Three Renaissance Travel Plays. Ed. Anthony Parr. [Revels Plays Companion Library 10]. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995. xii+330 pp. Cloth ISBN 0-7190-3746-8.
Eric Wilson
Harvard University

Wilson, Eric. "Review of Review of Three Renaissance Travel Plays." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 10.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_wil1.html>.

  1. Anthony Parr's Three Renaissance Travel Plays ushers the Revels Plays Companion Library into brave new worlds, clearing fresh critical ground under a banner of wondrous textual detail and marvelous editorial control. As more and more attention is paid to the discursive complexities of Europe's foreign encounters, Parr's volume provides a timely and significant intervention in this field of Renaissance cultural studies, furnishing new plots and glasses through which such dramatic horizons might be surveyed. In short, Three Renaissance Travel Plays telescopes our perspectives into the strange novelties and generic limits that early modern travel set for the early modern theater.

  2. By selecting three Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that so variously hazard those adventurous waters, Parr frames the practices of Renaissance discovery as problems not merely of fantastic knowledge, but of genre, the forms through which such fantasies are distributed and produced. While more familiar plays like The Tempest have borne much of the scrutiny of recent critical debate, Three Renaissance Travel Plays broadens the lens, exhibiting the complex and conflicted crossings of narrative and theatricality in its dramatization of the Sherley brothers' infamous travails in the East. Beyond the pleasures of well-edited, modern spelling texts that have been relatively inaccessible until now (Three English Brothers not having been printed since the nineteenth century, and The Sea Voyage having only just appeared in the most recent installment of Bowers' weighty edition of the Beaumont and Fletcher canon), Parr's introduction and commentary stand as models of both originality and authority, documents that elaborate an intriguing tradition of "editorial bustle" (31) that he aptly locates in Hakluyt, Purchas, and the dramatists here at hand.

  3. Indeed, a resistance to "hermeneutic purity" emerges as an valued asset not only to the "travel fictions" developed on the Renaissance stage (4), but to Parr's own editorial voice, a "flexible and resourceful" polyglot that trades at once in balanced caveat, tentative speculation, in wit and sensitive polemic (14). Time and again, easy binaries are patiently demonstrated to be rich with contradiction. The account of Three English Brothers, for example, notes the play's capacity to oscillate between "militant Protestant opinion" and a broader, more catholic appeal, even as its representations of Persians and Turks challenge a familiar orientalist collapse of cultural distinction. "While the fascination with the glamorous east was later to become a disabling orientalism," writes Parr, "arguably [Persia] was during the early modern period a positive alternative to views of Asia either as the home of barbarian hordes or of the hellish doctrine of Islam" (10-1). Such permeable boundaries are more generally manifest in Parr's subtle methods of critique, which begin, not so much by asking "what," but "how far and in what ways" resolutions are sought to the historical and imaginative relations here set to script (30). He argues centrally:
    In travel accounts, geographies, promotional literature for trading and colonial companies, and fictional writing that takes up their concerns, the primary task is to provide a way of seeing the unfamiliar; and while this is almost by definition of reconceiving the foreign in one's own terms, the process is not uniformly reductive (12).

  4. For Parr, Renaissance travel plays bear a markedly dual investment in both "topicality and timeless adventure" (22). And his framing of this field of interest in a longer tradition of romance narrative is a welcome correlate to the radical epistemological shifts so insistently noted in recent narratives of this literary and cultural history. One of the true strengths of this critical edition is its capacity to catalogue coolly, and at the same time to query, the theatrical and historiographic routes that have enabled the re-discovery of these important Renaissance assays:
    There has been a tendency of late to emphasise the dark and equivocal side of European voyaging, and my account so far of The Sea Voyage certainly reflects this, though it also shows, I hope, that the impulse to interrogate the whole colonial project is not confined to modern cultural critics. However, the ending of the play also brings reconciliation and renewal, and like its companions in this volume turns the act of travel into one of auspicious discovery (28).

  5. Somewhat less convincing, perhaps, is the schematic trajectory of "increasingly sophisticated response ... and the increasing refinement" of dramatic affect that Parr would locate in the thirty years between The Three English Brothers and The Antipodes (34). While careful to distinguish, for example, the "spontaneous feeling of cultural encounter" marked by Kemp's clowning in the former play, from Peregrine's "more calculated use of improvisation" in the latter, the argument that one "gives way" to its successor would seem to rest on an assumption that "a blander theatrical magic" of spectacle and broad characterization is necessarily less sophisticated than skeptical report or more evidently calculating critique (45, 31). The risks of theatrical venture in Stuart London certainly demanded a careful engagement with the desires of its audience, both traditionally conservative and avant-garde, a risk feelingly acknowledged in the Epilogue to the Queen's Men's Antipodes: "But on the waves of desp'rate fears we roam/ Until your gentler hands do waft us home." The conclusive couplet is at once conventional in tone, and at the same time unsure of the anticipated issue of its aesthetic course, a course keenly differentiated in Parr's account. But differentiation must be subtly plotted against historical development and temporal progress carefully distinguised from generic and institutional contingency (the difference between, for example, romanticized documentary and urbane satire, or the crucial differences in affect between the Salisbury Court theater and the Red Bull). Fixing such a path of progressive increase risks minimizing some of the material specificities of theatrical labor and reception that are so valuably adduced at other points (most notably in Parr's notes on the prospects of staging The Sea Voyage at the Blackfriars, important contributions in their own right). Audiences, like the plays they fund, can be generically promiscuous.

  6. The plays are well chosen, however, to chart not only the multiple visions and venues of theatrical travel, but also the range of issues with which they are freighted; all three, for example, pivot around complicated notions of "the domestic," the emergence of "nation," the ways in which the travel play, in fact, forces the (re)production and return of the native. Questions of breeding and the gendered transmissions of cultural authority are especially pregnant in The Sea Voyage, as resident Amazons subject the shipwrecked protagonists to the strictures of a female commonwealth (in which men are kept only for breeding). In this accessibly modernized yet thoroughly annotated edition, in fact, Fletcher's play would teach marvelously as a provocative companion piece to The Tempest, its company prototype. By the same token, Brome's Antipodes gives a local habitation and a name to the world-upside-down obsessions of the Jacobean city comedies from which its satiric vistas emerge. But Anthony Parr's edition -- like the Revels Plays and Companion Library at large -- admirably highlights the forgotten wonders of these artifacts from the Elizabethan lumber room, artifacts needing perhaps only a good dusting and the proper frame in order to shine as magnificent entertainments in their own right.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(September 4, 1996)