Jean Howard. Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy, 1598-1642. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 276 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3978-2.
Reviewed by Mark Dawson (Department of History, School of Social Sciences, The Australian National University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2008)
Staging Early Modern London: A Destination or a Journey?
Faith I can walk the Exchange, Put on an Indian face, spit China fashion, Discourse of new-found Worlds, call Drake a Gander, Ask if they heare news of my Fleet of Ships That sail'd by land through Spain to the Antipodes To fetch Westphalia Bacon. (act 4, scene 1)
So quips Never-good in Hey for Honesty, Down with Knavery, an early Stuart rendering of Aristophanes' Plutus usually attributed to the erudite but witty pen of Thomas Randolph, then pensioner at Cambridge's Trinity but also sometime London immigrant; formerly a Westminster scholar and later a rather more rowdy son of Ben (Jonson, an older alumnus of the same school). Randolph's possible and fleeting association with the Salisbury Court theater in his equally short but frenetic life (1605-35) could also explain how a "University play" on the misalignment of wealth and virtue came to rely so much on a metropolitan chorography, which steps swiftly not only to London's bourse but also to Ludgate's debtors' prison (act 1, scene 2), Bloomsbury's or Shoreditch's bawdy houses (act 1 scene 2; act 2, scene 4) and, in passing allusion, perhaps its academies of social as well as scholarly learning (act 3, scene 3).
These four kinds of place, turned social space, are pivotal for Jean Howard's study of what she deems London comedy, and each is dedicated a chapter. That is, early seventeenth-century commercial drama engaged with the very phenomenon which supported its own existence, namely, the demographic, economic, social, and cultural blossoming of London from national capital into a "world city" (p. 48). As Howard argues, by drawing on a now quite dense historiography, this was a transformation fraught with anxieties and tensions. Commerce underwrote growth, in terms of national prosperity and population, to be sure. But this commerce also brought the challenges of ethnic otherness, as London became an international entrepot; ethical dilemma, as the workaday lives of men and (especially) women did not befit time-honored and heavily gendered moral prescriptions; exogenous modes of social life, as one's worth became less a matter of ancient belonging to a landed pedigree or a face-to-face community and more one of acquired membership on the heels of either capital gain or fashionable manners. Theater of a City contends that these fundamental changes and their attendant challenges were enshrined by: the metropolis's Royal Exchange, home to merchants both citizen and alien courtesy of Sir Thomas Gresham's beneficence; its penitentiary Counters, which incarcerated those whose credit had been shipwrecked on the shoals of conspicuous consumption; its cosmopolitan brothels like Holland's Leaguer; its tony ballrooms and academies where the English, Londoner and tourist alike, might practice the latest in bodily deportment imported to the West End from Western Europe. Or, more precisely, in staging these locales the drama lent them meaning; it had a prominent role in prescribing the kinds of behaviors cum social identities attendant on each and, paradoxically, in deciphering and sometimes resolving what these same behaviors portended for a society undergoing rapid, often disturbing change.
In a number of respects, Howard's study is well choreographed. It expands our generic understanding of London comedy to include as much chronicle history as the faintly stereotypical citizen satire, as much the Town to the west as the walled City of the east. It offers articulate, attentive, lively discussion of texts typically marginalized by the (Shakespearean) canon but obviously of considerable currency to their first audiences. On its own terms, Theater of a City is difficult to fault as a succinct series of close, often thought-provoking readings of plays such as William Haughton's An Englishman for My Money (perfomred 1598/printed 1616), John Cooke's Green's Tu Quoque (1611/1614), John Marston's The Dutch Courtezan (c. 1604/1605), and James Shirley's The Ball (1632/1639), and their "intimate synergy operating between London and the early modern commercial theater" (p. 2).
However, the study occasionally proves almost too intimate and is missing a little of the promised synergy. The study tends to assume that its readers are already quite familiar with its subject matter. For instance, a handful of topographical engravings are included to aid the discussion yet the broader urban geography is not represented visually, only verbally (albeit skillfully). Mention is made of how many dialogues allude to the aforementioned spaces in passing rather than staging them as part of the action. Perhaps lending greater attention to this proverbial knowledge, like that encapsulated by Hey for Honesty, Down with Knavery, would serve to strengthen the book's interpretation. Though it may be a tad uncharitable to view a work of English literary criticism through the lens of cultural history, Theater of a City might also have proffered clearer historiographical co-ordinates--that is, made more explicit the points at which it either extends or modifies our understanding of both early modern metropolitan life and its drama.
While one learns plenty about the relationship of the commercial drama to the metropolis or, more importantly, its denizens as Londoners, the reverse does not equally apply. This reader hoped to see further comment on how the nominated spaces were not merely narrated but performed. As one example, what evidence is there that the "toyes" or "Bartholomew fairings" of the Exchange made it onto the stage as props? Certainly Howard discusses how the stage ironically (re)presented images of the social academy's deportment and dance routines, but what of the wider theatrical space encompassing varied audiences responding with their own performances of modish manners and attired, at least partly, in fashionable consumer goods? And, as is well known, these goods on display included prostituted bodies which Howard situates almost exclusively elsewhere. That this is a well-known phenomenon may be the point; a goodly amount of work has been completed on the early Stuart theater as a series of social places and as often liminal locations in a shifting urban milieu. Yet if the stage transacted the metropolis, as it were, what about vice versa? Theater of a City certainly recognizes this corresponding trajectory but it is one which the study itself scribes rather lightly. We are given a bird's-eye view of some key urban spaces and their dramatic iteration. Not always so keen is the sense of how these spaces intersected physically with the wider townscape and, most importantly, how the quotidian itineraries of its social actors cum inhabitants bound it all together.
. W. H. Kelliher, "Randolph, Thomas (bap. 1605, d. 1635)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
. Respectively, Richard Brome, Madd Couple Well Matcht (c. 1638/1653), act 2, scene 1; James Shirley, The Wittie Faire One (1628/1633), act 4, scene 1.
. See, for example, Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988).
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