Category: Read not dead

Data collecting dispatches from the front line, or ‘HOW many…

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 

Keeping Read Not Dead alive For the past six months, I’ve been…

Keeping Read Not Dead alive 

For the past six months, I’ve been working as a post-doctoral research fellow here at Shakespeare’s Globe. My job has been to collect data and record information about over 200 Renaissance plays which have been staged by the Globe’s long-running Read Not Dead project, and in this series of blog posts, I’ll be telling you a bit more about what I’ve been up to.

Since 1995, Shakespeare’s Globe has been on a mission to produce rehearsed readings of all the plays which survive from between 1567 and 1642 – some 500 or so dramas which, for the most part, are no longer staged. Of course, far more plays were written and performed during that time – around 3,000 – but most haven’t come down to us: either they weren’t printed and the original manuscripts were lost, or they were printed and those printings haven’t survived. Still, 500 plays are more than enough to be getting on with: the Read Not Dead project has been running for almost 23 years, and we’re only about halfway through!

For those of you who’ve never been to a Read Not Dead event, here’s what happens on the day. Our actors arrive on a Sunday morning and met with a director; they’ll have done no prior preparation for their roles, and they’ll be performing script-in-hand. The cast have 5 or 6 hours to get the play on its feet, decide on blocking, and perhaps choreograph any necessary swordfights. Then, at 4pm, the audience arrive and the play comes alive: the actors usually have only had the chance to go through the entire play once, so most of the time the performances are based on instinct and adrenaline.

Why do we do this? While I can’t speak for the initial reasons Read Not Dead began, here are my personal top five points as to why these events are brilliant.

1.      We get to discover plays that aren’t being performed anywhere else

2.      Some of these plays are real hidden gems. A play falling out of fashion in the seventeenth century isn’t necessarily an indicator of its quality, or of what it might have to say to a modern audience.

3.      The ensemble work between the cast is astonishing. Seeing them put a play together in a single day is pretty exhilarating.

4.      Some of our Read Not Dead alumni have gone on to some rather impressive things. People like Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Craig, Sally Hawkins, Michael Sheen… The list isn’t quite endless, but it’s pretty cool.

5.      You get to be a smug theatre hipster, talking about plays few other people have heard of; and perhaps when some of our current Read Not Dead actors make it big, you’ll be able to boast that you saw them perform when they were up-and-coming.

So what’s my role in all of this? Well, we want the plays that we stage to be remembered for longer than a single afternoon. Some of these scripts are only just waking up again after a 400-years-long nap, and frankly, we’d like them to stick around a bit longer this time and get the oxygen of publicity that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are exposed to.

With this end in mind, Shakespeare’s Globe is setting up a Read Not Dead database. It will contain information on every single Read Not Dead play: who originally staged it, and where; when it was printed; where possible, who acted in it. It will also feature photographs, clips, and scripts from our own performances: all on a searchable database which, for the first time, blends Renaissance theatre history with its revival in modern day performance.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the information I’ve been collecting and what it’s revealed about the theatre scene of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.But for now, why not book in for our next series of Read Not Dead plays? Starting in May, our new Censorship season will confront ideas about suppression and sedition featuring Renaissance plays which speak vividly to us even today.

 Words: Dr Miranda Fay Thomas