Data collecting dispatches from the front line, or ‘HOW many recorded performances of The Jew of Malta?’
My last blog talked about the Read Not Dead project, and how my six-month research fellowship at Shakespeare’s Globe aimed to collect information on the 200-plus Renaissance plays staged here since 1995. In this blog, I want to talk about the process of acquiring and sorting through all of this information.
For each play, I had to find out certain things: alternative titles, who it was written by, when it was first performed, its genre, which companies acted the play, where the plays were staged, and when (and how often) they were printed. These things may sound simple enough, but while some evidence certainly survives, it is patchy.
Sometimes we don’t know for sure which theatre a play was performed in, although we can speculate. Take Henry Porter’s Two Angry Women of Abingdon: we know for a fact that this was an Admiral’s Men play, as it tells us on the title page of the 1599 quarto that it was performed ‘by the right honorable the Earle of Nottingham, Lord High Admirall his servants’. The title page doesn’t specifically tell us where it was performed, but because it was an Admiral’s Men play we can infer that it was probably staged at their usual venue, The Rose. Probably. We have no reason not to think it wasn’t: is that evidence enough? For now, I’d say yes.
Sometimes we can’t even presume a theatre venue when we know the company who performed the play. For instance, the anonymous play A Warning for Fair Women was probably first performed between 1597 and 1599. We know it was acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but as for its performance venue, well, it was most likely to be either The Theatre or the Curtain. Which one it actually was depends on whether the play was performed nearer the 1597 date or the later 1599 one. The Chamberlain’s Men moved to the Curtain in 1597, but given that we don’t know which month A Warning for Fair Women was performed, it could have been before the move (so, one of the last plays they performed at The Theatre), or one of the first plays performed at their new venue.
Another matter which reveals itself when looking at the available data for these plays is whether or not we can measure the popularity of certain plays. Who was writing the smash hits of the Renaissance stage, and how do we know? One indicator is certainly the number of recorded performances. Christopher Marlowe’s hugely successful play, The Jew of Malta, has 36 recorded performances in London (mostly at The Rose, with a couple at Newington Butts) between 1592 and 1596. Let’s compare this with Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello: between 1604 and 1636, we only have records of eight individual performances of the play (a couple at the Globe or Blackfriars, and elsewhere at places such as Whitehall Palace, Hampton Court, and in Oxford). This isn’t to say that these are the only performances of Othello over a 30-year period: it’s simply the only ones we have records of. But it’s fair to say that Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta was vastly more successful.
However, the number of recorded performances isn’t the only means of establishing which plays were popular: we can also look at its printed history. Take the anonymous play Mucedorus. The only specific date we know it was performed was on 20 February 1610 at Whitehall Palace. The only other information we have is on the title page of its first printing, where we’re told it has been ‘sundry times played’ by 1598. So was it performed regularly? Maybe. The title page might possibly be inflating the play’s popularity to make it look attractive to potential readers. Either this technique worked, or it was in fact a much-loved and hugely popular play: it went through 16 different editions between 1598 and 1663, more than any other drama of the period.
Lastly, filtering through the performance archive of Read Not Dead allowed me to discover what is possibly my favourite fact about the entire project. On June 25, 1995, Read Not Dead staged John Fletcher’s play The Island Princess, which starred not only the Globe’s first artistic director, Mark Rylance (as Armusia, a noble and daring Portuguese gentleman), but Eastenders star and Cockney champion, Danny Dyer (as a soldier named Pedro). What I would give to have seen these two actors onstage together. But such is the wonder and the madness of Read Not Dead.
Words: Dr Miranda Fay Thomas