Background: The Tudor Plays Project
The Tudor Plays Project is a long-term interdisciplinary Digital Humanities project that brings together faculty and students from humanities disciplines and computer science to develop and publish new digital resources for the study and performance of early and mid-Tudor plays, chiefly those written and performed in noble households and at the court during the reign of Henry VIII. These resources will provide students, historians, theatre practitioners, and scholars of literature and drama with free web-based tools for the study of pre-Elizabethan secular drama in England. Currently, most of the surviving plays from 1485-1558 are either unavailable or unaffordable in modern print editions, yet the importance of these plays — both in their own right and to the development of later English drama and theatrical practices — cannot be overstated.
The first secular drama in England emerged from the Humanist circle of Thomas More, who, contemporary testimony indicates, played improvised roles in dramatic interludes in Cardinal Morton’s household where he was a page in the 1490s. The dramatic activities of Thomas More’s family members, John Rastell and John Heywood, also set the scene for important theatrical innovations of the later sixteenth-century: the creation of the London professional theatres, the emergence of popular secular drama, and, arguably, the collaborative playwriting methods later employed by William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The Tudor Plays Project thus seeks to recuperate for a wide and varied Internet audience the neglected elements of earlier Tudor drama that are crucial to investigating and understanding the theatrical culture of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England.
I conceived of the Tudor Plays Project in 2010 and began to work on the digitization and encoding of the project’s principle texts during my graduate work in English and Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I had the privilege of working with and learning from the generous digital humanists in UNL’s renowned Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CRDH). Professor Stephen Ramsay (UNL English & DH) offered early encouragement, and Professor Stephen Buhler (UNL English) secured the effort’s first grant: a UCARE undergraduate research grant to hire UNL Truman Scholar Emily Schlichting (’12) to work on preliminary corpus preparation. In fall 2014, work on corpus preparation resumed with a generous Faculty Research Grant from the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of San Diego. This grant enabled the creation of the first Tudor Plays Project student cohort at USD (pictured here, left t0 right, are Amanda Pendleton, English; Emily Bezold [seated] English; Jude Caywood, Interdisciplinary Humanities; Maura Giles-Watson, English/DH; Anthony Nguyen, Computer Science; and Yasmine Hachimi, English). Today, with the generous support of Dean Noelle Norton of the USD College of Arts and Sciences and Prof. Brian Clack, Director of the USD Humanities Center, the Tudor Plays Project is housed in the USD Humanities Center’s new Digital Humanities Studio.
Aims and Scopes
The Tudor Plays Project is currently developing digital resources for an anonymous work from the Thomas More Circle: the comic the debate play Gentylnes and Nobylyte, which contains a satirical dispute that raises serious issues of social class and economic justice. Gentylnes and Nobylyte, which is the Tudor Plays Project’s pilot play, is thus as relevant today as it was upon its first printing c 1525.
This play was probably first performed either for a Henrician court audience or on John Rastell’s short-lived public stage in Finsbury (North London). Although Gentylnes and Nobylyte has proved a favorite among my 21st-century students, the work is rarely taught because no affordable modern edition is available. Another point of interest is the ongoing dispute over who wrote this play. Scholars debate the authorship of Gentylnes and Nobylyte as the printed playbook offers no clear indication of the author’s identity. In fact, the playbook contains conflicting information, namely, a frontispiece portrait of the performer-playwright John Heywood and a printer’s colophon belonging to More’s brother-in-law, the lawyer-printer-adventurer-playwright John Rastell. In addition, the text of the play itself contains conflicting evidence of authorship.
Advances in computer technology and in methods of textual study offer us new and sophisticated tools for analyzing and comparing texts, and, in some cases, determining authorship as well. So, one of the first activities in Phase I of the Tudor Plays Project is an authorship attribution study of Gentylnes and Nobylyte. For this analysis, the Tudor Plays Project team is employing two textual analysis programs: Stylometry with R and Lexos. We ran preliminary tests in spring 2016 — tests which provided some surprising results. We are now preparing larger text samples for further testing, and we plan to share details of our methods and results (whether conclusive or not) by mid 2017.
As a unique project in the field, the Tudor Plays Project will ultimately offer scholars and students around the world a central repository of free resources for the study of earlier Tudor drama—a field that has been neglected in large part because of the scarcity of resources for the study of these plays. In this way, the Tudor Plays Project’s long-term objective is to complement the ongoing work of the University of Victoria’s Internet Shakespeare Editions and Digital Renaissance Editions; both of these groundbreaking digital humanities projects focus on Elizabethan-era play texts, which lie outside the Tudor Plays Project’s scope.
Over time, the Tudor Plays Project will develop and publish numerous digital assets including:
- annotated scholarly/teaching editions of (Henrician) plays;
- adapted Modern English performance editions (free for non-commercial uses);
- a video archive of performances of scenes from the plays;
- an audio archive of the music from these plays;
- an annotated bibliography of secondary works on Henrician drama; and
- critical and dramaturgical essays as well as visual contextualizing materials.
One of the many advantages of web-based scholarly projects is that they may be built in phases, and it is not necessary to have all of the components completed before the website may be usefully launched. The TPP website will be built over a decade or more and then sustained over decades as well. In the process, the project will offer meaningful research opportunities to generations of student researchers. Students from multiple disciplines will be able to develop their skills along a trajectory from apprenticeship to contributorship while they build research tools and obtain professional-level experience in several areas including writing, editing, dramaturgy, performance, project management, website development and maintenance, videography, bibliography, archiving, text encoding, programming, and text mining and analysis. Students planning to pursue advanced studies or careers in humanities disciplines will thus gain both theoretical knowledge and useful skills from having collaborated on and contributed to a DH project. –Maura Giles-Watson