Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shakespeare’s Opposites: The Admiral’s Company 1594-1625.
By Andrew Gurr.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, June 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-521-86903-4. $99. 328 pages.

Review by Suanna H. Davis, Houston Baptist University

The potential of this book fascinates. Who are these others who performed at the same time as Shakespeare’s company? What do we know about them? Why are they not as famous as Shakespeare?

Gurr offers interesting insights into various aspects of the Admiral’s Company, beginning with his hypothesis for why the two companies, and only those two, were operating in London from 1594 to 1600. The development of the hypothesis is not discussed in the book, because it has already been presented in an article. Despite the lack of details, it is an intriguing explanation. For the issue of fame, Gurr suggests that Shakespeare’s company had the better plays, which we can still read today, while the Admiral’s Company was better at theatrical entertainment, a visual and aural experience that is long gone. However, the Admiral’s Company left many more records than Shakespeare’s group and it is with these records that Gurr develops his discussion.

The book begins slowly. Within the first chapter, repetitions abound. References to chapter two seem to follow every major point. The idea of the familiar face of the players appears five times in the first fifty pages, as does the fact that there is a new play every week or two or three, depending on the page. The description “games of disguise” is also repeated. The repetitions are very distracting and the chapter is hard to read. However, the rest of the book is significantly better, with limited repetitions, good detail, and fascinating descriptions.

Gurr is at his best when he is explaining the plot of the plays and detailing the implications of the plays for his discussion. For example, the story of The Wise Men of West Chester provides rapid reading for more than ten pages; it is a quixotic tale told in an engaging style. His discussion of the printed version of The Tragedy of Hoffman is equally captivating. Few would be able to write an interesting rendition of various name change problems within a printed text, but Gurr pulls it off.

The chapter on staging is interesting. It begins comparing the outdoor venues with significantly more space for the audience to the limited indoor arena of the Globe. Gurr presents the history of the various playhouses of both companies, comparing and contrasting them. The chapter gives background information on architects and archaeological excavations, discusses building materials and methods, and details the stages of the original and rebuilt first playhouse of the Admiral’s Company. The point and purposes of the changes to the playhouse, after its midnight burning, are presented. This chapter also has figures that help the reader visualize the descriptions. This chapter offers a well-developed introduction to staging, which could be helpful in both theater and English classes in discussions of plays of the era.

The chapter also presents, again, the surviving play-texts of the Admiral’s Company. This presentation, though, divides them into three categories based on whether they were written to be played at the original, the rebuilt, or the second playhouse of the company. Then Gurr discusses the staging of the plays at the various venues.

The chapter on the company’s repertory practices details their exclusion from the court and connects their famous revenge play with Hamlet. A scrap of paper written in the hand of the Master of the Revels offers Gurr an opportunity to develop the connection between the two plays, and then he segues into the disappearance of the Admiral’s Company from the court performances after 1615. The Admiral’s Company was not the only group that was spurned, and Gurr offers class distinctions between the playgoers as the reason. Though the patrons of these two companies were royal, the open-air venue meant that those in attendance were not aristocrats.

Gurr also presents the possibility that the plays of this company were viewed as old-fashioned, since they were locked into play styles. The explanation for the style seems to be the return of the company’s most famous actor who was known for “stalking and roaring” (170). Finally, Gurr discusses their political and cultural ramifications, since some of the plays repeated aristocratic experiences and scandals as they were happening, but without tying this into the expulsion from court.

Three appendices make up the last third of the book. The first lists the plays and all their known titles by the year either of their probable performance or their probable writing. The second is an alphabetical listing, with a paragraph-length biography, of the various players from the Admiral’s Company. The third is a reconstruction of the company’s traveling schedule.

The book, after the first chapter, is well written and interesting. It gives details of the time and the acting experience that even Shakespearean scholars might not know. Overall, it is accessible to someone outside the field, though there are some “explanations” which do not actually explain to an outsider unfamiliar with the arguments to which Gurr is responding. The book offers an opportunity to expand one’s understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, clearly an impetus from the title, but more importantly it presents a well-developed discussion of some of the plays, players, and playgoers of the era, adding political, historical, and cultural insights into a reading of the plays of the Admiral’s company.

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