Ballads and Performance: The Multimodal Stage in Early Modern England


let’s take that literally and, while we’re at it, make it plural. After words: what then? Each contribution to Ballads and Performance poses that question and puts forward various answers. The very fact that we can ask such a question signifies the end of ballads’ status as a sub-literary genre. If poesie, as Sir Philip Sidney defines it, is art-made-out-of-words, the assumption has always been that those words are written words, preferably printed words (even though Sidney himself recognizes the power of oral ballads). That assumption has had the effect of turning literature into an artefact, an object, an entity complete in and of itself. Broadside ballads make the grade because they are made out of words and they are printed, but they have, until recently, failed to satisfy the requirement that they are complete in and of themselves.

     The very titles of many broadside ballads call attention to the lack: they are written to be sung “To the tune of . . . ,” some present themselves as “jigs” to be danced. Furthermore, they seem to require more than a solitary reader/singer/listener. Sir William Cornwallis may have confessed to reading ballads by himself (see the “Dangerous Conjectures” article in this collection by David Baker et al.), but he also describes crowds of people listening to ballads being sung in the streets:
I haue not beene ashamed to aduenture mine eares with a ballad-singer, and they haue come home loaden to my liking, doubly satisfied, with profit, & with recreation. The profit, to see earthlings satisfied with such course stuffe, to heare vice rebuked, and to see the power of Vertue that pierceth the head of such a base Historian, and vile Auditory.

The recreation to see how thoroughly the standers by are affected, what strange gestures come from them, what strained stuffe from their Poet, what shift they make to stand to heare, what extremities he is driuen to for Rime, how they aduenture their purses, he his wits, how well both their paines are recompenced, they with a filthy noise, hee with a base reward.
The scene Cornwallis describes is, in several senses of the word, performative: the balladeer sings, the story’s moral pierces the heads of the singers and the listeners, the standers-by gesture and jostle. The titles and texts of many broadside ballads invoke and invite specific groups of people as participants. Examples among the ballads discussed in this collection include disappointed lovers, cut-purses, “martial wights that in defense of native country fights,” crafty women, married men, and customers of whores.

     In their focus on performance all the articles collected here confront the lacks of printed broadsides head-on – the unheard singing, the unexecuted dances, the absent crowds of listeners, the idiosyncracies of individual participants – and supply these lacks not only with the scholarly ingenuity we expect in books but with the affordances of digital publishing: audio clips, still images, moving images, reports of group experience, and invitations for comments. The articles do more than analyze performance: they themselves perform. The strategies on display here take their place in the larger phenomenon of “performance studies,” but the examples given depart from older protocols in shifting the focus from the -form in perform to the per-, to the “through” in space and time. That is, these authors regard ballads not as executing an action or a way of being that is dictated by the printed text but as opportunities to create something new. The printed text is then and there; the performance is here and now.

     An obsolete meaning of “perform” current in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was “to make, construct, or build (an object); to create (an artistic work).” An example is a reference in The Winter’s Tale to the statue of Hermione as “a Peece many years in doing, and now newly perform’d, by that rare Italian Master, Iulio Romano. Performance figures again in the play’s last speech, spoken by Leontes when he invites the actor playing Paulina to lead himself and the other actors offstage,
                             where we may leysurely
Each one demand, and answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of Time, since first
We were disseuer’d: Hastily lead away. Exeunt. 
Whether the ballad-monger Autolycus is included among the “Lords, &c.” cued at the start to be present in the last scene is uncertain, but the “part” each actor has “performed” – and will perform – has a double meaning: it can be understood, outside the fiction, as a scripted role but also, within the fiction, as a series of self-chosen actions. As for Autolycus, his part has been much larger than he imagined when he bounded into Act Four selling ballads. The performances examined in Ballads and Performance stay true to what the original writers, purchasers, singers, and dancers of ballads would have understood “performance” to mean: not just following a script but creating something anew, turning a text into an event, both inside the fiction and without. Let us survey the various things that can happen in the per- in performances of ballads.

     For a start, printed ballads can be remediated. The articles collected here by Lori Newcomb et al., Claire M. Busse, David Baker et al., and Matthew Smith and Julia Lupton all investigate how broadside print moved into and out of other media. Newcomb and her collaborators turned “snippets” of ballads into here-and-now performances at a “ballad fair” staged in a campus building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Historical examples of such cross-media exchanges are studied by Busse in her examination of broadside ballads that became plays, and plays that became broadside ballads. She pays particular attention to ballads that get incorporated into plays via allusions or stage performance, notably in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Baker and his students take as their test case the snippets of ballads that Ophelia is cued to sing in Hamlet, while one of Newcomb’s students, Katherine E. O’Toole, moves beyond the historical examples to produce and perform an original ballad on “Ophelia’s Last Goodnight.” Thomas Platter’s famous reference to the dancing that followed play-performances at the 1599 Globe and other South Bank theaters has mystified genre traditionalists. How could a danced and sung jig possibly conclude the performance of a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet? M. Smith and Lupton posit an answer to that question of “how” in their article on “Ballads+: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and its After-piece Jig.” They advance the provocative argument that jigs might restate the themes of a play, but in another, comic key. As with many of the contributors to Ballads and Performance, Smith and Lupton remediate the standard codex article and provide a video performance of the ballad on which they make their case.

