The Dekker Marathon
By Sara Marie Westh
It will come as no surprise to most to hear that for the past three years Stratford upon Avon has played host to an annual marathon. It may be less well known that this marathon takes place under the auspices of the Shakespeare Institute, and that unlike the activities along the banks of the Avon no running is involved, nor is spandex or Vaseline. Copious amounts of water, on the other hand, is usual. On occasion there is wine.
This is a play-reading marathon, and this year it explores the works of Thomas Dekker, a contemporary of Shakespeare, Kyd, and Marlowe; a participant in the golden age of English dramas.
The past summers have seen the participants – students and scholars visiting from around the world – embark on a full read-through of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, Heywood, and Shirley, totaling more than 120 plays and masques in the course of 56 days. Some have taken us readers by surprise with their unexpected brilliance, and some have left us shuddering at the utter awfulness of the play, but all have helped us piece together an image of the world of Renaissance dramatic writing and gain a more complete understanding of the web of interconnections and meanings that existed at this time. To borrow an image from literary theory, the marathons emphasize the way text as texture interlace in their process of creation and recounting. Tropes appear and reappear, metaphors gain new emphasis through repetition across texts, quotes satirize, transform, and infuse old plays and new alike with a life that goes beyond the single text, performance, canon, author, and reader. This is, of course, always the case, but the marathons bring such interconnectivity into uncommonly clear focus, especially to readers who devote the time necessary to attend several of these events.
This manner of concentrated reading offers a unique insight into the way the works of these playwrights change and grow over the course of their careers. In the words of Dr Martin Wiggins, the driving force behind the marathons: “The exercise enables us to observe, in concentrated form, the development of a single dramatist’s imagination and technique, and to experience a large number of neglected plays by a significant talent of the Shakespearian era”.
Dekker is a perfect example of both a significant talent and a neglected body of works, with titles both well-known – The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Roaring Girl, and The Witch of Edmondton were all staged at the RSC in recent years – and less well-known – The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet and Match Me in London are completely unfamiliar to me.
Another important side of the event is the very active twitter feed tied to each year’s marathon. This both creates further awareness of these less recognised writers, serves as an online record of recurring themes and authorial quirks, and communicates the sheer amusement of the people directly involved. Last summer’s Shirley feed provides a good illustration: link
So if you’re in Stratford upon Avon this summer, and feel like getting better acquainted with the plays of Thomas Dekker, do drop by. The marathon began June 13, and will run until July 1 in the Reading Room of the Shakespeare Institute on Church Street. For a full plan of the plays being read, consult the Institute events page (link)
Everyone is welcome, but if you cannot join the readers, yet would like to keep an eye on the marathon, tweet at the participants, or follow the live stream during the event itself, follow @dekkerthon and #dekkerthon on Twitter.
Being myself an eager marathon reader, I hope to see you there!