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  • Title: The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2: The Plays in Performance
  • Author: Joost Daalder

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Joost Daalder
    Peer Reviewed

    The Honest Whore, Parts 1 and 2: The Plays in Performance

    The Plays in Performance

    1Original Performances

    The plays were first performed in the Fortune Theatre: 1 The Honest Whore in 1604, and 2 The Honest Whore almost certainly in 1605. The popularity of 1 The Honest Whore is evident from the early, almost simultaneous appearance of The Honest Whore and The Converted Courtezan (see Textual Introduction), publications which were clearly intended literally to cash in on the play始s outstanding success in the theatre. The play was reprinted in quarto form several times during a lengthy period: the last quarto appeared in 1635, mentioning on its title-page a performance by ‘Her Majesty始s servants with great applause始. This almost certainly refers to a revival by Queen Henrietta始s company, c.1630, in the Cockpit, mentioned by Andrew Gurr.[1]

    The Fortune was a large, ‘public始 amphitheatre, open to the sky, of the kind built in the ‘suburbs始. It arose in a spot very close to where the Theatre, one of the earliest amphitheatres, had been, viz. in Shoreditch, an area in the north of greater London which like Southwark was known because of prostitution as well as other entertainment.The Fortune The Fortune was in effect built as a replacement of the Theatre, by Philip Henslowe, in 1600. It and the Globe south of the Thames (which was built a little earlier, and used timbers from the Theatre) were competitors, as were the companies which used these theatres. Henslowe built the Fortune for the Admiral始s Men, ‘whose status as runner-up to the King始s Men [Shakespeare始s company] was confirmed in 1603 when they were assigned to Prince Henry始. The contract for the Fortune was drawn up with the builder Peter Street, who also built the Globe for the King始s Men. In contrast to the Globe, the Fortune was a square building, but otherwise there were only very minor differences between the two theatres. The Fortune was ‘80 ft each way on the outside and 55 ft each way on the inside, [while] the stage was 43 ft wide and perhaps 27 ft 6 in. deep始. The total capacity of the Fortune was probably about 2300 people.[2]

    The Globe and the Fortune were so constructed that on the whole the stage actions and audiences in the one theatre must have resembled those in the other. Thus it is not difficult, on the basis of what is known about stage business, movements, etc. on Shakespeare始s stage, to envisage something similar for Dekker始s. Moreover, the stage actions for 1 and 2 The Honest Whore are not on the whole complicated and demanding. The hardest thing for an editor working with the original quartos is that the number of stage directions is far too small. In most cases it is not difficult to infer what is happening on the stage, so that a modern editor can readily supply many necessary editorial stage directions (in square brackets), but in some instances there is room for doubt: these I have discussed in the commentary on both plays.

    There is only one further matter in relation to stage action that I should briefly like to discuss here, and that is the use of the so-called ‘discovery space始.The Fortune There is no doubt, and it is generally accepted, that the façade at the back of the stage of the Fortune had three doors, the central one for an opening which could be, and was, normally covered with curtains so as to enable its use for certain kinds of action otherwise difficult to accommodate. It is in this area, for example, where Infelice is ‘discovered始 on a bed early in 1 The Honest Whore, 1.3 . There is some variation of opinion as to how Candido始s shop is to be envisaged. Habitually it is seen as being within the discovery space, but Andrew Gurr, who generously spent an afternoon discussing staging matters with me, has totally persuaded me that a far more likely procedure would have been to carry the shop – in effect a stall, or a booth – on to the stage from the discovery space rather than to leave it in that. It is known that some stalls used for merchandise did actually have handles for carrying. If placed well in front of the discovery space the ‘shop始 would have been visible to many more members of the audience, and the actors could have moved about far more easily, not least in a forward direction. I have no doubt that Gurr始s solution is the correct one. As he explained to me, the stall would have been put back into the discovery space when not needed. It could, of course, have been a structure that might have ‘doubled up始 as e.g. a bed inside the discovery space.[3]

    5Dekker did not write primarily for an elite audience. Indeed, the public theatres were intended to cater for a wide range of people. From around 1600, with the growth of indoor private theatres, it would appear that some of the wealthier people came to the public theatres less often, and tended to prefer the convenience, and the different social make-up, of those smaller buildings. The private theatres charged more, and many people literally could not afford to visit them. The nature of the demographic shift that occurred is sometimes much exaggerated, but that is not to deny that a change did take place.

