Opening and press nights at the Globe are always crackling with excitement and anticipation but in the 17th century they were rarely noted. In his first blog for us new Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Will Tosh reflects on the first ‘first night’ of the Duchess of Malfi, four hundred years ago.
Last night, John Webster’s luminous tragedy The Duchess of Malfi opened in our new theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As is typical with modern productions, this wasn’t the first time that the cast had performed before a paying audience. Since last Thursday the show has been playing to full and happy houses. Last night saw the opening of the production to the press, the point at which all creative tinkering must end.
This sort of staggered opening is an aspect of contemporary theatre, when plays are rehearsed over several weeks and scheduled to run for months (although our Duchess closes on 16 February – catch it while you can!). Things were very different in the seventeenth century. It was rare for the same play to be performed two days running, although popular shows might return to the stage at regular intervals. Only Thomas Middleton’s explosive Game at Chess – with its scandalous portrayal of real-life political figures – had anything like a modern ‘run’, playing for nine performances in a row before being shut down by the government.
But plays still had an opening night, of a sort. The fortunes of a new play could be determined by the response of its first audience – a play that was hissed and booed was unlikely to enter the company’s repertory. John Webster knew this to his cost. An earlier tragedy, The White Devil, failed miserably when it was staged in 1612 at the Red Bull Theatre, an open-air playhouse to the east of the City. In his preface to the printed version of the play, Webster blamed the weather, the light and the audience – ‘ignorant asses’ who simply didn’t get it.
For The Duchess of Malfi, Webster went upmarket. He offered the play to the King’s Men, London’s most sophisticated theatre company, who performed it in their exclusive indoor venue at Blackfriars. By all accounts, it was a smash. When, years later, the play appeared in print, it was larded with commendations from other playwrights. Thomas Middleton called it a ‘masterpiece of tragedy’. William Rowley referred suggestively to the play’s electric first performance: ‘I never saw thy Duchess till the day / That she was lively bodied in thy play.’ Rowley means that he hadn’t read the play in manuscript or print before he saw it on stage – perhaps the first audience was crowded with Webster’s theatrical chums.
But when was the first night (or first day – plays in the seventeenth century were performed in the afternoon)? We can’t be certain. We know it was some time in 1613 or 1614, with a terminus ante quem provided by the fact that the first Antonio, the King’s Men player William Ostler, died in December 1614. Sentiment suggests that New Year 1614 was a likely time – but only because that would make our show a 400th anniversary production.
It’s always a challenge to mark anniversaries of early modern events. It was an age before regular news reporting. Occasions that were not considered of national importance were seldom recorded for their own sake. An absence of reliable data leaves us vulnerable to romantic supposition, like mine in the paragraph above. It’s often hard to resist a bit of creative historical accounting. Think of Shakespeare’s birthday: we celebrate it on 23 April, St George’s Day, simply because it’s an evocative date on which to remember our national poet, and it’s plausibly close to the known date of his baptism. It’s not much to go on, really.
The fact is, historical research can be a frustrating business. Time has not been discriminating about the documents it has preserved for posterity – a great chest of papers allegedly belonging to Shakespeare went up in smoke in Stratford-upon-Avon at the end of the seventeenth century. Our ancestors were unsentimental about personal papers. Unwanted letters and neglected manuscripts ended their days as waste paper, stuffed into cracks to block draughts, lining the bases of cake tins or – the supreme indignity – stuck on a nail by the privy.
So I’m celebrating the opening of The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for several reasons. It marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the life of Shakespeare’s Globe, and the arrival of a thrilling new performance space on London’s Bankside. But it also heralds the start of the Playhouse’s life as a laboratory, a facility in which we can extend our knowledge of early modern indoor theatre through applied experimentation.
This is a practical objective that, in conjunction with archival and textual research, offers the real prospect of new discovery – the holy grail of any researcher. The Globe has revolutionised our approach to Elizabethan theatre. Here’s hoping the Playhouse does the same for the drama, and the dramatists, of the Jacobean and Stuart age.