Sunday, January 24, 2010

I hate to admit it...

but sometimes the Oxfordians do have a point. Inspired by that article I stumbled across last time, I've done a little digging through the DNB and discovered some fun facts about Thomas Howard, fourth and last Duke of Norfolk. They describe him as "a man of contrasts... on the one hand, there was the image of the handsome and mannered outdoor aristocrat.... on the other there was the socially powerful but personally weak magnate who practiced dissumulation."

Howard's public image is best encapsulated in this obersvation by Guerau de Spes, the Spanish Ambassador, as Howard was being led to the tower: "the concourse of people was so large and the shouts so general that a very little more and he would have been liberated." Also, the DNB notes that Howard tended to prefer life in his country estates to life at court, so there is every reason to think about a country inkeeper like Blague being steadfast in his service of "The Good Duke of Norfolk."

But for 30 years?

Howard ultimately wasn't that bright, and concealed his aspirations to marry Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts, from Queen Elizabeth. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that, if you want to hook up with one of your sovereign's potential rivals, you might want to clear it with her first. It also shouldn't take much wit at all to figure out that, when she catches you in the act and gives you a second chance, don't try to continue your courtship in secret. Howard did both of these, and was convicted of treason and executed. His head came off on 2 June 1572.

Recall my estimation of 1603 as a first-performance date. I felt very good for coming up with that because, when I looked it up in Chambers, he had come to the same conclusion. Having your thought process be in sync with one of the great lions of Renaissance scholarship feels.. you know... good. Of course, even then I was writing of this as a probable latest first performance date. I suppose there's no reason to suspect that it wasn't written sooner, but that creates a strange mystery in and of itself. If Merry Devil is a product of the 1580s or 1590s, why isn't there a either a stationer's register entry for it or a record of its performance? And how did the play come into the possession of the Chamberlain's/King's Men?

Since Chambers has got my back on this one, I think that I'll stick with my 1603 estimation. That, in turn, leads to interesting character questions. Host Blague praising the Good Duke of Norfolk would be a little bit like running into a hotel in the middle of nowhere decorated with Nixon memorabilia. There is something almost absurd about it, but then again, Blague is supposed to be a bafoonish character, and they do absurd things all the time. That's why we laugh at them.

So while our anonymous Oxfordian raises some interesting issues, these seem to me most likely to be issues to resolved "in game." They help inform the character more than they do the date of authorship.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How those Oxfordians do go on.

Some people out in the world think that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote most (or all) of Shakespeare's plays. To prove their claim, some of the more industrious among them have resorted to such highly respected methods as ouigi boards. I don't think I've ever met an Oxfordian, but I have met adults who believe in unicorns. While I won't go so far as to call Oxfordians "stupid," because some very intelligent people have subscribed to this theory, there is not a single shred of concrete evidence to support the convoluted narrative that they create to justify de Vere as the author of the canon.

I mention this because, while doing a little bit of research, I stumbled across this article, which as you've probably guessed proposes de Vere as the author of Merry Devil. Is it impossible? Yes, but the evidence that this apparently anonymous author puts forth doesn't even come close to suggesting it. Lets look at his argument, you know, for fun. I'll sumarize in bullet points:
  • Merry Devil was probably written by a Cambridge graduate because it refers to Cambridge in a positive way.
  • The author was familiar with an area 15 miles south of London, as evidenced by the references to specific locales.
  • The play was probably written before 1572, because there was no Duke of Norfolk after 1572.
  • Merry Devil is about young men in love, and must have been written by a young man in love. Coincidentally, de Vere was a young man at that time.
  • de Vere was a friend of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk
  • de Vere was proclaimed as a comedy writer
Therefore, de Vere wrote Merry Devil. Case closed, right? Of course, by this logic, Harry Potter must have been written by a Hogwart's graduate still young enough to remember his early years there. Probably by someone who knew the principle characters.

The fact is, while Fabell the Cambridge scholar and his student are portrayed sympathetically, you could substitute just about any school name in there and it wouldn't change a thing. Even so, a lot of people went to Cambridge, Christopher Marlowe, for example. Also, a lot of people probably were familiar enough with the area in which the play takes place to have written about it. Just about every other point that the author makes in this article begs the question: de Vere could have written it, therefore he may have.

