Harry R. McCarthy

Department: English, Humanities
Discipline: English
Research Centre/Unit: Centre for Early Modern Studies

Project Summary

My research sits squarely in the field of early modern performance studies and attends to the oft-neglected performances by 'boy' actors (aged from early adolescence to mid-twenties) on the adult- and child-company stages of London between 1576 and 1642. In spite of the fact that it would have been a boy actor who created some of today’s most-studied dramatic characters, scholarship has often been reluctant to consider this group of performers as dramatic subjects. My thesis therefore seeks to argue for and resurrect the centrality of boy players to the dramaturgy and theatrical culture of the early modern period through an unprecedented combination of methodological approaches: close reading, theatre history, practice-based research, archival work, and performance analysis. Drawing on a wide range of plays from adult and child companies operating in London c. 1576-1642 and informed by a re-evaluation of the status of work performed by children and youths in early modern culture at large (with reference both to the classroom and to industry), I will consider the very real, yet scarcely examined, theatrical labour behind the boy actor’s performance across the period. The thesis thus considers the actors’ initiation into theatrical companies, the skills they acquired, how these skills were shared among the company and, as the theatrical institution evolved, across companies and repertories. Recovering the biographies of the thirty-or-so boy actors who are known to have moved between the companies and eventually graduated to the status of sharer or lead actor (and, in some cases, playwright), I will attempt to trace the impact of these actors on the composition and performance of plays that are to this day most commonly thought of as being created and controlled by the playwright. This more detailed historicising of a class of performer that is often overlooked or dismissed will be reinforced by a series of practical staging experiments in which the extent of boy actors’ contributions to some of early modern drama’s most spectacular or intimate moments (violence, erotic scenes, death scenes) is reconstructed and tested in a twenty-first-century rehearsal space. The scope afforded to the boy actor’s performance will also be considered in the light of archival work, rehearsal observations, and performance analysis of the repertory of twenty-first-century all-boy company, Edward’s Boys. In attending more closely to the material and embodied stage practices of boy actors throughout the early modern period, the thesis seeks to answer the following research questions: 1) What did it mean—and take—to be a boy actor on the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline stages? 2) (How) did boy actors actively contribute to plays in which they performed, and to early modern theatrical culture at large? 3) How can practice help to recreate the performance dynamics of boy actors across the period?

Taking this class of performer seriously through a practically-informed lens, the project ultimately aims to free the boy actors of the early modern theatre from the pages of obscure plays and scholarly works to put them back on the stages where they belong. 

Supervisory Team

Professor Pascale Aebischer (Exeter)

Dr Eleanor Rycroft (Bristol)

Wider Research Interests

Early modern theatrical culture; playgoing; the evolution of acting styles; stage spectacles and special effects; costume; the representation of children and youth in early modern literature; education, schooling, and apprenticeship; twentieth- and twenty-first century adaptations of early modern drama; star performers from the Renaissance to the present; the publication and dissemination of early modern drama in print.