You know the line. You know the man. But do you know the project? In a special email interview, I spoke with David McInnis – the founder of the University of Melbourne’s Lost Plays project. The project, funded by the Australian Research Council looks into the fascinating world and context behind Shakespeare’s plays from a special angle – lost plays and works. Over 700 of them have been found since and David’s job has been to add these missing stories and clues to the existing judgment of Shakespeare’s life and times. It culminates in the Lost Plays database, available online.
David joined me from his office in Melbourne earlier this week to talk about the obscure nature of his project and what he thinks Shakespeare has done to education.
If you’d like to see the full version of the interview, please contact me through this page. And if you wanna hear David talk about his remarkable project, listen to this 2SER interview conducted with my good friend and Tuesday Daily host, Tess Connery.
Tess: Tess’ Talk with David
The Project Link: Insights from Invisible Drama – David’s Project
What makes someone want to uncover the context behind Shakespeare’s plays?
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Shakespeare began to be singled out from his peers and accorded the ‘bard’ status we’re so familiar with today. During the Restoration (1660 onwards) his works were routinely played in grossly modified form: plays like Macbeth or The Tempest basically became musicals. So he wasn’t always venerated in such a way that it would be sacrilege to alter his texts. During his own lifetime, only half of his own plays made it into print, and many of those didn’t even have his name attached to the publications. Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, but he was also an actor, and a shareholder in his own company. He had a vested interest in the commercial success of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (subsequently the King’s Men when James I acceded to the throne and granted them his patronage). So if you really want to understand Shakespeare, you need to see his plays as plays: as commercial, theatrical offerings that his company acquired in the hope of making money.
Have you been surprised by the volume of information that you have found?
Scholars occasionally find entire playtexts, either handwritten (i.e. manuscripts) or printed. They seem to turn up every few years, but are mostly amateur or academic plays rather than plays that originated in the commercial playhouses. One of the primary aims of our project, the Lost Plays Database
) is to enhance the visibility of lost plays in discussions of Shakespeare’s theatre; we do so by assembling all the known historical records, compiling the bits and pieces of scholarship that has been written, and supplementing this with any new insights or discoveries, all in the one, conveniently located and open-access location.
What’s been the biggest surprise find?
For me the biggest surprise has been the interest in this project: not just from fellow researchers, but also from libraries who have been extremely generous in their support. As part of our commitment to open-access content and the demystification of theatre history, we have sought to digitise primary documents wherever possible. To date, we’ve had digitisations of backstage plots, manuscript and print fragments, diary records, playbills, actors’ parts, and even music, from such institutions as the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Harvard’s Houghton Library, the Huntington in California, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, and even the Schøyen Collection in Oslo and the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva.
A particular interest – from an education point of view, is whether Shakespeare is still relevant to teach to students. What do you think your project would do to contribute to that debate?
This project reminds us that there’s always new things to learn about Shakespeare’s work and its reception, and that such work can be done from the other side of the world using digital tools and international collaboration. There is no one single ‘correct’ way to read Shakespeare, and the possibilities for alternative interpretations that this new context licences us to propose should be taken as a sign that the study of Shakespeare isn’t elitist or restricted in any way. Working with lost plays is so enabling because it forces us to dispense with overly confident critical assertions and to deconstruct received narratives rather than accept them blindly. It’s empowering to break with tradition where that scholarly tradition has only flimsy or tenuous evidential support, and to start thinking afresh about what we think we know about Shakespeare’s theatre.
Thank you David. And thank you folks, for reading.
Until next we meet, may all your news be good news.
2SER Broadcaster/Nationally Syndicated Radio Journalist/Writer
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