Friday, February 5, 2010

On whose authority?

We don't know who wrote The Merry Devil, as I've previously pointed out, which raises the question, on whose authority do we authorize a text? This same question, of course, can be turned to the plays of William Shakespeare himself. The theatricians of Renaissance London didn't know or care about our post-enlightenment concept of the author, that solitary genius motivated by the divine spark to create "art." They cared about putting on a good show, defined as one which would make money.

If Mr. Henslowe buys a play and decides it needs some fixing, great. He'll probably hire someone to do it. He did it with Dr. Faustus, afterall (and documented the transaction), and there's no reason to think that the Chamberlain's/King's Men didn't do exactly the same thing. Remember, Shakespeare produced about two plays a year, and the playhouses (when not closed due to plague) liked to perform 6 days a week. They performed many more plays than Shakespeare could have possibly written. Merry Devil was one of them.

So here's the thing; if one of the reasons that Shakespeare's plays are so good (as Gary Taylor would argue) is that they were the product of the best playwright working with the best players; in other words, if the company revised Shakespeare's plays while performing them (as is not uncommonly done today), they would have most assuredly done so with another playwright. Like whomever wrote Merry Devil.

So when this play is finally published in quarto format in 1608, how did they "authorize" it? In other words, how did they establish it as a piece of work worth paying money to own? Dr. Menzer directed me to look at the title page, so lets see what that says....


The line I want to draw your attention to is the one that reads "As it hath been sundry times acted, by his Majesties Servants, at the Globe, on the bank-side." The authority this play is claiming is not that it was written by a specific individual, but first that it was performed "sundry times" (and plays that suck don't get sundry performances), second that it was performed by the servants of the king, and third that it was performed in their large, public theatre. In other words, both the audience and the king are implicitly referenced as the authorizing authorities for this publication. 

I'm finding that there are two primary types of editions of a text that I'm likely to work with: documentary editions, which seek to re-create the specific instance of a specific text (like the first quarto, completely disregarding anything that might have happened in the five subsequent quartos). That type of edition is authorized by the fact that it is a preservation of the way the text once looked, no more no less.

The critical edition is the one we're more familiar with. That's the kind where, in an ideal world, an editor has examined all possible editions of a text and based on sound logical judgment creates an accessible version replete with foot and end notes for the modern reader. The authority of this type of text derives from it's having compared and contrasted several different printings.

When I started this project, I was aiming towards the latter edition, and to some degree, that's still the trajectory that I'm following, but creating a text for performance is a little bit different than a text for study. To be sure, the performance text usually derives from the critical text (at least in my productions), which requires an appeal to another sort of authority: my experience as a director.

Here's the rub: I trust myself more as a director than I do as a scholar. My performance text of this play will therefore speak with more authority to me than my critical text will. That just gives me more of an incentive to make sure that I've looked at as many editions of this text as possible, and that my judgment in making emendations is very, very sound.

That said, I've just finished going over my transcription of Q1 with a fine tooth comb, and notating it liberally where something even seemed a little bit odd to me. Next, I'll be moving on to a line by line comparison between my Q1 transcription and, you guessed it, the second quarto (Q2) of 1612. I read somewhere that Q2 and Q3 were little more than reprints of Q1; if so, that may be even more reason to go over them with a fine tooth comb as well: what better way to make sure I have missed, or misinterpreted, anything from my Q1 transcription?

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