Eleanor Collins, Early Theatre, 2015 (Vol. 18, No. 1, 163-6)
Eva Griffith’s new repertory study presents a painstakingly detailed and illuminating account of the Queen’s Servants and their operations at the Red Bull Theatre, an account that is engaging throughout while deeply grounded in rigorous scholarship and archival research. This hitherto-neglected company operated under the patronage of Queen Anna of Denmark and performed primarily in its Clerkenwell playhouse between 1605 and 1619, a date span which incorporates the vibrant period of Jacobean drama usually dominated by discussion of the King’s Men. Here, Griffith makes a decisive and welcome attempt to redress the balance and correct the ‘lopsided’ picture of early modern drama that we have inherited from accounts that privilege Shakespeare’s company and (implicitly) the genius of his authorship (26). The move away from Shakespeare-centric narratives has carried influence for some time now, but Griffith’s study demonstrates the specific rewards of attention to lesser-studied companies and foregrounds the importance of such attention. In many ways, the Queen’s Servants at the Red Bull provide a fascinating counterpoint to the King’s Men, not least because critical accounts consistently invoke the former in opposition to the latter in a dichotomy which has affirmed and legitimized the importance of the dominant company. As Griffith articulates, it ‘has, perhaps, been an important part of the development of Shakespeare studies to ensure that more marginal companies to that of Shakespeare were perceived as worse in order to privilege the material conditions of that centrally important author’….
The book does not have space or time to dwell at length on the full content of the repertory, though many of the plays are discussed or drawn on throughout, and Griffith incorporates short, close readings of some of the drama (notably three of Heywood’s plays) into the chapters where such interpretation assists an understanding of the Red Bull, its workings, and its relation to other contemporary repertories. As Griffith states, her hope is that the present study will offer the history and context that will complement and support the continued study of the full repertory, study that will no doubt illuminate further the commercial strategies and political and aesthetic endeavours of the company. But the attempt made here to renegotiate the cultural status of amphitheatre fare is noteworthy in itself, and Griffith undertakes important work to help overturn long-held ideas and assumptions about the company and its modus operandi. This is an authoritative contribution to the literature on Jacobean drama, and should be the first port of call for students and researchers interested in the Queen’s Servants, the Red Bull, and its much-maligned repertoire of plays. More widely, Griffith’s book offers an important commentary on (and corrective to) the ways in which theatre history has been conducted in the past and the priorities it has held, and offers a basis from which that history can be productively and positively reshaped.