UNTIL ABOUT THE middle of the twentieth century, early English drama was often labelled “pre-Shakespearean,” a designation which was unsatisfactory in a number of ways:
First, it tended to define its material as secondary rather than worthy of study in its own right, and to assume a “prophetic” knowledge of what was to come which none of its performers or audiences could possibly have shared. As Peter Happé has memorably put it: “often they were so overpowered by Shakespeare, and indeed so ‘literary’, that they condemned the material before them even as they studied it.”
Secondly, because purpose-built theatres evolved in Elizabethan London, the label “Pre-Shakespearean” imposed a highly centralized view of early performance, dominated by what was happening in the capital and at court, with little analysis of performance elsewhere. Admittedly, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the mystery cycles which were performed in provincial cities such as York and Chester, but recognition of these was often tinged with the patronising assumption that they were the naive work of uneducated tradesmen. Similarly, the gradual discovery of the effectiveness of some morality plays in performance, which began in the 1930s, was too often ignored by scholars who condemned all plays of this genre as irredeemably boring without ever having seen them performed.
Even more seriously, it assumed a view of what drama is which required any performance to have a fictional or historical plot, appropriate scenery and props, impersonated characters wearing costumes suitable to their roles, and a firm separation between performers and audience. This encouraged an anachronistic view of drama as the product of a largely middle-class culture, and excluded many types of performance which were significant in the culture of the time, including liturgy, public ceremonies and processions, performances at weddings and on other celebratory occasions, dramatic and musical performances by resident fools and travelling ministralli, sporting contests, and activities that would nowadays be regarded as circus acts, such as performances by tightrope walkers and those who trained animals. Contemporary records often make no distinction between these different types of performer, and a narrow definition of what we would now regard as “the theatre” fails to understand the large extent to which they flowed into each other.
These attitudes gradually came to seem quaintly outdated, and some critics began to protest against them, though not altogether consistently.