Like most of culture or indeed everything with a history, theatrical history tends to be considered in chunks which in the case of early modern drama for some of us means Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline periods but for others is before, during and after Shakespeare’s career. As a result, the fine grain detail of the moments, especially at the fringes, in the wake of epochal changes can be lost. Bog-standard histories will often group the death of Shakespeare in 1616 and the closure of the theatres in 1642 in the wake of the English Civil War together almost as connected events even though there’s clearly a good few decades worth of fascinating events to discover in between.
The latest Arden Early Modern Drama, as with many of the editions in the series seeks to demonstrate that an awful lot did happen in that gap with Richard Brome’s A Jovial Crew, which was the last play staged before the theatres closed. If like me, you’re shelving this series in publication order, this is the edition which will presumably sit at the end of the series and stay there. As the editor Professor Tiffany Stern poignantly explains, Brome, knowing that this would be the last play performed by his company, Beeston’s Boys at the Cockpit Theatre, made sure there were enough parts for everyone, from veterans to youngsters, over thirty speaking roles, and enough spectacle to grandly fill the space one final time.
But it’s also a summation of the preceding decades of theatrical history. In crafting his story of a bored nobility seeking adventure amongst vagabonds, Brome was influenced by the work of his mentor Ben Jonson, parodying pastoral comedies (notably I think As You Like It in general story terms though Stern doesn’t mention this) whilst also drawing from near contemporaries, notably The Spanish Gypsy, a collaboration between Middleton, Rowley, Dekker and John Ford. The language of the plays too, recalls earlier eras, with the cant vocabulary of the beggars sometimes just slightly out of phase with modern coinage due to some extent Brome borrowing from earlier plays.
Ironically, given his theatre’s alternative name, the Phoenix, once the playhouse’s re-opened the play itself became a key influence on theatrical history. Chopped about and rewritten as was the custom in the Restoration period, with chunks of the text replaced with songs (expanding on or substituting the six which are already included), Stern argues that The Jovial Crew (as it had become by then) ultimately became the model for The Beggar’s Opera, the two becoming inseparable until Gay’s 1728 piece carved out its own place. But the play is rarely if never produced on this original form. Even when the RSC mounted a production (with The Beggar’s Opera as a sibling), Brome’s words were extensively substituted and rewritten.
Now the play is commemorated in this fine edition, the first, it’s suggested by the bibliography and the editor’s preface, properly edited version of the text in over forty years. Perhaps understandably, Stern’s introduction keeps to the usual formula of examining the plays characters, politics, themes and language in the first section, then sources, then interweaving the publication and performance history, this being an example of a work in which the two are inextricably linked. For clarity, Stern’s biography of Brome which makes the case for his independence of his from Jonsons, is hidden away in appendix 3 after a glossary of “cant” terms and an investigation of the play's songs.
The general sense one has from this Arden edition is that it finally refocuses and steadies a work that has been in flux from the moment it was written. Brome himself even included updates and rewrites to include more contemporary allusions when the play was published ten years later. Which isn’t to say that Brome has fallen into complete obscurity. As Stern acknowledges, the valuable Brome Online page also has edited versions of all the texts, along with video excerpts from rehearsals of the plays and a thorough staging chronology. But in producing this handsome edition, another punctuation mark in theatrical history is emphasised and how lucky we were that it was a comma rather than a full stop.
A Jovial Crew (Arden Early Modern Drama). Edited by Tiffany Stern. Bloomsbury. 2014. RRP: £10.99. ISBN: 978-1904271772. Review copy supplied.
Here's an interview with Tiffany Stern about the other end of the period and the opening of the playhouses in London.
Also from the Shakespearean London Theatres (SHALT) project, a short documentary about Christopher Beeston, the owner of the Cockpit where A Jovial Crew was premiered.