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Great Neglected Speeches from the Elizabethan Stage by Michael Frohnsdorff and Kenneth Pickering

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Christopher Marlowe

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02 April 2010

Great Neglected Speeches

Review: A new book by Michael Frohnsdorff and Kenneth Pickering turns the spotlight on to some of Shakespeare's neglected contempories.

Great Neglected Speeches from the Elizabethan Stage
Michael Frohnsdorff and Kenneth Pickering
Published by Pen Press (March 2010)

The recent coverage devoted to Arden's publication of Louis Theobald's eighteenth century play Double Falsehood only serves to highlight the ongoing dominance of all things Shakespearean in the modern view of renaissance drama. Theobald claimed to have based his work on a text of Cardenio, the 1613 play thought to have been a collaboration between Fletcher and Shakespeare, but now long lost. The result, a "flawed play" according to the Arden Editor1, rewritten for contemporary tastes with the action edited, can at best be a reasonably distant echo of the words that flowed from the Bard's quill. Never the less, the Arden publication in March still received extensive and high-profile attention in the national media, from the many articles in the broadsheet newspapers to interviews on BBC Radio 4's Today programme all discussing what was often ambiguously referred to as "Shakespeare's 'lost' play".2

This, of course, is not to demean the original works of Shakespeare, which are really rather quite good. But such obsessive Bardolatry continues to obscure the work of his contemporaries, a fair few of whom were also pretty handy with a quill. It is refreshing, therefore, to find a relatively rare opportunity in the spotlight being afforded a number of such Elizabethan dramatists in a new book written collaboratively by the Marlowe Society's Research Officer Michael Frohnsdorff and former Chairman Kenneth Pickering.

The authors have carefully hand-picked a wide range of what the book's title refers to as Great Neglected Speeches from the Elizabethan Stage. The purpose of the book is twofold: to inspire modern directors, actors and drama students by providing practical guidance on delivering these beautiful but linguistically challenging speeches; whilst at the same time show-casing the talents of a select band of gifted Elizabethan playwrights and poets, most of whom were earning a literary living before Shakespeare appeared on the scene. As the book's authors themselves note in their introduction, the Shakespearean canon "is a body of work of such towering genius, that its universal popularity tends to eclipse many other fine plays worthy of performance and attention."

It must have been quite a task selecting such a fine array of speeches from the hundreds of plays extant from the period. The book covers a wide cross-section of both playwrights and plays, with each of the latter proffering a small number of speeches that collectively demand a wide variety of styles and skills from an actor. There are speeches for both male and female roles; verse and prose; tragedy, comedy and history; plenty of soliloquies of course, but also some more interactive sequences, and a prologue for good measure. There is even one passage taken directly from the so-called Alleyn Manuscript, the eponymous part of Orlando Furioso believed to have been written out by the famous actor Edward Alleyn himself.

Two examples of early Elizabethan plays from the 1560's are Thomas Preston's Cambyses, and Norton and Sackville's Gorboduc, both of which emerge from the academic environment (Cambridge and the Inner Temple respectively). In these we find both echoes of the classics past, and prototypes for what was to follow, with the lamentation by Gorbuduc's queen Videna on the death of her favoured son particularly catching the ear. Appearing as a key witness for the prosecution in relation to the earlier charge of universal Bardolatry, is Robert Greene, who is far more famous for his one line lambasting the "upstart crow" than for the rest of his prolific literary output put together. The latter included a number of excellent plays, and some fine extracts here capture the spirit of the man, such as the comic scene from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay involving Miles and 'the head'.

George Peele and John Lyly played significant roles in the development of Elizabethan drama, and both are well represented here with passages from a trio of each of their plays. Thomas Heywood, the only playwright in the collection to begin writing after Shakespeare was well established, contributes speeches from the two contrasting parts of his Edward the Fourth, whilst some well deserved attention is given to Marlowe's two most neglected plays, Dido, Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris. The book also shows itself unaffected by the cult of literary celebrity, including as it does a selection of speeches from two plays of unknown authorship: King Leir and His Daughters, and Edward III. As no less an authority than Park Honan3 observes, "with its unusual selections, originality, and expert commentary, the book deepens and brightens one's sense of the strange genius of Elizabethan playwrights."

The authors achieve at least a little overdue redress for these "neglected" playwrights by neatly dove-tailing two different aspects of the selected material. The on-stage delivery of each speech is considered via a set of notes, whilst a fascinating overview of each playwright and play places the material in clear historical and dramatic context. The stated aim of the book at the outset "is to provide an insight into the potential for performance in a huge number of neglected plays". In this specific regard, the book is targeting actors, students and directors, but the wealth of contextual information provided on the staging conditions, the dramatists and their plays, will also greatly appeal to those interested in English theatre history.

The helpful guidance provided for actors is based on a wealth of experience. Michael Frohnsdorff has directed plays, whilst Ken Pickering's career has included the roles of actor, playwright, director and drama teacher. Ken was also appointed as Chief Examiner in Acting, Speech and Drama for a number of the UK's major awarding bodies, and has already written a number of books on the study of drama and theatre.

The result is both insightful and practical advice that will surely be invaluable to student and experienced actor alike. The performance notes help place each speech in the context of the play as a whole, and highlight the key aspects of the dramatic situation and inter-relationships with other characters that should be considered in preparing for performance. There are tips on how to master the often difficult meter and language that occasionally sounds almost foreign at a distance of 400 years. As well as providing helpful guidance, the notes encourage the actor to explore each role and speech for themselves, to evolve their own interpretation on how the piece should be played, by asking questions rather than providing definitive answers. "I'm delighted to see that [the authors] offer the same lack of pretension in their helpful and practical notes," says the venerable stage and screen actor Frank Barrie in the book's foreword.

The wealth of historical information provided in the book would make for a fascinating read on its own. The book's introduction sets the scene as elegantly as any play's prologue, outlining the rapid emergence of the theatre as a hugely popular pastime in Elizabethan England, and introducing us to the writers who endeavoured to meet the public's insatiable desire for daily dramatic entertainment. Each chapter contains a brief biography of the playwright in question, as well as neat summaries and critiques of each play from which the subsequent speeches have been chosen. Not only are these highly knowledgeable synopses interesting reading in their own right, they also provide important contextual information that proves extremely important when it comes to shaping the delivery of the speech.

The readability of the book is further enhanced by the honest nature of the critical assessments of the plays and their authors. Even the best of these speeches can appear in plays of uneven overall quality, and the authors do not pretend otherwise. We cannot help but react with a wry smile when we are told candidly that "Peele had great difficulty in making the situation in Morocco intelligible even to his contemporaries" (the setting for The Battle of Alcazar). The elegant précis of the "far-fetched" plot for Greene's Orlando Furioso concludes with the frank observation that "much of the play as we have described it appears unstageable," but this non-trivial defect is tempered by "the verse [which] is memorable and contains some of the most beautiful lines that ever graced the Elizabethan stage."

That is some compliment, given the choice array of other lines delivered by this memorable book. I'm not really qualified to comment on the guidance to actors, but if Frank Barrie thinks "it will be a boon to those preparing for audition," then that sounds like a strong approbation. For my part, I raced through the book, learning more about the poets, and rapt by the descriptions of the history, the plot-lines and the speeches themselves.

Not all of these plays are fit to be staged as a whole, but I was left with an overwhelming desire to hear these speeches rather than just read them. The 2009 National Theatre production of Dido, Queen of Carthage showed without doubt that some of these neglected plays have a lot to offer a modern audience, and we can only hope that some directors will be inspired by this book to bring more of Shakespeare's contemporaries into the spotlight.

Review by Mark Abbott

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