Between about 1567, when the Red Lion Inn was built as a public playhouse, and September 1642, when the Puritan authorities closed the theatres, new plays were in constant demand. The dramatists delivered, the plays were performed, but relatively few got into print, and those not necessarily the best. David McInnis reckons that 543 plays from the public theaters have survived, with 744 plays identifiably lost, and hundreds more untraceable. Scholars have made some striking discoveries, none more so than CJ Sisson in The Lost Plays of Shakespeare’s Age (1936). The Court of Star Chamber dealt with criminal offenses falling outside the ordinary process of law, such as libel and defamation. Sisson discovered documents recording two suits brought by London citizens against actors and dramatists for having staged plays based on their private lives. One was a comedy by George Chapman for the Children of St Paul’s called The Old Joiner of Aldgate (1602), concerning John Howe, a father who was a “joiner” not in carpentry but in matrimonial dealings, having “sold” his daughter to three suitors who brought actions against him. Chapman’s depositions were non-committal, but he was admitted having written a stage play “upon a plot given unto him” describing Agnes Howe, who was “under colourable and feigned names personated”. He had sold the play to Paul’s boys for 20 marks (£13.6s. 8d.), twice the usual rate, but claimed that he “never saw the same acted and played publicly upon a stage”, although it continued to be performed until the trial began.
The second suit, in 1625, involved Keep the Widow Waking, a play for the Red Bull Theater written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, John Webster and William Rowley (recently deceased). Dekker’s deposition, fuller than Chapman’s, gave some fascinating insight into the process of co-authorship. He admitted having written “two sheets of paper [about eight pages] containing the first Act of the play, and a speech in the last Scene of the last Act of the boy who had killed his mother.” Evidently it was common for one co-author to begin the play and to contribute a later scene, as George Peele did in Titus Andronicus. Also, it shows that dramatists sometimes picked scenes in a mode that they favored. It has been suggested that the co-authors of Sir Thomas More called on Shakespeare to write the scene of More quelling a riot because he was good at writing speeches affirming civic authority.
These two episodes show a richness of detail about playwriting and performance that would illuminate theatrical history if more such evidence had survived. Unfortunately it hasn’t. Professor McInnis describes the documentary evidence recovered by Sisson as “both rich and regrettably atypical”. Too often all that remains is a title, sometimes recorded by a witness of doubtful reliability or in hopelessly garbled spelling. Philip Henslowe, the entrepreneur who lent money to the theater companies and kept records of his outgoings, recorded such puzzling names as “felmelanco” (which McInnis plausibly decodes as Philip Melanchthon), “yemen” (Six Yeomen of the West), “albere galles” (Alba Regalisan alternative name for the besieged city of Stuhlweissenberg) and “treangell cockowlls” (The Triplicity of Cuckolds). Historians have long puzzled over such problems in dispersed notes, and it was not until 2009 that research was put on a sound footing by the Lost Plays Database, set up by McInnis, Rosalind Knutson and Matthew Steggle (who has made some valuable discoveries). The database records every known fact about the several hundred recorded titles, with full citation of primary and secondary sources, exemplary in its organization.
McInnis’s book (his name is regrettably misspelt on the title page) begins with a chapter describing in considerable detail the repertories of the leading theater companies and their lost plays between 1594 and 1603. For Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, we have records (evidently incomplete) of only thirteen lost plays; While for their great rivals, the Admiral’s Men, the total is about 235 titles lost. The remaining chapters are organized around Shakespeare’s company in five-year periods, as one might expect from the book’s title. Yet the connections are largely tenuous, as only two lost plays of Shakespeare’s are known, Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. The first title, apparently a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost, was recorded by Francis Meres in 1598, and in 1603 appeared on the inventory list of the Exeter-based bookseller Christopher Hunt, which implies that it had been printed. Nothing further is known about it. Two records from May and June 1613 note performances of Cardenno (or Cardenna), and in September 1653 Humphrey Moseley entered in the Stationers’ Register “The History of Cardenio, by Mr. Fletcher and Shakespeare”. In 1727, Lewis Theobald claimed that his Double Falsehood was based on an old Shakespearean play; over the past decade, a bevy of scholars has attempted to find traces of it. McInnis scathingly describes “the coterie industry of publications related to that Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies”, but in a later chapter he adds another twenty pages to it, without advancing knowledge.
The uncomfortable fact is that, for all McInnis’s laudable scholarly endeavors over the past decade, the records are too fragmentary to yield definite identifications of the lost plays’ substance or auspices. The phrase in this book’s subtitle, “Reimagining drama”, can be taken almost literally (“I am tempted to imagine”, McInnis says at one point). He is forced to concede that his arguments are often speculative, that inferring details is “more of an art than a science”, that “there is (frustratingly) little evidence” for one point, that he is “just guessing, of course” about another, admitting that “possibly this is all completely wrong!” This candor is admirable, yet the succession of meticulously described but unsolved problems is cumulatively disappointing. Each would be acceptable in a journal article, but to read one after the other makes for a continuous anticlimax. Reading is not made easier by McInnis frequently drawing attention to what he is doing, in phrases like “I argue that”, “I want to draw attention to”, “I attempt to” and so on. A sensitive editor could have tempered his self-consciousness. Another stylistic oddity is a fondness for the phrase “theatergrams”, apparently referring to theatrical conventions, such as “identity-revealing theatergrams” or “a kind of liebestod theatergram”. Abbreviation can go too far.
Despite David McInnis’s best intentions, this book will be of interest to specialists but not to a general Shakespeare readership. As he recognizes, “Pending the discovery of new information … the most responsible thing to do is to survey the possibilities and thereby make them available to future scholars to build on”.
Brian Vickers‘s Shakespeare, Co-Author: A historical study of five collaborative plays was published in 2002. He is General Editor of The Collected Works of John Ford
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