Drama

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Drama

In the 1580s Philip Sidney complained that English playwrights were ignoring the principles of drama; he meant the classical principles exemplified by the tragedies of Seneca and the comedies of Plautus, Ben Jonson published his own plays in a grandiose format, and with a title (The Works of Benjamin Jonson), that invited comparison with the editions of these same dramatists. The prologue to the first play in this collection, Every Man In His Humour*, announces that its author 'hath not so loved the stage, As he dare serve the ill customs of the age' Throughout its life, then, the theatre of Renaissance London was haunted by that of classical Rome - not simply as a source of plots and devices, but as a standard to which writers aspired, or by which they were condemned. Today, the Renaissance plays are themselves classics, canonized and edited for academic study. But of course they had no such status then: even the word 'drama' was not applied to English stage writing until after 1660. The early modern canon of drama was Latin.

The relations between the two bodies of writing were shaped by this distinction. Classical plays were encountered as printed texts demanding close attention to their language; the modern repertoire, on the other hand, existed primarily in performance, and was published piecemeal and belatedly. So the opposition between Latin and English was also an opposition between drama (a branch of literature) and theatre (a kind of amusement). Moreover, classical texts belonged to their authors, whereas new English plays, as we have seen, belonged to the companies. Drama is located in the mind of the dramatist; theatre in the bodies of the players. This is also a question of class. Seneca and Plautus mostly remained on the page, but when they were performed, it was not in the playhouse, but in the schoolroom, as part of a gentleman's education.

It can be argued - it often is, in various terms - that in expressing this...
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