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From the Introduction:

The purpose of this volume is to define and provide examples of terms found in the stage directions of English professional plays that date from the 1580s to the early 1640s. By providing such definitions we hope to make readily available information about English Renaissance theatrical terminology already known to specialists but not to other readers of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and to present information and documentation unfamiliar even to theatre historians and editors. This reference work is therefore designed to serve as both a handbook for the generalist and a scholarly tool for the specialist. . . .

In preparing what we hope will be a useful and usable resource, our focus is on the terms--what we conceive of as the theatrical vocabulary actually used by the playwrights, bookkeepers, and scribes of the period as reflected primarily in the stage directions to be found in the surviving manuscripts and printed texts of plays. Behind this phrase lies our postulation of the presence then of a language of the theatre shared by playwrights, players, and playgoers that can easily be blurred or eclipsed in modern editions, stage productions, and on-the-page interpretations. In some instances, to re-establish such meanings is easy, no more than translating a Latin word (manet, exiturus, rustici). In other situations, to recover such meanings is more challenging but nonetheless possible, a process analogous to the work of an iconographer who ranges widely in the available literature so as to explicate an image appropriately (see booted, hair, rosemary). Elsewhere the meaning or implementation of a theatrical signal remains very much in doubt, a matter of scholarly controversy (see trees, vanish, shop, study). Our goal has been to isolate terms and then gloss them as best we can by referring principally to other stage directions rather than to the OED (which we have, however, regularly consulted).

With few exceptions, the entries in this dictionary are therefore keyed to words or phrases actually found in the stage directions of this period. Modern scholarly terms will occasionally be defined (fictional stage directions, permissive stage directions); inevitably, some use must be made of information provided in the dialogue. The emphasis, however, is on that theatrical vocabulary found in the tens of thousands of stage directions that constitute the primary evidence for what we know (or think we know) about the presentation of such plays to their original audiences.

For the reader not familiar with the underpinnings of English Renaissance theatre scholarship, such heavy emphasis on stage directions may seem curious. Why not give equal weight to other kinds of evidence? After all, no account of English Restoration staging would be complete without reference to the playgoing accounts of Samuel Pepys, so why not build here as well on eye-witness accounts? What about theatrical documents such as Henslowe's papers? Most tellingly, why relegate to a lesser status references in play dialogue to actions, costume, properties, and parts of the stage?

What most readers do not realize is how little evidence has actually survived about the staging of plays in this period--the norm is silence. A few eye-witness accounts from playgoers are available (including several for Shakespeare plays), but these accounts can be singularly unrevealing, often amounting to no more than partial plot summaries. Similarly, scraps of useful information do turn up in Henslowe's inventory of costumes and properties (and are cited here when appropriate), but again surprisingly little can be gleaned about theatrical practice from these and comparable documents.

Dialogue evidence is far more plentiful, but this material represents shifting sands, not bedrock. Even when dealing with seemingly concrete stage directions (Q1's "Romeo opens the tomb," The Tempest's "they heavily vanish") the interpreter today cannot be certain whether the original playgoer saw a verisimilar effect (an elaborate tomb property, a disappearance by means of theatrical trickery) or whether the "tomb" or the "vanishing" was generated by a combination of dialogue, mimed action from the players, and the spectator's imaginative participation. If stage directions can be opaque rather than transparent, dialogue evidence is far trickier to interpret. At least one scholar has argued that a verisimilar "wall" property was necessary for Richard II because Hotspur refers to Flint Castle as "yon lime and stone" (3.3.26). Similarly, consider Brutus's reaction to Caesar's ghost: "Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil, / That mak'st my blood cold, and my hair to stare?" (4.3.279-80) or Gertrude's description of Hamlet in the closet scene: "Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep, / And as the sleeping soldiers in th' alarm, / Your bedded hair, like life in excrements, / Start up and stand an end" (3.4.119-22). Are we to conclude from these two passages that Richard Burbage had a fright wig or that he had the ability to make his hair stand on end? Or are such descriptions substitutes for what cannot be physically displayed to a playgoer? To tease out stage practice from dialogue is repeatedly to encounter this problem.

To rely almost exclusively on stage directions is, by contrast, to stay within the realm of what was or could have been done in the original productions, particularly when the play in question is linked to a professional company or to an experienced playwright (as distinct from university players and amateur authors). The exigencies of the playhouse are reflected in so-called "permissive" signals, as with the use of or, as many as may be, or "Exit Venus. Or if you can conveniently, let a chair come down from the top of the stage, and draw her up" (Alphonsus of Aragon, 2109-10). Scholars rightly observe that these and comparable stage directions may more reflect the playwright's original conception than the actual staging (we are assuming that most stage directions are authorial in origin). But who would be a better judge of what could or could not be accomplished by the players than an experienced writer who had seen many of his plays move from script to stage? When documenting our entries we have therefore made plentiful use of evidence from the canons of such seasoned (and prolific) playwrights as Dekker, Shakespeare, Heywood, Middleton, Fletcher, Massinger, Brome, and Shirley. The thousands of extant stage directions provide the only substantive clues to the language shared by these and other theatrical professionals.

