Janette Dillon. Theatre, Court and City, 1595-1610: Drama and Social Space in London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. x+188pp. ISBN 0 521 66118 8 Cloth.
Charles Cathcart

Cathcart, Charles. "Review of Janette Dillon, Theatre, Court and City, 1595-1610 ." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, [2000): 23.1-7 <URL:

  1. Janette Dillon explores the interconnection of her three subjects, theatre, court and city, as it appears in plays of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. There is a threefold interaction: Dillon's thesis is that the relationship of city and court is "inextricably symbiotic"(1), and what "plays and players endlessly renegotiate is their double orientation towards these two locations, themselves necessarily in dialogue with each other as well as with the theatre" (4). Dillon's approach is shaped by Henri Lefebvre's theorisation of space, and the notion of place is "to be understood as both topographical and conceptual" (6). This approach allows the various theatres of London to be considered as spaces within which an engagement with court and city (and with their own interrelationship) may be made, and as buildings set in specific locations each with its own individual physical and social space. Dillon's slender volume has an ambitious intellectual scope.

  2. The two-part Edward IV, played by Derby's Men, abounds in "celebratory inventories of London" (49). "The occupational hierarchy of the city is underlined at every opportunity in the play and celebrated at every level" (47). Ideas of exchange are important to this play and, Dillon argues, the King is accommodated within its ideological scope only with discomfort. In contrast to this offering of the outdoor stage, perhaps acted in 1599, lie the various plays of the "poet's war". These, illuminatingly, are introduced as successors to Love's Labour's Lost, not as examples of personal satire but of a fascinated response to linguistic innovation. New vocabulary, in vogue and desirable, appears as commercial artefact. The satiric heritage of the same plays then allows a new viewpoint upon their urban material: the filthy contends with the fashionable. And Dillon's attention to the Blackfriars venue of The Knight of the Burning Pestle informs her discussion of the way that boundaries and issues of social control appear in that play.

  3. The recently-rediscovered entertainment, Britain's Bourse, is central to Dillon's book. Its immediate subject, the New Exchange, and its status as a royal entertainment jointly place it unequivocally at the heart of her work. This pioneering criticism detects an ambivalence in Jonson's response to the commission he fulfils, suggesting that Jonson wished to signal to certain audiences "his own sense of this commission as indicating a certain lapse of taste" (119).

  4. In Dillon's final study, Epicoene emerges as a counterpoint to the awkward aspects of the Entertainment. "It is almost as though Epicoene is written to exorcise a bitterness resulting from writing to commission against inclination in the New Exchange piece" (133).

  5. How successful is this book? The extent of Dillon's range--politics, commerce, architecture, physical and social space, the playhouse--is striking. Dillon explores it carefully: her local claims are measured and they are aptly supported. Her plausible arguments accrete gradually. Yet there is little sense of a sweeping analytical vision to enlighten the interrelated subjects. Readers may feel that there is a mismatch between the precision, even the cautious precision, of the manner in which this study is conducted, and the extensive range it seeks to cover. Of course, we should not expect complex and mutually interactive subjects to release straightforward insights, and Dillon's aim, anyway, is to show that simplistic links between theatre and city on the one hand, and theatre and court on the other, are better avoided.

  6. So halting a defence is unnecessary, for there is a much stronger case to be made for the merits of this work. "This is not another book on city comedy" writes Dillon in her first sentence, and she is right. For one thing, when (say) Brian Gibbons wrote about city comedy, in a study highly sensitive to the political and social context of Renaissance drama, the theorised concept of space was essentially unavailable. Dillon's statement ushers in her own perspective upon the principal concerns of her book, and this suggests that "theatre" is as much a prism through which to view her other subjects as the true focus of her work. This is unhelpful. It is in the successive discussions of plays that Dillon's book finds a true narrative. There her adroitly formulated historical, social and conceptual concerns illuminate specific local topics. City and court (but especially the city) and the physical and psychic space they inhabit offer a framework (we could justly say a theme) within which the plays and their immediate theatrical setting are profitably explored. There Dillon's critical precision, functioning within a no less carefully defined theoretical frame, secures a series of insights: an exploration of the status of drama in the London of 1599-1601 lies behind the presentations by Dekker and Jonson of their stage poets; The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a drama of voluntary displacement; Britain's Bourse is the partial accomplishment of Cecil's wish to secure through the masque "the work of ideological Transformation" (122).

  7. And the whole is greater than its parts. Dillon's book is structured with delicacy: with a witty delicacy. This goes well beyond the way in which canonical works are balanced by little-studied dramas or by which the troika of titular concerns offer shape and direction to her criticism. The successive chapters match a development of thought and a variation of subject-matter with a series of teasing shifts in perspective. Thus, attention to the re- opened children's theatres follows an discussion of an elect nation play; the early plays of Dekker, Marston, and Jonson, first viewed as purveyors of verbal ingenuity, immediately reappear in a chapter headed "The Place of Dirt". The register of locations explored in The Knight of the Burning Pestle is followed by the single focus of Britain's Bourse; and the final link, between a work with minimal critical heritage and one of the most studied texts in Dillon's portfolio of plays, is the most interesting of all. A discussion which uses an appreciation of Jonson's concerns and strategies to throw light upon the new-found masque is followed by another which deploys Dillon's analysis of the masque to re-illuminate the play. The boldness of this progression is, for this reader, rendered the more striking by its own contrast with Dillon's unfailing carefulness of argument and the lucidity and sheer learned common sense which informs her writing. This is an elegant and rewarding book.
Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).