The Problem of Closet Dramas

During the reading for the first week of my course on performance studies (Shannon Jackson’s Discipline and Performance and W.B. Worthen’s “Antigone’s Bones”) I couldn’t help but return again and again to the idea of early modern closet dramas. This is not because Jackson and Worthen discuss closet dramas at any length but, rather, because they were notably absent from the discussions of both scholars. In my currently still very vague and general sense of what “performance studies” entails, closet dramas are, perhaps, rightfully ignored. First off, performance doesn’t factor into the writing of closet dramas (or at least it didn’t seem to in early modern England). Secondly, and consequently, because both Jackson and Worthen are interested in navigating the space between writing and performance, closet dramas may be considered to heavily “literary” to be considered in their discussions.

But, bracketing these potential red lights for just a moment, I am really interested in thinking about closet dramas particularly in light of Worthen’s questions and arguments. Given his insistence on equalizing the import of both the archival and repertorial aspects of dramatic works/events (or at least his hope that we can find a way to analyze dramatic text without over-privileging literary practices of analysis), what can we do with a piece of writing that looks like a dramatic text and is labelled as such, but isn’t meant to have a performance aspect? If this question problematizes Worthen’s argument too much, does it help us recognize something important about his definition of “dramatic text?” If closet drama doesn’t have a place in his definition, then his concept of “dramatic text” necessarily supposes some aspect of performance. But I don’t know if I can follow his trajectory then because it excludes a large sub-genre of plays, written as dramatic text, just without immediate performance in mind.

I say “immediate” because, to complicate things, what is there to say about the shifting trend to perform (or attempt to perform) some of the early modern closet dramas on contemporary stages? Several of Margaret Cavendish’s plays, for instance, were performed in July of 2003 at the Margaret Cavendish Society Conference according to this article in EMLS ( But in her preface to Playes written by the thrice noble, illustrious and excellent princess, the Lady Marchioness of Newcastle (1662), she allows us to think that performance of the plays wasn’t the purpose in writing them: “mine are like dull dead statues, which is the reason I send them forth to be printed, rather than keep them concealed in hopes to have the, first acted.” Can any element of Worthen’s argument take something like this situation into account? The writer doesn’t intend for the plays to be performed, yet the written texts are still in dramatic form and are then performed several hundred years later, obviously without consent of the original writer.

Do early modern closet dramas now being performed provide more stable signifiers for Worthen’s archive? Or would he exclude them completely because the intention of performance was not inherent in the original act of writing? It does seem that there is some element that must be present at the stage of writing in order for a work to be included in Worthen’s category of “dramatic text” – some element that allows for the space of performance to somehow give rise to the writing or be imagined in tandem with the writing (the “material alterity” element of writing that he suggests on page 27). If “dramatic writing is writing for use,” how do we define “use”? Can “use” be a performance three hundred years after the original writing act? If so, then maybe closet drama does have a place in performance studies (or Worthen’s rendering of performance studies).

Worthen brings up Hopkins and Reynolds on page 28, introducing their idea that the “retention of the word ‘drama’ itself is the problem.” In the case of closet drama, I’ll admit that it is partly the label “drama” that started me wondering whether or not we can categorize it within the larger space of literature that is inextricable from performance. If “drama” is the problem, though, do we have to resituate an entire sub-genre of drama into a category that is more “literary?” But then what about the closet dramas that have since been performed? Are they doomed to straddle weirdly stubborn genre lines? Or would they be enough to keep the entire genre of closet drama under the larger label of “drama?” Perhaps my next step will have to be to take a look at the Hopkins and Reynolds article to continue brainstorming on this front.



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