Drawing upon stage directions as evidence, however, is not without its problems. First, editors and theatre historians rightly point to the importance of provenance (place of origin, derivation) in dealing with these signals. Thus, a theatre historian seeking to reconstruct the physical features of a particular building such as the Globe will draw only upon evidence from plays known to have been performed in that building. For an editor, a different question of origins is also crucial: did the manuscript from which the text was printed preserve the pre-production concept of the author(s); had it been annotated for performance (and if so, by whom) or recopied and perhaps "improved" by a scribe; or was it compiled by one or more of the players who had acted in it?

When widely scattered stage directions are used as evidence, the provenance of individual plays cannot be completely ignored (as when Marston, writing with a particular theatre in mind, refers to a music house), but in practice we have found this distinction less important than other variables. Indeed, the study of thousands of stage directions does not elicit a technical backstage vocabulary that is the exclusive property of one or another group of theatrical professionals or is linked to specific venues. Some usages are more likely to turn up in texts annotated for performance--e.g., ready, clear--but examples of the former are sprinkled throughout printed texts of the period, and examples of the latter, although plentiful in the manuscript of Heywood's The Captives, are to be found in only two other texts. The language used by a professional dramatist may not be exactly the same as that used by a bookkeeper, a scribe, an amateur writer, an academic, or a Ben Jonson refashioning his play for a reader, nor is there an exact correlation among varying venues or during disparate decades. Nonetheless, by proceeding carefully (and by not building edifices upon unique or highly idiosyncratic usages) we hope to isolate and define a range of terms that would have made excellent sense to Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dekker, Heywood, Jonson, Marston, Chapman, Middleton, Massinger, Brome, Ford, and Shirley.

Similar questions of chronology (when a play and its theatrical signals were composed) can sometimes be relevant to the entries, but with a few exceptions we have not attempted to trace the evolution of terms in the manner of the OED. Some locutions found in the 1580s and early 1590s are superseded or simplified in the playtexts that follow (see proffer, let); the earlier signals are often longer, without the shorthand forms that later become commonplace. For the bulk of the period up through the 1630s, however, continuity rather than evolution appears to be the norm. To minimize the importance of chronology is not to argue that staging procedures and the terms used to signal those procedures stayed the same in all theatres between the 1580s and the early 1640s. Nonetheless, the fact that a host of playwrights in many theatres over many decades appear to be using the same shared language strikes us as significant. In compiling dictionary entries some account of changes in usage can be instructive as can identifying any distinctive terms or procedures limited largely to Peele, Greene, and the 1580s. But if (as is often the case) Shakespeare/Heywood and Brome/Shirley make use of much the same theatrical vocabulary, the importance of chronological distinctions is greatly diminished. Of greater significance for an investigation of the original stage practice are those signifiers that remain useful and meaningful over the full stretch of Elizabethan-Jacobean-Caroline drama. When provenance and chronology are invoked, what needs stressing is that there is indeed a widely shared theatrical vocabulary, especially from the 1590s on, and that the major variations in that vocabulary arise less often from different venues or different decades than from authorial idiosyncrasy. For example, Chapman is more likely than any other professional dramatist to use Latin terms, but it is Massinger who is particularly fond of "exeunt praeter . . ." where another dramatist would use manet or "exeunt all saving . . . ." Similarly, Massinger and others regularly use aside to mean speak aside, but Shakespeare, for one, prefers other locutions (e.g., to himself) and uses aside primarily to denote onstage positioning. In short, there are variations aplenty which, whenever possible, are signaled in our entries.


Some words, but of no importance
Emrys Jones, TLS (May 19, 2000): 20

For well over twenty years, Alan C. Dessen has been investigating the staging of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Such books as Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (1977), Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (1984) and Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary (1995) have established him as one of the foremost theatre historians of the early modern period. His work has always been both rigorous and refreshingly sceptical in its use of evidence; he has also shown himself to be amply sensitive to larger imaginative values. The tendency of his approach is to offer solutions to interpretative problems by scrutinizing current stage practice and procedures and, in so doing, to elucidate the theatre language encoded in stage business and stage actions.

This Dictionary of Stage Directions, a collaboration between Dessen and Leslie Thomson, has grown out of Dessen's earlier body of work. The Dictionary carries forward the enterprise of recovering in minute detail the stage language of Shakespeare's age: as Dessen and Thomson say in their introduction, "our focus is on the terms - what we conceive of as the theatrical vocabulary - actually used by the playwrights, bookkeepers and scribes of the period as reflected in the stage directions to be found in the surviving manuscripts and printed texts of plays". Paraphrase and commentary are kept to a minimum: "The emphasis... is on that theatrical vocabulary found in tens of thousands of stage directions that constitute the primary evidence for what we know (or think we know) about the presentation of these plays to their original audiences."

