The Early Modern Theater as Collaborative Network
Posted on: 06 Mar '12
The early modern English stage

Thomas Heywood is said to have claimed in 1633 that he had had "either an entire hand, or at least a maine finger" in the composition of 220 plays. Even if exaggerated, his claim points to the intensely collaborative nature of theatrical production in early modern London, a process that was as much economic division of labor as artistic collaboration. Jointly written plays would often begin with a rough outline of the plot after which each writer would be given responsibility for certain scenes that they would adapt to the demands of the plot. The entire play would take about two months to write and writers would be paid independently, mostly on a freelance basis although a few did negotiate contracts. Many writers including stalwarts like Jonson and Dekker began their careers re-writing and adapting past hits such as Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. But any student of early modern drama who has pored over editorial notes on the style and habits of individual contributors will recognize that even in this strangely ad-hoc conveyor belt of cultural production that churned out plays to meet the insatiable demands of the London audience, there were genuine spaces of artistic collaboration.

The above network attempts to capture a sense of the interlinkages and collaborative spaces of the early modern theater by plotting plays (blue), authors (yellow) and companies (orange) for a period spanning roughly a century. The data is drawn from the Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP) which collects information about every surviving playtext. The dataset "cleans" up many of the ambiguities associated with early modern print culture by noting the modern scholarly consensus on many anonymous or misattributed authorship claims, drawing on various sources. Complex as this network looks, with over a thousand nodes, it represents a striking simplification of the contested history of development of the early modern theater. It doesn't visualize time very well, for example, or the evolving chronologies of the theater companies, only gesturing at these in the way various major nodes organize themselves. More importantly, and perhaps more insidiously, the nature of our data privileges print over performance, making the playbook (and the accidents of its survival) our window into the socio-economic world of the theater. But the evolution of the English theater - from ritual performance or uneasy adaptation to the most glorious literary productions of the European renaissance - leaves its mark in these network visualizations - as much in the form of telling absences and simplifications as in the sense of teeming productivity that attest to its bustling commercial vitality.

Company affiliations in the early modern English theater.

From its ambiguous origins in the space between the popular spectacle of morality plays and the erudition of university adaptations, to its blossoming in the public playhouses of late Elizabethan London, right up to the dissolution of the theaters in 1642, the history of the English stage is one of conflict and adaptation. Pitted against Puritan rhetoric and the dogged resistance of the City fathers, the theater found refuge in clever fictions of aristocratic and royal patronage, constantly having to adapt to the changing winds of courtly politics. The famous statute of 1572 effectively declared "Players in Enterludes" to be illegal vagrants, unless of course they were affiliated to a nobleman:

All and everye persone beynge whole and mightye in Body and able to labour, havinge not Land or Maister, nor using any lawfull Marchaundize Crafte or Mysterye whereby hee or shee might get his or her Lyvinge, and can gyve no reckninge how he or shee dothe lawfully get his or her Lyvinge; & all Fencers, Bearewardes Common Players in Enterludes & Ministrels, not belonging to any Baron of this Realme or towardes any other honorable personage of greater Degree; all Juglers Pedlars Tynkers and Petye Chapmen; whiche [...] shallbee taken adjudged and deemed Roges Vacabondes and Sturdy Beggars.-Acte for the punishment of Vacabondes, 1572

Players could be retained as servants for the entertainment of noblemen and it was under this convenient legal fiction, protected by the liveries of noble households, that the English theaters were to ply their trade for the next several decades although rarely did they receive any direct payments from their patrons. And this magic circle of privilege continued to narrow - by 1598, only the highest noblemen in the land could patronize players and after the accession of James I, control of the playing companies was distributed among members of the royal family. The above network that draws on data about company affiliations to visualize the organizational structure of the early modern theater foregrounds this official narrative of patronage, eliding the popular, commercial vitality of the theater.

