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"British Renaissance Theatre History since 1945" by Gabriel Egan

Whatever else one thinks of the American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he has righly been recognized for his contribution to the popular understanding of epistemology by his distinction between things we know we know, things we know that we don't know, and things we don't know that we don't know. At the core of theatre history is the scholarly art of turning unknowns into knowns. I will, like Rumsfeld, use three categories: What We Now Know, What We No Longer Know, and What We Wish We Knew to sketch developments in my corner of the field since 1945.

What We Now Know

You can get a get reasonable image of what we used to think open-air theatres such as the Globe looked like from Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry 5, in which an 8-sided Globe is furbished on the inside with exposed brickwork and unpainted wooden boards. Above the main stage is a smaller 'upper stage', deep enough to allow actors to sit down at a table and hold a conversation. These ideas, common at the time, we now know to be wrong. Trivially, the Globe had, we now know, been 14 and 20 sides, and importantly it was not a 'spit and sawdust' place. The Elizabethans painted their public spaces lavishly, and theatres really were the "gorgeous palaces" that their puritan detractors objected to. There was no extensive 'upper stage': where characters appear 'aloft' they are few in number and always direct their attention outwards to the main stage and the audience; it's more of a balcony that an 'upper stage'.

Regarding stage doors: nobody connected with the 1990s Wanamaker Globe reconstruction anticipated these being a source of disagreement. Where it was anticipated at all, trouble was expected to come from the location of the large stage pillars that hold up its roof. The director Peter Hall, and others, objected that putting the pillars close to the corners of the stage would make the theatre unusable for certain kinds of drama, and in reponse the Globe architects moved them in towards the centre of the stage and redesigned the superstructure accordingly. But theatre historians were right to fret over the entrances to the stage. Directors at the Globe are clearly unhappy with the doors as they frequently build out into the playhouse yard, adding steps and runways to make additional entrances. We know that this cannot be authentic, and it reveals how little we know about the drama that theatre historians have been unable to satisfy practitioners in this regard.

We know a little more than we used to about the indoor hall playhouses. Experiments in the use of candle-light have revealed certain subtle effects in certain plays, but research here is in its infancy. Beyond playhouse design and staging, we have a better understanding now of how the London theatres operated as an industry. We no longer refer to piratical publishers stealing scripts, or of the Renaissance equivalents of today's pay-day loan sharks giving small advances to keep writers and actors locked in a vortex of debt. We have a better, although still far from perfect, understanding of how capital flowed through the London theatre industry, paying for the most expensive necessaries, which were costumes, scripts, and hired performers (in that order of cost).

What We No Longer Know

The past 70 years' work have only added to the sum of human ignorance about theatrical manuscripts. We used to think that where an early printed play gave a single character differing speech prefixes in different scenes we were seeing the authorial mind in the heat of composition. In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the 1599 printed edition gives Capulet's Wife speech prefixes as "Mo[ther]" when talking to her daughter Juliet, "La[dy]" when talking to her servants, and "Wi[fe]" when talking to her husband. We thought that this showed Shakespeare conceiving of his characters in relational rather than absolute terms, and we assumed that when his script reached the theatre somebody regularized these names to create a consistent and easily-to-follow promptbook. Surely somebody had to tidy up the inconsistency and imprecision of authorial papers, deciding whether "Enter three or four lords" needed three or four, and so on.

In this way, textual scholars thinking (they supposed) like theatre historians constructed a neat binary division of scripts: authorial papers were untidy but close to the mind of the dramatic in the heat of composition, and the theatrical promptbooks were tidied up and reflected how the play looked after certain necessary and practical questions had been considered. For most the dramatists of this period we do not have any early manuscripts of their plays, but for several hundred of them we have an early printed edition and since the printers must have had some kind of manuscript to set the type from we fondly supposed that we could determine from the printed books what kind of manuscript was used. This confidence allowed textual scholars to choose between multiple early editions of a play, arguing that this one reflected the play as it left the author's hand and that one reflected the play after it had been through the processes of rehearsal and readying for performance. That distinction in turn told us just what was possible and what was impossible on the Renaissance London stage: what kinds of sound and other special effects were added, what kinds of economies were made by the doubling of roles or the cutting of superfluous parts, and just what might get cut as impractical or simply too wordy.

This confidence about play manuscripts was a pleasant delusion while it lasted, but careful scholarship on the surviving manuscripts has debunked its underlying myths. For reasons we don't yet understand, manuscripts used in the theatre have have turned out to be nearly as untidy, inconsistent, and downright confusing as authorial papers. The 19th- and 20th-century promptbooks that we are familiar with--those carefully created and orderly records of the various layers of backstage activity, with their precise timings and systematic codings of business--are simply not at all the kind of documents used to run performances three centuries earlier. Why don't yet understand why not, or how they could run a performance from such a messy document. And that takes me to my final category of knowledge, things we wish we know.

What We Wish We Knew

We would like to know whether the leading company of the day, Shakespeare's Chamberlain's/King's men were structured economically in the same way as their rivals the Admiral's/Prince's men, for whom we have the extensive records of Philip Henslowe's Diary. If they were the same, then Henslowe's Diary is good evidence for the London theatres generally rather than just the ones he owned. In one key aspect they cannot have been the same, since the Admiral's/Prince's men did not contain an actor like Shakespeare who could also write their hit plays. Companies managed by Henslowe mainly paid freelance writers to create their scripts, and typically these writers worked in teams.

We used to think that Shakespeare was, by contrast, not only attached to one company but also wrote his plays (with one or two exceptions) on his own. Those one or two exceptions have, in recent years, grown to more than 10 co-authored plays, and now the tally stands at about one-third of Shakespeare's entire canon being co-written with the likes of Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and others. We would very much like to know more about just how co-authorship operated. Did they divide up an outline of the play with each man taking particular acts or scenes? Or did they divide the play into plots and subplots? Did they write in isolation or sitting around the same table, influencing one another? Most fundamentally, we would like to know just who wrote what. The techniques of computational stylistics that are beginning to answer these questions have so far been applied almost exclusively to works ascribed Shakespeare.

As the Marxist theoretician Slavoj Zizek pointed out at the time, Donald Rumsfeld's three categories of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, misses out the crucial category of unknown knowns: elephants in the room that no-one is speaking about. Future generations of theatre historians will look back at us and wonder why we failed to discuss the really important aspects of theatre that seem obvious to them. As editors of the organ of the Society for Theatre Research, the best that Sarah and Trevor and I can hope to do is ensure that when these future theatre historians write about the failings of our generation, they do so in the pages of Theatre Notebook.