Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

We return for the third and final session of the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival.

Characters Performing for Characters in the Plays of Philip Massinger, by Brian Falbo (MLitt candidate)

Brian begins with a quick introduction to The Roman Actor and the scene presented by Katie Crandol, Elizabeth Rentfro, and Liz Lodato. Brian then states that he divides performance-within-plays into two major categories: frame performance (plays, masques, religious ceremonies, and legal proceedings) and natural performance (deceit, manipulation, disguise). The Roman Actor contains examples of both types, often layered upon each other. He also distinguishes the on-stage, in-play, scripted audience from the in-theatre audience (who, he notes apologetically, matters less for the purposes of his thesis). In The Roman Actor, the eponymous actor, Paris, presents an idealized version of theatre, with the ability to instruct virtue. Brian then looks at the arbitrary political executions and murders of retribution, relating them to the frame devices and examining Domitian’s use of theatre as thought-control on his audience. Domitian’s attempts fail entirely, because “theatre is suggestion and not thought-control,” and Domitian has to resort repeatedly to his only real power – that of life and death over his subjects, executing those who displease him by failing to get the message of the performance. After Massinger displays Domitian’s failure three times, he moves to the Empress, whose failure is different in that “she attempts to make the theatre conform to her life,” to the extent that she genuinely fears the death of the actor in whom she is interested; the Empress is incapable of separating role from actor. The blurred lines culminate when, during another performance, Domitian takes a role and then uses a real weapon and kills the actor Paris. In Paris, Domitia, and Domitian, Massinger presents three extremes of theatre, all of which critically fail, suggesting that “a compromise of all three viewpoints is a possible” reconciliation — though Massinger does not suggest how to go about finding that middle ground. Brian suggests that this play, Massinger’s first as a house playwright, may be Massinger’s “manifesto,” a demonstration of three extremes of theatre which he vows not to stray too near to.

“Perchance to Dream”: Shakespeare’s Dream Imagery within Early Modern Dream Culture, by Melissa Tolner (MLitt candidate)

Melissa begins by introducing the concept of dreams, in personal, scientific, and historical terms. She cites several sources for dreamlore in early modern England: Greek and Roman sources, medieval English folklore, and religious texts. She also notes the overlap of dream symbolism with sympathetic magic and the occult. Additionally, she covers the history of publications of books on dreams and dream interpretation in the 16th century, which included such strange notations such as “if one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow.” Melissa suggests that dreams on stage bridge the gap between realistic story and overt allegory. She examines dreams within Richard III, beginning with Clarence’s dire premonition (presented by Bobby Byers and AJ Sclafani), full of macabre imagery, designed to move audience sympathies to align with Clarence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Melissa examines Shakespeare’s inheritance of themes from medieval traditions and Chaucer’s, with Nick Bottom’s dream speech presented by Angelina LaBarre. Melissa also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains only a single actual dream — Hermia’s nightmare in Act Two (which Angelina also presents). Melissa then moves to Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio’s speech about “the fairy’s midwife,” better known as the Queen Mab speech (presented by Elizabeth Rentfro and AJ). She compares this discussion with Romeo’s description of his ironically optimistic dream in 5.1, where the audience witnesses Romeo analyze his own dream. Melissa concludes by commenting on the point of intersection between Shakespeare’s audience and our own as the key place for finding the transcendent meaning of dreams on the stage.

“I told you, if those should holde their peace, the stones would cry”: Drama and the Emergence of a Caroline Culture of Censorship, by David Ashton (MLitt candidate)

David begins by reminding us of the dates of the Caroline reign (1625-1649, Charles I’s beheading) and of Carolina drama (1625-1642, the closing of the theatres). He then introduces his focus: what did playwrights have to say about censorship and how did they contend with it? As a point of reference, James I exercised censorship twice as often as Elizabeth had, but Charles I exercised censorship five times as much as his father. David details the various (and numerous) institutions which Charles directed or constructed to deal with matters of censorship. He then contrasts these methods with the actions of Parliament over the authority of the King, first banning playing on Sundays in 1641, then closing the theatres entirely in 1642. David introduces the scholarship of Annabel Patterson, who focused on the idea of examining “functional ambiguity” within early modern drama. He then shares his working definition of censorship. David then moves into looking at specific hearings on censorship of printed works and the 1000-page polemic against theatre, Histriomastix, written by William Prynne, for which Prynne was tried in Star Chamber for slander and libel against the King and his people. David identifies this trial (late 1632-early 1634) and its judgment as the turning point for censorial efforts in the Caroline era. Prynne’s downfall found its way into several plays of the period, as playwrights enjoyed themselves at his expense, and James Shirley, who went on the attack against Prynne, rose to a prominent position in court. David notes that this sequence of events shows that the theatre was not always at odds with the censorial authorities, but sometimes benefited from their actions. David concludes by linking these events to the idea of a “culture of censorship” in the Caroline era.

