I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.
Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.
The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama. On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.
Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.
Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.
‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.