Last month marked the third iteration of an annual exercise in which I alienate a substantial proportion of my Twitter followers by posting a multi-day string of quotes from and riffs on the corpus of an early modern English playwright. Every year the Shakespeare Institute, under the direction of Dr Martin Wiggins, organises a marathon reading of the known (or strongly suspected) members of the dramatic canon of one such dramatist: this year’s chosen specimen was Thomas Dekker. Every year, a subset of the marathon’s participants offer a running commentary on the likes of James Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage or Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London in the form of a lively and scurrilous Twitter feed. Every year, we find that a growing number of people outside the room are listening in. Why do we do this? And what can we learn from the exercise?
Often little-known even within academia, and floating free of context into the wider world, in a sense these plays – old, complicated, ornery documents – are the opposite of traditional Twitter fodder: too niche to trend, too sprawling and involuted to lend themselves to a neat and snappy 140-characterisation. But there are clearly benefits to responding to these unfamiliar texts in this particular, instantly reactive way, as well as potential downsides which raise the question of how this method sits alongside conventional scholarship. In the spirit of Hamilton, I’m going to attempt to summarise my instincts about what happens when we live-tweet early modern drama in the form of ten live-tweeting commandments. These are all provisional and quite possibly largely wrong, and I’d love to hear from my fellow Dekkathletes, and from anybody brave enough to follow along at home, how true or otherwise they feel to your experience.
- Live-tweeting is inherently presentist. It can’t help responding to current affairs, and to the mood in the room, and making quickfire transhistorical comparison: it is still Twitter, after all. In its simplest form, this means the #dekkerthon live-stream fills up with gifs from Game of Thrones and Hamilton, offering flagging readers a quick, amusing hit of unexpected intertextuality.
More seriously, it leads to original and unconventional political readings. If It Be Not Good, the Devil is In It is not a play about Brexit, or about the nation’s attitude to refugees and migrants. On June 24th, however, with its exploration of a divided state in which a place of sanctuary rejects a group of travellers as ‘idle vagabonds’, it seemed wholly pertinent to those two things to almost everybody taking part. Are we imposing modern interpretations? Maybe: but the material within the text is there for the asking, and finding new political purposes within these works creates a powerful sense of Dekker, our contemporary.
- Nonetheless, live-tweeting as a form of response is capable of supporting serious scholarship. In recent weeks, Holger Syme’s #1Lear experiment has drawn into question the appropriateness of Twitter as a space for intellectual engagement, including in this article which (spoiler alert) quotes me at the very end saying it can be. The readers in the room, and those engaged from a distance, keep up an ongoing dialogue about sources, similarities between the work in question and the author’s other plays, as well as references to texts with which the play we’re reading is in dialogue. This places the current moment in a larger frame, and allows for some pretty rapid-fire connections. At its best, these kinds of exchanges can assist the work of scholarly editors, operating as a kind of continuous open-source concordance.
- Live-tweeting leads to a certain sense of temporal disjunct. Where readers are taking on multiple parts, their tweets sometimes appear minutes after the lines or scenes to which they were referring; the interactive whiteboard takes time to catch up, and often while the main action of the plot is moving forward chronologically, there is a secondary dialogue going on in the background, where scenes within a play are linked, backwards and forwards, to each other and to other plays by Dekker, Shirley, Shakespeare, etc. This disrupts the sense of a play as a single-focus, linear narrative, creating eddies and cross-currents, and chimes with much recent scholarship on the complicated life of early modern playworlds. More practically, it means you often miss your cue.
- A more obvious kind of temporal dissonance while live-tweeting comes in the form of anachronism. Joanne Tompkins, taking a cue from Foucault, has explored the idea of theatre as a heterotopic space, where different time-zones are multiply present. In this case, it can be a source of humour, where the meaning of a word or phrase has obviously changed, or of surprise: finding the conditions of the present perfectly expressed in the language of the past. Live-tweeting these 17th century texts, we find ourselves both ‘here’ and ‘there’ at once: or less charitably, we find ourselves ‘here’ with a here-inflected mental image of ‘there’ simultaneously in mind.
- It is impossible to recapture the experience of an ‘original’ Jacobean audience, but our response to these plays as live-tweeters presents an interesting analogue to that experience. By and large, we don’t know the texts, we don’t know the lines, the rhymes, the stories. We experience in real-time, the twists, the revelations, the transitions: when we read Epicoene, we already know the deal. But when we read Northward Ho, or almost any Shirley play turning on the question of potential cuckoldry, we are genuinely (if not necessarily pleasantly) surprised to discover that
it’s all a test. Of course – it’s all a test.
If we want to think about early modern plays not just as literature, but as dramaturgical constructions which have effects on their audiences, moment by moment, we could do a lot worse than watching the immediate, unscripted reactions to this material unfold on the #dekkerthon or #shirleymarathon Twitter feeds. Like an early modern audience, we are also cross-comparing to the plays we’ve seen the previous week, the previous day. Unlike that audience, we’re also comparing to plays we know that were published later, bearing in mind the ‘after’ as well as the ‘before’: we’re reading Dekker and anticipating Jonson, and the experience of an audience who knows one before the other — who sees The Whore of Babylon before King Lear — is what’s truly irrecoverable.
Go here for Part Two!