Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Margaret Ezell: “Thomas Killigrew’s Stage”

Margaret J.M. Ezell

Book Review

Philip Major, ed. Thomas Killigrew and the Seventeenth-Century English Stage. Ashgate (Surrey, UK, 2013), xii + 223 pp. ISBN: 9781409466680. $98.96 (USD).

1> First, applause to Ashgate Press for continuing to publish important collections of essays such as this, which bring together accomplished scholars to explore topics in-depth and from multiple perspectives. This collection edited by Philip Major offers a comprehensive exploration of the theatrical career of Thomas Killigrew (1612-1683), whose long life and exploits on and off the stages of the courts of Charles I and Charles II offer a corrective to the standard literary history periodization which sharply divides the worlds of the Caroline court from that of the Restoration and, until recently, largely ignored the literary culture of the Interregnum.

2> In his introduction, Major highlights the ways in which this neat division of history has caused Killigrew to be viewed primarily as a Restoration figure, often in his role as manager of one of the two patent theatres, and not usually in a favorable light. Killigrew’s “unfashionableness” as a figure for serious study, Major suggests, stems from the perception of him as a “shallow cavalier…a bon vivant and court-hanger-on” and subsequently as a corrupt and inept theatre manager (2). “It would be disingenuous…to gloss over the more unsavoury aspects of his life and character,” Major concedes, but “for every unpalatable aspect of Killigrew’s life and character this is…a compensatory feature, and this disrupts any easy verdicts on him.” The essays in the collection thus look closely at courtier culture itself as performative in addition to looking at Killigrew’s evolution of public personas and creation theatrical events.

3> Killigrew’s early career as a Cockpit dramatist, his first staged play The Prisoners performed when he was twenty-one, is deftly handled by Eleanor Collins. Killigrew’s ambitions as a courtier dramatist have received relatively little attention compared to his Restoration ones; his tragicomedies Claricilla and The Prisoners have typically been dismissed as frivolous and pandering to the tastes of Queen Henrietta Maria, who, also until recently, has figured as one of the primary reasons why court literature of this period, quoting the 1980 edition of Claricilla, is not something “the modern reader would turn by choice” (22). Collins turns the lens away from Henrietta Maria herself and instead resituates the plays as part of the repertory of the acting company, Queen Henrietta’s Men--tellingly, the only courtier plays included in their 1630s repertory were Killigrew’s, and they would have been performed in the context of the older Red Bull commercial plays. As Collins notes, viewing these plays in their commercial context as well as their court one highlights not only Killigrew’s aspirations at court but also the strategies employed by one of the leading London theatrical companies of the time.

4> This strategy of recontextualizing Killigrew’s plays continues in the excellent studies by Victoria Bancroft, Marcus Nevitt, Philip Major, and J.P. Vander Motten which focus on specific plays, The Parson’s Wedding, Thomoso, and The Pilgrim. The first is treated by Bancroft as an experimental foray into the Jacobean preoccupation with the natures of theatricality and reality found in Marston, Webster, Beaumont, and Jonson among many, staged very early in the Restoration. Theatre historians have noted the play for Killigrew’s staging of it with an all-female cast at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1664, usually described as a tasteless commercial ploy. Bancroft makes a reasonable if complicated argument that Killigrew is again linking earlier traditions with the new theatrical environment, while continuing to explore the dialogue about the artificial and the real which would come to characterize later Restoration comedies. Nevitt takes on Killigrew’s most famous, or notorious, play, the two-part “comedy” Thomoso the Wanderer. As with much of Killigrew’s writing, defining the genre has been problematic for critics—it is typically read as autobiographical and/or a form of closet drama intended to be read but not performed. Nevitt believes this critical confusion has obscured what is innovative and interesting about this self-consciously constructed two-parter, which he asserts Killigrew wrote to be staged, complete with stage directions for how to produce blood during fights. Nevitt makes a strong case for reading it as “separate parts in a comic dialogue rather than a chaotic ten-act drama with a comfort break halfway through” (131). Major makes the case for another unloved Killigrew drama, The Pilgrim, as a political and cultural artefact of exile. Its heroic conventions, its stress on “honour, courage, and equanimity” serve as “a psychological handrail for a royalist audience—and playwright—whose world has been upturned” (193). He also points to Killigrew’s personal association with the figure of the pilgrim, and his final portrait not as a dashing cavalier or man of the theatre, but as a bearded and repentant pilgrim of St. James. This theme of the culture of exile is also handled in J.P. Vander Motten’s look at Aphra Behn’s reworking of Thomoso and Killigrew’s reworking of his public image, from the publication of his Comedies and Tragedies in 1664 to the St. James portrait in the 1670s around the time of the performance of Behn’s The Rover. Vander Motten reads the Thomoso as a complex and unique expression of Killigrew’s “confrontation with the experience of exile” (150).

5> Karen Britland, David Roberts, and Geoffrey Smith reground us in the world of the court and the power of patronage and early modern career fashioning. David Robert struggles mightily to rescue Killigrew from the near universal assessment of Killigrew as a failure in his management of the Drury Lane Theatre. He highlights Killigrew’s position as a fourth son of a well-connected family who could place their offspring in court positions while never themselves being completely accepted within it, providing Killigrew with wherewithal to imagine for himself before the war a “life in business and on the fringes of the court—a life devoted to the mixed economy of seventeenth-century theatre, to trying to make reputation as well as profit out of royal entertainment” (66). Britland takes this theme in a slightly different direction with her exploration of the court career of Killigrew’s younger brother Henry, whose play The Conspiracy was performed at York House in 1635. She highlights, too, the insider/outsider nature of the Killigrew family’s involvement with the court, suggesting that in the 1630s, young Henry, also, sought entrance and patronage. The patrons Henry found, in contrast to Thomas, were with powerful women, notably the Duchess of Buckingham, the mother of Mary Villiers for whose wedding the lavish spectacle of The Conspiracy was created. Geoffrey Smith takes us back to the more familiar figure of Thomas Killigrew as the boon drinking companion of Charles II, asking us to reconsider what it meant to be a “gentleman of Great Esteem with the King”—“Where exactly did Tom Killigrew stand in this collection of whores and pimps, diseased drunkards and quarrelsome debauchees who allegedly surrounded the king?” (153). Simultaneously holding the positions of managing the Theatre Royal with serving as a groom of the bedchamber, Killigrew was, as Smith points out, some twenty years older that the King in a court that as Clarendon observed did not love old men. Like Killigrew’s early biographer Alfred Harbage, Smith feels that much of the dirt on the Killigrew reputation came from the antics of his son “lying Harry” and had little to do with the aging courtier’s impressive survival in a volatile and dangerous court.

6> This volume may not salvage Thomas Killigrew’s reputation as either a dramatist or a theatre manager, but its contents without doubt make him a fascinating figure, one well worthy of study by all those interested in the complicated dynamics of court culture and commercial theatre, of patronage and self-fashioning, and of the imprint of exile on the imagination.

Margaret J.M. Ezell is Distinguished Professor of English and the Sara and John Lindsey Chair of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University. Her edition of the poems of Anne Killigrew, Thomas Killigrew's niece, was published in 2013 in the Other Voice series by University of Toronto Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies and ITER.
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,
Volume Seven (2014): Genres & Cultures

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