Edel Lamb. Performing Childhood in the Early Modern Theatre: The Children's Playing Companies (1599 -1613). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 189pp. ISBN 978 0 230 20261 0

M. Tyler Sasser
The University of Southern Mississippi

Sasser, M. Tyler.  "Review of Edel Lamb, Performing Childhood in the Early Modern Theatre: The Children's Playing Companies (1599 -1613). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009." EMLS 16.2 (2012): 5. URL: http://purl.org/emls/16-2/revlamb.htm


  1. Performing Childhood is the first book-length study since Michael Shapiro's Children of the Revels (1977) of all the early modern children's companies. Edel Lamb's investigation of child players as a distinct category reveals how an identity particular to these players was created by the Children of Paul's (1599-1606) and the Children of the Queen's Revels (1600-1613) and then emulated by other acting companies. Lamb identifies childhood as a socio-cultural construction, though one not necessarily linked to age, that was crucial to the performances, commercial strategies, and identities of these young players. She expertly surveys how these child players are “defined by the companies' managers, playwrights, legal practices, staging methods and dramatic representations of childhood” and also the influence such elements had on boy players (2).  “Ultimately,” argues Lamb, “the book investigates how the subjectivities of these players were shaped by their experiences of playing and being defined by these companies as children” (2).

  2. Lamb explores what it means to be a child in the early modern theatre in the course of five chapters that investigate how different aspects of this institutional identity contributed to the fashioning of the child players. Chapters one through three outline the development of the gendered, aged, commercial, and national aspects of the children's acting companies in the wider context of theatre culture in London during the opening decades of the seventeenth century. By focusing on the development of the child player between Marston's Antonio and Mellida (1599) and Jonson's Epicoene (1609), chapter one articulates how the category of the “boy” became an institutional identity rather than a corporal one. Chapter two discusses the commodification of the child player and traces the impact of the “varying practices of recruiting, marketing and maintaining players on the image produced of the child player by these companies and their plays” (44). Chapter three complicates debates on what it meant to be English after the ascension of a Scottish king. Lamb positions the children's companies in the middle of a changing nation and observes what the boy players of the Queen's Revels, newly under the patronage of Anna, reveal about the changing status of the nation. Persuasive discussions of the productions of Eastward Ho, The Isle of Gulls, The Dutch Courtesan and others demonstrate how child players functioned as markers of national identities.  

  3. Having established these various distinctions of children's companies, Lamb turns to an evaluation of “the impact of being trained as a player, performing and being defined as a child by this institution on the individual's self-definition” (16). Chapter four begins by exploring playing in the theatre as an educational tool for children and then elaborates on the theatre as a rite of passage where young players fashioned identities as they transitioned to adulthood. For Lamb, London's theatre culture became a space not only where the boys “may address their own experiences and experiment with new roles that will enable their development from boyhood to manhood,” but also a place that provided “continuous and repetitive rites of passage in the form of repeatedly playing new roles” thus situating the boys in a “perpetual state of childhood and youth” (117).  

  4. Chapter five offers a superb overview of Nathan Field's career in the theatre and works as a case study, demonstrating the consequences a life spent in the theatre had on a boy's identity. An analysis of Field's career permits Lamb to return to some of her most important arguments in the book, and especially that, like Field, the members of the Paul's, the Queen's, and the King's revels were all professional players working in professional institutions. This argument is a much needed corrective to the traditional idea that these children companies were merely a phenomenon during the War of Theatres. Instead, as Lamb explains, children's playing companies were a fundamental part of London's theatre culture, including the development of the professional theatre as an institution.

  5. Some readers will probably want to see more attention devoted to the War of Theatres, especially since Lamb offers detailed analyses of many of the plays that participated in these satirical exchanges but seldom specifically addresses the “war” itself. Though the book might benefit from a more substantial engagement with this conflict—and certainly there is something to be said of identities forged in the midst of this competitive and dramatically combative atmosphere—Lamb's argument is actually stronger for not engaging much with this quarrel. As she makes clear, her central concern is to challenge traditional scholarship that limits the concern with children's companies only to their relationship with the Poetomachia. Discussing the children's companies as rivals to adult companies is ground already covered, and perhaps Lamb's greatest contribution to the field is her convincing and wonderfully articulated argument that the children's companies “were not anomalies in early modern theatrical culture,” but instead an “integral part of this realm and a crucial part of a wider culture of children's performance” (15).  

  6. Another of the book's great strengths is its dedication to addressing topics central to early modern discourse outside of performing childhood on the stage. Along the way Lamb offers discussions on the cultural and emotional attitudes toward children during the start of the seventeenth century that further emphasize her central concerns with the gendered, aged, commercial, and national identities of the child players. Throughout the book, Lamb offers new and fascinating readings of plays by Marston, Middleton, Jonson, Chapman, and Field by situating them within the context of identity formation.  

  7. This book fills a large gap in the scholarship on the socio-historical context that supported these popular children's playing companies. By focusing on the identify formations of these young players, Lamb is able to comment on the London theatrical culture as a whole. Thus, this book is of great value for anyone interested in late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre in addition to those with more specific interests in early modern gender, age or childhood studies. Performing Childhood is a literary and cultural study of high order. It is informative and deserves wide attention among scholars not only for the acuity of its readings, but its success in reshaping how we think about the importance of childhood on the early modern stage.



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

© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).