However, thus protected by the notion of patronage, theoretically existing solely as a royal pleasure, the early modern English stage was also intensely public, depending on commercial appeal and success rather than royal generosity for its economic survival. The companies were allowed to perform in the London theaters located, mostly, just outside the City walls, and grudgingly tolerated by the City fathers as they drew apprentices from work and citizens(and their wives) from their prayers under the pretense of being ready for court performances. Except for times of plague when, most often, the companies would go on tours of the country, they were settled in the bustling metropolis that was early modern London, competing with each other to attract a diverse and popular audience. Partly, the network seems reductive because the companies themselves were far less stable than the entries in the database suggest. The King's Men, for example, is no more than an umbrella term for a set of companies spanning over more than half a century, which were only loosely related to each other. But the emphasis on aristocratic affiliation might not be the best way to think of the evolution of the theater. That might be a narrative best told in terms of playhouses, entrepreneurs, major actors and playwrights - data that might give us a very different perspective than this relatively neatly organized network of affiliations.

Collaborations on the early modern stage

From institutional affiliation, to artistic collaboration - this graph extracts plays which have multiple authorship attributions to give us a sense of the collaborative networks of the early modern stage - a literary social network, as it were. By a strange quirk of the data, which notes adaptations as collaborations, you will notice that many continental and classical authors appear to be part of this network. Seneca, for example, puts in a strong showing on "collaborations" with Elizabethan dramatists. Absurd as it might seem, this is in a sense quite appropriate as it maps intellectual affiliations rather than mere spatial or chronological affinity. However, we might notice that many of these collaborations form isolated islands (or, disjoint communities, to use Social Network Analysis terminology). These indicate mostly coterie drama written by occasional writers who translated or adapted classical works in many cases.

But what happens when we simplify the plot to indicate only links between playwrights, eliminating the multiple play-nodes? Below we can see the reduced plot on the left and on the right the single largest connected island of nodes (representing the connected island on the top left of the plot above). These playwrights form the core of the early modern canon and wrote for the commercial stage often collaborating repeatedly with a given partner. Fletcher, Middleton, Rowley, Beaumont, Dekker and Shakespeare form the core of this collaborative group. Of the major playwrights, Webster has relatively little connection to the group but most conspicuous by his near-absence is Jonson, who remains only very tenuously connected to the network. Jonson's insistence on excising collaborations from his published work contributes to this, another artifact of privileging print editions over the many other sources that we might draw on to map the early modern theater. In general however, a distinct pattern emerges of a vital commercial and artistic community that lay at the core of the social, institutional, and commercial challenges at the heart of the early modern theater. Implicitly as an artistic community, or explicitly in the form of collaboration, this group of playwrights, along with entrepreneurs, actors and the insatiable London audience drives the artistic and commercial engine that was early modern theater.

Collaborations between authors

The core group of collaborators

Finally, some technical details and some possible future directions. The DEEP database records various kinds of information and you will notice that I avoided tweaking the data more than absolutely necessary("Anonymous," for example, appears as a major author). My choice of author, play and playing-company resulted in a tri-partite network, i.e. a network consisting of three distinct (or, non-overlapping) sets. In other words there are three kinds of nodes in the networks none of which connect directly to a node of the same kind (except, of course, the last two simplified networks). This has certain implications for the use of basic network statistics such as centrality, betweenness etc to describe the network (although they can still be easily computed). I chose this tri-partite form as the best way to draw up networks that can be fruitfully explored ( zoom in on particular plays, authors etc) and that convey the most relevant information. The historical accidents which constrain the data-set - and this is the case with many humanities data-sets - should warn us against simple conclusions drawn merely from automated network stats. Rather, the promise such networks hold for humanistic analysis lies in the way they can gesture at the possibilities as well as the shortcomings of the data. A vast amount of scholarship exists on the early modern theater and a growing chunk of this is becoming available in accessible forms. Hopefully, these initial steps will make way for more involved and detailed analyses of the socio-economic structures which fostered the early modern stage.