Nora Johnson. The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. x+205 pp. ISBN 0521824168.


Ben Spiller
Sheffield Hallam University
ben.spiller@ntlworld.com

Spiller, Ben. "Review of Nora Johnson. The Actor as Playwright in Early Modern Drama". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 10.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/revspil.htm>

  1. Nora Johnson's latest study is an exploration of the relationship between early modern players and the elusive process of their playmaking. Her main focus is the unstable distinction between performers and playwrights, and she cites authorship theories of Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes to provide a conceptual framework in which to place her discussion. Rather than allowing the thesis to wander into generalities about the artistic journey from text to performance and vice versa, Johnson selects a handful of famous performers from early modern England and utilises each one to illustrate and exemplify a different approach to authorship studies: the fool-author Robert Armin; the 'actor-poet' Nathan Field; Ben Jonson the 'true poet'; the contentious Anthony Munday; and Thomas Heywood, famous equally for his playing and writing. A 'coda', 'the Shakespearean silence', is incorporated after each player-author has received full attention in his own chapter. Despite wishing to move her focus beyond the Shakespearean canon, Johnson later realises that her entire thesis provides further contextualisation for the various authorship debates of the works ascribed to Shakespeare. However, she succeeds in her attempt to remove Shakespeare from the centre of attention by rarely mentioning him or his works in the main body of her work. When he is mentioned, Johnson views him as one of many player-authors in the early modern London entertainment industry.

  2. The first player in the spotlight is the celebrity clown Robert Armin, who 'turned collaborative theatrical work into a printed commodity' through his alter-ego author, Snuff the Clown of the Curtain playhouse (Clonnico de Curtanio Snuffe). It is clear that all of Johnson's chosen star player-authors based their texts on the theatrical collaborations of the playing companies for whom they regularly performed. However, Johnson's reason for selecting Armin as a way into discussing the transition from team-based production to single printed work is that he transformed a multitude of apparently disparate voices into his own individual discourse. She quotes from a number of Armin's 'jest books' to show that the comedian encouraged his audiences to hurl questions and ideas at him, and that his comic responses were based on those suggestions. Although the jokes were constructed through a two-way process, according to Johnson, Armin has had the last word on them by claiming them as his own in print. One reaction to the claim might be that Johnson is absolutely right, but only if sufficient authority is attached to the printed word. A scholar with a theatre and performance studies background may well believe that the performance of the initial dialogue between Armin and his audience, or what can be recovered of it through the existing text, is of significantly more value than the finalised printed version of it. For such a scholar, the printed word may not command as much respect and attention. Johnson indeed acknowledges the alternative argument, yet it is difficult to determine with which side she agrees: diplomacy wins the day at the close of the first chapter.

  3. Moving on from a close analysis of the work of an individual player-author in the first chapter, Johnson pits two theatrical celebrities against each other in the second: Nathan Field and Ben Jonson. It is a shrewd decision to bring these playwrights together, as their approaches to playing and writing are so disparate and contrasting. Discussion of how Field's career contributes to Johnson's debates on authorship is primarily confined to the player's probable involvement in the first production of Bartholomew Fair. Particular emphasis is placed upon Jonson's apparent satirical approach to Field's playing ability, and maybe even the antics of Field's father, in the discussion of puppets in V.3 of the play. Johnson helpfully provides contextual information on Field's controversial father, a preacher who had been imprisoned twice for writing against the Anglican Bishops, and who was notoriously involved in antitheatrical writing. If indeed Field was present in the first cast of Jonson's comedy, then it would seem that Jonson's sense of metatheatricality and unsubtly ironic tone was put to use to undermine Field's celebrity status on the Jacobean theatre scene. Plays attributed to Field, including Woman is a Weathercock (1609-10) and Amends for Ladies (1611), are briefly mentioned for their probable critique of the 'sovereign author', a title Johnson bequeaths to Jonson, who, later in life, almost denied his participation in theatrical activity and reimagined his plays as extended verse for pleasurable reading in the study. Johnson claims that, as Field both wrote for and performed in the theatre, he was not only subverting his father's antitheatrical beliefs, he was also questioning the authority of the poet-playwright who wished to disassociate himself from players and theatrical production. She even goes as far as to suggest that Jonson was an almost father-like figure to Field, whose interest in contentiousness found targets in his actual and professional father.

  4. The final two chapters are devoted to Anthony Munday and Thomas Heywood; the first discussed as a self-promoting author who capitalised on antitheatricality to bolster his own career; the latter as a producer of both theatrical performance and writing who strove to command classical authority 'in and out of the theatrical marketplace'. Munday is identified as the most likely candidate for the authorship of the apparently antitheatrical A second and third blast of retreat from plaies and theatres, yet Johnson persuasively argues that the seeming sincerity of the antitheatrical sentiment of the treatise should not be taken at face value: 'While attacking the work of the playwright [] the Third blast and its prefatory letter simultaneously invest in the playwright as a known and talented producer of the stage' (p. 85). Johnson's discussion of the uncertain sincerity of writing, and specifically playwriting, in relation to the career of Munday is furthered with examples from, amongst others, the plays Sir Thomas More, The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, Lusty Juventus and English Roman Lyfe. In the discussion of Heywood, the emphasis is not placed upon the problematic nature of establishing authorial intention, but on the player-author's intention to raise the popular and elitist profile of players by closely linking them to classical works. Through his attempt to imitate 'our Historicall and Comicall Poets, that write to the Stage', Heywood's primary objective was to obliterate the generally low reputation of players as rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars. Heywood, not unlike Jonson, looked to classical models of comedy to strengthen his own reputation as a respectable playwright; but, as a striking contrast, Heywood seems to have been much less interested in denigrating his playing contemporaries to fuel his own ego as 'true poet'.

  5. For the most part, Johnson's style is lively, engaging and packed full of anecdotal detail, which brings a vividness and strong interest to her discussion. Maybe there is room for more detailed analyses of the theories of Foucault and Barthes, who are mentioned rarely and, more often than not, quite casually in passing. However, it is refreshing to read an in-depth study of the playmaking process in early modern England, and particularly the ongoing debates of authorship, that does not place Shakespeare in the limelight. The words of Samuel Beckett, quoted by Johnson in her introduction, resound throughout the thesis, and bring the focus back to the end result of the playmaking process, the script of the play itself: 'What does it matter who is speaking?' It is difficult to determine what Johnson's own beliefs are regarding the uncertain relationship between player-authors and their plays. However, as she highlights the problematic nature of determining precisely who controls meanings of plays, and what those meanings might be, it does seem that Johnson agrees with the sentiment of Beckett's bold and challenging question. She certainly appears to be sharing the question without offering definitive, and therefore most probably misleading, answers.

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


© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).