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Mary Ann Koory : The Spanish Tragedy

Dramaturg Mary Ann Koory blogs about THE SPANISH TRAGEDY

Mary Ann Koory

Dr. Mary Ann Koory, an award-wining teacher at the University of California Berkeley Extension and San Francisco State University, introduces students to Shakespeare as a cultural icon in our time, but also as a successful producer of commercial entertainment in Renaissance England. She's long been fascinated by the way THE SPANISH TRAGEDY haunted Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists. She will be working with the cast of THE SPANISH TRAGEDY as dramaturg for this summer's production. Read her musings about the play, the theatrical process, and why you won't want to miss this rare chance to enjoy this very special production.

Post #8 - July 28, 2013

A snoodLesley and I were at Book Passage ( on Monday night talking about The Spanish Tragedy. We had a great audience, about 30 people, half of whom had already seen the production; they asked some good questions. I’ll share a couple of the questions I’ve received over the last few weeks and attempt a few answers.

1. If The Spanish Tragedy was so popular, then why, after the theatres closed in 1642, did it drop off the face of the earth until the 1970s?

People who haven’t seen the production yet, who are perhaps drinking some wine with me before the show and feeling anxious about various events I have dragged them to over the years, will put this question as a polite way of asking whether this play, one that profoundly influenced Shakespeare and pleased audiences continuously for over 50 years, simply outlived its entertainment value, like snoods or bull-baiting.

Significantly, after the show, I have heard the same question, asked very differently, “Why isn’t this play produced more often? That was great!”Neo Classical Architecture

I think Kyd’s play stayed off stage because, after the Restoration, people wanted art to reflect their belief – or hope – in a meaningful order underlying reality, one that is beautiful, well-balanced and follows a set of rules, a Neoclassical aesthetic suited to a culture that restored a monarchy.

Shakespeare’s plays, not at all Neoclassical, were staged immediately after the Restoration, but not in versions that we would recognize. The plays called “Shakespeare’s” were revised to reflect the 18th century taste for happy endings and poetic justice, even in tragedies. Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, for instance, held the stage for 150 years and ended with Cordelia, very much not hanged, marrying Edgar, with the blessings of her (heart ticking along just fine) father.

Sacrilege from our point of view, but one that kept Shakespeare’s plays in circulation until audiences were ready to watch versions of the originals.

And perhaps no amount of revision could make The Spanish Tragedy suitable for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Think of Balthazar’s objection to putting on a tragedy as royal entertainment for his wedding. “Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.” (4.1.155)

Balthazar, in his conventionality and desire for happy endings, may very well speak for 425 years of mainstream theatre audiences’ reaction to The Spanish Tragedy.

2. You talk a lot about the history of the play. Am I going to The Spanish Tragedy because it has historical significance or because it has some aesthetic value for us today?

Lesley answered this question succinctly: “I hope you’ll go and enjoy the show because of what it is right now, without knowing anything about the history!”

I agree. I think audiences have been enjoying The Spanish Tragedy this summer because our cultural moment “rests in unrest;” our sense of the structure of reality matches Kyd’s perspective on the 1580s. 425 years later, we have cycled away from symmetry, back to an aesthetic preference for violence, ambiguity and irony. “Kill Bill” anyone? “Pulp Fiction”?

High profile criminal trials reach verdicts that seem to many Americans to be completely unjust; our government has reached new lows of dysfunctionality. Financial markets and politics are manipulated by exceptionally intelligent, greedy, and power-hungry villains. The new series “House of Cards” pits a cast of Machiavellian politicians against each other, and we love it.

The villain Lorenzo gives his servant instructions for some piece of deviousness and warns him: “But sirrah, see that this be cleanly done.” (4.4.77) The Neoclassic aesthetic, like Lorenzo’s, prefers art that is “cleanly done.”

We, on the other hand, have far less faith in providence and the power of human intellect to impose order on reality. We seem to prefer that art be messy, arranged according to a disorderly order, which, though it may result in beauty at times, does so almost accidentally.

This chaotic moment in history and culture is perfect for appreciating The Spanish Tragedy.

3. Why is Revenge cast as a young girl?

For the Greeks, revenge was a goddess named Nemesis (the daughter of Night and the primal god of the underworld); for the Romans, Nemesis became the goddess Revenge, in a couple of different incarnations. Lesley noticed that Classical representations of Revenge showed her as a young girl, and she wanted to play with that idea.


Post #7 - July 15, 2013

New-Fangled Things

Opening Night Press Party

Friday was Opening Night for The Spanish Tragedy. As I stood around, sipping a nice California Sauvignon Blanc at the tailgate press party, I was asked what I did as a dramaturg (besides stand around and sip free wine was the unspoken implication, but drama critics as a whole, I discovered, are a polite bunch). As I began my usual explanation – the company’s pocket lit professor, a resource for questions about the text – I considered the differences between the “press” on Opening Night of The Spanish Tragedy in 2013 and The Spanish Tragedy’s association with the “press” in the Renaissance.

In 1587, it goes without saying, there would have been no tailgate party for the press, as neither trucks with tailgates nor the press existed. (And goodness knows, no California wine. A pity.)

