Early Modern Drama

Modernity is reliant on visible evidence this is reasonable due to the shift from a faith-based medieval society to a reason-based modern society. Religious faith requires a belief in something a person cannot see with their eyes while science is the opposite. Science relies exclusively on what can be counted, measured and tested. Elizabethans had the ability to visualize abstract concepts such as the character Revenge in The Spanish Tragedy. While the earliest plays we read were still preoccupied with gruesome deaths and violence that trend started to change as the plays became more modern. It is not that modern audiences don’t like blood and gore but that we became so desensitized to violence due to overexposure.

Elizabethan dramatists manipulated cultural symbols to promote their plays in the revenge tragedy genre each new play was often more gruesome than the last. The Atheist’s Tragedy retained the religious tone of the early modern period by leaving the ‘revenge’ up to God. This is made clear when the ghost of Montferrers tells Charlemont to abstain from revenge and is confirmed when D’Amville’s life is taken by the axe that he intended for his nephew and his fiance.

Edward II shows that early modern audiences were somewhat interested in celebrities and the lives of rich people. Edward II’s death was very gruesome and modern audiences would have a big issue with its portrayal on stage due to its views on homosexuality. Audiences didn’t need to imagine much in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, at least not in the way of Touchwood’s endowment but modern audiences are offended by penises and hardly ever allow a perceptible package to be surmised. When you start talking about flaccid penises you get into weirder territory but in any given “blockbuster” one might see a menagerie of bare tits. That is something you wouldn’t see in early modern drama because all the ‘women’ weren’t really women and were played by men. Another interesting aspect of Chaste Maid is the fake funeral which turns into a celebration. This further illustrates the movement from tragedy to comedy and the emptying of especially ‘sad’ emotions.

A Woman Killed with Kindness puts a modern twist on a failing marriage, reducing ‘revenge’ to guilt. Anne is not killed by her husband in rage but kills herself by allowing her substance to waste away. Heywood also does something interesting with the staging and introduction to the play. He says the sets will be bare and incomparable to the real deal. Heywood wanted to draw attention to that specific element so when the scene was revealed as somewhat spectacular the audience would wonder what was missing and be able to imagine the scene even grander.

The Tragedy of Mariam skipped the production aspect of the play altogether. Cary wrote one of the earliest ‘closet dramas’ which I see as the predecessor to the modern novel. The play was intriguing because it forced the reader to visualize the action because there is very little description of action or scenery in the play. The White Devil was written just before Cary’s Mariam and was supposedly based on an earlier ‘closet drama.’ Although it was a huge failure, Webster gave plenty of reasons: the audience was just plain stupid and didn’t get it, it was also the dead of winter and the actors were horrible. The play was written in 1612 and was revived and published in 1631. Webster included his editorial notes and basically said everyone might not like it but a reader of the play should be able to better imagine what he was going for.
The identity of the author of a work became increasingly important in this time period. Authorship is a mark of modernity and originality is also valued. While early plays were often based on other works there was a growing sense that an author’s personality or beliefs could influence the overall interpretation of the piece. As a result playwrights began commenting more about religious and cultural issues.

Behn’s play The Rover was the most modern play we read in several respects. Her identity as the author allowed audiences to read into her words. Interestingly while I was looking for resources I stumbled upon something that said Behn was inspired by an early ‘closet drama’ called Thomaso from the 1600’s. Thomaso was a comedy, as was The Rover and as we have stated modernity is accepting of comedy because it empties the viewer of everything. In modernity religion is usually only talked about humorously and once grim concepts such as death are also mocked or excluded. In the two plays we attended this semester, Three Sisters and The House of Blue Leaves were vastly different but were able to illustrate this. Blue Leaves was more modern and much funnier and the death seemed to shock the audience. Three Sisters started out in a way that you knew what to expect and death was a major theme.

Overall I really enjoyed this class and am now am more likely to think twice about the kind of entertainment I like and the reasons why. Thanks Dr. Swan, I will see you next semester!

Just so everyone knows Dr. Swan was nice enough to give me an “A”


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