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

From SHARP News 24.2 (2015), 23-4.


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


J.C. Pepusch, Venus and Adonis, UQ Art Museum

VenusAdonis640x48026 November 2013

What a pleasure to hear for the first time in Brisbane last month the music of a popular early 18th-century English opera (or ‘masque’ to give it its contemporary name). Pepusch’s settings of Colley Cibber’s words gave them added wit and charm, exactly as Cibber had hoped – ‘An Attempt to give the Town a little good Musick in a Language they understand’, even though the musical idiom was that of the reigning Italian opera.

As an audience member at the performance at the UQ Art Museum I was entranced  – not by any illusion of dramatic realism in characters or sets, but simply by the pure delight of hearing a well-known story (from Ovid, not Shakespeare) deliciously and pacily told by the three expert singers and their wonderful ad hoc period orchestra. Such entertainments as afterpieces to the spoken theatre performed at Drury Lane or Lincoln’s Inn Fields must have opened up a world of pleasure to the audience – at just over an hour, such a change from the full-length evenings of serious (and incomprehensible) Italian opera.

As well as the witty musical settings of the libretto, I noticed that much of the music was in triple time, which automatically imparts a dance-like feeling to the aural experience: it cannot help but raise the spirits. The classical subject-matter of Venus’ hapless attempt to seduce the handsome (though naïve) hunter Adonis is always going to operate with the standard sit-com jokes concerning her frustration and his uninterest in anything but sport – in his case, hunting. It is all the more amusing that the character is sung by a soprano en travesti – there was no campiness about Vivien Hamilton’s very accomplished performance, but the evident artificiality of the character kept the audience comfortably enjoying the performance rather than being engaged by more intense emotions. The fact that (according to the inexorable plot) Adonis dies, gored by a boar organised by the jealous Mars, is productive only of gentle pathos in the music.

Venus (superbly sung and embodied by Lotte Betts-Dean) is the main character, with the majority of the virtuosic music – as a goddess enamoured of a mortal she can be seductive, pleading, uncomprehending, angry. Her two biggest pieces, ‘Chirping warblers, tune your voices’ (as an aid to seduction) and the violent invocation to storm and tempest after Adonis’ death, were superbly contrasted examples of the astonishing variety of her music. Mars (Stephen Grant) though limited emotionally to jealousy and anger, sang superbly, but he was not required to be anything other than the standard fuming cuckold of comedy.

Jane Davidson directed the three singers in appropriate movement and gesture to suit the music and the dramatic situation. Although she did not claim to be recreating original practices, for the modern audience she did something more valuable – she found the physical style that expressed without pedantry the essential charm and performative delight of this pioneering piece of English musical comedy.

Penny Gay, University of Sydney