    Even so, until about 1600 visitors to the public theatre covered a very wide spectrum, and it is not as though by 1604 there would have been no members of, for example, the gentry left to attend the Honest Whore plays. Andrew Gurr discusses the composition of the audiences in great detail in his Playgoing in Shakespeare始s London.[4] From what he says we may conclude that, around 1604, gallants, law students, wealthy citizens and members of the nobility did not restrict their visits to private theatres, though their numbers within the public theatres had perhaps diminished somewhat. The audience certainly contained many ‘ordinary始 citizens始 wives, as well as their husbands, and Gurr is inclined to think that these members of the audience in a theatre like the Fortune probably formed the staple. There would also have been large numbers of artisans and apprentices. And there were servingmen as well as whores (either to watch the play or to recruit customers or both), and e.g. ex-soldiers, as well as a small number of pickpockets. It will be clear that Dekker went to considerable trouble to create plays in which many members of his audience could recognise themselves and other members of London society.

    Modern Performances

    While the Honest Whore plays clearly went down very well with the audiences for which Dekker wrote them, it is not possible to say that they are markedly popular in the theatre today. For one thing there have been too few productions for us to be able to judge just what success might be achieved. We desperately need strong modern performances of both plays, in their entirety, without amalgamations, drastic cuts, re-writings, etc. The emphasis should, moreover, lie on the quality of natural and excellent acting and staging, not on odd costumes and extraneous effects.

    Amongst the few productions that are generally known, one of 1 The Honest Whore by 606 Theatre, from 13 November to 5 December 1992, in the Boulevard (London), attracted reasonably favourable reviews reproduced in Theatre Record for 4-17 November 1992 (page 1350), and at least the play itself created interest. No doubt one reason for this is that the audience were not given the odd, much reduced and altered conflation of the two plays which Mark Rylance and Jack Shepherd put together for a production which the Globe Theatre staged from 13 August to 18 September 1998. As someone familiar with 1 and 2 The Honest Whore I found it excruciating to read this version, and it did not seem to me at all suitable as a script for performance, or a text that does justice to Dekker始s two plays, even if one views with sympathy the idea of some cutting. Paul Mulholland claims that the Globe production attracted generally ‘favourable始 reviews.[5] I do not know which reviews he has in mind, but Theatre Record for 13-26 August 1998 includes a large number (1073-76), and although one reviewer comments that ‘The Honest Whore is a real find始 (1074), this comment is unrepresentative. Many of the others are thoroughly depressing to anyone who loves 1 and 2 The Honest Whore, though here and there some genuinely positive things are said. Not only did the script create problems, but so did the production, with its use of peculiar clothes, strange staging, and apparently often uninspiring acting.

    I do not think that my impression of the reviews is unbalanced. A reviewer of the Globe始s 1998 season, Lois Potter, who saw the Globe始s Honest Whore ‘in previews and after their press nights始, concluded that ‘Globe productions are relatively under-rehearsed始, that ‘some audience and reviewer complaints are justified始, and – in the case of the conflated Honest Whore – that ‘The production was not popular with audiences始, to which she constructively added that ‘Shepherd and Rylance deserve credit for attempting to take a Jacobean play seriously始.[6] Unfortunately that is not the same as treating it well.

    10As I could not see the production for myself, I asked a good friend, Mark Angus, who is a qualified professional actor as well as an English scholar, to view it for me. He reported extensively, so as to give me a very good impression of what was presented on stage, and offered the following final summary, which is much in tune with what was expressed by many reviewers:

    Overall, I cannot judge this production a success, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the conflation of the two parts into one does not work – it could be argued that the styles are different to such an extent that the parts are very uneven. Also, the rhythm of the play is disturbed: when the first half is over we know that a whole play has in fact finished and it ‘feels始 as though the performance should end there. As well, the changes in Hippolyto始s character were not sufficiently explored to make his change from puritan preacher to whoremonger plausible. The setting and costuming also did not contribute to clarity – such a hotch-potch of costumes does no-one any favours, and I felt they either should have forgotten the Milanese setting altogether, and changed the names and locations and made it what it is (a London play), or else they should have tried for a period feel, as the situation ultimately was very unclear. I found little in the acting to enjoy, although Mattheo acquitted himself reasonably well, as did the Duke in some sections; but generally the performances seemed a little perfunctory.

    Hardly any review I have read has given me the feeling that I would have enjoyed and admired this production. My general impression is that it was misguided.

    It is worth mentioning a RADA production (in the GBS) for their autumn production season of 1997, running from 26 November to 5 December, preceding the Globe始s by many months. Unfortunately I have not been able to obtain information on how well this production was received by those who saw it. The programme notes make plain that much cutting occurred (‘each play is as long as the single play you are watching始), and that ‘the subplot始 was removed entirely.

    Mulholland records a ‘substantially adapted revival始 by a graduating class of Canada始s National Theatre School (7-11 December 2004), which, ‘among other changes, switched the gender of the central blocking character from Duke to Duchess始.[7] Why this was considered necessary or desirable is not explained.

    One continues to look forward to the appearance of a major production of the two plays which will faithfully present the texts as written and help to give them the fine reputation which they so richly deserve.