What a marathon of a day it’s been — Congratulations to all of the presenters for their fine work!

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 2).

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 2

We’re back for Session 2 of the MLitt/MFA Festival, with five presentations between now and 4:30.

What Would Will Do? Contemporary Playwrights Writing for Shakespeare’s Globe, by Katy Mulvaney (MLitt candidate)

Katy begins with a staging of the first words spoken on the stage of the new Globe, introducing her concept of producing new works in the early modern architecture. Katy argues that the new Globe presents an opportunity to synthesize modern sensibilities and theatrical conventions with the advantages offered by the early modern space, as well as to explore the points of conflict and contention between theatrical expectations in the two eras. She gives examples from plays by Peter Oswald, written for Shakespeare’s Globe, which parody the early modern conventions of staging darkness and asides to the audience. While these examples call out some of the suspensions of disbelief necessary in Shakespeare’s plays, they also toy with the audience’s expectations in a way that pushes normal boundaries and explores new avenues. She also discusses other ways of involving the audience, whether pulling a volunteer to take the place of an actor, or placing actors in the galleries to augment the feeling of discussion in a crowded hall. Katy argues that new plays produced for the Globe can explore opportunities the stage presents that early modern plays do not. During the Q&A, Katy says further than the most frequent early modern staging condition that new playwrights seem to explore is audience contact.

The Pyrotechnique Story: Commanding Dragons, Devils, the Natural and the Celestial, by Maxim Overton (MLitt candidate)

Maxim begins by apologizing for the lack of explosions in his presentation (and acknowledges that we have a right to be disappointed that he’ll be setting nothing on fire). He goes on to say that his research indicates a dearth of scholarship on the practice of special effects in early modern theatre. He argues that the two most significant inventions of the 15th-century in Europe were the printing press and gunpowder, and that while we in the early modern theatrical community have discussed much about the former, we have given almost no thought to the latter. Maxim connects the idea of special effects with the appearance and visual representation of magic on the stage, particularly the intersection of magic and scholarship, using Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay as his primary example. He argues that fire was a necessity (or, at least, that an acting company must have considered it a necessity) to represent a demon, dragon, or hellmouth, escalating the creature in question from the mundane to the magical. Maxim then moves on to a consideration of Dr Faustus, where the eponymous character has already gained command of every other scholarly discipline and now moves on to demonology. His first attempt at summoning yields a dragon, and Maxim argues that the accompanying stage direction indicates use of pyrotechnics. He refers to Sarah Keyes Chang’s 2010 thesis which posited that the dragon was a puppet, but Maxim considers that a puppet “would not be horrible enough” or “memorable enough to, twenty years later, be depicted on the title page.” He goes on to describe other places in the play where the presence of devils and magic suggests further use of fireworks, including the potential for “fire-breathing masks” or a costume which was, itself, on fire. (He also notes that there are four or five examples of such a costume “going badly”). During the Q&A, Maxim notes that the advance of gunpowder changed pyrotechnics and fire from an element of light, heavenly characters to dark, evil, satanic characters; fire became a threat rather than a source of comfort.

“What Imports This Song”: Transmitting Ballad Allusions in Hamlet to the Post-Modern Practitioner, by Michael Allen Hollinger (MLitt candidate)

