Tamburlaine the Great

Performance history

The first part of Tamburlaine was performed by the Admiral's Men late in 1587, around a year after Marlowe's departure from Cambridge University. Edward Alleyn performed the role of Tamburlaine, and it apparently became one of his signature roles. The play's popularity, significant enough to prompt Marlowe to produce the sequel, led to numerous stagings over the next decade.

The stratification of London audiences in the early Jacobean period changed the fortunes of the play. For the sophisticated audiences of private theatres such as Blackfriars and (by the early 1610s) the Globe Theatre, Tamburlaine's "high astounding terms" were a relic of a simpler dramatic age. Satiric playwrights occasionally mimicked Marlowe's style, as John Marston does in the induction to Antonio and Mellida.

While it is likely that Tamburlaine was still revived in the large playhouses, such as the Red Bull Theatre, that catered to traditional audiences, there is no surviving record of a Renaissance performance after 1595. Tamburlaine suffered more from the change in fashion than did Marlowe's other plays like Doctor Faustus or The Jew of Malta of which there are allusions to performances. Edward Phillips, in his Theatrum Poetarum (1675), is so unfamiliar with the play that he attributes its writing to Thomas Newton.[6] A further sign of the obscurity this one-time audience favourite had fallen into is offered by playwright Charles Saunders. Having written his own play in 1681 on Tamburlaine, he was accused by critics of having plagiarised Marlowe's work, to which he replied,

I never heard of any Play on the same Subject, untill my own was Acted, neither have I since seen it, though it hath been told me, there is a Cock Pit Play going under the name of the Scythian Shepherd, or Tamberlain the Great, being a thing, not a Bookseller in London, or scarce the Players themselves, who Acted it formerly cou'd call to remembrance.[7]

In 1919, the Yale Dramatic Association staged a Tamburlaine which edited and combined both parts of Marlowe's play. A revival of both parts in a condensed form was presented at The Old Vic in September 1951, with Donald Wolfit in the title role.[8] For the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (now the Stratford Festival of Canada) in 1956, Tyrone Guthrie directed another dual version, starring Donald Wolfit, William Shatner, Robert Christie and Louis Negin;[9] it travelled to Broadway, where it failed to impress—Eric Bentley, among others, panned it— although Anthony Quayle, who replaced Wolfit in the title role, received a Tony Award nomination for his performance, as did Guthrie for his direction.

The Royal National Theatre production in 1976 featured Albert Finney in the title role; this production opened the new Olivier Theatre on the South Bank. Peter Hall directed. This production is generally considered the most successful of the rare modern productions.

In 1993 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed an award-winning production of the play, with Antony Sher as Tamburlaine and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Olympia.

Jeff Dailey directed both parts of the play, uncut, at the American Theatre of Actors in New York City. He presented Part I in 1997 and Part II in 2003, both in the outdoor theatre located in the courtyard of 314 West 54th Street.

Avery Brooks played the lead role in a production of the play for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play ran from 28 October 2007 to 6 January 2008 and was directed by Michael Kahn. [1]

A radio adaptation – of Part I – directed by Peter Kavanagh was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 16 September 2012 and starred Con O'Neill as Tamburlaine, with Kenneth Cranham as Cosroe, Edward de Souza as the Sultan and Oliver Ford Davies as Mycetes.

A new production combining Parts I and II ("trimming Marlowe’s two five-act plays to three hours of stage time [with a half-hour intermission]")[10] edited and directed by Michael Boyd opened at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York on 16 November 2014 with John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine, Merritt Janson as Zenocrate/Callapine and a "large, multipurpose ensemble" cast.[10]

While the play has been revived periodically over the past century, the obstacles it presents—a large cast and an actor capable of performing in such a challenging role chief among them—have prevented more widespread performance. In general, the modern playgoer may still echo F. P. Wilson's question, asked at mid-century, "How many of us can boast that we are more than readers of Tamburlaine?"[11]

2005 controversy

In November 2005, a production of Tamburlaine at the Barbican Arts Centre in London was accused of deferring to Muslim sensibilities by amending a section of the play in which the title character burns the Quran and excoriates the Islamic prophet, Muhammad. The sequence was changed so that Tamburlaine instead defiles books representing all religious texts. The director denied censoring the play, stating that the change was a "purely artistic" decision "to focus the play away from anti-Turkish pantomime to an existential epic".[12]

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