Issue 1.2

The Failed Performance of Dekker's "The Whore of Babylon"

Peter Hyland

At some time in 1606 Prince Henry’s Men staged Thomas Dekker’s play The Whore of Babylon at the Fortune playhouse. It was apparently performed only once, and if we are to believe the author’s own account of it, the performance was a failure, something that Dekker clearly felt the need to explain away, for in the following year he published a quarto edition of his play with a preface, “Lectori,” in which he laid out what his intentions had been and what he thought had gone wrong. In fact “Lectori” is the sole source of information about this failure, and Dekker places the blame for it firmly at the door of the players. The “deformity” of the performance, he says, was the result of “bad handling” (39) by the players: “let the Poet set the note of his Nombers, even to Apollo’s owne lyre, the Player will have his own Crotchets, and sing false notes, in dispite of all the rules of Musick” (30-32). So insistent was he on blaming the players that he found two other metaphors to define their inadequacy: bad tailors ruining good cloth (32-3) and “ill nurses” spoiling newborn children (35).1

It needs to be noted that there are problems with accepting Dekker’s account of the shortcomings of the performance, for it appears that he was not present: “mine eare stood not within reach of their Larums” (27), he says. It is reasonable to ask why he did not attend what was obviously an important occasion for him, and (setting aside the possibility that he was ill) the most obvious explanation would seem to be that he had misgivings about the play even before it was staged. After all, his conception of the play was highly ambitious and he must have had a great deal of his own vanity vested in it, so the problem might well have been not so much that the performance was a failure, as that it disappointed him because it did not live up to his hopes. Even before the play was staged he seems to have felt some anxiety about the potential for the audience to fail to understand it, for in his Prologue, presumably written for the origin al staging, since it introduces the opening dumb show, he says:

wee present Matter above the vulgar Argument:
Yet drawne so lively, that the weakest eye,
Through those thin vailes we hang betweene your sight
And this our peice, may reach the mystery. (3-7)

It is all so well done, he insists, that even the dullest spectator will understand; but perhaps he was trying to deflect any potential objection to the opacity of his play by insisting on its clarity precisely because he had reservations about it.

Without question Dekker knew his way around a playhouse, and by 1606 he had had a long association with Henslowe’s companies and theaters. Henslowe bought a play from him for the Admiral’s Men as early as 1598, but in that year Francis Meres was already able to include him amongst those he considered “our best for tragedy.” Although he wrote a number of plays of which he was sole author, he collaborated with most of the major dramatists of the time, and Henslowe’s papers indicate that he had a hand in more than forty plays between 1598 and 1602. So the tradition that Dekker was a hack, possibly originating in Jonson’s characterization of him in Poetaster (1601) as a “dresser of plays about town,” is unfair. In fact, Dekker was a skilled writer with a seasoned professional’s understanding of how plays worked. It is worth asking, therefore what it was that he thought he was giving to the players in this particular case.

The Whore of Babylon is a glorification of Elizabeth I through a comprehensive account of the many Catholic plots against her during her reign and the apocalyptical defeat of Rome represented by the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and Dekker clearly intended it to be his masterpiece. It merges his position as a militant Protestant with his profound admiration of Elizabeth. In “Lectori” he describes it as a “Drammaticall Poem” (1), though this is a post-facto definition and might have occurred to him only in his self- exoneration; however the tension between the two elements of the phrase points to one potential source of its failure. His main “dramatical” model was the allegorical moral interlude, long obsolete (but understood to be associated with native ideological concerns), which gave him characters like Truth and Time and also precedents for the satirical voice of Plain Dealing. His main poetic model was The Faerie Queene...