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The Bookshelf

BEN JONSON ON THE ENGLISH STAGE 1660-1776, by Robert Gale Noyes. Harvard University Press. $3.50.

By W. E. H.

UNTIL fairly recent times scholars paid little attention to the stage history of the great dramatists. To be sure, editors of dramatic texts utilized the information gleaned from old play-bills, quartos, broadsides, and the like in the reconstruction of "tone texts," but although the materials existed ready to hand, one might almost say that it was not until our own day that stage histories like that of Dr. Noyes began to appear. The pioneers in this branch of study in America have been Professor Hazelton Spencer of Johns Hopkins, Professor A. C. Sprague of Harvard and Professor Leslie Hotson of Haverford College. With this book Dr. Noyes joins that company of specialists and adds the account of Ben Jonson's fate during the Restoration and the XVIIIth century to the tales already told of how Shakespeare was 'improved' or adapted to the tastes and prejudices of our ancestors, and how Beaumont and Fletcher fared.

Stage history can be very fascinating if it be pursued in the right spirit. Dr. Noyes has tried to communicate this fascination to the reader, but the detail is necessarily so abundant, the subject is inevitably so remote, that the common reader, at any rate, will find the book bewildering and difficult to grasp. It is, of course, a book to be digested wholly, though people who are already familiar with Jonson may dip into it from time to time and seize information on their favorite play for future consumption. It is not a book to read at one sitting, for at best one's interest in Jonson nowadays is secondary. As Mr. T. S. Eliot once remarked, Jonson is more often praised than read; his plays also are seldom staged; somehow his greatness is taken for granted, but there is a dreadful conspiracy of silence and neglect. A vote taken in any company of ordinary students of literature would reveal that the group was more or less acquainted with the comedies: e.g., "The Alchemist", "Volpone", "Every Man in his Humour", but only the ambitious souls who sit up all night with the heroines of Voltaire, to use Lytton Strachey's phrase, would confess to having read "Sejanus" or "Catiline."

One does not mean to suggest that Dr. Noyes has merely made the best of a bad subject, for that would be untrue. He throws no end of light upon the manners and customs of by-gone ages when the stage was an important avenue of culture, with no competitors for popular esteem such as the opera or the movies. "Theatrical reminiscence", according to Max Beerbolun, "is the most awful weapon in the armory of old age", but when a young scholar wields it one can endure it.

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