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Sejanus His Fall: Stage History

Tom Cain

More is known about the reception of the first performance of Sejanus than almost any other early modern play. Four contemporary accounts, at least three of which are explicitly those of eye-witnesses, confirm that it was a theatrical disaster which the audience at the Globe may never have allowed to finish. Jonson himself, dedicating the 1616 folio version to Lord D’Aubigny, compared the response with the historical Sejanus’s dismemberment by the Roman mob. It was, he said, ‘a poem that, if I well remember, in Your Lordship’s sight suffered no less violence from our people here than the subject of it did from the rage of the people of Rome’. Significantly in view of its immediately ensuing stage history, however, he was able to claim that by 1616 it had ‘outlived their malice, and begot itself a greater favour than he [Sejanus] lost, the love of good men’ (Sej., Epistle, 3-6). Both the hostile reception and the subsequent approval of at least the cognoscenti are confirmed by the account given many years later by Hobbes’s friend Francis Osborne. He recalled that as a boy, probably then aged nine, he had been part of that first hostile audience: ‘I amongst others hissed Sejanus off the stage, yet after sat it out, not only patiently, but with content, and admiration’ (Osborne, 1983, 4) . Osborne does not say when he saw these later performances, but if the argument advanced in the Introduction for a date of May 1603 for the first performance is accepted, it cannot have been repeated that year because of the closure of the theatres, and later performances at the Globe would have taken place after their reopening on 9 April 1604. Although in November that year the play was entered in the Stationers’ Register in its revised and clearly ‘literary’ format, there may well have been subsequent performances of the stage version over the following few years.

Osborne’s testimony certainly supports the view that Jonson is referring to at least a limited subsequent success on the stage as well as the page in his 1616 epistle to D’Aubigny, but there is no further evidence of these productions, and it is to accounts of that first performance that one must turn. Also in the Globe that afternoon was ‘Ev. B’, probably a young Inns of Court student named Everard Buckworth, who wrote a commendatory poem to the quarto edition that stressed his ‘indignation’ at the audience’s response:

When in the Globe’s fair ring, our world’s best stage,
I saw Sejanus, set with that rich foil,
I looked the author should have borne the spoil
Of conquest from the writers of the age;
But when I viewed the people’s beastly rage,
Bent to confound thy grave and learned toil,
That cost thee so much sweat, and so much oil,
My indignation I could hardly ’suage.

Buckworth’s ‘people’s beastly rage’ anticipates Jonson’s later ‘rage of the people of Rome’, and implies the same distinction between the judgement of the ‘people’ and that of the ‘good men’ which Jonson makes in his epistle to D’Aubigny, suggesting that this was the defensive response in Jonson’s circle in 1603. The audience’s spectacular rejection of the play, the Jonsonians’ response of a sharp distinction between the ‘illiterate’ multitude and the ‘wits of gentry’, and the play’s subsequent recognition are all corroborated by the poetaster William Fennor in his Description of a Poet, published in the same year as Jonson’s folio. There Fennor takes Sejanusas his sole example of the poet’s craft, and of the way in which

sweet Poesy
Is oft convict, condemned, and judged to die
Without just trial, by a multitude
Whose judgments are illiterate, and rude.
Witness Sejanus, whose approvéd worth,
Sounds from the calm south, to the freezing north …
With more than human art it was bedewed,
Yet to the multitude it nothing showed;
They screwed their scurvy jaws and looked awry,
Like hissing snakes adjudging it to die,
When wits of gentry did applaud the same
With silver shouts of high loud-sounding fame.

( Fennor’s Descriptions, 1616, sigs. B2r-v)

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