"Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion" Illuminates the Stage, and More, in the Time of Elizabeth I

William West
William N. West, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. Image courtesy of William N. West.

New York University has awarded the 2022 Callaway Prize for the Best Book on Drama and Theatre to Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion: Playhouses and Playgoers in Elizabethan England by William N. West, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

Common Understandings is a brilliant account of the experience of theatre in Elizabethan England, familiarly known as the era of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson,” notes Jenny C. Mann, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of English and NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, who chaired the judging panel. “West approaches some familiar, but also many little-known plays of the period indirectly, by focusing on the rich vocabulary of playing and playgoing that permeates letters, pamphlets, and sermons of the period, as well as the surviving playtexts.”

Common Understandings was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2021.

“In de-centering the play as the object of inquiry, West’s story of Elizabethan theatre moves beyond the stage and into the crowd, where audiences and performers join in a collective ritual of merry-making, gambling, feasting, combat, and double-dealing,” Mann continues. “This perspective shifts our sense of what counts as ‘evidence’ in theatre history, vividly recovers the textures of Elizabethan spectatorship, and finds fresh detail in the commonplace anecdotes and descriptions that have long been hiding in plain sight.”  

The panel of judges also included Aparna Dharwadker, a professor of English and interdisciplinary theatre studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Edward Ziter, a professor of theatre studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Ziter observes that “in each chapter, West takes a single term—appearing in plays, apologies, and antitheatrical texts—and uses it to identify constellations of feelings and assumptions about the playgoing experience. In doing so, he displays masterful attention to the rich complexity of Elizabethan language.”

For Dharwadker, “the outstanding feature of West’s book is its recovery of first-hand experiences in the theatre from an extensive, eclectic, and often delightfully subversive archive. He handles his material with erudition but also, appropriately, with playful humor, providing conclusive evidence that ‘for Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, our play was not their thing’!”

The judges also awarded two Honorable Mentions—to Anne Cattaneo, the dramaturg of Lincoln Center Theater, for The Art of Dramaturgy (Yale University Press, 2021), and to Matthew Sergi, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, for Practical Cues and Social Spectacle in the Chester Plays (University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Cattaneo’s book combines history and memoir to articulate the dramaturg’s pivotal role in connecting text and performance, which in her case includes accounts of collaboration with playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Wendy Wasserstein, Robert Wilson, Shi-Zheng Chen, and Sarah Ruhl. 

More broadly, The Art of Dramaturgy aims to stock the “dramaturg’s toolkit,” providing resources that may enable dramaturgs to find relevant meaning in classic and contemporary plays, with practical exercises outlined within the book relevant to the classroom and the rehearsal room.  

A theatre practitioner as well as a scholar, Sergi, in Practical Cues, reconstructs the performance of the early English biblical narratives known collectively as the “Chester Plays.” The cycle stretches from the 14th to the 16th centuries, but has no contemporaneous performance records, and the plays were only transcribed a generation after all enactment had ceased. 

Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” and Susan Sontag’s notion of “camp,” Sergi aims to recover the process and experience of performance for both actors and viewers, as well as the social practices embedded in the words. The resulting profile is that of religious dramas staged as participatory spectacles in the noisy streets of the northwestern English city of Chester. 

Dharwadker is only multiple winner of the prize, winning the 2006 award for Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory and Urban Performance in India since 1947 (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and again in 2020 for A Poetics of Modernity: Indian Theatre Theory, 1850 to the Present (Oxford University Press, 2019).

The Callaway Prize, which carries a cash award of $9,000, is given by NYU’s Department of English for the best book on drama or theatre published during the previous two years by an American author. The prize was established in 1990 by Joe A. Callaway—an actor, drama lecturer, and supporter of theatrical causes. 

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