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Matthew Woodcock

Early modern regional drama produced in England between the Reformation and the closure of the public theaters in 1642 can be divided into three categories: provincial performances by touring playing companies; entertainments and masques staged by civic, ecclesiastical, and aristocratic hosts during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses; and drama produced by towns, cities, and communities themselves. There are also many instances of performances where these three categories overlap or interact. Touring companies under royal or noble patrons performed in a variety of locations upon visiting settlements in the provinces: in guildhalls, inn, churches and churchyards, open spaces, noble or gentry households, or, on a few occasions, purpose-built regional playhouses. There is extensive evidence of touring companies playing in the provinces across England and Wales until the 1620s, although there were fewer opportunities for patronized touring companies under the Stuarts and greater incentives and rewards for performing in London and (from 1608) in the new indoor theaters. Drama also came to the provinces during Tudor and Stuart royal progresses in the form of shows and masques staged in urban communities, elite domestic houses, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The heyday of such entertainments was during Elizabeth I’s reign; between 1559 and 1602 the queen visited over 400 individual and civic hosts. The reigns of James I and Charles I saw far fewer progresses into the provinces and the principal focus of Stuart royal spectacle was court masque and London’s Lord Mayor’s shows. Nevertheless, the monarch and royal family were entertained around the country from the 1620s until the 1630s, and Ben Jonson played a key role in scripting some of the provincial masques staged. Early modern regional drama also took the form of civic- and parish-based biblical plays and pageants that continued medieval guild-based performance traditions. Drama was also performed in provincial schools and in the universities, as well as in private households, throughout the period. Examining early modern drama from a regional perspective, and identifying how, where, and why drama was performed across the country, enables the construction of a broader and more complex understanding of theater and performance as a whole in the 16th and 17th centuries. When it comes to reflecting the wider social, geographical, and gender demographics of early modern England, regional drama is shown to offer a more truly representative, inclusive conception of national drama in this period than that which is predicated on London-based material alone.