Richard Cave, Elizabeth Schafer, and Brian Woolland, eds. Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory. London: Routledge, 1999. x+223pp. ISBN 0 415179 81 5.
Matthew Steggle
Sheffield Hallam University

Steggle, Matthew. "Review of Ben Jonson and Theatre." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.1 (May, 1999): 14.1-7 <URL:

  1. Ben Jonson and Theatre is a collection of articles and interviews that grew out of a conference held at Reading University in 1996. Unusually, it combines interviews with actors and directors together with more conventional scholarly papers. The editors are eager to assure us that any appearance of disorganisation is due to "a spirit of a dramatised, Jonsonian discovery" (xiii), rather than anything more chaotic. But does it work, and who would want to read it?

  2. Clearly, a big concern of this project is to reunite thespians and academics, two groups who generally regard each other with some suspicion. From this point of view, it is slightly odd that the two extended theatrical interviews -- with Sam Mendes and Genista Macintosh -- are in a different, rather ritzier typeface from the rest of the book. On second thoughts, this is perhaps as well, as the thespians say some things that would make a zealous professor's heart break for grief -- for instance, "In terms of the achievement of intention and their stature as living pieces of theatre, they [Volpone and The Alchemist] are as good as anything Shakespeare wrote" (149). Nonetheless, the interviews are full of interesting observations on the practicalities of rehearsing, performing, and marketing the plays of Jonson, and what they say is quoted and used to good effect in some of the accompanying articles.

  3. Perhaps the pick of the academic essays is Mick Jardine's short piece, "Jonson as Shakespeare's Other", in which Lacanian theory is used to expose the critical prejudices that lie behind attitudes to the comparison between the two writers -- prejudices that do no favours to either of them. Other essays in the collection allude to these prejudices, and indeed some of them, perhaps even Andrew Gurr's essay speculating on the ways in which The Alchemist can be linked to Shakespeare, sail rather close to them themselves. But Jardine's scalpel-like account of the ways in which Shakespeare and Jonson are categorised is an excellent piece of work.

  4. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to descriptions of Jonson in rehearsal, from professional theatre read-throughs, to an account of two workshop approaches to The Alchemist and The New Inn. Chapters are devoted to surveys of how Jonson is perceived by designers, actors, and directors. One theme that appears in a number of the contributions is how the focus in scenes of Jonson is not necessarily upon the character who is speaking. For instance, Brian Woolland's essay, "The Gift of Silence" comments that "the 'main event' theatrically is frequently not where the reader on the page thinks it is", citing an example from the interview with Sam Mendes. Mendes describes how a section of The Alchemist 3.4, in which Abel Drugger has hardly any lines, can nonetheless be very successfully staged with him as the focal character. Building on this, Richard Cave talks about the need for "virtuoso ensemble work" (71) in performances of Jonson.

  5. In addition to the above, we have an interesting essay by Richard Cave, "Script and Performance", arguing that Jonson's Folio encodes information about the performance in its textual layout, especially in its sparing use of spacing and its liking for multiple simultaneous columns. Modern editions, argues Cave, tend to spread out the information crowded into the Jonsonian page and dispel the rhythm and energy created by the original presentation. Useful pieces by Elizabeth Schafer and Julie Sanders review recent approaches, academic and theatrical, to Jonson's female characters. And Elizabeth Schafer risks perpetuating, not literary, but national stereotypes in "Jonson down under: an Australian Alchemist", a heartening account of a raucous, grungy, energetic, Kiwi-bashing performance in Sydney.

  6. A couple of minor whinges about the book as a whole. The focus falls most heavily on The Alchemist and Volpone, which is I suppose inevitable and pragmatic. The later comedies are respectably represented, but the two tragedies and the early comedies are largely neglected -- begging the question, can these too be recovered as actable plays? Secondly, the sometimes overlapping discussions of the same scene could benefit from better cross-referencing.

  7. This is not quite a coherent book, but it is a useful one. It offers resources of various sorts -- photographs, accounts of set design and performance practice, and ideas-driven academic papers -- which stand in their own right, without the need to read the book cover to cover. It will be useful to students and lecturers looking for ways into the works of Jonson, and particularly to those wishing to focus on questions of performance. And, very importantly, it gives a sense of the energy and outrageousness locked up in his texts.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, Lisa Hopkins(Editor, EMLS).