Still, the references to the fate of Howard and Jerningham are rather intriguing, and might be worth some further investigation.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Exploiting Faustus

The American Shakespeare Center just opened Dr. Faustus as part of their Actor's Renaissance Season. When you're working on a play that features a wizard who has bought the service of a devil with his soul, comparisons to Faustus are inevitable. Especially when we know from Henslowe's Diary that Mr. Henslowe "Lent unto the company the 22 of November 1602 to pay unto William Bird and Samuel Rowle for their additions in Dr. Faustus the sum of" 4 pounds sterling. I can't imagine a shrewd businessman like Henslowe paying money for revisions to a play he wasn't planning on producing, You may recall that 22 November 1602 is about the time that it seems most likely that The Merry Devil was written.

Dr. Knutson is tantalized by the possibility of having Faustus up at one playhouse, and Merry Devil up at a competing playhouse across town, and quite frankly, so am I. It's hard to draw a modern analogy, especially because Merry Devil doesn't exactly parody or burlesque Faustus: they both feature necromancers who have sold their souls to various devils, but there the similarity ends. Faustus is a tragedy about the perils of sacrificing oneself for vanity, Merry Devil is a romantic comedy. Dr. Knutson calls it an exploitation, and when you look at the text of Merry Devil, it's pretty clear why.

Fabell's role in Merry Devil is actually quite limited. He works primarily through his agents to achieve his ends, which are really not his ends at all so much as the ends of his former student. The only time Fabell traffics with his spirit, Coreb, is in the induction, and while that establishes Fabells power, his sense of humor, and his craftiness, it does not tie directly to the main plot. It's a little bit like if you were to produce a romantic comedy when the Star Wars trilogy was re-released in 1997: the series was already well established and popular, featuring new materials, and you wanted to ride that wave, so you have a Darth Vader looking mystic knight with a garbage can like android show up and use "the power" to bring the featured couple together. Your movie's got nothing to do with Star Wars, would probably work fine without Simulacrum Vader, but the presence of the character will boost your ticket sales.

This train of thought ultimately will bear more fruit when the production is in rehearsal. It begs the question of how much Fabell's inner life parallels Faustus'. Surely they both care about their friends and students; Faustus wills his entire estate to his apprentice, after all. Fabell's time is up when the play begins, but he manages to trick and extort Coreb into giving him seven more years. Still, he's got to be feeling that time flying by every bit as much as Faustus is. Then again, maybe he's better than Faustus. Fabell has tricked the Devil once, after all, and there's no reason we should think he won't be able to do it again.

Almost makes me wonder if the King's Men (or Chamberlain's Men, depending on the exact date) didn't buy a script and then decide to jazz it up a bit. Not that it matters; we'll never be able to prove any of that. Still, the original production of Faustus happened in the early 1590s and was hugely popular, so The Merry Devil's author would, at least have been aware of the story, and even if the Globe production didn't parallel the Rose production, the shadows of Christopher Marlowe were certainly cast as much over Merry Devil, just as they're cast over Damn Yankees and Little Shop of Horrors.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What is this "text" of which you speak?

I feel like I should pause to comment that the "trusting the text" line is a tongue in cheek reference to something that one of my professors, Dr. Paul Menzer, said last semester. I will here paraphrase: when someone says "trust the text," you ask "which text?" "what do you mean by 'trust'?" and "what do you mean by 'the'?"

Pursuing a degree in Renaissance Literature in Performance (i.e. Shakespeare) means being caught between two worlds. On the one hand, we have a deep, abiding respect for the text: the verse, the prose, and the stage directions. On the other we have a menacing distrust for "the text." Influenced by the likes of Gary Taylor and his generation of bibliographers (the new new bibliographers?), we recognize that the texts as we know them are a collaborative process that carry with them the influences of the printing houses in which they were first printed.

"Text" is a product of the technology it is disseminated in, and in the case of The Merry Devil, that means six quartos over the course of roughly 50 years. The first in 1608, and then in 1612, 1616, 1617, 1631, and 1635. The 1612 and 1616 quartos are functionally reprints of the 1608 quarto, and in perfect honesty I'm not far enough along in my editorial process to talk about similarities and differences between the others. Keep in mind that this is before typewriters. To print a text, someone had to manually set the letters, cover them with ink, apply paper, and press, and you had to do this for each page. Time is money, so you may have to do it quickly, and your typesetter may be more or less experienced. In addition to the typos that a typesetter might make, they would sometimes need to change a word, or the layout of a word, to make sure it fit on the page. They may interpret a series of prose lines as verse, or vice versa.

