Friday, October 1, 2010

Notes on Abrams' Introduction to The Merry Devil of Edmonton

Anyone doing any sort of serious study of Merry Devil would be remiss if they failed to consider William Amos Abrams' 1942 edition of the work. In producing it, he has completed a massive effort of textual scholarship that goes far beyond anything I would be able to do as a graduate student, and quite honestly has enabled my project. That said, I do not find his edition faultless, and no doubt because I have approached this text as more of a director than bibliographer, where Dr. Abrams was most decidedly a bibliographer. I'll spare the textual details for the moment, but I want to take some time to talk about his introductory material.

One of my chief problems with Bennett's edition (other than the ones it reproduces from Abrams' edition) is the lack of prefatory material. No one would ever think of laying that charge against Abrams whose 100+ page introduction comprises more printed pages than does the text of the play. He has neatly subdivided this introduction into "The History of the Play," "Sources," "Date of Composition," "The Text," and "Authorship," very neatly treating on each of the stumbling points for any editor approaching this text. In so far as Abrams' edition provides anyone with a road map to follow in preparing their own edition, he has created the "definitive" edition that Greg denies him, but as anyone who has followed a map knows, they are rarely always completely accurate, and even more rarely accurate for very long. Apart from the general unavailability of Abrams' edition (combined with the lack of prefatory material in Bennetts, creating the conditions necessitating a new edition), he stretches his data too far in some circumstances, and is often aware that he is doing so.

Here are issues I have with his introductory material:

When noting the relation of Merry Devil to Life and Death, Abrams notes that, "since this pamphlet appeared at least five years after the play, it cannot be considered a source" (15). This ignores the possibility that the pamphlet circulated as a manuscript publication, as did The Famous History of Friar Bacon, which Abrams admits as one of the sources for Merry Devil (13). History of Friar Bacon was, however, not printed until 1627, at least 25 years after Merry Devil as written (Bennett xii). As Greg notes, Abrams has a tendency to over-rely on Life and Death, and its place as the crux of Abrams' argument that Merry Devil is the ancestor to Life and Death may be blinding him to this fact.

Abrams is certain that an episode from Life and Death that describes Smug thinking he can fright the keepers with his visage because he thinks he has frighted spirits in the walk, actually nuns, must have been in the original play (18). His argument, however, is dependent upon a linear view of the way time works in early modern plays, and John C. Meagher has devoted an entire chapter of Shakespeare's Shakespeare describing in detail that this is not the case. Should we assume that the anonymous author of Merry Devil, who clearly knew the work of the Chamberlain's/King's Men and who makes some obvious references to Shakespeare's plays (c.f. the "My Daughter!"/"My Dear!" construction of Merry Devil to the "My Daughter! My Ducats!" construction of Merchant of Venice) would have felt the need to bind himself to a temporal linearity that would have been, to his literary/dramaturgical sensibilities, distinctly artificial?

Regarding the missing scene, Abrams states (on page 21) that if the audience had not seen it, later references to Smug falling out of the tree would not have had an impact on the audience. From Bad Quarto's production, I observed the contrary. Our production did not include this scene, and the line still got a laugh. Here Abrams is thinking as a bibliographic and literary scholar rather than as a theatrical one, and has clearly underestimated the ability of actors to make the line funny. Also, there are other references to Smug's climbing and falling, so this trope is well known to the audience by description and not observation.

Another point of contention for me is Abrams' comment that certain textual errors "point to hasty and careless workmanship" (37). Remember that we are looking at a cut text, so in the best of circumstances there are bound to be certain gaps, but what Abrams sees as evidence of careless workmanship, I have read as evidence of multiple authorship, a position that Abrams flatly rejects (64). It is also worth noting that Abrams is working under the rather old fashioned belief that Merry Devil was published by a literary pirate (the same pirates who produced the "bad quartos" of Shakespeare), and thus obtained their copy surreptitiously. In this regard, Abrams is very much a scholar of his time, and should be forgiven for this assumption, but the logic of surreptitious copy and singular authorship leads to the belief that the play was written hastily; indeed, it should be recalled that, due to the turn around in the public theatres, nearly all plays were, and Abrams never dwells much on the conjecture, reached by Greg, that Merry Devil might have been set from a rough copy. Williams' assertion that no printer would have accepted rough copy and Massai's description of the perfecting process notwithstanding, certain of the errors in Merry Devil do point to this possibility.

Abrams spends roughly 40 pages arguing the case for Dekker's authorship of the play, and while he presents his arguments well, this is more weight than needs to be given to the matter. Even if the play is not the product of multiple authors, if we continue to follow Abrams' logic that the play is a surreptitious copy smuggled to the printer, and an abbreviated one at that, we must concede that someone else had a hand in preparing the play that we now have. The reality is that most of the same evidence brought to witness the heavy cutting of the play can be used in service of multiple authors composing the piece. Abrams' attempt to trace the play to Dekker is an attempt to give the play a unity that it lacks, and presents a further attempt to see through the veil of the corrupt printed book to an original that does not exist.

On the whole, that is my main problem with Abrams' introduction. I can't say this enough, his bibliographic scholarship is excellent and thorough, but the conclusions that he attempts to draw from this scholarship to create a literary unity are inconsistent with both the quality and the quantity of evidence available, and the conclusions he draws about the effects of the text in performance are contra-indicated by those we observed in our production.


Abrams, William Amos. "Introduction." The Merry Devil of Edmonton, 1608. William Amos Abrams Ed. Durham. Duke UP. 1942. p 3 - 103. 

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