Michael examines the references to popular songs written into Hamlet, allusions which are now lost on modern audience. His presentation opens with two poems, presented by Clara Giebel and Elizabeth Rentfro, the first comprised of lyrics from early modern songs, the second of lyrics from songs from the past fifty years. Michael points out that while we may not recognize any of the lyrics from the first poem, most of us could point out many, if not all, of the references made in the second poem. Michael questions first if it’s possible to make the early modern allusions as recognizable to modern audiences as they were to the original audiences; “The answer is no.” How, then, can practitioners approach the material in a way that illuminates meaning? He admits that the thesis is, in the words of Dr. Menzer, “productive trouble, working without a clear solution.” Michael seeks to open the discussion and to provide an avenue for further exploration in production. Looking at a song of Ophelia’s, he first sets the lyrics to the modernly-recognizable tune of “Scarborough Faire,” then attempts an invented melody, then finally to “Camptown Races” (all sung by Clara Giebel). He argues that the the melancholic first two options were superior to the third, upbeat tune, “unless you want Ophelia to look completely cracked-out.” In his next example, Hamlet (AJ Sclafani) and Polonius (Shannon Schultz) have a conversation in which Hamlet quotes or near-quotes several times from a ballad called “Jepha, Judge of Israel.” Without any tune, the allusions pass the audience by. AJ and Shannon then present the scene again, this time with all of the ballad-originated lines to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface,” then a third time, mixing speech and melody. The second staging makes Hamlet appear a little goofy, while the third staging explicates the point that Polonius is missing the reference, but may contain too little of the actual tune for the audience to recognize it. In a fourth staging, Polonius tries to acknowledge Hamlet’s allusion, but doesn’t know the tune. Michael explains that each tactic attempted during rehearsal “tells us something different about the characters,” and that exploring the ballad allusions in this way can open up many doors for interpretation. Shannon, AJ, and Elizabeth give another example, from the gravedigger scene, in which Michael identifies the gravedigger’s song as one out of “Tottel’s Miscellany.” He notes that the actors decided that the gravedigger could sing either a recognizable modern or an invented tune, as long as it is upbeat and cheerful, based on Hamlet’s reaction. In another interpretation, Michael switched the verses in Hamlet for different verses from the same song, these focused more on the subject of death, thus at once more appropriate and inappropriate for the gravedigger. Michael argues that the switch allows a modern audience to recognize more easily Shakespeare’s possible intent with the allusion. Michael argues that musical allusions in performance are certainly not foreign to modern audiences, and that he hopes that productions will work to discover Shakespeare’s possible intentions through the original allusions and then work to make those intentions clear on the stage.

Playing Women Playing Men on the Blackfriars Stage, by Linden Kueck (MLitt candidate)

Linden states that her research began with a question: “Why was the early-modern English stage willing to take boys for women, and why are modern audiences willing to take women for men?” She argues that gender hierarchies remain present in casting practices and audience reactions. She focused on three productions: Kate Norris as Richard III, presenting a female actor as an adult male character, Vanessa Morosco as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, a female actor as a female character, and Denice Burbach as King Henry in 2 Henry VI, a female actor as a male but young and perhaps feminine character. Linden then gives over the stage to her doppleganger, Glenn Schudel, to re-enact first a conversation with Ralph Cohen (presented by Amanda Allen). This conversation illuminates some reasons behind OCS casting choices, including the choice never to change the gender of a character, as well as the roughly 8-4 male-to-female ratio amongst the actors. The conversation also probes the tendency of men playing women to be a “send-up,” and the tendency of females in male’s roles to be “functionary.” Female actors are required to adopt male traits seriously; the same is not often required from male actors regarding femininity. Next, Maxim Overton enters as another Linden for excerpts from her interviews with Jim Warren (presented by Bonnie Morrison). In the interview, Jim noted that, early on in the OCS’s history, some female actors had been unhappy playing even large male roles. The discussion also includes physical signifiers of femininity (such as hands-on-hips) and costuming; Jim noted that he tries to eliminate aspects that make the audience think about the actors as women. Maxim-Linden adds that, in more recent years, more female actors have been willing to audition for male roles. When it comes to performing gender, “mOCSulinity becomes creation by negation,” while femininity is prosthetic. The scene shifts to Amanda Allen as Linden and Glenn Schudel as Kate Norris, in a phone interview focusing on Kate’s performance as Richard III and on her current Hamlet project. Kate noted that she “didn’t try to suppress anything… I don’t take away anything that I am,” rather focusing on adding traits pertinent to the character. She also spoke to a “sense of entitlement” in male characters and to the need to figure out how to “take up more space… spread my legs wide” because that was a more mOCSuline assumption. Speaking to the response from audiences, Kate stated that she felt like it made them feel like they could do anything, like it called attention to the taboo about men playing women. Amanda-Linden went on to discuss the OCS practices of reducing feminine features through breast bindings, whereas men add false breasts and padding, relating it to Kate’s idea about women feeling the need to take up less space whereas men feel entitled to take up more space. Next, Bonnie Morrison as Linden re-creates an interview with Vanessa Morosco (Maxim), wherein Vanessa talks about the difference between watching female characters react to others and seeing Helena in All’s Well tell the audience about herself. Female characters tend to have fewer lines and few or no soliloquies, depriving them of opportunities to connect with the audience as strongly as the main male characters do. Linden also asked Vanessa what role in Shakespeare she would most like to play, leading to Vanessa stating that she would “like to live in some of the larger male roles for a while.” Linden herself retakes the stage, joined by all of her doubles, to sum up: the theatre needs to acknowledge the extant gender hierarchies and the implications of casting, and then to use theatre to challenge rather than reinforce gender constructs. She concludes that the OCS should push further, moving female actors past purely functional male roles and male actors past purely comic female roles. During the Q&A, Linden explicates that she asked Glenn to send-up femininity, Maxim and Amanda to try and play her specifically, and Bonnie to try and portray a typical female scholar, as a way of exploring the different options for portraying a female character on the stage.

