Stage directions: Valuable clues in the exploration of Elizabethan performance practice


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Abstract

There is no clear consensus regarding the importance of early modern stage directions in the writing, reading, or, arguably more importantly, the acting of sixteenth-century plays. It is an area of study that has been dominated, well into the twentieth-century, by literary critics of drama. As a result, the stage directions in this early drama have been (and, it may be argued, still are) treated as sub-literary, often beneath notice or remark. But no theatrically minded critic can ignore the importance of these stage directions to the actual staging of a play. The significance of these stage directions is that they date from an early, no-holds-barred stage in the development of the English dramatic repertoire, and the plays of the often overlooked ‘Jack of all trades’ Robert Greene (1558–1592) provide us with a rich and provocative source. Although Greene was, in many ways, a highly sophisticated Renaissance writer, he was, in other ways, a ‘primitive’ (just as Marlowe was), because he was writing for a theatre that had not yet learned to smooth its rough edges. Greene's ‘texts’ provide an extreme example of the textual instability of much surviving early modern drama. The plays I treat are indisputably ‘early’ in the evolution of Elizabethan drama, and that is important here. They offer a provocative insight into Elizabethan stage practices during the formative years of the newly professional theatre. Greene was writing drama before the professional theatre had learned its limitations, and while it was establishing its conventions. This gives Greene's published texts a special value: conventions were still being formed, rather than, as was largely the case when Shakespeare's plays came to be published, and wholly by the seventeenth century, fully established.

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