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  • Ellen MacKay


In order to lay the groundwork for the link I mean to make between ashes and the theatre archive, let me start by recollecting a few disasters.



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1 I have borrowed the concept of archive as crematory from Frances Dolan's “Ashes and ‘the Archive’: The London Fire of 1666, Partisanship, and Proof,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.2 (2001): 379–408.

2 William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix (London, 1633), sig. Hhh2r.

3 The letter, dated 2 July (three days after the event), was written to Wotton's friend and nephew, Sir Edmond Bacon. The Life and Letters of Thomas Wotton, ed. L. Pearsall Smith, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 2:32.

4 Froissart's Chroniques, quoted (and trans.) by Lorraine Kochanske Stock in “Froissart's Chroniques and Its Illustrators: Historicity and Ficticity in the Verbal and Visual Imagining of Charles VI's Le Bal des Ardents,” Studies in Iconography 21 (2000): 123–80, at 143.

5 William Gerhard supplies the following statistics: by 1882, 516 theatres have been consumed by fire. Of these, 37 theatres have burned down twice, 8 burned three times; 4 burned four times, and 1 theatre (the Bowery Theatre in New York) burned down five times in its short history. Gerhard, Theatre Fires and Panics: Causes and Prevention (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1896), 5.

6 Prynne, sig. Ggg4r, Gggv.

7 Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 129.

8 Meg Twycross, “The Theatricality of Medieval English Plays,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Theatre, ed. Richard Beadle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 37–84, at 68.

9 Anthony B. Dawson and Paul Yachnin, The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001): Dawson, “The Distracted Globe,” 88–110, at 88–90; Yachnin, “Magical Properties,” 111–30, at 119–20.

10 For a thorough detailing of the politics of all of the Froissart illuminations, see Stock's “Froissart's Chroniques and Its Illustrators.”

11 These are, in alphabetical order: Nat Brandt's Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003); Marshall Everett's The Great Chicago Theater Disaster: The Complete Story Told by the Survivors (New York: Ziegler, 1904); Louis Guenzel's Retrospects: The Iroquois Theater Fire (Elmhurst, IL: Theatre Historical Society of America, 1993); Anthony Hatch's Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster of 1903 (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2003); and Henry Northrup's World's Greatest Calamities: The Baltimore Fire and Chicago Theatre Horror (New York: National Publishing Co., 1904).

12 Anthony Munday, A second and third blast of retrait from plaies and Theaters (London, 1580), sig. B8v.

13 Judith Butler, “Afterword: After Loss, What Then?” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 467–73, at 468.

14 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993), 149.

15 A Midsummer Night's Dream, Epilogue, 5–6. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), 680.

16 Phelan, 146.

17 Ibid.,149 (Phelan's phrase: “leaves no visible trace afterward”).

18 Foucault, 129.

19 Suetonius, The Life of Nero, chap. 11; online at*.html (accessed 8 August 2005).

20 Bert States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 31. In this passage, States is primarily interested in the implications of onstage running water—fire is added as a parenthetical analogy.

21 Dawson, 89.

22 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.2.244, Norton Shakespeare, 1714.

23 Robert Laneham's Letter: Describing a Part of the Entertainments unto Queen Elizabeth at the Castle of Kenilworth in 1575, ed. F. J. Furnivall (London: Chatto & Windus; New York: Duffield & Co., 1907), 12–13.

24 Nichols, vol. 1, 320.

25 The Daily Journal, quoted in The London Stage 1660–1800 (2:940), quoted in Gordon McMullan, Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning, 2000), 58.

26 William Dunlap, History of the American Theatre (New York: Burt Franklin, 1963), 234.

27 Everett, 109–11.

28 Ibid., 186, 187.

29 Alan Read, “What Says the Fire Chief?” Theatre Survey 33.1 (1992): 74–84, at 80.

30 The fire at a Great White concert in Rhode Island in 2003 is a reminder of how much this remains the case; amateur video footage of the fire reveals a seemingly unperturbed audience watching the band perform as the foam backdrop blazes. A Washington Post article explains this apparent passivity by paraphrasing one of the fire's survivors: “some audience members probably thought the fire was part of the show—possibly delaying their exit.” Svea Herbst-Bayliss, “At Least 96 Killed in Rhode Island Club Blaze.” Washington Post, Friday, 21 February 2003, sec. A.

31 Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919). It is worth remembering that Holmes's opinion supported restricting antiwar literature (specifically, pamphlets denying the state the right to conscript citizens) during wartime. The cry of fire in the theatre is therefore something of a strained homology.

32 Gerhard, 4.

33 This statistic is given by Read, 83.

34 “Theatre Fires and Their Lesson,” The Manufacturer and Builder 14.11 (1882): 242–43, at 242.

35 States, 34.

36 Antonin Artaud, “Preface: The Theater and Culture,” The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 7–13, at 13.

37 Stephen Crane, “Manacled,” The Argosy 71 (August 1900): 364–6. I am grateful to Tamsen Wolff for bringing Crane's story to my attention.

38 Harold Vivian, The Theatrical Primer (New York: G. W. Dillingham Co. 1904), 103–4.

39 Philip Allingham, “Victorian Toy Theatres,” online at (accessed 9 September 2005).

40 Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 54, quoted in Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis (New York: Routledge, 1997), xi. Irigaray's reading of Plato's cave, the founding myth of the opposition between representation and reality, is generative of Diamond's project by making “representation itself originary” (xii); ‘Truth’ is therefore always retrofitted to suit the time and culture of its invention.

41 States, 34.

42 Phelan, 167.

43 William Shakespeare, Othello, 1.1.88, Norton Shakespeare, 2102.

44 The point has been made slightly differently by Artaud: “the theater is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice.” Antonin Artaud, “No More Masterpieces,” in The Theater and Its Double, 74–83, at 75.

45 Stock, 152 n. 51.

46 Phelan, 167.

47 “A Sonnett on the pitiful burneing of the Globe plahowse in London” (1613?). Reproduced in the “Documents” section of Norton Shakespeare, 3399. Since it survives only in a nineteenth-century manuscript, it is impossible to know whether this “Sonnett” is one of the two ballads recorded in the stationer's register on this subject or whether it is a more belated invention.

48 “The Burning Iroquois,” words by Mathew Goodwin, music by Edward Stanley (copyright 1904, Frank K. Root & Co.); online at (accessed 29 January 2008).

49 “Theatre on Fire: AWFUL CALAMITY!” Richmond, VA, 1812.

A specialist in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Drama, Ellen MacKay is completing her first book, Persecution, Plague and Fire: Antihistories of the Early Modern English Stage.


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