Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Peer Reviewed

    Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions

    Historical Distance

    Our adoption of ‘original practices始 arose from a desire to maintain a sense of historical distance and to avoid treating the Queen's Men plays as if they were designed to be performed on the twenty-first century stage and risk judging them by twenty-first century theatrical norms. In the preface of their book The Queen's Men and their Plays, Scott MacMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean provided the inspiration for this approach to our subject:

    Shakespeare was not our contemporary, and one way to insist on that fact is to study the things which he had to deal with and which our age is free to ignore. Shakespeare had to deal with the Queen's Men. We are free to ignore them - the first summer festival of Queen's Men plays has yet to be held. But if measuring the difference between Shakespeare and ourselves makes for good history, and if the Elizabethans are to be thought of as not another version of ourselves but as strangers from the past, and if things nearly forgotten are the proper objects for historians to keep in view anyhow, then we think the plays of the Queen's Men are worth careful consideration (xvi).

    In the spirit of McMillin and MacLean we wanted to explore the differences between the way the Queen's Men composed and performed their plays and the way we approach the writing and production of plays today. The SQM project focused on elements McMillin and MacLean identified as central to Queen始s Men dramaturgy (aside from versification since the verse structures of the plays chosen for the project did not display the variety of versification identified in the repertoire of the Queen始s Men as a whole). The book始s argument that “clowning is at the centre” of Queen始s Men dramaturgy (122), however, was deeply influential and aligned itself with my own research interests in the performance of early modern comedy (Cockett, Incongruity). The Queen始s Men featured the period始s most famous clown, Richard Tarlton, the first Elizabethan star actor, but five other Queen始s Men, Adams, Garland, Latham, Singer and Wilson, were also “known for their comic acting, jigs and improvisations” (128). McMillin and MacLean coined the term the “‘literalism of the theatre始” to describe the company始s “visually-oriented style of acting” and defined the clown as a “literalist of the theatre.” The term is a little confusing since in theater scholarship, literalist can be used to refer to realist theater in which the actor is imagined to ‘literally始 be the character. McMillin and MacLean始s position is actually referring to the opposite, the idea that clowns on stage are perceived as performers rather than characters. They are primarily part of the performance environment, although they can also have referents in the fictional world of the play and in the working world outside the theater. Tarlton was always recognizably Tarlton but his most famous stage persona, referred to the second meaning of the term ‘clown始 in Elizabethan society: namely, a rustic or country bumpkin. McMillin and MacLean use the term literalist theater to denote the company始s commitment to theatrical presentation: the plays of the Queen始s Men are always performances primarily, rather than illusions of reality. The authors also propose that their dependence on clowning led to an interactive relationship with the audience as indicated by the characters frequent use of direct address (127).

    Alongside the literalism of their dramaturgy, McMillin and MacLean argue that the company depended on the Tudor theater始s “system of acting by brilliant stereotype” (127). An actor playing Playful Penury, for example, would not “think in terms of social realism and the psychology of the poor,” he would “think in terms of the bent-over body and the raspy voice, in order to demonstrate his own name instantly” (126). McMillin and MacLean propose that the demonstration of truths is central to Queen始s Men dramaturgy: “[t]o show things as they are is the fundamental dramatic conception of the plays of the Queen始s Men,” which is contrasted with Marlowe始s dramaturgy that “concerns activity, what characters do rather than what they are” (123). The distinction is a fine one and drawn from the contrast between the predominance of active verbs in Marlowe始s verse and the Queen始s Men始s dependence on the verb ‘to be始 and its relative “linguistic passivity” (122). The SQM productions did not attempt to examine this comparison as it was working solely with Queen始s Men texts but the idea that the actors worked through stereotype and that the core of the dramaturgy was about demonstration of truths rather than the exploration of human complexity through enactment of action was very influential in our process. The dominant performance style of our day, theatrical realism, stands in polar opposition to McMillin and MacLean始s concept of Queen始s Men performance style, with its ideals of complex and fully-individuated characters, and its desire to hide truths between the surface illusions of everyday reality. Imagining productions built on a system of character types therefore provided an obvious opportunity to maintain historical distance in our performative investigation of theatre history.

