Chloe Porter. Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama: Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion

Chloe Porter. Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama: Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. viii, 230p., ill. ISBN 9780719084973. US $110.00 (hardcover).

In her intriguing new book, Chloe Porter adds to the growing body of scholarship that treats the theatrical making of early modern plays as a collaborative enterprise. Porter situates the production of early modern drama – as well as its concern with artistic processes of all kinds – in the context of a broader visual culture where the collaborative creation of art, especially via patronage, was the norm. She challenges the entrenched notion that early modern drama was a well-honed “speaking picture” aspiring to transcend the ut pictura poesis ideal. Instead, she argues that its makers – like other kinds of visual artists – were deeply invested in exploring the practices and pitfalls of aesthetic making and unmaking in a post-Reformation climate where the “visual” was supposedly always suspect. In her view, the theater’s admitted mimetic shortcomings would not have been viewed as shortcomings at all by its spectators but rather as purposeful examinations of the way visual culture operated in an ongoing feedback loop between production and reception. Throughout the monograph, Porter shows that the language of aesthetic unity that has prevailed in critical discussions of early modern plays does not align with the material reality of early modern theatrical performance.

This monograph focuses on plays featuring works of art that are “under construction” – in the process of being produced or, in some way, destroyed. Porter takes a cue from Raymond Williams in her treatment of “culture” as “an action in process, on-going, fermenting, subject to change” (22). She dedicates the first chapter to an account of early modern drama in the context of broader English visual culture in order to show that playwrights, like other visual artists, were professionally versatile – “involved in a variety of types of work in collaborative contexts” (20) and accustomed to the varied and variable processes involved in bringing plays to the stage.

Each subsequent chapter is organized around a play that dramatizes an engagement with this procedural understanding of visual representation. All the plays that Porter considers investigate some aspect of the collaborative activity associated with bringing works of art into the world, and challenge assumptions about the role of the visual in a post-Reformation world. Chapter two examines a work of art (Hermione’s statue) that resists “knowability” – and thus idolization – on the part of the spectator Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. The next chapter analyzes the “frame without a face” motif in the drawing-lesson scene in Campaspe, arguing that it mitigates the threat of idolatry implicit in “finishing” a work of art – something only God was thought to be capable of doing. Chapter four turns to the exigency in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay of destroying an idolatrous image – the brazen head – and thus the centrality of the “brokenness” to the early modern visual experience. The last chapter turns away from works of art inside of plays to the staging of the plays themselves. Here, Porter suggests that the making of “unseen” (but not invisible) characters on stage in The Two Merry Milkmaids “fractures” vision by calling attention to the material limitations of the theater while at the same time inculcating spectators in a god-like “fantasy of omniscience” (13).

Porter reads these representations of artistic creation and destruction as intensely meta-theatrical. The emphasis on process in these moments, she suggests, reinforces that the plays were, what Tiffany Stern has called, “patchworks” and their makers, “play-patchers” in Documents of Performance in Early Modern England (2009). The implication in Porter’s argument is that playwrights and others involved in the production of plays did not strive for “wholeness” or to create a “‘finished’ object or form” (9). In fact, because the language of completeness and incompleteness to describe works of art was still “in the early stages of development” in the mid-seventeenth century (198), the modern notion of aesthetic unity inaccurately reflects the representational practices of early modern playwrights and artists. Rather, the playwrights’ preoccupation with the processes of visual construction, fragmentation, brokenness, and incompletion inside the fictional worlds of their plays indeed mirrors the various processes involved in staging drama in the first place. According to Porter, this resistance to unity and “finish” also illuminates the challenges and affordances inherent in negotiating the material practices and ideologies associated with visual representation in post-Reformation England.

Although Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama is not a work of book history, SHARP members will surely be drawn to Porter’s capacious understanding of early modern visual culture and her judicious use of emblem books, anatomy books, and other printed objects to clarify the role of reception in early modern “image-making” practices, whether dramatic or otherwise. Her intervention in the debate about the role of visual culture after the Reformation also stands to have implications for the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century printing and book design.

Claire M. L. Bourne
Pennsylvania State University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.