Christopher Matusiak, assistant professor of English, has published an article in this year’s volume of a prestigious international academic journal.
Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, published at Colgate University every year, contains studies by literary critics and cultural historians, as well as reviews, notes and documentary studies. Titled “Elizabeth Beeston, Sir Lewis Kirke, and the Cockpit’s Management during the English Civil Wars,” Matusiak’s article answers key questions about the motives behind controversial producers of English theater during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Staff Writer Arham Muneer spoke with Matusiak about his research, his interest in the topic and his future work in the field.
Arham Muneer: What is your research focused on?
Chris Matusiak: I am fascinated by the flesh-and-blood people who devoted themselves to producing theater in 16th- and 17th-century England. … Recently, I have been exploring the activities and social relationships of men and women who owned London playhouses during the period of the English civil wars. The English parliament legally prohibited theater during the height of the conflict in the 1640s and ’50s, but every scholar knows that playing sporadically continued, both in private residences and commercial buildings. Who were these wartime artists? And what primarily motivated them, their commercial investments or their politics? … The answers, in the case of Beeston and Kirke, turn out to be surprisingly complex and underscore the considerable legal and economic risks taken by people who hosted banned performances in the tense atmosphere of the wars.
AM: How did you become interested in this particular period in stage history and in theater in general?
CM: The spark for me was reading Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at about the age of 16, and being completely shocked that a 400-year-old playwright could so vividly evoke such a painful picture of life. … The play speaks directly to anyone who has ever been in a dysfunctional family, who has ever aged, who has ever been poor, who has ever felt cast aside by society, who has ever suffered disillusion or suspected that human beings are not the privileged species in creation that we like to imagine. … Later in life, I had the good fortune to meet like-minded teachers and mentors, both as an undergraduate student in Ottawa and later as a graduate student in Toronto. An appreciation for Shakespeare is deeply ingrained in Canada, where I grew up. … What I’m delighted to be learning this semester, while in the process of becoming an American and teaching a wonderful group of freshmen in an [Ithaca College Seminar Program] called “Shakespeare in America,” is that a similarly enduring affection for Shakespeare exists in this country, and one with its own uniquely American history.
AM: Where did you conduct your research and when?
CM: I began research on the article while completing my Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. As it turns out, a figure, Sir Lewis Kirke, at the center of the historical story I was reconstructing, is actually quite a significant figure in Canada’s past. My article studies a body of evidence suggesting that this couple, Kirke and his wife, Elizabeth Beeston, used The Cockpit [playhouse in Drury Lane] as an instrument to boost royalist morale, collect intelligence and generally resist their parliamentary enemies both politically and culturally during and after the wars.
AM: How do you feel about your research being published in the journal?
CM: To be able to connect this new theatrical research to the older story of the Kirke family has been very gratifying. And I have come to see clearly that stories like these can only be reconstructed by bringing together archival materials in a holistic way from different parts of the world.
AM: What kind of support did you get from the department or the college for your research?
CM: Travel funds from Ithaca College allowed me to attend the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting last year where I organized a seminar called, “Managing Shakespeare and the Early Modern Theatre Business.” This was a great opportunity to discuss with other theater historians some of the material that eventually found its way into the article.
AM: Do you plan to move forward with your research, or have you reached its culmination?
CM: Having looked at The Cockpit and its civil war era managers, I am now eager to look more closely at three other London theaters that we know remained open in the 1640s and ’50s: the Salisbury Court Playhouse, the Fortune [Playhouse] and the Red Bull [Theatre]. At the moment, little is known about the managers, players and patrons who kept these venues operational and more importantly why they risked their reputations, financial standing and even their lives to do so. So this will be a long-term project and should dovetail into a book I am planning to write on theater management in Shakespeare’s time.