    McMillin and MacLean始s characterization of the dramaturgical structure of the Queen始s Men plays was also explored through the productions. Cutting text from a play always involves the application of specific ideals, decisions about what should be valued and what can be discarded. As a modern director, the temptation to cut the Queen始s Men plays in order to create greater narrative economy and unity of action was strong. However, since our focus was on historical distance and cultural difference, we decided the plays for our project should not be cut. This decision allowed us to explore McMillin and MacLean始s idea the company relied on “narrative over-determination,” a repetition of story points designed to lead inattentive audiences through their stories (133-7). Sections of action that might seem redundant to a twenty-first century director were left in to allow us to experience this aspect of the plays始 dramaturgy. In practice, this theory proved to have some relevance to King Leir but had little impact on the productions of Famous Victories and Friar Bacon. The idea of the company始s “medley style” (124-127) however proved far more important. “The heart of the dramaturgy,” they argue, “lies in the interplay between the lowly and the powerful” (124). They define a dramaturgy that mixes the “stately” and the “pleasant” without trying to integrate the two: slapstick comedy is set beside regal politics, elaborate flights of rhetoric are juxtaposed with spectacular pantomime. Of Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, they say: “it is medley, or it is nothing.” The notion of the medley is in direct opposition to the classical ideal of the coherent whole that has been retroactively imposed on early modern drama. McMillin and MacLean始s theory, therefore, offered a potentially clear point of distinction between the theater of the Queen始s Men and our own, presenting another opportunity to explore exactly how the Queen始s Men are not our contemporaries.

    The challenge for the research project was to create a process that tested these interpretations. It would have been relatively simple to direct productions that simply validated the theses of the book, but this rationale would not have allowed for the possibility that McMillin and MacLean始s conclusions, drawn from close analysis of the text, might be misplaced. Equally, we felt that productions determined by the interpretive authority of a modern theatre director would lead to the plays either being judged according to the assumptions of twenty-first theater practice, or being made to mean things that could never have been intended by the original company – a valuable practice in and of itself but not one that would speak to the issues of theater history we wished to address. Since our field of study was theater history and the potential difference between the Queen始s Men始s theater and our own, it was decided that the company should adopt elements of Elizabethan stage practice in order to alienate the actors and audience from their own assumptions and create a space in which the audience and researchers could imagine the theater of the Queen始s Men as historically and ideologically distant from our own practices.

    5A Disruptive "Experiment"

    To serve the goals of our research project the SQM team designed a theatrical "experiment" that engaged with the historical evidence of original rehearsal processes and performance environments in which their work was produced. Our project began after the great flowering of original practice research inspired by the construction of Shakespeare's Globe in London, and the Blackfriars始 Theatre in Staunton, Virginia, and was able to benefit both from that body of work and the critical response to it that questioned the pseudo-scientific approach implied by the term “experiment” and challenged the very idea that a modern performance of a play could tell us anything substantial about the theatrical past (eg. Menzer, 223-230). As Chrsitie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper have argued, when taken in the artistic sense, "experiment" defines a process in which ideas are tried out, risks are taken, in the hope that connections might be made and future work might be inspired (1-12). The SQM project was conceived in this spirit. We deliberately avoided the terms "reconstruction" and "recreation" (despite our marketing departments attraction to presenting our work in that way). The SQM productions embraced the limits of our endeavor, knowing full well that the discoveries of our experiment would not stand as proof, but believing still that that the procedural and embodied experience of our rehearsal and performance process might give us insight into the plays of the Queen始s Men, their company, and their theatrical milieu.

    The experiment was flexible and organic and worked through a rehearsal and performance process designed to put modern practitioners and audiences into a dialectical relationship with performance techniques that approximated early modern theater practice. The process borrowed from Tiffany Stern's research on Elizabethan rehearsal but made allowance for the fact that our modern actors, unaccustomed to the speed and independence of Elizabethan rehearsal, would need support to produce a performance for our modern audience that could give insight into the work of the Queen始s Men. The key factors of Elizabethan rehearsal practice necessary to understanding the annotations in this edition are:

    • the actors worked from parts memorizing their lines alone and did not rehearse as an ensemble at length;
    • the actors were specialists in certain kinds of roles.
    • all the actors were male;
    • the company was hierarchical, containing master actors who would instruct apprentices;
    • the plays were performed in universal lighting and could always see the audience;
    • the Queen's Men did not work with directors;
    • the company was a touring company and would perform in a variety of different spaces=, likely without rehearsal.

    A more detailed description of our system of rehearsal can be accessed on the Performing the Queen's Men website.