Commercial news-type publications produced on paper by printing presses would not emerge for another 100 years. The word “press” metaphorically transfers the name for the actual machine that reproduces words on paper, the printing press, to the professionals who create the words that are printed by the machine. The members of the “press” at the tailgate party work for publications that, after 300 years or so, are no longer produced by mechanical printing presses. The name for members of the profession persists today after the machine and its products have become obsolete.

In 2013, publishing operates on digital information technology and as a result, the news media, as a business and a social function, are on the cusp of radical change. In one of the historical intersections that make this moment so apt for watching The Spanish Tragedy, Kyd’s play also premiered at a moment when information technology and the business of publishing were on the cusp of radical change.

When The Spanish Tragedy premiered on stage in around 1587, the mechanical printing press enabled brand new information technology, much as digital publishing and social media do for us: the printed book, broadsides, and pamphlets were all novel, powerful media.And the new printed media were greeted by Londoners with a familiar mixture of hype and suspicion.

Down at the Bull and Bear

Perhaps under the influence of the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc, I imagined a scene down at the local Bull and Bear, circa 1595, where a group of older men lift a few pints together and complain about the younger generation and its new reading habits.

“Apprentices these days,” complains one crusty gentleman. “Always hanging about those shady book-sellers. Doing what, I ask you?”

“Reading books,” answer his friends in a gloomy chorus. “Ay, and not like they can afford it neither,” remarks one.

“Not on what you pay them, Jem.” There is laughter and another round before someone else picks up the lament.
“You say a word to them when they have those things in their hands and they don’t even look up from the pages,” harrumphed a mostly illiterate fellow. “All this page-turning. It’s anti-social, I tell you.”

“And the things they read,” adds another. “Poetry? Ha. Snowy bosoms all over the place.”
“Sonnet book this, sonnet book that. A ballad, now, that’s poetry for you,” said another, humming “Sir Patrick Spens” to himself.

“And that’s not the worst of it.” The first man joins the discussion again, and lowers his voice. The others lean in across the table, looking forward to hearing the worst. “The lads are reading poetry in . . . French!” The group sits back, shocked. “French?”

“Ay, French. Or,” he adds, throwing out a previously unimaginable extreme, “even Italian sometimes.”

They drink in grim silence, their worst suspicions about the “sonnet book” world confirmed. This new-fangled book-reading was indeed the end of civilization as they knew it.

Meanwhile, Back in San Rafael

In a less dramatic style, let me explain how the history of Kyd’s play demonstrates a change in the media for plays.

Before the 1590s, complete copies of plays existed in one (perhaps two) handwritten manuscripts owned by the acting company; plays were available to the public only in performance. In the 1580s, Kyd and other playwrights literally wrote their plays by hand and wrote them out again, by hand, to make copies for actors and producers.

In 1591 or 92, some entrepreneurial printer had a brainstorm: let’s print a play and sell it as a book. After that, many popular plays were printed and sold as books to a brand-new market.

Actors functioned as human books of a sort during this transition. Some editions of Shakespeare plays, we think, are the result of an actor carrying his role in his head until a printer, smelling profit but without a precious handwritten copy, got hold of him and transcribed his memory.

(I wonder if plays eventually began to be written differently when they became objects that could be read slowly and carefully, rather than the material for a performance that was largely auditory and ephemeral. How would TV shows, for instance, change, if their scripts also became best-selling books? Will movies reflect our relatively new practice of watching them repeatedly and privately?)

The Spanish Tragedy 1615 QuatroIn 1592, the year before Kyd died, Abel Jeffes printed The Spanish Tragedy in a quarto edition, the first in the wave of plays printed as books in London. In fact, Jeffes’s edition pre-empted the pirated version of another printer, Edward White. The Spanish Tragedy was a hot property for the new printing presses, a sure fire best-seller, popular and profitable enough to warrant piracy and the fines that went along with it.

Thomas Kyd, however, did not profit from the opportunities represented by the printed book. Like his father, Kyd earned a living in the traditional profession of producing legal documents by hand: he was a notary or a scrivener. The printing press spelled the eventual demise of that profession (though not in his lifetime). The press did not provide any compensatory profit to him in his new profession as playwright, either. Though the printed editions of The Spanish Tragedy were the most numerous of any play in Tudor England, Kyd died, badly in need of funds, shortly after the second printed edition of the play.

As books, plays generated profit, but only for the acting companies who sold the manuscript to the printers, and for the printers who sold books to readers. Playwrights were paid once, when they turned the manuscript over to the company for performance.

Look at the image of the title page to the 1615 quarto edition that I’ve attached. The title of the play, a little performance blurb, a fine woodcut and below, three lines of who printed it and where to buy it. No author. Each of the ten editions of The Spanish Tragedy lists the printer’s name on the title page, but not one lists the author’s name. Printed plays were the property of the printers.

Once they became books, plays belonged to the “press,” the hard-nosed Early Modern printing entrepreneurs whose technology, eventually, enabled the existence of the polite members of the “press” sipping wine with me in San Rafael on Friday.

Lukas Erne, Beyond The Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester University Press, 2001)
Scott McMillan and Sally MacLean, The Queen’s Men and Their Plays (Cambridge, 1998)

The set in preparation


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