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Monday, May 21, 2007

Boas = Holzknecht?

As promised, and only a day late, I've finished reading Boas's University Drama in the Tudor Age, and so I hereby declare our second semi-occasional book club open. If you too (and I think I'd better include my fellow bloggers in that you) have managed to complete this seriously old-skool book, join in the fun.

The book is about 350 pages long, but with type that seems to have been set for the elderly or the adolescent, it's not really that long. And given that Boas was an important forefather for the Holzknecht School of Play Summarizing--we could put about 275 of his 350 pages in our sidebar under Holzknecht Predivivus--it's pretty quick going. All of which is designed to inspire those of you who haven't read it yet to do so.

Ok, it's not a particularly thrilling book. But hey, it's 93 years old. Back in 1914, they were driving around in barouches and phaetons, wearing top hats and tails to supper, and making snarky remarks about those nouveau riche who lived above 14th St. At least, so I'm told. Let's just say that what passed for "literary criticism" in 1914 was a bit different (read, "more boring") than today.

In fact, Boas is explicit about his desire to do literary criticism rather than merely giving lists of plays and "synopses of their plots" as those boring synopsizers Professors Churchill and Keller did in volume 34 of the Jahrbuch of the German Shakespeare Society: "Only those who have been over the same ground can fully appreciate the excellence of the work of these scholars, but literary criticism was outside the scope of their arduous pioneer labours" (iv). But this is not your father's literary criticism (it's your great-grandfather's). For Boas, criticism generally means evaluation, and so we get a lot of what seem to a modern reader like unjustified obiter dicta, like this evaluation of a scene in Club Law: "the farcical closing episode of the scene could well have been spared" (328). Or Boas's assessment of the claims of defenders of the stage like Heywood and Sidney that drama could inculcate moral values: "the fallacious theory that the Drama and other forms of imaginative art are to be gauged not by their power of purifying the emotions, of effecting the Aristotelian [catharsis], but by the quantum of moral teaching that they directly convey" (238).

So, while Boas says that what's going to distinguish him from Professors Churchill and Keller of the GSS is that he will do "literary criticism" while they only give synopses of the plots of plays, it can be awfully tough for a modern reader to tell the difference between the two approaches. Most of Boas's book, after all, consists of synopses of the plots of university plays--and, to add a little spice, synopses of the plots of the sources of university plays.

Speaking of obiter dicta: it happens that I pretty much agree with Boas over Heywood and Sidney, but the delight of this book--and in all seriousness, I did enjoy reading it--is that he's able to simply come right out and call it a "fallacious" theory. As though the meaning and purpose of Art had, as we all know, been proven beyond all doubt in 1885 through experiments run by Herr Doktor Krietzler and subsequently published in the Jahrbuch of the German Shakespeare Society.

Another thing (I imagine) you won't find in your own books and unpublished manuscripts, dear readers: geographical/humoral theories of the temperaments, not analyzed or historicized but actually put to explanatory use! One nice bit of info I learned from Boas is that Nicholas Grimald (Christus Redivivus, Archipropheta, Troilus) is the first Oxford dramatist that we can identify by name. I also learned that he was "of Italian descent, and thus had in his blood something of the warm temperament of the south and its natural dramatic instinct" (26). Later, I was shocked to learn that "there appears to have been some Italian blood in [Thomas] Legge's veins. If so, tragedy at Cambridge, as at Oxford in the case of Grimald's plays, owed something to the inherited southern aptitude for dramatization" (133). But really I should not have been so shocked at this coincidence natural tendency for drama to originate in those with hot southern blood coursing through their veins.