The product of an author thus passes through the filter of the printing house. Even so, our post-enlightenment conception of "the author" (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Tom Berger, our scholar in residence) does not necessarily apply to the Renaissance London theatre scene. Several writers may commonly be hired to develop different scenes of a play from a single plot outline, the quicker to have a work ready for the stage. It was also a common practice to hire a writer to revise the work of another: remember, when Mr. Henslowe hires you to write a play, he gives you money and you give him a play; that is now Mr. Henslowe's play, not yours.

All this is to say that "the genius of Shakespeare" owes much to the media through which it is transmitted to us, as does "the smarts of whoever wrote The Merry Devil." Trying to look through that to some magical authoritative hand is pointless and inane. A fool's errand.

For the moment, I'm not trusting any text. I'm starting with a transcription of the 1608 quarto; my "control text," and line by line comparisons of that to the others will yield insights on how to best prepare my own text. Ultimately, I want to be able to give my actors a text so that when they ask me "which text," I can very simply tell them "the one I gave you." That text might not even be the equivalent of the one that I would offer up as my own "new critical edition;" it may simply be a derivative of that edition that I find to be slightly more performable.

If you think that's a contradiction... well... don't. We know, for example, that Ben Jonson published some of his plays, advertising that he had included scenes that the players had cut. The copy of the text that is sold in the book shop for reading and analysis need not be, and maybe should not be, the same as the one that actors perform on stage.

At the moment, this text is too young to trust; not even long enough to verify.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Holy Logistical Nightmare!

The economic logistics of preparing a show will, very often, come into conflict with the editorial ones. If you can only afford a company of 8 actors, say, you're not going to be presenting Midsummer without lots of very creative doubling and, yes, cutting. You know, removing the words that Shakepseare wrote from the play.

Fortunately, Merry Devil escapes some of that taboo. It wasn't written by Shakespeare, after all (or rather, there is no evidence that it was), and so I can cut the text for touring purposes without butchering the master of the English language. I am still butchering something, though. Then again, no one eats steak before a cow gets butchered. Then again again, maybe I'm not as smart as I like to think I am.

I was banging my head against the logistical nightmare posed by the concluding scene of the play. It featured 14 characters. That's pushing the bounds, even for a King's Men play (not counting supernumerary servants, soldiers, and what not), and is an insane amount of actors by modern standards. As it turns out, I was wrong.

My guidelines for scene breaks have been pretty simplistic: look for when everyone leaves the stage. The thing is, the quarto editors weren't always good enough to say when everyone leaves the stage. Sometimes you have to do something crazy, like read the play for context, to figure out that in one moment they're standing on the North side of town, and in the next they're in the South. Despite the fact that no one said exeunt, they characters have all clearly left the stage before the next enters, signaling a change of location and, yes, of scene.

This brings my final head count down to the much more manageable 11. The dramaturg and the accountant smile at one another, shake hands, and congratulate each other on a job well done. The moral of the story is that the text isn't trustworthy yet.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lacking a Royal Patron....

In Tudor-Stuart London, playhouses were sponsored by royal patrons that could donate clothing, and provide financial backing. Unfortunately, there is neither a king or a lord chamberlain who is willing to help us bring The Merry Devil to the Philly Fringe, and so we have advertising and corporate partnerships.

I like to not think of it as selling out so much as "engaging the marketplace." The fact is, taking a show to Philly Fringe costs money, and if you see any ads that strike your fancy, or buy stuff from Amazon through our widget, that helps generate some revenue to help us make the project happen. No, not a hell of a lot, but every little bit helps.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Man Behind The Devil

Published six times in quarto over 50 years, performed at court and the Globe, and cited by both Thomas Middleton and Ben Johnson (cite Chambers) in their works, The Merry Devill of Edmonton was clearly an extremely popular comedy of 17th century England. Yet the question still remains: who wrote it? Editors have, since the 18th century, proposed authors such as Dekker and Middleton for various stylistic and thematic reasons, but the only attribution from the era of Merry Devill's peak priority claims that William Shakespeare is the author. This was first put forward 37 years after Shakespeare's death, however, and is unlikely to be true for some very simple reasons.

While we do not know when the play was first performed, Thomas Middleton first makes reference to it in Black Booke (his 1604 sequel to Thomas Nash's Pierce Penniless) (Middleton 536). Merry Devill must have been written at least sometime earlier. Pretending that Middleton wanted his audiences to understand the reference, it is reasonable to assume Merry Devill was popular with a broad enough audience that he would have been comfortable in making the assumption that his audiences would have understood the reference when writing Black Booke, so it would be fair to estimate Merry Devill to be a product of 1603 at the latest (in fact, this is Chamber's estimated date as well).
While certainly not all quartos were published with the authors name, even Shakespeare's, we know that certain of his quartos were (such as the 2 Henry IV quarto of 1600) (Greenblatt 1322). It is by no means proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but the question must linger in our minds as to why, if Shakespeare was the author, his name would have been left off.

