Generally, when theatregoers arrive at a Royal Shakespeare Company production, they know who wrote the play. The clue is embedded in the very name of the company. Not so with Arden of Faversham, which opens in Stratford-upon-Avon next week. The play is attributed to that most industrious of authors: Anonymous. Meanwhile, at the Lyric Hammersmith, in west London, Anonymous has become the writer-in-residence. Thanks to the venue’s current “Secret Theatre” season, audiences regularly take their seats with no idea what they are about to see, let alone by whom.
Anonymous, and her/his close associate, Traditional, have contributed countless songs, poems, paintings and dramas to world art, music and literature. When Arthur Quiller-Couch assembled poems for the first Oxford Book of English Verse, in 1900, Lord Byron merited four entries and John Donne seven, but Anon clocked up an impressive 71. And a name may not always reveal much: the designation Homer tells us little about who that was. Even the identity of Shakespeare is an issue of hot dispute in some quarters. But does it matter if the author of a play remains, by design or default, a mystery? What difference does it make?
Andy Kesson of the University of Roehampton, an expert in early modern authorship who has been liaising with the RSC on the origins of Arden of Faversham, points out that the idea of a named playwright (and indeed artist or poet) is a relatively new one. Arden, first printed in 1592, is, he suggests, typical of its period.
“My starting position is that we don’t really know who wrote any of these plays,” he says. “The most likely answer is that it will have had several people working on it. The idea of a text with an ‘author’ is quite alien to this period.”
To 21st-century audiences living in a celebrity-fixated age, this is a curious notion. Remaining anonymous is now so far from the norm that it brings its own kind of attention: when elusive street artist Banksy took up a residency in New York last year there was debate over photographs claiming to have caught him in action.
Banksy, of course, belongs to those artists who have chosen anonymity, rather than had it thrust upon them by time or tradition. And he joins an illustrious list: novelists Walter Scott, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are among those who initially hid their identity. Reticence can reveal much about a culture. Respectability may play a part (particularly for female novelists), while legal and political reasons have prompted discretion among writers from Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope to, more recently, Primary Colors author Joe Klein.
Some artists go incognito to try out a new style or test their reception. JK Rowling was furious when her own cloak of invisibility as the author of crime thriller The Cuckoo’s Calling was twitched aside in an exchange on Twitter (although the revelation propelled the novel from relative obscurity to the top of book charts). And social media have introduced new opportunities for camouflage. An international hacktivist network even goes by the name of . . . Anonymous.
One impulse behind the hunt for the dramatist(s) of Arden of Faversham is the story itself. A black comedy about a pair of bungling assassins, it is based on a lurid true murder story from 1551. It is unusual in being a domestic drama with a woman as its key protagonist. So who did write it?
Kesson suggests that the list of most likely contributors includes Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Robert Greene and George Peele. Sophisticated computer analysis can pin down stylistic traits and word usage but Kesson suggests that this “only identifies a certain stage” in what was probably a multi-layered process. He adds that the play was written “on a cusp of [the] transition” towards contemporary ideas of authorship.
“There’s a big shift happening at the time Arden is being written,” he explains, “because of commercial theatre. You’ve got a building to fill – you need four or five new plays every single week. So, suddenly, writing becomes professionalised and, over time, people become fascinated by who wrote these words. It really does change the notion of writing.”
Polly Findlay, directing the RSC revival, says that one scene, attributed by some to Shakespeare, has a different quality: “The rhythm hits a slightly different stride there and the kind of image that is employed feels bigger, more expansive,” she says.
Presumably, the actors who first performed Arden knew the person or people responsible. So does it frustrate a director reviving it today not to have definite recourse to authorship and biographical detail?
Findlay found that it does subtly alter her engagement with the text. She explains that, in a Shakespeare work, it feels natural to track a character’s personal development through the play “maybe partly because you’re confident that it is the work of a single author.” In Arden of Faversham, however, characters are constantly doing illogical, 180-degree turns. The play’s provenance, she says, has helped her to handle this.
“Partly because you’re aware that it might be written by different people and, partly because it’s reflecting a mindset just before Shakespeare came in and changed the way that those dramatic structures worked, it makes you engage in a very different way,” she explains. “So, you’re not saying to actors – as you would with any play written after about 1598 – ‘What did your character do in the last scene? How does that inform what you’ve done in this scene?’ It forces you into a completely present-tense mindset. And the anonymity probably makes you feel that you’ve got a greater degree of creative licence.”
Findlay worried at first that the play might feel disjointed but has, in fact, found working on it exhilarating: “It throws you back on having to make decisions with only the material which is readily available to hand . . . I think that makes for the most honest kind of creative environment.”
At the Lyric Hammersmith, it’s the audience that experiences that fresh relationship with the text, unmediated by preconceptions. The venue is about to stage its fifth show in the Secret Theatre season (each play’s identity and author is revealed at the end of its performance). Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric, says the experiment has encouraged a sense of adventure among audiences.
“It’s maybe harder to get people to come in the first place but, once they do, they really get it and value it,” he says. “We’ve had much more repeat attendance than you would expect from a traditional season.”
Caroline Bird, who wrote the third show in the Lyric’s Secret Theatre season (revealed to be called Chamber Piece), says she would definitely do it again. But she admits that there were challenges: “For the writer, it’s quite hard to work on something for six months and then not have the title on the ticket. And ‘unnamed’ can suggest ‘unfinished’ to some people. Also, you can’t prepare the audience in terms of your standpoint – if you’re writing a satire for example – which is both a good and a bad thing.”
Few audience members would want to gamble on an unknown quantity every time they step into a theatre. But in a world where star names sell plays, risking the odd brush with Anonymous can be invigorating.
“It’s great to have to evaluate why we go to theatre in the first place,” says Bird. “And to consider what you want to think about, rather than who you want to see.”
‘Arden of Faversham’, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 30-Oct 2, rsc.org.uk
Secret Theatre Show 5, Lyric Hammersmith, London, May 7-22, lyric.co.uk