Julie Stone Peters, Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 512pp. ISBN 0 19 926216 0
Andrew Murphy
St Andrews University

Murphy, Andrew. "Review of Julie Stone Peters, Theatre of the Book, 1480-1880: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe.." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 9.1-5 <URL:

  1. The relationship between print and theatre has been much discussed by Renaissance scholars in recent years. These discussions have, in large measure, been driven by an increasing awareness of print as a form of technology which served radically to mould culture -- indeed, to produce, some would argue, new cultural dispensations. In some of this work, the determinative significance of print has been overstated. Relying over-heavily on the work of, for example, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan, some scholars have seen print as a kind of technological juggernaut, flattening the oral or scribal worlds which preceeded it and calling a whole new textual and intellectual regime into existence. Within this narrative, print tranforms the communal text into a mass market commodity, precipitating out both a consuming public and an author who is the proprietorial originator of the text.

  2. This grand narrative of print textuality -- useful though it has been in helping to map out a general image of the intersections between technology, textuality and culture (and, indeed, helping us to understand our own cultural moment as electronic textuality comes to assume a greater importance in our time) -- is gradually being interrogated and supplanted by a more nuanced account of the history of shifting textual dispensations. Julie Stone Peters' The Theatre of the Book is a significant contribution to this debate -- a wide-ranging, ambitious, and intellectually-impressive volume which attempts to analyse the relationship between theatre and print in the period from 1480 to 1880. The chronological scope of Peters' study is matched by its cultural sweep, as she does not confine herself to theatre in England, but also takes in France, Spain, Italy, Germany and other European lands besides. One cannot but admire the ambition of this study. Peters' large geographical canvas for the most part serves her ends well, and it is salutary for a student of the English Renaissance to see that culture placed in a larger context. There are, however, occasions when the slight heterogeneity of the cross-cultural material presented points to submerged differences between theatrical cultures in the territories attended to. For instance, Peters writes of the commedia dell'arte that

    The presupposition that dramatists, not managers, had the right to sell plays to the press obviously did not apply where plays were considered collective products. Moreover, these were short plays, easily learned by heart, performed by a troupe with an improvisational tradition heavily dependent on variety for its audience. But by the early eighteenth century, Luigi Riccoboni could write (with some exaggeration) that the previously extemporizing Italian actors "never acted any Piece that had not before been printed."

    We are reminded here that not all theatrical concerns are uniform across cultures. One of the mostly hotly-debated issues in relation to English Renaissance theatre -- "memorial reconstruction" -- is obviously an irrelevance in the context of this strand of Italian theatre.

  3. In general, however, Peters' work is characterised by a mapping out of finely-honed distinctions. Where others might have argued for seeing print as an engine driving theatre forward -- or, indeed, serving to call a wholly new model of theatre into play -- Peters, while acknowledging that "after print, performance was never the same" (4), nevertheless is also anxious to see the relationship between print and theatre as, in a sense, symbiotic. Thus, from one perspective:

    In disseminating ancient drama, in producing texts about the Greek and Roman theatre, in identifying comedy and tragedy with gesturing actors, in publicizing the classical rubrics around which theatrical institutions formed themselves, in circulating images of buildings called "theatres," in printing and circulating vernacular playtexts that could be performed in them, in identifying the textual drama as the paradigmatic performance art, print gave the theatre an image of itself. (97)

    At the same time, however, theatre also served to shape the printed text, as printers struggled, in the Renaissance period, to find a mise-en-page that could adequately represent the dramatic text, thus "beginning to establish norms for the immediate visual identification of dramatic genres, at the same time reinforcing the distinction of staged dramatic form from other forms of literate text" (170). Much later, as Peters goes on to argue, publishers would seek ways of attempting to refashion the dramatic text in a manner that offered it a sporting chance of competing against the novel -- notably, for example, by adding elaborate illustrations.

  4. While, in general, this is a well-informed and impressively scholarly book, there are places throughout the volume where Peters seems oddly to miss opportunities to place her work in dialogue with that of other scholars. A discussion of the early modern "desire, expressed by orthographers, to repair the disjunction bewteen written and spoken language" (234), reads a little strangely, as it seems decontextualised from contemporary literary theory, for which this precise issue has been an important focal point. This is perhaps a niggling criticism, but more serious is the failure to connect her discussions of print, the centralising of certain forms of vernacular, and nationalism, with Benedict Anderson's classic exposition of this issue in Imagined Communities. Likewise, Peters' chapter on "Who Owns the Play?" (219-236) makes little more than passing reference to the foundational legal question of ownership -- a debate which raged in England between the 1710 passage of the Act for the Encouragement of Learning (effectively the first piece of "copyright" legislation) and the definitive House of Lords Donaldson v. Becket ruling, which served to confirm that the 1710 act had placed time limits on copyright. The Donaldson ruling appears just fleetingly in parenthesis in Peters' chapter and little direct attention is paid to the important work of scholars such as Mark Rose on this topic. In her twelfth chapter, Peters discusses the emergence of a national dramatic corpus in various countries with such publication projects as Gottsched's The German Stage and John Bell's British Theatre. Here she misses an opportunity to link her discussions of nationalism and copyright, since Bell's publications were made possible, in the first place, by the Donaldson ruling, which placed vast swathes of the dramatic canon in the public domain (as it also made other canonical texts available for reproduction -- Bell was also the publisher of the 109 volume "Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill," and of several editions of Shakespeare). There are also connections which might be made between nationalism and the richly-pictorialised dramatic publications which Peters discusses elsewhere -- Boydell's famous illustrated Shakespeare was undertaken in part because Boydell wished to promote a specifically English school of historical painting.

  5. To make these criticisms is, however, simply to point out some missed opportunities in a book which is already rich and rewarding in the connections which it makes. The Theatre of the Book teaches us much about publishing and drama in Europe over the course of four centuries and helps us to understand their intertwined relationship. It is a formidable piece of work.

Works Cited

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

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).