If researchers want to know what contemporary theatre audience members think of a play, they can simply ask them – usually through a survey or a personal interview.
Or, better yet, they can look at ticket sales.
But for scholars seeking to understand the thinking of audiences long dead, the challenges are, well, a bit more daunting.
It takes the resourcefulness of a scholar like UNLV English professor Charles Whitney to sort through archives to find pertinent materials, interpret their meaning, and reconstruct the responses of those who attended plays more than 400 years ago.
Whitney’s clever approach to the subject is observed in his award-winning book, Early Responses to Renaissance Drama. The book has been called “remarkable” and “brilliant” for its success in uncovering the thoughts of those – including the “ordinary” people – who attended Shakespeare’s plays in the 16th century. The book has been awarded the 2008 Elizabeth Dietz Memorial Prize from Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 for the best book in early modern studies.
Whitney says the impetus for Early Responses dates back some two decades, before his 1988 arrival at UNLV. He had decided he wanted to write a book on English Renaissance drama because, “It was at the center of exciting new movements in literary studies.” But, he notes, he was a latecomer to the study of drama and felt that he needed a previously unused approach.
“Eventually, I realized there was a lot written on how people had responded to and interpreted Renaissance drama through the later centuries, but no one had written on responses during the period of the Renaissance itself,” he recalls. “No one thought there was enough evidence around to know how the earliest audiences responded. Yet, the earliest group was the most important because the plays were written for it.”
“I was attracted to the challenge of this project because it required thinking outside the box,” he continues. “I loved the idea of trying to turn things upside-down by showing how the experiences of ordinary people could be as interesting in their own ways as the work of the Bard.”
During the 11 years or so after deciding on his focus, Whitney traveled to England to examine historical documents in the British Library and the archives of craft guilds around London. He also visited the Huntington Library in southern California, which has a huge collection of rare books from the Renaissance.
“I met many fascinating people who had been dead for hundreds of years until we brought them to life through research, imagination, and writing,” he says.
He “met” these people when he delved into a treasure trove of commentary in letters, diaries, pamphlets, poetry, and other materials; some of these materials have been published since they were written hundreds of years ago, but others were originals found in dusty archives.
As for his findings, Whitney discovered that the “earliest audience members of Renaissance drama weren’t polite and respectful.”
“They appropriated what they saw or read to suit their own purposes, creating their own interpretations of Shakespeare’s work and that of his worthy contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson,” Whitney says.
The earliest audiences included a considerable number of women, and Whitney deals with both gentlewomen’s and street vendors’ reactions to the plays. Acknowledging that the sources of some responses attributed to women “are not unimpeachable,” he offers convincing reasons for accepting them in the book.
Today, Whitney continues to explore the implications of his work by examining the artistic goals of Renaissance playwrights, which, he asserts, seem to be different from those of today’s playwrights. “Renaissance playwrights seem to have deliberately provided material for audiences to rework,” he notes.
He is also taking a thematic approach to the subject of Renaissance drama, “working with religious responses and what they imply about understanding plays such as King Lear.”
He is also developing a new area of research in the growing field of “ecocriticism” in order to study early literary representations of the natural world through the lens of today’s perspective.