A more compelling question that one must ask before attributing this play to Shakespeare: why was a popular work of Renaissance theatre not collected into the First Folio of the most popular Renaissance playwright's work? Since the First Folio was compiled by Shakespeare's friends, coworkers, and admirers after his death, it is fair to assume that the collection was meant as a testament to Shakespeare's genius by his contemporaries. Of course, it was printed to be sold and make money, and the completeness of the collection was one of the selling points.
While the First Folio was not a complete collection, Herminge and Condell's introduction indicates that they had assembled what they believed to be the most complete collection of Shakespeare's works possible. If Shakespeare's contemporaries were to ascribe authorship to the man himself, there is no reason to think that they would not have done so at this time.

It would be 30 years after the Folio that The Merry Devill was first ascribed to Shakespeare.
At some point after the 1631 quarto Humphrey Moseley obtained the rights to the text and registered the play on 9 September 1653 with the stationer as "The merry devil of Edmonton, by Wm:Shakespeare" (Chambers, Vol. 4. 30). The title page of the play had, since the first quarto of 1608, advertised The Merry Devill as having been performed by the King's Men, and so it was perhaps not unreasonable for Moseley to assume that the play, which was popular enough to warrant another printing in 1655, was written by the greatest playwright of that company.

Lacking some new discovered reference, it will be impossible to do anything but guess as to the author of the text. Whether it is the work of a gifted but unknown journeyman, the product of collaborative authorship in a way that did not make sense to credit any one (or two) individuals (a distinct possibility given it's three very separate plots and sets of characters), or the work of William Shakespeare's own hand is unknown. While the writers of one of early modern London's most popular comedies will likely remain a mystery, this ultimately does nothing to diminish the quality of the text, or its success in its own time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Little Bit of Background

When you go to grad school to focus on Shakespeare and are immediately presented with the opportunity to take a class with an eminent theatre-historian, you take it. Even if it is your first semester, and thus I met Dr. Roslyn Knutson in Shakespeare's Theatre last semester, and she in turn introduced me to Merry Devil. The purpose of the class was to expose us to the sorts of things that were going on in London in the 1580s, 90s, and early 1600s, and as she promised, we read a lot of very bad plays. Also a few good ones.

The problem with many of these plays is that they don't exist in the most friendly of editions. Many of them haven't been given a modern treatment of any kind, and some haven't been touched by editorial pen in nearly a century. Merry Devil was one of those that seemed to cry out for a new edition, and me being a huge nerd who actively struggles against having anything that might even possibly be mistaken for a social life, I decided that I would jump headfirst into this. Also, I had to pick something as a capstone project, and the narrative outline of what would be required towards the creation of a new critical edition seemed perfect.

Here's the catch: I'm really not much of a scholar. I come to this game from a background in theatre: you know, actually making plays happen. So what would be the point of putting together a new edition of a work if you're not going to perform it?

A parallel train of thought involved getting some of my friends together from various waypoints in my travels through life and somehow taking a play to Philly for their fringe festival. Late one night, awash in a mixture of burnt coffee, those two circuits crossed, and the Merry/Fringe project was born.

Thus, I have spent a couple weeks transcribing Merry Devil from the 1608 quarto (the first one), and am also working on planning out the logistics of the production. Somewhere in between, the scholarship and stagecraft are going to meet, but hey! That's what my program is all about.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to the Merry Fringe Project

Once upon a time, in 1590s London,
Some anonymous author(s) wrote a play
Called The Merry Devil of Edmonton.
It's a little Falstaff, and part Faustus;
A Cambridge Scholar and magician
Employs his sorcery in manner thus:
That two young lovers properly hook up.
The author(s) of this play a mystery
Remains for us yet to be uncovered,
But let's not with small detail be smothered.
Four centuries have passed, and the play is
Still one of the best of the period.
It was performed at the Globe on Bank-side,
Several times at the royal court,
And published six times in quarto form
Up through when Cromwell stopped all the playing.
Join me while I edit this great old work
To share the sixteenth century mirth at
The Philladelphia Fringe Festival.