which the depiction of a bird and of a trefoil leaf and flower with a long and curling stem was prominent. The same illustration adorned all the paperback volumes of the British series, variously appearing in shades of blue, pink, green, purple, and yellow. The surname of the playwright or playwrights appeared in lower case Roman type above the play's title, which was in a larger point size and in capitals. These were framed by the title of the series, placed above and in italics, and by the editor's name, which appeared with the same typography below. The appearance was spare and attractive.

4. The preliminaries featured a series statement by the general editor, a contents page and a list of abbreviations, and there was also an introduction, usually of about ten pages. The text of the play was exceptionally followed by an appendix unique to the volume, and each edition concluded with a chronological appendix in a standard form, again of some ten pages long. Given that the play text itself might typically take up a hundred pages, most editions were slim ones. A long play, such as Bartholomew Fair, or one of the series' six double volumes (amongst which I include the parallel text edition of Every Man in his Humour), would result in a plumper book, but on no occasion was a lengthy introduction or voluminous notes responsible for an outsize publication.

5. The slightness of the Regents volumes derives in part from a certain modesty of scholarly ambition. Regents editions record textual variants, including all departures from the chosen copy text, on each page of the play, so that readers may see for themselves the choices that editors have made in preparing their text; and in this way the Regents series matches the practice of the most authoritative editions of early modern plays. But there is no requirement for Regents editors to record press corrections; the analysis of an editor's textual decisions is succinct; and questions of provenance - that is, of authorial attribution, date, revision, and company ownership - are reviewed briskly rather than exhaustively. In this regard a certain principle is usually at play for established series of Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean drama. …

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