Sunday, October 3, 2010

Notes on Re-patching the Play

I thought I would take a brake from Dessen for a little bit to examine Tiffany Stern's essay "Notes on Re-patching the Play," which sounds like it might be right up my alley for this project.

Stern notes that while primary documents of the period can be an important source of evidence, the push to find new primary sources has led to a push away from close examinations of secondary sources, such as joke books, travel journals, poems, pamphlets, and the like, which can be equally useful in determining Renaissance staging practices (151). Of course, Life and Death is one such secondary source, so Dr. Stern's got my attention.

Stern cites 50,350 being printed between the years of 1580 and 1660, and further notes that only about 700 of those are plays. Theatre historians have not yet comprehensively examined the other 49,450 books printed in the period for theatrical references that might illuminate theatrical practice of the period. This is especially true as many of these books were written be authors who were known playwrights, or who were regular play goers (153).

A pejorative term for a playwright, then more commonly and neutrally referred to as a "poet," was a "play-patcher." In this sense, someone who patches together disparate pieces of text from their commonplace book, as opposed to a poet who presumably would be more dedicated to the construction of a single work (154 - 155).

If plays were the product of a poet patching together pieces from their common place books, those text fragments would routinely find their way into the commonplace books of others. Lawyers and lovers alike were known to attend plays and write down pieces that appealed to them for later use (155).

"Beyond the commonplace-book aspect, a look at the printed layout of surviving texts raises the suggestion that some plays were transcribed, kept, learned, revised, and even written, not as wholes, but as a collection of separate units to be patched together in performance" (156). That sounds like a not wholly inaccurate description of Merry Devil.

Stern discusses songs being separate textual objects from the rest of the printed text in much the same way she argues in Making Shakespeare, but here she quotes William Percy telling the "Master of children of Powles" that he may cut the songs from the production if any of the plays "overreach in length" (158). That has implications. Clearly dramatists were aware that their plays would sometimes need to be shortened, and while we here have an explicit reference to cutting down on songs, I wonder if there is anything comparable to cutting scenes.

Stern notes that the 1600 "bad" quarto of Henry V, printed within a year if its performance, lacks the prologue, epilogue, and the choruses. It is an open question as to whether they were left out of the printing of hadn't been written yet (159).

Prologues and Epilogues were detachable from their play texts because they were sometimes written for specific occasions, and thus might not be attached to the playbook proper (160 - 161). I know Stern has said this before, but only now does it occur to me that perhaps the prologue to a probably cut play could be viewed in this light.

A play might be longer and rougher at its first performance than at subsequent ones, with the disapproval of the audience leading to certain cuts. Stern references Gurr's concept of the "maximal" and "minimal" text and offers that the first night performance was the "maximal" one (163). Is Merry Devil therefore a minimal text?

cf Gurr's "Maximal and Minimal Texts: Shakespeare v. the Globe." Shakespeare Survey. Vol 52. 1999. p 68 - 87.

Plays were given to actors in individual parts, and were revised, and perhaps written in this way too. Thus, between prologues, epilogues, songs, choruses, and even individual parts, the picture of a play as written in separable threads begins to emerge (168 - 169).

"Plays, then, should not always be regarded like epic poems in which each bit of text has the same worth" (170).

Stern, Tiffany. "Re-patching the Play." From Script to Stage in Early Modern England. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgell Ed. Houndmills. Macmillan. 2004. p 151 - 177

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