For three weeks in June, 55 members and friends of The Shakespeare Institute took part in the fourth annual play-reading marathon, ploughing through what at the outset we understood to be the entire surviving dramatic canon of Thomas Dekker, in chronological order. As befits the Institute, the ‘Dekkerthon’, as it quickly became known, was an event which attracted worldwide participation: the mix of nationalities among the readers included Chinese, Danish, Indian, Australian, Spanish, American (including Native American), Italian, and Anglo-European. Others who were unable to come to Stratford for the event read along with us from afar and followed our progress through a live Twitter feed in which readers reported their reactions, both frivolous and serious, playfully silly and critically acute.
Our marathons are intended to offer the opportunity to think about a large body of material in a concentrated form, and they are always intellectually rewarding; but the ‘Dekkerthon’ has been perhaps the most revealing of them all. Both academic authorship research and our own general experience as readers tell us that writers have distinctive, recurring stylistic and lexical habits. As we read through Dekker’s plays, we began to recognize his ‘fingerprints’: his favourite words and tricks of rhetoric, and the subjects that interested him, from the Lord Mayor of London’s inaugural street pageants to leap-frogging nuns. And those ‘prints’ appear not only on the plays of his acknowledged canon but also a handful of others which were included in the marathon on the basis that they were suspected, rather than known, to be his work. Initial checks during the marathon also revealed them in at least one play that we weren’t reading – and once the results are written up and the Dekker ‘genome’ is mapped more formally, there may be more hitherto unattributed plays to add to the list of his writings.
Thomas Dekker, who wrote for most of the major acting companies in London during a thirty-year career, now tends to be underrated. The dramatist who has emerged from our readings is politically and socially conscious. He was also a subtle and extremely versatile writer: despite their common authorial ‘fingerprint’, the plays showed a great variety of subject matter, setting, and genre, handling powerful tragedy and brilliantly funny comedy with equal aplomb. We look forward to encouraging further exploration and performance of this remarkable body of work.
Public-domain texts of many of Dekker’s plays, and the collected tweets from the marathon, may be found on the event’s website: https://dekkerthon.wordpress.com/