Douglas A. Brooks, From Playhouse to Printing House: Drama and Authorship in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-77117-X (HB). 37.50.

The relationship that exists between the authors of dramatic texts in early modern England and the texts which ultimately were printed and published is problematic and fascinating. It is quite clear that the authority which a published dramatic text had was derived not from its author, but from its publisher. The publisher owned the manuscript and was free to alter it in any way he saw fit. The distinction between 'good' and 'bad' quartos is the way in which scholarship tries to deal with the authorial authority of a text. If an author was lucky he would be paid for the manuscript, but very often publishers managed to obtain and publish manuscripts without any interference by the author. Title pages of printed play texts are revealing in that respect: most of them state who the printer/publisher of the text is and where the text can be obtained, but the name of the author is often omitted. Remarkably, the title pages of more than half the extant published texts do mention the name of the company that (had) performed the play. Reference to performance rather than to author seems to have been considered a selling technique.

Such scholars as Andrew Gurr and D. F. McKenzie have often observed that theatre companies had no interest in the publication of the plays they commissioned and performed. The companies were even supposed to be hostile to the idea of publication because the reading of plays might draw a potential audience away from the theatre. The fact remains, however, that numerous plays were published in quarto and in folio. Were all of these texts pirated by unscrupulous publishers and booksellers who made companies and playwrights the victims of their low commercial instincts? In this courageous book Douglas Brooks relates the varied, sometimes confusing, but always exciting stories that these texts of published plays have to tell. By listening to these stories he does not find a conflict between author and publisher, but rather the beginnings of "a set of collaborations that would make published dramatic texts and, consequently, dramatic authorship possible" (17).

Brooks approvingly quotes John Feathers' statement that by the end of the sixteenth century literature had become a marketable commodity. The book trade was organised in such a way that only the publisher and bookseller (often the same person) stood to gain any financial reward. The first Copyright Act, which put the copyright of a text with the author, was still more than a century away. There were, however, playwrights for whom public recognition as individualised authors meant an unprecedented literary status. The best-known example is Ben Jonson, who is reputed to have actively sought publication of his plays, culminating in his Works of 1616. He seems to have made sure that on every account he was identified by name as the author of the work. But, as Brooks convincingly argues, he was by no means the only one. By aiming at readers rather than at an audience, playwrights were able to boost their literary ambitions. Printer and author in such cases had parallel interests in co-operation because sale figures and literary reputation were mutually dependent.

Brooks analyses the complicated publication history of plays by Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Thomas Heywood. He carefully separates the narratives of sometimes mythical proportions that often surround these books from what a close scrutiny of the texts themselves, the physical books and the subsequent editions reveal. Jonson's folio, for instance, is reputed to be a bibliographical monument which the author raised for himself. Jonson himself has emphasised his interest in authorial self-representation and created a view of himself as the "lone figure responsible for the translation of drama in early modern England from its lowly, marginalized beginnings to its central position in the literary canon, from the stage to the page" (110). However, Brooks demonstrates that Jonson's involvement in the production process of the book cannot have been as intensive as reputation has it and is at least far more complicated than Jonson's subsequent privileged position as author suggests. The folio is shown to be the product of an intricate collaborative process with the printing house, which ultimately makes our concepts of Jonson's authorship problematic.

In the case of Shakespeare, who in our time seems to be the most iconic author of the pre-Commonwealth era, and maybe even of all playwrights of all time, the question and concept of authorship should be even more subject to scrutiny. Shakespeare himself seems to have been, as Brooks says (9), "reluctant to see his plays published," and also, from our perspective, strangely indifferent to the quality of the play texts that were published during his lifetime. In contrast to what Shakespeare has the poet-speaker say repeatedly in his sonnets about the everlasting literary power of these verses, there is no evidence that he was in any way concerned about his own literary status as a dramatic author. Paradoxically, then, Shakespeare only began to be established as an author seven years after his death, when two actors of his company and two publishers co-operated on the project of what later became known as the First Folio. This miraculous resurrection is carefully analysed by Brooks, who concludes that the publishers were the only persons really to gain from this edition: the King's Men might only hope a revival of Shakespeare's plays in the theatre would attract a better audience. Shakespeare the author as we know him is born after the death of Shakespeare the man out of the collaboration between publisher and owners of the texts: both were essential in the creation of the author.

Around the time that Jonson's folio is published, author attribution on the title page of published plays rises to 71%, and the mentioning of the company to 69%; in the decade during which Shakespeare's folio appears, there is a minimal increase in the number of times the author is mentioned, but company attribution plunges to 45%. The number of printed plays rises spectacularly. Clearly, as the theatre industry becomes more professional, there is a greater need for the authors to individualise. The paradox is that the collaborative nature of print publication is the only means to become recognised as an individual author.

In the process from the anonymity traditional to the theatre to the individualisation of the published author, the extent and the consequences of the collaboration between all those involved in the production of the ultimate text is often forgotten. Brooks' combination of his impressive bibliographical expertise with his vast textual scholarship challenges traditional concepts about the history of early English drama and asks questions about authorship that cannot be ignored. It is to be hoped that Cambridge University Press will not wait long with the paperback edition.

Theo Bögels, Free University of Amsterdam


Terug naar de nederlandstalige overzichtspagina

Back to the English home page

Back to the Table of Contents of Folio