A capital production

The Theatrical City

April 19, 1996

Like some medieval codices, anthologies of scholarship can remind us of the distinction between a book and its content: one is an object in space, the other a motley cargo of signs and discourses whose proximity may be coincidental. Yet for a collection of 16 essays by authorities with diverse aims, methods and conclusions, The Theatrical City possesses an unusual and ambitious coherence. Aspiring "to establish true dialogue and true interdisciplinarity", the editors pair off historians with critics to build "a picture not only of some aspects and productions of London in the English Renaissance but also of the current state I of the two 'disciplines'". While the result is less fully representative than this might imply, it does illustrate the fruitfulness and, occasionally, the sterility of certain modes of rapprochement between the specialist and the subject in its undissected condition.

After a lengthy, uncontroversial introduction, the volume opens with essays by Ian Archer and Lawrence Manley on the civic mythography of John Stow's Survey of London. Both authors are hard pressed to do brief justice to this sprawling text, but even in the consequent atmosphere of breathless interrogation, fascinating revelations are intimated. However, Stow's own situation between panegyric and modern historiography tends to mute the frisson of the interdisciplinary encounter. The best couples here are wedded, not for their surface compatibility, but on the principle that opposites attract, as in David L. Smith's and Richard Strier's pieces on the Root and Branch Petition and the Grand Remonstrance. Smith enlists the documents in an eloquent reconstruction of the "polarisation" between king and Commons in 1641, while Strier performs a thrilling verbal analysis. And Paul S. Seaver's exposition of class resentment in Thomas Dekker's Shoemakers' Holiday gains from its dialectic relation to the pro-formalist stance of David Bevington, who argues that comedy can at some level obviate such resentments.

This is not the belief of Martin Butler, whose sophisticated assessment of political themes in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts overshadows the accompanying straight sociohistorical summary by Keith Lindley.

Louis Montrose and Leah Marcus offer sequels to their own earlier work on A Midsummer Night's Dream and Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, Montrose arguing that Bottom was Shakespeare's figure for the playwright's "imaginative authority" as against the "instrumental authority of the state", and Marcus that the consummate Puritan caricature, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, functions not merely as scapegoat but also as a kind of exorcistic totem of Jonson's own inclinations to moral outrage and literary purism. The companion essays, by Penry Williams and Patrick Collinson, are (respectively) lucid and magisterial; Collinson argues broadly for the discursive origins of the "Puritan" personality, both stereotypical and real, in texts and on the stage. Linda Levy Peck's and Frank Whigham's accounts of John Marston's The Fawn make only the most perfunctory gestures towards collaboration (Peck quotes Bakhtin at second hand, Whigham cites J. E. Neale and Lawrence Stone).

The book's conclusion on the eve of the Great Rebellion raises a fear that literary studies, frequenting the company of historians, may contract the latter's sometimes unsalutary obsession with the causes of civil war. Eikonoklastes - Milton's rejoinder to a chief text in Charles I's posthumous canonisation - fares excellently in Derek Hirst's competent yet uninhibited historical treatment, whereas Marshall Grossman swaddles his literary insights in a posey glibness.

Nick Moschovakis is a postgraduate student in English, Princeton University.

The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London 1576-1649

Editor - David L. Smith, Richard Strier and David Bevington
ISBN - 0 521 44126 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 288

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