Book review: ‘Thomas Killigrew and the Seventeenth-Century English Stage: New Perspectives’

From SHARP News 24.2 (2015), 23-4.

KilligrewBook

Philip Major (ed.). Thomas Killigrew and the Seventeenth-Century English Stage: New Perspectives. Farnham, UK & Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. xii, 228 p. ill. ISBN 9781409466680. £60 (hardback).

This collection is better appreciated as offering new perspectives on Killigrew’s life and various occupations, rather than a reappraisal of his work in relation to theatrical production, as the title suggests. As such, it succeeds in its aim of fleshing out our understanding of a significant but elusive individual who tends to be characterised in negative one-dimensional terms, variously as a venal minor courtier, an incompetent theatre manager, a writer of prolix closet plays, or a licensed buffoon. The eight chapters in this book demonstrate the shallowness of these judgements and add not only to our knowledge of the man but also to our understanding of the complex web of commerce, politics, patronage and social networking that constituted the workings of the Stuart courts in which he was immersed.

The book approaches its subject from several different angles: theatre and theatre production, drama and genre, patronage, and Killigrew as exile and courtier. For the most part these approaches intersect engagingly, though there is inevitably some repetition, and the collection succeeds in its aim of generating a welcome feeling of unpredictability as one moves from chapter to chapter. Some may view this as a lack of focus, but this would be to discount the detailed and persuasive arguments permeating this collection that work collectively to shed new light on its shadowy (and inherently ill-focused) subject.

The first chapter, by Eleanor Collins, which examines pre-Restoration production of two of Killigrew’s plays, exemplifies these attributes and offers fresh insights from the perspective of Repertoire Studies. Similar attention to detail is evidenced in David Roberts’s chapter, which sets out a refreshing counterargument to the traditional view of Killigrew as a bad theatre manager. In a highly engaging and eloquent chapter on autobiographical aspects of the two-part play Thomaso, Jean-Piere Vander Motten conveys a felt sense of the experience of exile for Royalists like Killigrew during the 1640s and ’50s. Vander Motten’s essay makes us see Thomaso in a new light as a subtle, rich work in its own right, rather than as merely the source play for Behn’s more renowned adaptation. Marcus Nevitt similarly focuses on Thomaso, inviting us to view the play as two separate, theatrically viable five-act plays rather than as a single ten-act closet play. Nevitt provides an excellent account of Thomaso’s structure and of Killigrew’s subsequent editing of the play, which points, he argues, to a likely post-Restoration production. In this case the overall discussion of the play, with its helpful comparison to Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes and its fascinating pointing up of the play’s meta-theatricality, proves more intriguing than the argument, but both these chapters achieve the laudable goal of making readers wish to (re)take up the plays for themselves.

Despite a significant number of typographical and similar errors that mar the reading experience at several points (an inadvertent exchange of captions to Figs. 4.1 and 4.2 being the most disconcerting), all the chapters offer new insights into Killigrew’s work and milieu. In reading this fascinating and diverse collection one is forced to reconsider received opinion of Killigrew’s work and character. The man re-emerges not necessarily as a more likeable or significant figure, but as one more human, more rounded, more explicable actually as an adept survivor. In short, this book suggests possible answers to the question it asks in its introduction about who might be the “real” Thomas Killigrew.

Tim Keenan

University of Queensland, Australia

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