     The singing-cue included in the titles of most broadside ballads provides an analytical cue for the several articles collected here that locate the per- in embodiment. The most thorough-going of these articles is Pamela Reinagel’s, which applies the findings of contemporary neuroscience to the human brain’s processors when breath-awareness, voicing, singing, and group experience are coordinated with story-telling – as they are in performed ballads. Reinagel’s data provides scientific explanations for phenomena that other scholars of ballads have sensed intuitively and have been able to demonstrate from external historical references. Jessica C. Murphy’s article on ballads about greensickness gains particular resonance when read alongside Reinagel’s. Love-longing in Murphy’s account emerges as both a correlative experience that young women might find in ballads and as a symptom created by male authority figures and deployed by them as means of controlling young women. A caveat to be remembered from Busse’s article is the opportunity for different responses and different appropriations that ballad performances made available to different individuals. We witness the same phenomenon in the fragments of ballads that Ophelia sings. As Baker and his co-authors demonstrate, what Ophelia herself feels in these fragments is one thing; what her hearers choose to “collect” is another. They “botch the words up” to accord with their own thoughts. The catalogue of ballads that Autolycus rattles off at the sheep-shearing festival in The Winter’s Tale includes something for everybody. In making choices Mopsa, in particular, keeps asking whether the ballad is “true.” Ultimately the truth of ballads is truth to the buyer/reader/singer’s personal desires.

     If we want to talk in historical terms about responses to ballad performances, we will need to attend to the distinct passions that different ballads touch off. I say “touch off” because passions in early modern psychology were understood to be biochemical transformations that overtake the bodies of readers, performers, and listeners. The term “passion” derives from the Latin verb pati, to suffer, to undergo, to experience. Passions are the early modern equivalent of the electrical and biochemical reactions in the brain that Reinegal studies. For early modern men and women, passions were whole-body experiences, since passions were thought to ebb and flow through the entire body. Passions in this early modern sense figure in several of the articles collected here: jealousy in the tune to which ballads about crafty women were sung in Kris McAbee’s article, Ophelia’s distracted grief in the article by Baker et al., wonder in Rochelle Smith’s article on ballads about monstrous births, greensickness in Murphy’s article, mirth in the jig Smith and Lupton have chosen to serve as dessert after the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

     Compared to other sorts of performances, such as stage plays, performances of ballads resist what we might call “the politics of passion” — the attempts of officialdom to control what purchasers of fictions might and might not experience. Performances of stage plays were forbidden in republican England, but not performances of ballads, at least out of public hearing. The English Broadside Ballad Archive includes 118 ballads published between 1640 and 1659, including a surprising number of the ribald sort. Perhaps the authorities assumed that ballads, unlike play scripts, were not performance-texts, that they existed as print on broadside sheets, as –forms, but not as per-formances. The contributors to this collection prove how wrong the authorities were. Stage plays overtly involve impersonation and performance; ballads seem not to. Perhaps the most important thing demonstrated by the articles in Ballads and Performance is the inventive, multifarious qualities of ballad performance. The –per in performance is fugitive: it is transitive, in-between, indeterminate, endlessly full of possibilities. Euterpe may preside over lyric poetry and song, but the genius of ballads is Proteus. Autolycus embodies perfectly the protean quality of ballads. Take, for example, “The cunning Northerne Begger, / Who all the By-standers doth earnestly pray, / To bestow a penny upon him today. / To the tune of Tom of Bedlam” (EBBA 30034 and 31726, dated 1624-1680?).  Proteus makes an appearance in the second stanza: “I have my shifts about me,” declares the beggar/singer,
Like Proteus often changing
              My shape when I will,
              I alter still,
              About the Country ranging . . . .
The copy of this broadside in the Euing Collection shows signs of heavy use, probably by a series of people across hundreds of years. Those signs of use remind us that Proteus in “The cunning Northerne Begger” is not just a stand-in for the ballad monger or for the beggar who sings his story “To the tune of Tom of Bedlam” but for all the people who have handled and voiced the ballad, taking it to heart, bringing it alive in space and time, keeping it in circulation. 

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