05_Reviews

Book Reviews

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

It may not be possible for all books received to be reviewed in RBM, but the reviews appearing in the print journal are supplemented by a larger number of reviews published digitally on the RBM digital platform at https://rbm.acrl.org/index.php/rbm/pages/view/reviews. Books or publication announcements should be sent to the Reviews Editor: Jennifer Sheehan, jsheehan@grolierclub.org, The Grolier Club, 47 E. 60th Street, New York, NY 10022-1098.

Claire M.L. Bourne. Typographies of Performance in Early Modern England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press/Oxford Scholarship Online, 2020. Digital, 352p. $90.00 (ISBN 978-0-198-84879-0/doi:10.1093/oso/9780198848790.001.0001).

“You, the reader of this book, are engaging in … generic recognition right now. I do not need to tell you that the book you’re holding in your hands—or reading on screen via a digital publication platform—is an academic monograph. Nor do I need to tell you how to read it. You can tell both these things already just by observing how its pages are laid out: prose, paragraphs, and footnotes. I do not need to explain how to skip to the parts of this book that may be of most immediate interest to you because you can also tell that—and how—the table of contents, index, page numbers, running titles, and chapter and section breaks support that kind of discontinuous reading. They do so by design.”

In the first footnote on the first page, Claire M.L. Bourne brings the point of Typographies of Performance in Early Modern England literally into the hands of her reader: books have intentionally designed formats, according to their genres, that are easily recognized and navigated by their readers. One such genre is the academic volume, like Typographies of Performance; another is the play, which is the subject of this volume.

Bourne writes in her acknowledgments that this book, her first, has its origins in her dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania (v). She is currently Assistant Professor of English at Penn State University, where her faculty page states that she specializes in “Shakespeare, early modern drama, the history of the book, theater history, and textual editing.” Her expertise in all of these topics converges in Typographies of Performance, for better and for worse.

Throughout the text, Bourne successfully compels her readers to confront assumptions. It is natural to take the expectations of typographic layout for granted. Yet, as the author aptly reveals, in the early modern period, playbooks were a textually amorphous challenge for the publishers and printers who attempted to bring them to the reading public. Plays represented both a story in and of itself as well as an interpretation of that story onstage. Print was a relatively new technology; figuring out how to express elements such as who was speaking, what they were doing, and where they were doing it, required experimentation. Through the author’s analysis and examples, divisions and styles that one may take for granted become creative choices that merit consideration from another perspective.

To research this volume, Bourne consulted “about 1,900 discrete editions of plays printed in England between the late fifteenth and early eighteenth centuries” (5). As a result of her fieldwork, she argues that those in the print trade used typography to make the specificities of theatrical texts comprehensible for a reading audience. Critically, the definition of typography from which the author operates leaves much room for interpretation: “I take typography in a capacious sense to mean the arrangement and appearance of printed matter on the page” (2). This flexibility of concept is essential to the understanding and evaluation of Bourne’s book. Without the freedom to look outside fonts and their styles and layouts, significant sections of the book are irrelevant.

The author organizes her work into five chapters. In the first, “Dramatic Pilcrows,” she looks at how printers represented characters’ lines. Deciding how to represent who was speaking and how to format their speech—especially monologues, which comprised multiple paragraphs—was a development that printers needed to devise in a way that made sense to their readers. Bourne does a fantastic job of showing how the pilcrow, which was itself graphically developing into its modern form, was employed to achieve this goal. Looking at early examples from John Rastell, Wynkyn de Worde, and Richard Pynson, the author presents illustrations to complement her descriptions of how these printers took a recognizable symbol of division and adapted it to the emerging genre of English vernacular plays.

The second chapter, “Johnson’s Breaches and the Typography of Action,” explores how printers endeavored to translate the action that took place on the stage onto the printed page. The author looks at various options that had historically been used to portray an action on the page and largely focuses on the plays of Ben Johnson, which found their solution in “breaches.” A breach was an interruption in the text that drew attention to an action. Although sometimes parenthetical, offering some sort of verbal clue to the action taking place, they were often expressed by dashes, which left the “vulgar” acts of the stage a mystery for the reader’s imagination. In highlighting the significance of ambiguity in a dashed breach, the author also offers a glimpse into the significance of print to the world of theatre. Whereas an actor may perform a bawdy gesture for a few seconds on a stage, a breach preserves the decorum of the era in the more permanent instance of the act in a book.

“Making a Scene,” the third chapter, examines how printers managed to divide plays into acts and scenes. Using publisher Richard Jones’s 1590 edition of Tambourlaine the Great as its main example, Bourne explores the nuances involved in dividing plays into units of plot or action. More specifically, she focuses on the significance of breaking up this history play in a way that flowed with its battle scenes. Here, the author’s multidisciplinary background begins to shine in a way that both illuminates and detracts from the typographic focus of the book. In delving deep into the plot and staging of this one play, the author displays a deep historical and literary knowledge of her subject that provides extensive context for the insertion of act and scene divisions. However, these descriptions at times grow quite dense, and, if not for the broadness afforded by her definition of typography, they could call into question the relevance of such detail in the face of the book’s stated focus on typography. Where fonts, styles, layouts, and symbols were effectively discussed in the first two chapters, they feature less in this chapter and the rest of the book.

Chapters 4 and 5, “Plot Illustrated” and “Scene Changes,” respectively, offer some of the most interesting insight into English playbook-making in the entire book but also suffer from a focus of limited scope. “Plot Illustrated” highlights the characteristically English advancement of complex plotting, which featured a main plot alongside an “under-plot” and a suspenseful twist at the end. This format marked a departure from the sober simplicity of morality and history plays to a preference for intrigue and entertainment onstage. Concurrently, playbooks began featuring illustrations—some generic compositions of previously used woodcuts, others bespoke to depict the play at hand—that hinted at the plot, much like book covers do today. This chapter largely centers itself within the context of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s plays, which featured complex plots with likewise complex illustrations. The relationship of this content to typography felt more tenuous than in previous chapters. The study of illustrations in book history is often separate from that of typography, so to devote an entire chapter to this topic was a bold, if interesting, choice.

Similarly, “Scene Changes” elaborates on the power of the printer in arranging and presenting plays to readers, offering a fascinating look into the handling of settings within a play, but doing so at the expense of deeper typographical analysis. This chapter introduces the technology of moveable scenery, which revolutionized the theatrical experience. Plays could now feature more backdrops, representing more places for action to take place, much to audiences’ delight. However, a change in the operation of the stage raised new questions about how it should be reflected in printed plays. In one example, Bourne notes that “scene” as a unit of division is expressed in italics, while “scene” as a visual entity is expressed with roman type; she discusses the tension between these two concepts as they both, in their own way, provide transitions within a play. Unfortunately, this is one of the few places in the chapter focusing on typography itself. This chapter is a fantastic examination of literary, theatrical, and even book history, but the emphasis on typography feels light in comparison.

Despite these critiques, I recommend Typographies of Performance without hesitation. For those strictly interested in traditional studies in typography, the first two chapters are illuminating. For those interested in typography in the author’s broader sense, including the use of illustrations and the more conceptual nature of textual and visual divisions, the book as a whole will be of interest. Anyone looking to know more about the history of English theatre will find it invaluable. However, the book is most successful for its ability to challenge assumptions about the printed page and help us, as readers, to acknowledge the rich inheritance we have from the typographical innovators who dared to redesign it.—Brittany Adams, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law



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