Renaissance women and private performances: what went on behind the curtain?

Renaissance women and private performances: what went on behind the curtain? McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 21, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 03
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > September 21, 2006 > Renaissance women and private performances

Renaissance women and private performances

What went on behind the curtain?

In the 16th century, English theatre was virtually devoid of women, with the exception of elite private performances of plays such as those written by Samuel Daniel, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Daniel was commissioned by noblewomen to write plays that included roles for female actors.

Caption follows
English professor Kevin Curran is a member of the Shakespeare and Performance Research Team and also researches styles of celebration and rhetoric.
Owen Egan

Daniel's plays reveal a wealth of information about 16th century performance culture because of his unlikely patrons, the purpose of each play and the interaction between performers and audience. Daniel's works have never been successfully compiled into an anthology that identifies his unique contribution to theatre. Department of English professor Kevin Curran has taken on the task of anthologizing Daniel's works, as well as illuminating the aspects of Daniel's plays that make them a worthy read.

Women played a more prominent role in theatre than many scholars previously assumed. In two plays commissioned by Queen Anna, Daniel created roles for women, a revolutionary idea since it was illegal for women to perform on stage. "So, to pinpoint the emergence of the female actor in the Restoration theatre and beyond — all the way to Hollywood starlets of cinema — the place you need to look is not the public theatre of Shakespeare, but the elite, occasional theatre of people like Samuel Daniel," says Curran. The link between Daniel and his female patrons is well documented. According to Curran, "these links just haven't been taken very seriously or have been ignored."

Daniel's plays were written for intimate social gatherings of the elite rather than for the public. For instance, Hymen's Triumph was mounted at Queen Anna's own private residence to celebrate the recent refurbishment of the house and the wedding of one of the queen's favorite ladies-in-waiting," says Curran. A play was staged only once, since the purpose of each play was to mirror the social event at which it was performed; performing it at another social occasion would have been meaningless.

The performers included professional actors and guests at the event. Toward the end of Daniel's longer plays, the guests on stage would break character and dance with the rest of the guests. This practice of involving the audience has disappeared almost completely from our performance culture. Curran will address why this performer-audience interaction has vanished and clarify the role of women in Renaissance theatre in this first definitive compilation of Daniel's works.

In constructing his anthology, Curran must first establish the authenticity of Daniel's texts, a necessary step because during Daniel's era the publishing process was chaotic and there were several opportunities for textual change. A handwritten manuscript was first handed over to a scribe who rewrote it to make it more legible. In the process, the scribe may have made unauthorized changes. This transcribed copy was sent to the Master of Revels who may have censored the play. Following this, another scribe typically wrote out a manuscript of lines and cues for each actor. Eventually, the text as a whole made its way to the printing house where printers arranged words letter by letter, inked them, and then pressed them, often missing or misspelling words or even spelling them backwards. To keep things moving, texts were proofread hastily as the pages were printed. In addition, fake or pirated copies occasionally made their way to the printing house without Daniel's permission.

Curran will examine all of Daniel's works in libraries worldwide, taking note of each change and inconsistency, and then compile a text that is as close as possible to the originals. Thanks to the Francis Bacon Foundation Fellowship, Curran has just returned from the Huntington Library in California, where he examined one of the widest collections of Samuel Daniel texts. The anthology will also explore the female patronage networks and the uniqueness of the performance culture of Daniel's time. Maybe one day schools across North America will include Samuel Daniel in their curriculum or perhaps Curran's edition will bring lost theatre rituals back into our lives. Wouldn't it be entertaining to see your aunts and uncles performing a play at your next family celebration?

WARM-SPARK (Writing About Research at McGill—Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge) is a program supported by the Vice-Principal Research Office, Associate Vice Principal (Communications), the faculties of agricultural and environmental sciences, arts, engineering, medicine, and science. Visit for details.

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