The Dictionary explains more than 900 terms found in the stage directions of professional plays from the 1580s to the 1640s. The editors draw on a database of over 22,000 stage directions from about 500 plays performed in London during this period. Each entry starts with a definition, gives examples of how the term is used, cites additional instances, and makes cross-references to other relevant entries. The longer entries amount to densely informative essays. The Dictionary as a whole is a superb scholarly resource. It presents a huge body of information in an astonishingly small space.

Reading through these entries, one discovers to what an extent these terms do indeed form a specialized linguistic system. Often the simplest words are used allusively, as part of an in-house code: such entries as those for "in", "out", "as before", "as from", "as (if)", "as in", and "as to" are worth some attention. One also learns how surprisingly diverse stage properties were, together with the mimicked actions which accompanied them. Under "hammer", we have from Two Lamentable Tragedies: "... striketh six blows on his head and with the seventh leaves the hammer sticking in his head." On stage beheadings are not uncommon, as in the The Virgin Martyr: "Her head struck off." Perhaps more of a trial for the actor was this: "Empty a chamber pot on his head." We can quickly discover which animals made an appearance on early modern stages; they include horses, mules, monkeys, ("Beatrice leading a Monkey after her", from Eastward Ho), cats ("his Cat on a string", from The Vow Breaker), and numerous dogs (in some cases a real animal, in others an actor dressed as one). The best-known dog in Elizabethan drama, Launce's Crab, does not occur here simply because the Folio stage directions for The Two Gentlemen of Verona fail ever to mention him - "Enter Launce" is all we have for the first of Crab's three scenes.This Dictionary reminds us how exiguous the stage directions are for most of Shakespeare's plays.

An especially interesting entry ("permissive stage directions") draws attention to a class of signals that leave key details indeterminate. These usually refer to the specific number of actors required for an entrance ("with infinite number", "as many as may be", "an Officer to whip him, or two if you can"); but others call for a certain effect, while leaving the details to the actors ("speaks anything, and Exit", "Jockey is led to whipping over the stage, speaking some words, but of no importance").

Another substantial entry makes a distinction between "theatrical directions" and "fictional directions" (the terms are Richard Hosley's). "Theatrical directions" refer to the physical structure of the theatre ("within", "at another door"), whereas "fictional directions" refer to something present only within the dramatic fiction ("on shipboard", "within the prison", "enter the town"). Problems arise when a reader cannot be certain if a directions is theatrical or fictional - hence the scholarly arguments over windows or tombs or other objects which might, or might not, have been solidly visible on the stage. Were they actually there in some form, or are we meant to imagine them?

Although this is primarily a work of reference, to be consulted for specific items, the book can be read from cover to cover almost as if it were pure entertainment. Its self-denying economy of presentation is a great virtue; it gives the whole work a cutting edge that stimulates and invigorates.As one goes through it, one gets a remarkably intimate feeling for the moment-by-moment actualities of stage performance. I can't imagine anyone using this Dictionary whose reading of early modern drama won't be sharpened and improved.

Barry Gaines, Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 196-99

The Dictionary is compiled from a database of more than 22,000 stage directions from over five hundred plays, some plays considered in multiple versions. The "focus is on the terms--what we conceive of as the theatrical vocabulary--actually used by the playwrights, bookkeepers, and scribes of the period" (vii). The term "theatrical vocabulary" was, of course, used by Dessen in the title of his 1995 book. In a chapter of that book, providently entitled "Interpreting without a Dictionary," he noted that "most readers of this book (understandably) would prefer more space devoted to illumination and less to problems, pitfalls, and anomalies. Indeed, most attractive to such readers would be a dictionary or a handbook comparable to the OED that would define both stock terms and less familiar usages so as to facilitate interpretation." He tries his hand at a few such dictionary entries, but he concludes, "if the evidence were more plentiful and the problems fewer, a series of dictionary entries would be an excellent way to set forth the theatrical vocabulary of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Such, however, is not the case."

Fortunately Dessen and Thomson overcame their reservations and produced the Dictionary despite the challenges. They are still uncomfortable with the distinction between "fictional" and "theatrical" stage directions (terms suggested earlier by Richard Hosley), and they include a thoughtful entry for "fictional stage directions." The page-long definition given "aside" suggests that even familiar terms may be more complex in their application to the Renaissance theater than we imagine. But the enterprise is a rousing success.

The coverage is comprehensive. Unique terms (such as "astringer") are included as are extremely common terms. While the six hundred appearances of "door" are not individually enumerated, generous selections of and references to examples are included in all of the listings. References to editions cited are, of necessity, awkward. The examples were originally extracted from the quartos and folios, octavos and manuscripts in which the plays first appeared. Citation of those sources would have limited the utility of the work, so references have been made instead to modern reprints or editions. Peter W. M. Blayney has compiled the extensive "Plays and Editions Cited" at the end of the book. . .

While this reference book is not designed to be read cover to cover, there is fascinating material on almost every page. The range of plays treated is amazing. . . . [Dessen and Thomson] have provided a theatrical reference book that will be consulted and mined by generations of generalists and specialists alike. . .

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