Encounters with John Lowin – Barbara Wooding talks about her research

This is a guest post from Barbara Wooding, author of John Lowin and the English Theatre, 1603–1647: Acting and Cultural Politics on the Jacobean and Caroline Stage

Serendipity must often play a part in choosing a research subject.  It certainly did for me.  A browsing session at the Shakespeare Institute library turned up the first edition of Believe as You List, complete with an account of the play’s serendipitous discovery among papers bequeathed to his widow by the actor David Garrick.  George Beltz, one of Garrick’s executors, in sifting through ‘a vast mass of rubbish’, discovered the almost complete manuscript of this play by Philip Massinger, hitherto believed lost, and sent it to T. Crofton Crocker, who edited it for the Percy Society.  It was published in 1849, two hundred years after it had disappeared from the records.  A week or two later, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that Believe as You List would form part of the following season’s Swan programme – and my research was born.

The director, Josie Rourke, kindly allowed me to sit in on an early rehearsal, and to discuss the play with cast members.

Up to that point I had not considered seriously the idea of pursuing research to PhD level, but Lowin wouldn’t go away.  His life spanned the entire open air playhouse period, from the opening of James Burbage’s Theatre, in 1576, the year he was born, through to the closing of the theatres in 1642 and beyond.  He had been a member of Shakespeare’s company from 1603, acting with him and the great Richard Burbage in first performances of Jonson, Fletcher, Middleton, Massinger, Shakespeare and Webster among others.  He had acted before James VI and I, Charles I and the future Charles II.  After Burbage’s death, he had risen to pre-eminence with his colleague, Joseph Taylor, so that the names Lowin and Taylor, represented the pinnacle of the Caroline acting profession.

Then the theatres were closed and destroyed by order of the Commonwealth Parliament.  He and his fellows sank into obscurity, and he was dead before the public theatres re-emerged with the Restoration.  He suffered an oblivion more profound than that of Massinger, and having found a potential biographer, he was not about to let go.

For some months I looked him up in libraries and on websites, and read the plays where his role was known.  I put together a proposal for research into his life and career within the society of his time, which was generously accepted by Professor Michael Dobson.  John Lowin was, at times, elusive, but gradually I built up his profile into a tangible record of an actor and citizen in seventeenth century London.  After the thesis was entered in 2011, I thought I couldn’t face looking at it all once more for a book, but Lowin was still unknown to all but a few academics, several of whom urged me to revise the material once more into book form.  Erika Gaffney at Ashgate Publishing liked my proposal, gave me invaluable advice on re-writing and persuaded her company to accept me as an Ashgate author.  One of the great strengths of Ashgate is the quality of their advice and assistance to a new author, a bonus for me being their clear instructions at every stage on how the technically challenged should proceed.

John LowinHere at last is John Lowin and the English Theatre, 1603-1647.  It’s not a definitive work because new material is emerging thanks to digitization projects and world wide academic communication.  But at least it’s a start.

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