Martin White. Renaissance Drama in Action: an introduction to aspects of theatre practice and performance. London: Routledge, 1998. xii+265pp. ISBN. 0 4150 6739 1.

Ben Spiller

Spiller, Ben. Review of Renaissance Drama in Action: an introduction to aspects of theatre practice and performance. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 4.1-7<URL:>.

  1. While Martin White is credited as the sole author of this excellent introduction to Renaissance dramatic texts in performance, it would be somewhat more accurate to describe him as the assembler and discusser of a rich and varied collection of source materials, which, in turn, have been supplied by his past and current students, actors and directors, past and present academics, and Renaissance play scripts. In other words, Renaissance Drama in Action is a collaborative effort, not unlike those of the English Renaissance theatre companies who staged and modified scripts often attributed, sometimes with some degree of hindsight, to a single author. The concept of collaboration goes further than authorial approach, however, as the reader is kept constantly aware of the relationship between performance and text in Renaissance and late twentieth-century theatrical practice. White presents, through his collection of eclectic resources (perhaps most notably his access to Bristol University’s Wickham Theatre, in which he has both taught and directed Renaissance performance), a finely balanced discussion of a selection of plays on both the page and the stage. He organizes his material in seven clearly defined chapters, each of which considers an aspect of staging in the theatres of the English Renaissance and those of more recent times. From the world of contemporary theatre, he transcribes an interview with theatre director Matthew Warchus (on approaching Henry V) and actor Harriet Walter offers an essay on her approach to performing the Duchess of Malfi; from the world of university teaching and student theatre directing, he explores The Roman Actor, The Spanish Tragedy, ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, The Duchess of Malfi, Titus Andronicus and A Jovial Crew; from the world of academia, he contemplates the contributions of Glynne Wickham, John Orrell, Andrew Gurr, and a number of other important Renaissance theatre scholars, to the understanding of Renaissance drama in performance. White keeps his focus on enactments on stage, without substantial reference to Renaissance plays on film.

  2. The first section of the study, entitled “‘Comedies are writ to be spoken, not read’: approaching the play”, examines the initial challenges that Renaissance play scripts pose to students, scholars and artists who attempt to work on the plays. Language from Elizabethan and Jacobean England is described as “in many ways to us a foreign language” (2), a code that needs to be cracked before more profound contemplation of the plays might begin. White discusses the legacy of Middle English on Renaissance English and moves on to talk about the importance of making academic enquiry into the older languages useful to theatrical practices in our time. The ways in which language forms character, setting, mood and atmosphere are considered as essential to our contemporary theatre artists when they approach the plays in a performance context. White is careful not to allow performance studies to overwhelm textual approaches to Renaissance drama. Indeed, he quotes from John Webster’s Preface to The Devil’s Law Case, in which the playwright expresses his debt to actors, to support the balanced approach throughout White’s entire study:
    A great part of the grace of this (I confess) lay in action; yet can no action ever be gracious, where the decency of language, and ingenious structure of the scene, arrive not to make up a perfect harmony (3)
    The sound of words as spoken in Renaissance London is also taken into account as a way of rediscovering various verbal tricks, including puns and rhymes, effects that are no longer possible when the scripts are spoken in contemporary accents. While White refutes the notion that there is such a thing as an “RSC voice” (4), he also acknowledges the contribution of Barrie Rutter and his northern-accented Northern Broadsides performers to the understanding that there is no single, authoritative voice or accent for Renaissance play-scripts. It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming “early pronunciation” performances of Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (called “Globe 3” throughout White’s discussion) will throw new light on the language of the play. Will puns and rhymes become more apparent to modern audiences when Renaissance English pronunciation is executed by modern performers? Other areas of language exploration in this first chapter of White’s dissertation include the shape of the dialogue on the page and the directorial dilemma of whether to cut obscure language and references for modern audiences. Harriet Walter points to the importance of textual exploration in the rehearsal process, even if that exploration is not overtly communicated to audiences: it is precisely because rehearsals do explore the text in such detail that actors learn where to place weight, or discover where emphasis may be less important and so are able to give the play its shape and pace (7). Walter’s explanation resonates throughout the remainder of White’s explorations. Moving on from the complexities of the language of Renaissance plays, White turns his attention to stage emblems and the ways in which they were readily accessible to Renaissance audiences. Akin to the need to crack the codes of language-based challenges, White explains that there is also an imperative to rediscover stage emblems both in rehearsal and in performance. While it is not White’s primary intention to provide theatre companies with a manual for contemporary performance, he cites Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586) as a helpful starting-point. A discussion of the ways in which rhetoric is employed in Renaissance scripts rounds off the first chapter (22-6).

