Of God and Jonson: theatre history, new things and non-events

We are all Jonsonians now. (Sorry…)

I was fortunate to be able to attend some of the superb Before Shakespeare conference at Roehampton last week. I came away with a range of thoughts and ideas, some of which I hope to pursue in one form or another.

Perhaps the thing that struck me most, however, was Bill Ingram’s opening talk. Ingram used the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium to critique the way in which theatre historians often approach their subject. Punctuated equilibrium was first proposed in the early 1970s by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould. Contra the concept of graduated evolution proposed in classical Darwinism, Eldredge and Gould argued that the paleontological record in fact showed long periods of stasis broken by interstitial spasms of evolutionary change.

Theatre historians, Ingram argued (and perhaps historians tout court) are too focused on those spasms – events such as the building of the Red Lion or the 1574 patent to Leicester’s Men – at the expense of the surrounding continuities.

Arguably we treat these not just as events, but as emphatic Events – indeed, sometimes possibly even EVENTS – that determine and define how we interpret the history of the early modern English theatre. In so doing, as I understood Ingram to be saying, we actively distort that interpretation.

I hope I understood him right, because it got me thinking.

If it is true that we are too drawn to the glamour of events, then what would a history of non-events look like? (The very nature of that binary – event / non-event – shows how ingrained our bias is.) What would it account for that we don’t account for currently? How would it account for events when they do occur in a way that doesn’t disrupt our new-found interest in continuities and stasis? Do we have a vocabulary for treating event and non-event alike – for understanding both as part of the same process – or are all our theoretical frameworks still too teleological?

Clearly, Ingram’s point was somewhat admonitory, but I am not sure we should feel too guilty about our failure. The impulse towards event is there in Henslowe, after all, who paid attention to the “ne[w]” plays in his ledger. It is even there – to take an extreme example – right at the beginning of the Bible, in the creation story. Each day of God’s creation, we are meant to marvel at the new things He is bringing forth: the sun and moon, creatures of the sea and air, and so forth. By the time we have got to Adam on the sixth day, the rest of creation is taken as read, already there.

It is that already-thereness that is so challenging for historians to capture because it goes to the heart of the purpose of historical practice. Is history about what is important to us – about our value systems – or about recovering the values – the reflexive thoughts and sentiments – of those who are past? Is it about the now of then, or what happened next – a way of thinking that effectively elides the nowness of things entirely. To put that another way, perhaps as historians, we are so wedded to chronos in our thinking that kairos, that other experiential, immersive expression of time, eludes us. The more so because we so rarely look for it.

There is surely a case for arguing that this reflexive deference to chronos – exemplified in all our befores and afters, in our you-know-who-and-his-contemporaries descriptors – badly distorts our sense of the historical moment. Jonson was seemingly the first person to gather his works with its historic value in mind: his massive 1616 Workes was surely intended as an Event – and yes, no doubt even an EVENT. (I’m inclined to think that’s how Jonson thought about everything he did, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Arguably, the entire edifice of English literary studies is built on his example: to that extent, we are all Jonsonians now.

But for others in the period – for those many others who wrote plays, performed in them, went to see them, quoted them to one another – we cannot say the same. Their understanding of these works was, I think, kairotic: sensational, in both meanings of the word; epiphanic, perhaps; transient.

This should matter to us more than it does, precisely because it challenges our cultural assumptions. In many respects, we don’t acknowledge Ben’s influence enough, but if Jonson’s values were not widely shared by his peers – both in and outside the theatre – should we challenge his/our values more directly?

To return to Ingram’s talk, what might a theatrical history look like which treats the presence and absence of play texts alike, that refuses to privilege the drama of Lyly, say, over Watson merely because one survives and one doesn’t? That may sound like an impossible challenge, but that is not to say the attempt wouldn’t be illuminating.

As several speakers at Roehampton implicitly asked, should we take playing out of the silo of the theatre – of a pre-defined theatrical space – and examine it more as one entertainment among others? We are used to saying that the pre-history of the playhouses shows playing to have had no greater status than juggling or bear baiting or dancing horses; but should we think more often about the fact that the same attitude seems to have prevailed for decades after?

Playing had been transitory – transient, travelling – for centuries. By focusing not just on the building on the playhouses but also on the publication of texts – the transformation of impermanent, performative, kairotic art into object and artefact – are we burying history more than we are uncovering it? Perhaps those innovations weren’t the beginning of one thing – something with which we are familiar and comfortable – but the beginning of the end of another, which we still find strange and alien to our tastes and values?

And perhaps, to pick up on Andy Kesson’s post about plots and plotlessness in Lyly, there is an analogy between our sense of what makes a theatrical narrative dramatic – all those neat Shakespearean resolutions – and our understanding of theatre history itself. Perhaps we need to read that history with a more open, fluid and indeterminate – dare I say, Lylyan – sensibility, where what happens offstage may be as eventful as what is performed, and where non-linearity does not equate to stasis.

Go dare, indeed.

This post was written for the Before Shakespeare project website, where it first appeared.

Related posts: some rambling thoughts on Shakespeare and pre-Reformation performing culture here; an interview with Andy Kesson about John Lyly here; and some reflections on kairos here.

 

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