The production of William Gager’s Dido in the Great Hall of Christ Church, Oxford, on 21st September 2013 was by any measure a special occasion. The Early Drama at Oxford (EDOX) research project aims to bring to light medieval and early modern plays staged within the University. One of the guiding lights of the project is Elisabeth Dutton, who directed Gager’s play as part of their ‘Performing Dido’ event, with the work performed alongside Edward’s Boys production of Christopher Marlowe’s more famous dramatization of the tale from Virgil. Gager’s Latin drama had been originally acted in June 1583 as part of the Christ Church celebrations in honour of visiting Polish prince, Albrecht Łaski. 430 years after this first performance, Gager’s Latin, smoothly translated into English by graduate student Elizabeth Sandis, was again staged before an influential Polish visitor – this time Minister Counsellor Mr Dariusz Łaska. As on the original occasion, parts were played by male university students (here with a couple of slightly older exceptions) before an audience partaking of a College banquet. It was impossible not to find thrilling an event so similar in many ways to that experienced by sixteenth century Oxonians – even down to a reconstructed period menu.
Having, in February this year, staged work by late Elizabethan Middle Templars in that Inn’s Hall, I was intrigued to see this similarly site-specific performance. Christ Church was as famous as the Inns for its early modern student drama. Although the College has not regularly enabled them, modern stagings such as these, in the same environment, allow an enhanced scholarly understanding of the plays concerned and their reception. The relationship between the physical space of college and Inn halls in the sixteenth century and the drama staged there has been the subject of debate; but the layout of the Great Hall for the 2013 productions of the Dido plays was largely that which most scholars now seem to agree was used in the sixteenth century. With a raised stage space in front of high table, nearest to the visitors of honour, and the actors able to enter and exit through the screen or doors at the far end, the play could be enjoyed by the whole institution and its guests, although to varying degrees. Those sitting nearest the entrance doors would, of course, be quite a distance from the main action, and the actors in this modern production worked hard to project their lines along the length of the hall. The able direction of Elisabeth Dutton, assisted by Matthew Monaghan, meant that the modern-clad Trojans performed as they approached the stage, and the retained parts of the Latin choral odes were delivered evocatively from the doors, making best use of the space. But the reconstruction leaves no doubt that some Elizabethan students attending such events must have had a somewhat reduced experience.
Such evenings as this also remind us how central acting was to Renaissance education, and the presence in Dido of a blazer-clad Cupid (played by Matthew Monaghan), together with odes delivered by uniformed schoolboys (from King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon) made this visible throughout. A means of developing young men’s verbal skills in a society which lionized public speaking and performance, plays such as Dido owed much to Senecan models and their structure allowed for the rhetorical delivery of long set pieces. Dutton and Monaghan had decided to cut several of these in performance, and along with the slick direction this reduced the length to about an hour, but it remained clear how drama such as Gager’s enabled university students to practise vital verbal skills while providing rich entertainment for visiting dignitaries.
In September 1592, the Queen herself had been presented at Christ Church with Rivales, the comedy by Gager which was to accompany his Dido the following summer. And the portrait of Elizabeth which regularly hangs above high table in the Great Hall meant the audience was continually reminded of the connection with the Tudor queen – a connection drawn out by the play itself. Dido, powerfully played by Alex Mills, wore grand sixteenth-century costume evoking that of the Queen in the portrait, and was often referred to by the classical heroine’s alternative name, Elisa. The parallels were striking, and indicative of the potential danger of writing for the stage in this period. Thus we saw Dido, visually evoking the Virgin Queen, fall hopelessly in love with her articulate Aeneas (Chris Williams), giving him authority in her realm and then, at his rejection and departure, killing herself for the loss of that love. It was necessary for the epilogue (delivered with aplomb by Stephen Longstaffe from one of the dining tables) to reassure the audience that we had in fact just witnessed the amours of Dido/Elisa, and not those of the English queen. The humour of his comment that ‘Foreign weddings seldom end well’ was undoubtedly meant to resound amongst those in court circles who, in the 1580s, were opposed to a French marriage – a group including Christ Church graduate Sir Philip Sidney, who knew Łaski and travelled with him to Oxford.
Though a figure of university drama, rather than the more often discussed London public theatre, William Gager deserves to be better known. Study of his work reveals much about the influences and fashions in dramatic writing, and about the experience of playgoing familiar to many influential London audience members before their arrival in the city. The relationship between those two environments was perhaps more fluid than many scholars have acknowledged, as Gager’s friendship with playwright George Peele suggests. Correspondent of anti-theatricalist John Rainolds of Corpus Christi, the academic playwright defended drama against the accusations made by his Oxford contemporary: accusations of immorality and, in particular, the ‘abomination’ of boys performing ‘in women’s raiment’. We are forced to doubt whether university plays were for most men in Elizabethan audiences, as Rainolds claimed, productive of a lewdness the Bible warned against: ‘execrable villainies, to which this change of raiment provoketh and entiseth’. Indeed, if this modern production of Dido gives us insight into early modern theatre production, the alternating serenity, passion and pathos of a queen could, indeed, be well represented by a young man. It is perhaps worth remembering that although Rainolds was to become a pugnacious puritan by the 1580s and 90s, he had in 1566, as an undergraduate, played Hippolyta in the production—also at Christ Church—of Richard Edward’s Palaemon and Arcyte. It is likely that his performance, like that of Alex Mills, inspired admiration in the audience – at least it certainly did for one member of it. Queen Elizabeth, part of that audience at Christ Church Great Hall, rewarded the young Rainolds with ‘eight old angels’ for the power of his acting. The power of Gager’s argument thus might be argued to lie, not in the rhetoric of Th’Overthrow of Stage-Playes, but in the experience of his work on his own stage.
Indicative of a connection between university writing and that for both the Court and the contemporary public playhouse, Gager’s works make our comprehension of the Elizabethan playgoing context more coherent. Equally, a consideration of the time and place of its original performance can allow a much fuller understanding of a play. As this EDOX production demonstrates, a modern student can gain a great deal by seeing Dido in its original setting, informed by the 1593 political context and the relationship between different dramatic institutions.
For a hypertext version of the complete works of William Gager, see http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/gager/.
Th’Overthrow of Stage-Playes, by the Way of Controversie betwixt D. Gager and D. Rainoldes (Middelburg: Richard Schilders, 1599), p. 97.↩