The New Theater History: Collaboration and Innovation in Early Modern Theater Culture

Jean E. Howard
The New Theater History: Collaboration and Innovation in Early Modern Theater Culture
At one point we talked about theater history in terms of dramatists: Shakespeare, Lyly, Marlowe, Webster, Middleton, Shirley.  That was how I learned about Renaissance plays in graduate school.  They were products of individual minds, and you could study the defining characteristics of various playwrights.  This always seemed not so much wrong as limiting because, as Gombrich taught us, art is made from art, not just from individual genius or sensibility.  So I have spent a lot of my career studying dramatic genres, not considered as ideal types but as forms of textual affiliation constructed in time. Along the way, I/we have learned a lot more about the forms of collaboration in early modern theater culture that further question the primacy of the individual author: we have learned about how plays are transformed in the playhouse and the print shop by agents as different as censors, compositors, actors, and scribes. Recent developments in theater history are taking this work in new directions as scholars such as Tiffany Stern show how collaboration functioned through the medium of the plot or how songs were added or fell away from playtexts and performances because of changes in the personnel available in a company, and as other scholars are focusing on the particular features of individual acting companies and on the strategies of emulation and refashioning that furthered innovation in a quickening market.  I am using this new work in a book called The Invention of Tragedy on the Early Modern English Stage in which I argue that what came to be known as Renaissance tragedy was produced by the features of a particular theater culture. I look at forms of expertise that were honed by the fast pace of innovation demanded by the theatrical market, at experiments with affective technologies produced within specific theater companies, and at the accretion of the theatrical memes we retrospectively associate with Renaissance tragedy as theater practitioners of every stripe added their expertise in a collective project that was also, not so paradoxically, marked by a quest for distinction.