Enough snark. As I said, I did enjoy this book, and I think it's a pretty useful compendium of information. It doesn't match the great projects of the early 20th century that are in a similar mode of information-gathering: the works of Greg, McKerrow, Rollins, etc. But it's got a lot of material packed into those 350 large-type pages (plus five informative appendices). Most useful, I think, are the Holzknechtian bits; as I suspected, the book is good for guiding further reading into the plays themselves (and that's the goal of our Holzknecht Redivivus project too). One drawback is that, like most early 20th century scholars, Boas makes the (justified?) assumption that his audience, far more educated than we, can read Greek and Latin with very little trouble, and so huge swaths of the book are quotations in classical languages without translation. This is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it makes the book actually only about 200 pages long, if you skip blithely over the Latin and Greek; on the other hand, if I really wanted to understand what was going on in those plays via his synopses, I'd have to spend hours and hours working through those passages with my Latin dictionary (forget the Greek entirely). Still, you get a pretty good sense even of those plays, and a great sense of what's going on in the English ones. Other things I found interesting:

  • the idea that university drama, by and large, is college drama, particular to and funded by each college, rather than the university at large. This could lead to conflict between members of the different colleges, as in the 1579 incident when a particularly avid theater-lover from St John's named Punter attacked the players in several other colleges, who had refused him entry to their performances: he "he had vncased (as they call it) one of the stagekeepers of Caius colledge pluckinge of his visor: and at the first playes the same yeare at Trinitie colledge had violently pressed to com into the colledge, euen against the wills of such maysters of Arte, as were there appointed to see good order kept ... & afterwards to reuenge himselfe for the repulse there sustained had priuely crept into Benet colledge, & takinge vpon him the habite of a stagekeper, there, to the greate disturbance of the whole assembly, did assaulte one of the Trinities colledge, whom also he afterward chalengid into the feilds" (qtd at 110-11).
  • there seems to have been something of a generic specialty to each of the universities, with Oxford leaning more towards tragedy and Cambridge more towards comedy, perhaps because comedy was cheaper to stage and "at Oxford the general level of production seems to have been more sumptuous" (349). This is interesting if true, but it's one of the points on which I'm a bit distrustful of Boas's now outdated scholarship. But if it were confirmed by more current research, it's intriguing. And combined with the last point about the collegiate nature of production, it makes me wonder if one might be able to do a kind of repertory study at the college level, which might open up some fascinating possibilities for understanding the politics of university playing. There may not be enough material surviving, but the great recent repertory work by McMillin and MacLean, Bly, and Munro shows how productive the approach can be even with limited numbers of texts. Could the same be done for Christ Church or Trinity or St John's?
  • the relationships among university playing, professional playing, college authorities, and local authorities is nicely laid out in chapter 10, "Friends and Foes of the University Stage," with the story of John Rainolds and William Gager's epistolary battle described in detail. Putting the universities into the story complicates the usual account of late sixteenth-century anti-theatricalism by adding the intratheatrical dispute between amateurs and professionals. The university defense of the stage always turned on their amateur status and was articulated over against the professional plays, notorious and infamous bastards that they obviously were.
  • even the mere summarizing of plots opened up some possibilities for analysis that hadn't been on my radar before: putting together Buchanan's Baptistes, Grimald's Archipropheta, and Cary's now popular Mariam for instance, all of which deal with the same subject; or the relationship between Baptistes in its original context and the 1642 adaptation Tyrannical Government Anatomized, which I've never read but have long been meaning to; or Legge's Richardus Tertius, which I've never read but which you'd think would be required reading for Shakespeareans; or the cluster of anti-puritan university drama around the Rainolds controversy: Momus, Fucus Histriomastix, and the Parnassus plays; or the Cambridge comedy Machiavellus (1597), which, among the many suitors vying for the lady, features a Jew--does this Jew appear in Shapiro's book? is this play ever studied or taught alongside the usual 1590s "Jew plays"?; or Thomas Kirchmayer's wonderful-sounding Pammachius, performed at Christ's, Cambridge, in 1545, in which "Pammachius is an imaginary pope, contemporary with the Emperor Julian, who to escape persecution, swears fealty to Satan and assumes the role of Antichrist ..."--that's got to be a fun play.
I said in my earlier post that we might use Boas's book to guide us toward a university play that we could read next for our reading group. There are actually a lot of plays I'd like to read, as you can tell from that last bullet point, but obviously we'll want to choose one in English, so I'd like to propose the town-and-gown comedy Club Law, which Boas calls a "remarkably effective piece of work" (330) and which Thomas Fuller in his History of the University of Cambridge (1655) called "merry (but abusive)" (qtd at 330), a great combination. You can find the Holzknechtian account on pages 324-31. I believe the only edition of the play is the one by G.C. Moore Smith published by Cambridge UP in 1907, which normally might make it difficult to get a hold of ... except that the entire book is online as a PDF! Check it out. It's times like this that make you love them intertubes.

