SOME YEARS AGO I ventured to Gary Taylor that I was not entirely convinced Cyril Tourneur didn’t write The Revenger’s Tragedy. That exercise in audacity earned me a lecture lasting well into the second half of an hour, a lecture interrupted only by an insistent tug at his elbow by Gary’s girlfriend, to whom I am most grateful, although, I suspect, she did not have my rescue foremost in mind.
My conversation with Gary recently came to mind when I was drafting an essay regarding Alcazar’s performance history. I needed in the essay to discuss The Revenger’s Tragedy. I ordinarily identify a play’s author when I first name it. What to do? “Tourneur” would require a footnote explanation when I had no words to spare. And I have not yet been called to the Middleton Rapture. So, heeding the lesson of my misadvised adventure in courage, I opted for supine. I named no author at all, even as I cited for the text MacDonald Jackson’s edition in Taylor and Lavagnino’s complete collection of Middleton’s works. Now I find myself somewhat contrite. If Mutius Scaevola could burn off his right hand for Rome, could I not at least have submitted myself to another lecture?
I’ll try to make amends here. I’ll say why I think, on balance, The Revenger’s Tragedy probably was written by Tourneur. But if you are admiring my courage after all, I’ll be honest with you. I truly hope that the next time Gary sees me he is again accompanied by his girlfriend.
I’ll try to be succinct. The subject has been discussed many times before, and my own additions are modest. I’ll look at the question, as I always do, from the point of view of an experienced trial lawyer, the profession in which I have spent, or perhaps misspent, my life. It isn’t about what I want to believe. It’s about what the evidence shows. That’s a hard lesson for every newbie trial lawyer to learn, but one they must learn if they are to do their jobs properly. If this were a criminal case the standard of proof would be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” By that standard, I promise, no one can say either Tourneur or Middleton. But in civil cases the standard is “more probable than not.” By that standard, I think, Tourneur must be considered the author.
Objective evidence is always the most important. Although it may be misinterpreted, it cannot err. The principal objective evidence of authorship here is contained in two lists of printed play books for sale. The first list was published by Edward Archer in 1656. The second was published by Francis Kirkman in 1661, and revised in 1671. Both lists identify Tourneur as the author of The Revenger’s Tragedy. They are not authoritative, however, so their general accuracy must be closely examined.
Archer’s list, as he reasonably clearly indicates, includes two inventories of printed play books available for sale, both his own and that of another bookseller, Robert Pollard. With respect to Pollard’s books Archer evidently took the information supplied by Pollard without analysis and without actually looking at the books themselves. Thus, Archer’s list contains several instances in which alternate titles for the same plays are entered as separate books. And many entries on Archer’s list fail to identify authors even though the authors are named on the title pages of the printed quartos. Pollard, as I take it, failed to indicate that the alternative play names actually represented the same plays, and failed to identify the authors from the title pages. Archer merely incorporated into his list the information that Pollard provided him.
Archer exercised a better standard of care with respect to the books in his own inventory. He seems to have consulted an earlier list of books for sale by Rogers and Ley, and he seems to have looked at his books’ title pages. Those two sources account for the overwhelming majority of play author identifications. Most, but only most, of the identifications in those sources are correct. Archer usually took this information as he found it in those sources. The Revenger’s Tragedy belongs to a relatively small group of plays on Archer’s list for which neither Rogers and Ley nor the surviving quarto title pages name an author, yet Archer identifies an author on his list. The entry is: “Revenger | T [for Tragedy] | Tournour.”
In order to ascertain the likelihood that this identification is correct, we must consider both all other entries in which authors are similarly first identified by Archer and Archer’s incentives in offering author identifications. Archer’s purpose in publishing the list was, of course, to draw patrons to his shop (and Pollard’s), potentially to buy the listed books. Author identifications could not assist in that purpose if prospective patrons would recognize them as inaccurate. True, an inaccurately identified famous author might draw the ignorant, but Archer does not seem to have engaged in any such tactic intentionally. Our specimen is a case in point. Few patrons if any would have been drawn to Archer’s shop by Tourneur’s name.
Thus, we may conclude, Archer sought as best he could and based on the information he had at hand to identify the authors correctly. His possible sources of information for this group of authors are threefold. The author might have been named on the title page of an edition now lost. The name might have been handwritten on an extant quarto’s title page. Or Archer may have acquired independent information. But he did not just guess. He himself identifies no author for almost every play that we still consider to be anonymous, leaving out of course misidentifications adopted from Rogers and Ley or quarto title pages.
Archer may have had personal knowledge regarding late Jacobean and Caroline plays, so to assess his information about The Revenger’s Tragedy we should focus mainly on other Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays. Archer’s information regarding those plays was, for the most part, correct. Assuming that our modern attributions are correct, Archer six times correctly identifies play authors when only the authors’ initials appear on the extant quarto title pages: