Interactive performance and the early modern stage

Kirk Quinsland, Fordham University


Theater historians have taught us that early modern audiences were rowdy, interrupted plays, jeered bad performers, and generally were more apt to pay attention to one another than the action on stage. Yet despite this unruly behavior, or perhaps because of it, early modern audiences were integral parts of the performance. To understand this complex dynamic, we must attend to the social, cultural, architectural, and even cognitive space of the theater. In short, we need to understand not only the history of performance, but what we might call the historical phenomenology of performance. Questions of audience composition and the material conditions and practices of performance are a first step, and my project builds on previous work that addresses these questions. By extending this line of inquiry, I construct a historically specific theory of early modern drama centered around the era's antitheatrical attacks, with the aim of more fully comprehending how the deep interactivity of audiences shaped both canonical and lesser-known early modern plays and playwrights, from Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton to Munday, Day, and Randolph. The early modern playhouse was an immersive environment in which the boundaries between audiences and performers, and between theaters and London itself, were never quite clear. Playwrights wrote in anticipation of audience interaction, generating a complex feedback loop: audience members responded to the playwright and actors, the actors responded to the playwright and audience, and the playwright responded to the audience and actors. This feedback loop functions based on an antitheatrical theory that believed that audiences were inevitably drawn toward imitating the actions that they saw on stage. But it only works if, as I argue, if playwrights are working within this theory of drama laid out in antitheatrical writing. Building a theory of early modern performance that is particular to that time period, my dissertation rethinks many of our assumptions about the study of early modern performance.

Subject Area

Modern literature|British and Irish literature|Theater History

Recommended Citation

Quinsland, Kirk, "Interactive performance and the early modern stage" (2015). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3684571.