I'm certainly open to other suggestions from my co-bloggers and our readers, though. And I'd love to hear what you all thought of Boas. So let the conversation begin (he said optimistically)!

  • At 5/21/2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger James wrote…

    You shame me, H. It was only yesterday that I got around to checking the book out. I'll try to keep up with the conversation in between deadline-related panic attacks. Thanks for the great post; we should have plenty to talk about.


  • At 5/21/2007 06:49:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    Well *I* checked the book out weeks and weeks ago.

    Opening it, now that's another story.


  • At 5/22/2007 09:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    (I feel like I’ve posted 17 times this week already, but…)I just wanted to give H a shout-out for nailing both the delight and deep weirdness of this book. For example, I was ecstatic to learn that there were early Tudor plays of both Reynard the fox and Progne. My delight in his kitschy tone, however, faded a bit when I read his curt, euphemistic description of Philomela’s “ill-treatment.”

    As an aside, I found it amusing that during the Queen’s first visit to Oxford, “[n]o provision was made for the scholars of the University, as they had been ordered, after welcoming the Queen on her arrival, ‘quietly & orderlye to departe Home to their Colledges & in no Wyse to come to the Courte, the Disputacons, or the Playes,” (92). The same thing happened to me last year when Talib Kawali came to campus.


  • At 5/22/2007 10:07:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Another thing I found odd about this book, hd, and in this case oddly endearing, is how clear it is that Boas loves university drama. At the end of the book, you can almost see him weeping as he describes how university drama is becoming more and more like professional drama, and "once academic drama abandons academic ideals, it decrees, sooner or later, its own end. It will always be outmatched when it meets popular drama on the latter's terms" (346). No, University Drama, stay away from the light! Don't go into the light!


  • At 5/22/2007 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Yes! Boas really seems to believe in the capital R-enaissance. For example: "Hence University drama is memorable both for what it consciously achieved and for what it effected in its own despite," i.e., a "sagacious and humane" academic culture that made "the life of antiquity" more real for the average, "educated Englishman than it has probably been at any time before or since," (351). Poor Boas: university drama, and thus academic culture, was doomed by success. Besides making me doubt his historical narrative, such emotion makes me wonder about Boas' academic culture and, let's be honest, his university drama background. (I didn't feel like he was identifying with those excluded scholars at Oxford... perhaps he preferred to imagine himself as a young Tudor student, scamping and playing?)


  • At 5/22/2007 04:08:00 PM, Blogger Crispinella wrote…

    It made me think about Boas's academic culture too - I wonder if he's mentioned in any of the books about the history of English as a university discipline? Having lived in one of these cities as a non-student, my sympathy (at least on the basis of Boas's Holzknechting) is with the likes of Nicholas Nifle...

    Also, re. Boas in context, did anyone notice the diss of Wilde and the rather fervent praise of Swinburne? ("The pure marmoreal lustre of its [Atalanta in Calydon's] blank verse, the music, equally majestic and ravishing, of its Choruses, have their birth in translunary spheres far beyond Gager's ken." [p. 175]. Wow.)

    I did like the book, and I felt as if I'd learned a lot by reading it (so thank you, BtR reading group!) Aside from the anedotes and other funny stuff (did Grimald really send Archipropheta to a prospective employer in lieu of a CV [p. 33]? Did they really send for "special wine" from London for the performances of Gager's Dido and Rivales [p. 184]?), and the fascination of the old-skool, it does set one thinking about all the things that Boas neglects or simply views from a different perspective. Gender, obviously, and the kinds of institutional contexts that Hieronimo mentions in his post, but it also struck me that there's a lot of good work to be done on ms/print circulation and the readership for academic plays, or on the university stage as a particular/peculiar example of the relationship between a body of drama and its audience. (Though it also made me glad that I don't actually have to write these things myself...)


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