  3. “Staging the play” is the subtitle of the second chapter, the title of which is taken from the Preface to John Marston’s The Fawn: “The life of these things consists in action”. White discusses casting, rehearsal, writer-directors, actor-directors, documentation of production, pre-rehearsal preparation, and the rehearsal period, both in the Renaissance period and in the late twentieth-century, by drawing upon plenteous examples from Renaissance evidence (including Henslowe's Diary), as well as the plays themselves. For the most part, this section of the study is historically based as it attempts to chart the process, or the possible processes, of the journey from page to stage in Renaissance England. The casting subsection investigates the relationship between written role and performer skills, as well as the rivalry between adult and child playing companies. Roles in the creative process are discussed in terms of interchangeability, as players often rewrote their parts (often in the moment of playing) and playwrights played parts in their own plays (27-8). Rehearsals are discussed with a degree of caution, as there is very little evidence upon which to base a case for exactly how plays were prepared for public performance. White quotes Lord Letoy’s directions to his actors in Richard Brome’s The Antipodes as a possible indication of the process (29). The often collapsible distinctions between writers, managers and performers are discussed in the latter half of the chapter, before the focus turns to documentation of performance in prompt scripts (33-43). The chapter closes with a transcript of White’s interview with Matthew Warchus, who directed Henry V with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1994-5. Warchus offers an enlightening insight into the opportunities and challenges of staging a Shakespearean History Play towards the end of the twentieth century (44-57).

  4. The centre-piece of the third chapter, “’Speeches well pronounced, with action lively framed’: Performing the Play”, is Harriet Walter’s illuminating essay on the ways in which she approached playing the Duchess of Malfi for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1990s. She divides her presentation into three sections: “imagined” (pre-rehearsal ideas); “observed” (the journey from private rehearsal to public performance); and “remembered” (thoughts and feelings after the production had ended), yet she does acknowledge that the entire piece is retrospective and would happily sit entirely in the “remembered” section (88-100). Walter’s offering on a twentieth-century approach to a role from the Renaissance theatre is contextualised, both before and after, by White as he details the various possibilities of Renaissance performance style through a wealth of examples from plays that he has taught and directed at Bristol University. He follows Walter’s piece with a case study on the metatheatricality of Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor, which he directed in the Wickham Theatre in the late 1990s. Again, the interweaving of performance and theory and performance and text is richly illustrated by examples from first-hand experience of working on a Renaissance play in performance.

  5. Following his discussion of Renaissance public performance, White offers his readers a detailed outline of the public playhouses themselves, “palaces of pleasure” as he terms them in the title of chapter four. Whereas he analyses what is known and yet to be known of outdoor playing spaces and theatre practice in this chapter, he moves on to incorporate consideration of indoor spaces, or “chambers of demonstrations”, in chapter five. For each type of performance space, he selects a passage from a Renaissance play and, almost line by line, guides the reader through the various staging possibilities of the selected section of script. Act 2, Scene 4 of The Spanish Tragedy is the case study for outdoor spaces, while Act 1, Scene 1 and Act 1, Scene 2 of ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore are chosen for the indoor theatres. In each case, all the elements of performance discussed thus far (including language, emblems, playing styles, rehearsal ideas, the breaking of scenes into smaller units of action, and available performance space) are brought to the fore while White explains how his selected theatrical moments might have been staged and might possibly be staged. Once more, theory informs possible and potential performance. Costume, setting, lighting and other practical matters are also taken into account before the case studies are presented, so that White’s research into those areas is made useful to hypothetical, maybe even actual future, stagings.

  6. The final two chapters are more conceptual than the primary evidence-based fact-searching emphasis of the previous five chapters. Chapter six examines the relationship between comedy and tragedy in the plays of the Renaissance, and encourages the reader to celebrate, rather than attempt to rationalize or negatively criticise, the contradictions and irregularities of the plays. White claims that it is possible, with most of the plays from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, to view the tradition of the Grotesque in the drama. He cites Wedekind’s Spring Awakening and Orton’s Loot as more recent examples of the ways in which playwrights utilise the notion of the graveyard or the funeral as a context in which to place political debates while managing to inject a certain amount of comedy into otherwise potentially tragic scenes (183). Hamlet is the obvious example, but White also contextualises with Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1592), Antonio and Mellida (c. 1599), The Widow’s Tears (1605) and The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1606), to name but a few. He quotes from Meyerhold’s theories of the Grotesque and applies them to the seemingly contradictory and mutually exclusive nature of comedy and tragedy in Renaissance drama: “The basis of the Grotesque is the artist’s constant desire to switch the spectator from the plane he has just reached to another which is totally unforeseen” (183). White’s choice of theorist is perfect to define the near omnipresence of the tragicomic in Renaissance theatre.

  7. To conclude his investigation, White offers a brief overview of the ways in which Renaissance plays have been viewed and understood by academics, critics, theatre artists and audiences over the last few centuries. The final chapter, “’A good play gone wrong’: Renaissance drama in action, 1642-1997”, is divided into a number of subsections, each of which is devoted to approaches and attitudes in a certain century, from the Restoration to the late 1990s. White ends on a note of slight optimism for the future of Renaissance drama in action, by saying that the plays need resuscitation from their relative positions of obscurity. However, the optimism seems slightly tainted by the lamentation that public fund agencies, such as the English Arts Council (now, in 2004, called Arts Council England) seem reluctant to offer grants to pay for professional productions. The lamentation soon subsides, however, when he reasserts the high performative values of Renaissance plays. Since the publication of this study, the Royal Shakespeare Company has staged a season of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, the Sheffield Crucible Theatre has mounted a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, The Duchess of Malfi has received an excellent revival at the Royal National Theatre, Alex Cox has directed a successful film version of Middleton’s(?) The Revenger’s Tragedy, and Northern Broadsides has toured the United Kingdom with Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness. I very much look forward to the second edition of White’s excellent study, when I hope he will take into account, not just the recent rediscovery of the performability of Renaissance plays in the modern professional theatre, but also the potential of those plays on film.

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