By Nuala P. Caomhánach

Daniel Blank is Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature, 1500–1700 at Durham University. His main research interests include Shakespeare, early modern drama, and theater history, as well as the intellectual culture and classical heritage of the early modern period. His first monograph, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press.

Blank spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about his recent article “Debating Drama in the Early Modern University: John Case, Aristotle’s Politics, and a Previously Unknown Oxford Disputation,” which appears in JHI 83.3.


Nuala P. Caomhánach: By focusing on a university student, you argue that Aristotle’s Politics was more influential in antitheatrical discourses than scholars have allowed. You show the impact that these controversies had by stating “[Edmund] Leigh’s notebook is a local document with universal implications” (405). What avenues does the university as a site of analysis in the early modern period open up for understanding the reception, dissemination, and longevity of debates about theatrical performance?

Daniel Blank: That’s a great question. One of the things I aim to show is that the universities had their own culture of antitheatricalism. My article refers to the famous 1590s dispute between John Rainolds and William Gager—an important episode not only in the history of debates about theatrical performance but also in the history of Oxford, when two prominent university figures clashed over the issue of student drama. As Leigh’s notebook attests, however, these academic debates were by no means limited to that episode: since Leigh seems to have been writing sometime at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we gain insight into how that quarrel continued to reverberate through the university sphere. And this is where the university becomes so important as an institution, as a coherent site whose members are interacting with each other in both formal and informal contexts. The fact that Leigh was Rainolds’s student allows us to think about how these debates might have seeped into the university’s pedagogical interactions. In Leigh’s notes we see him engaging with both Rainolds and John Case, two members of Oxford who had decades earlier found themselves on opposite sides of the theatrical question. So Leigh’s own views were shaped by his Oxford predecessors, and he himself may then have shaped the debate further—if indeed he broadcast his own antitheatrical views in the disputation that his notes suggest he was preparing to give.

But the wider impact of these institutional debates is also significant. They ultimately extended beyond the academic sphere, due largely to the publication of the correspondence between Rainolds and Gager under the title Th’overthrow of stage-playes in 1599. As I discuss at greater length in my forthcoming book, Th’overthrow had a significant impact far beyond the academic sphere (as did the student plays to which Rainolds objected). So focusing on the university allows us both to see the specific flavor of antitheatricalism that arose there and to understand better its engagement with, as well as its effect on, broader cultural discourses. Leigh’s notes illustrate this dual purpose: they bring the university scene into clearer view, but the discussion of the Politics in particular has much broader implications for the relationship between Aristotle and antitheatricalism.

NC: Your close reading of Leigh’s university notebook offers the reader an engrossing and exhilarating adventure through impressive sleuthing and deep archival analysis to understand the significance of our understanding of the debates over theatrical performance. What are the challenges of working with material from the early modern period? Are there any caveats with using one document for broader arguments?

DB: One of the main challenges is access to the archives where much of this kind of material can be found. I was fortunate to be doing a year of archival research in England when this manuscript first came to my attention, but it can be very difficult to view early modern documents in person, especially when they’re held in a repository across the globe. There are other challenges as well. Much of the business of the early modern universities was conducted in Latin, so you have to be able to overcome that linguistic barrier; and documents like student notebooks only survive in rare instances. Like university plays, the fact that many of these documents are in Latin and that most exist only in manuscript has contributed to their obscurity.

Handwriting can be another issue when dealing with materials from the period. Leigh’s notebook is actually quite readable by early modern standards, but he does seem to be writing in haste on the pages concerned with theatrical performance, and he’s liberal in his use of abbreviations and contractions—so it can still be difficult to decipher. And it’s important to get the transcription exactly right, or as close to it as possible: especially with such a brief passage, every word is necessary to fully grasp the meaning.

You raise an excellent point, too, about using a single document to make a broader argument. As I say in my article, it’s important not to extrapolate too far from one student notebook, illuminating as it might be. But at the same time, it is true that most archival work from the premodern period involves some degree of extrapolation. An archive like this one is never going to be complete, especially when dealing with ephemeral documents from the early modern university. You’re never going to have everything. The best you can do is to put together something like a complete picture from the relatively few puzzle pieces that remain. And Leigh’s notebook is a very important piece.

NC: Theatrical performance and concerns over morality go hand-in-hand during this period as your historical actors (no pun intended) worry over the impact on the most impressionable in society—young men. Comedy and obscenity are top of the list over fears of the youth slipping into “idleness,” “lustfulness,” and other “evil behavior.” In reading your article, it was easy to think about the current climate over the role of the state, for example, pedagogy and content in school classrooms, cancel culture in comedy, and disinformation during epidemics. In what ways do the debates over theatrical performance reflect the concerns over how to create, govern, and control the ideal state, and more importantly, who gets to decide what is required, and what needs to be “driven out of a well-governed commonwealth” (402)?

DB: It’s an important question, and I agree: it’s difficult not to draw those parallels, especially since one of the words that comes up again and again in these early modern discourses is “obscenity”—the same word that has been frequently deployed in the recent spate of book bans in schools and libraries (which you allude to and which, as a literature scholar, I find especially disturbing). In the early modern period, theatrical performance is merely one of the “obscene” activities to which figures like John Rainolds are objecting. I think these debates are absolutely about authority and control, but the context varies: for Rainolds, it’s about the preservation of an institution—he wants a university in which students aren’t exposed to the “evils” he perceives so they can continue into the clergy uncorrupted. For John Case, some theatrical performances (those put on by professional players) are “obscene,” but others (those put on by academics) are “dignified”; in his notebook, Leigh picks up on Case’s description of the former. On the national level, of course, the Puritans looked to outlaw theatrical performance as one facet in creating an “ideal state” that conformed to their own worldview. And I think it’s vital to recognize that, whether we’re talking about early modern antitheatricalism or modern book bans, the rhetoric is often the same: censors speak of “protecting” children from anything that might disrupt the specific identities that conservative ideologues deem acceptable.

But it is telling that, even going back to ancient Greece, antitheatricalism has often been about—or appeared in contexts concerning—something much broader than the theater itself. Even the Aristotelian passage cited by Rainolds and Leigh as a basis for their antitheatrical arguments appears amidst a discussion of the rearing of children, which itself appears amidst a larger work of political philosophy. Similarly, for some early modern antitheatricalists, the goal of eliminating theater is part of a much larger goal of reshaping, and ultimately controlling, society—the primary example being the closure of the London theaters near the beginning of the English Civil War. I wonder if that’s a bit of what we’re seeing today as well with the highly politicized banning of “obscene” books: the proponents claim these bans to be about the books’ content, but in reality they’re about promoting a larger ideological agenda.

If there is a link here, then as a vocal advocate of both theatrical performance and access to diverse literature, I take some comfort in the fact that antitheatrical movements have seldom succeeded. Rainolds’s diatribes did little to curtail dramatic performance at early modern Oxford; even during the English Civil War, drama continued to circulate in various forms. If history is any guide, then one can hope that this latest round of bans won’t succeed in the long run. It’s just a question of how much harm they will cause in the meantime.

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Image: Ancient Roman theater in Mérida
user:Mimi-chan / Wikimedia Commons / public domain