    The elements of original practice introduced to the production process served to disrupt normative assumptions about theatrical creation and create a critical space in which we could reflect on the process and politics of making theatre and apply those reflections to the Queen始s Men and their plays. My official title for the project was stage director, but I redefined the nature of that role. I adopted a conventional directorial approach in certain aspects: I insisted that the company did not parody the plays, and pushed for an interpretation of the politics of the plays that adhered to McMillin and MacLean始s premise that the original company was formed for the purpose of nationalist, protestant propaganda. In other aspects of the rehearsal process, however, I worked to gradually reduce my creative agency. I took on the role of facilitator: introducing the actors to the unfamiliar rehearsal practices, assisting with textual references that were obscure to them, and generally encouraging them to develop a collaborative, creative independence as they brought the texts to the stage. Each of the original practices we adapted for our process presented a challenge for the actors that disrupted their usual way of working. Working from parts, for example, encouraged them to focus only on their own character and not assume responsibility for interpreting the play as a whole. In the initial stages, they would look to me as director to make final decisions on staging, but I refused to fix blocking and instead collaboratively developed protocols the company could use to effectively improvise their blocking in the variety of different performance spaces they would be encountering on tour. I empowered the master actors to take on leadership roles when developing scenes, and I encouraged freedom in the company始s approach to the physical comedy implied by the texts. The company also needed prompting to engage with the possibilities presented by universal lighting – I tried to establish talking directly to the audience as the default mode of performance rather than the exception. I also took an active role trying to break the actors out of the habits of psychological realism and encourage them to rely on the type character system, pointing out that they did not have time for extended discussion of the characters始 backstories or to collectively develop clear interpretations of the actions of the scenes.

    The rehearsal process was designed to accelerate as the company moved through the repertoire: King Leir was given twelve days of rehearsal, Famous Victories nine and Friar Bacon seven. This gave time for the modern actors to acclimatize themselves to the alien rehearsal techniques but also gave them experience of preparing a play in a compressed time-frame that more closely resembled the experience of early modern actors, as described by Stern. The initial stages involved breaking a lot of normative preconceptions about classical drama and the Queen始s Men and challenging assumptions about the rehearsal process derived from the actors始 twenty-first century training. Early rehearsals for King Leir much time was spent trying to resolve issues they found in the text through discussion of character motivation and looking for staging they felt would best reflect the significance of the action as they saw it. In place of this approach, that was founded in the assumptions of the twenty-first century rehearsal room, I fostered a rough and ready approach to rehearsal in our accelerated process and encouraged the actors to make quick decisions in order to complete the task of staging the play in a tight time-frame, and for a variety of different stages.

    Shakespeare the Norm

    The company of actors also carried assumptions of early modern drama built on their experience with Shakespeare and his idolization by our profession that colored their initial approach to the Queen始s Men plays. Although McMillin and MacLean were convinced of the company始s debt to the Tudor moral interlude and argue Queen始s Men plays are about demonstrating truth rather than the generation of active complexities, the repertoire of plays chosen for the project lacked the most overt signs of the morality tradition: the allegorical characters that indicated their type by their name. The first play we prepared for performance, King Leir, more closely resembled the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and other more famous contemporaries of the Queen始s Men. To maintain historical distance and to allow space for creative engagement with a different form of dramaturgy, I had to counter the actors始 inclinations to simply treat the plays as a lesser version of Shakespeare. The company's initial response to the plays fell in line with the negative reputation the plays have held within critical scholarship for years. In relation to our actors' knowledge of Shakespeare, the plays seemed primitive, naïve, even silly; I resisted their inclination to parody them and encouraged them to explore alternative ways the plays might be designed to work. Conversely, I also discouraged the actors from transposing their knowledge of Shakespeare's plays onto the Queen's Men. The creative relationship between their work and Shakespeare's operated the other way around, since Shakespeare adapted the Queen始s Men plays in his own work. It was important, for example, to make it clear that King Leir, if it can be classified, is a romance not a tragedy, and that, although Jockey in Famous Victories is considered the prototype for Shakespeare's Falstaff, there is nothing in the play that suggests he is a funny, fat, old man.

    Since the Queen's Men and Shakespeare were working contemporaneously, the old arguments that Shakespeare's are more evolved and more highly sophisticated versions of the Queen's Men plays hold little validity. Following McMillin and MacLean's lead, our project was determined to consider the work of the Queen's Men outside of the shadow cast by Shakespeare, the 'great Bard', and all we have come to believe about him. The connection with Shakespeare however is also important since the Queen's Men and Shakespeare turned the same source material into dramatic action. The differences between the Queen's Men's treatment of plot events and Shakespeare's subsequent treatment can tell us much about the dramaturgy of the period and how different artists and companies responded to the same or similar stories. When I comment on the difference between Shakespeare's plays and the Queen's Men plays, I try to avoid value judgments. I argue at times that Shakespeare's treatment is more complex, but that is only a value judgment if we value complexity highly. The Queen's Men plays have a refreshing directness and honesty, and in comparison, Shakespeare can seem overly elaborate, ornate, even pretentious.