Who Done It? A Case for Collaborative Authorship in Arden of Faversham, by Daniel F. Trombley (MLitt candidate)

Dan posits a two-author theory for Arden of Faversham, based on the notable disjuncture in the text. He notes that he will present scenes from the beginning, middle, and end of the play which best explicate the duality (with Melissa Tolner, Jonathan Haas, Liz Lodato, and Stephanie Tschetter acting). The first scene presents the plotting of a murder and concurrent promise of a marriage in somewhat comic strokes, along with fairly heavy-handed, though fast-paced, exposition. The language in the second scene changes considerably, with previously dull characters breaking out into surprising poignancy and demonstrating a deftness with literary allusions that they do not possess elsewhere. Further scenes continue to underscore the volatile nature of the text and the inconsistency in characters’ speech. Dan notes that there may be other elements at play as well, such as the impermeability of the text in early modern print culture, confusing the issue of transmission from original manuscript to what we have extant today. Dan then leads us through a history of the theories surrounding the authorship controversy of Arden of Faversham and the complications of attribution studies. During the Q&A, Dan introduces the idea of the “apocrypha texts,” whereby scholars have subjected various plays to a series of textual tests; a play which fails three is considered not-Shakespearean, but as many as nine failures may still be considered to have a Shakespearean hand in it.

And now we’re off for a dinner break (which I think ought more properly, at this hour, to be termed a tea break) — back at 5:30 for the final three presenters.

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 3).

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 1

Good morning, all. Today at the Blackfriars Playhouse, thirteen students from Mary Baldwin College will give presentations on their MLitt and MFA projects. These presentations are a required portion of the thesis project for all candidates. The OCS education team will be live-blogging throughout the day-long event. The first session runs from 9:30 to 12:25.

Mediated Dramaturgy: Using Technology to Improve Different Forms of Dramaturgy, by Paul Rycik (MFA candidate)

Paul begins by apologizing for the pun in his title, noting that his thesis focuses on the use of media technology, but that “mediate” as a verb does not necessarily include components of media. How, then, Paul posits, is a dramaturg a mediator? Paul then explicates the job of the dramaturg within the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the specific needs and requirements of the actors working under the ARS’s rehearsal conditions. These demands led him to create a combination of social media, web material, digital videos, and conventional dramaturgy packets. Paul moves on to describing his process in producing material for 3 Henry VI: a packet for glossary of terms, costume suggestions, video biographies of major characters, websites built for the pertinent historical background and geographical details, and a blog documenting his ongoing research. He then demonstrates how he used the blog to answer questions for actors during the rehearsal process, giving the example of exploring a possible textual variant in King Henry’s lines. He also showed the audience his video biography of Richard, Duke of York, with Michael Wagoner (an MLitt first-year) narrating over a series of portraits, battle illustrations, family trees, and other visual information. Paul explains how the combination of visual and auditory information allows for greater fluidity in presenting information than a traditional packet would. Another aspect of Paul’s project, playing deformity, involved information from his MLitt thesis, offering a production history of Richard Crookback. Paul concludes by speaking on the responsibilities of a dramaturg and by noting that dramaturgy is, by its nature, a continuing process.

Shakespeare’s Chaucer, by Matthew Charles Carter (MLitt candidate)

Matthew prefaces his project with a critique of source studies, suggesting that simply knowing what Shakespeare used as a source for a given play isn’t enough. He says his thesis includes three arguments “that the proverbial book is not yet closed.” He begins with the parity of literature on the subject, as only two main books on Shakespeare’s sources currently exist. He discusses the many possible sources for Troilus and Cressida, then introduces Geoffrey Chaucer (Kimberly Maurice) and William Shakespeare (Maria Hart) to discuss the biographical similarities and differences between the two authors. Matt then moves to looking at a linguistic and rhetorical comparison between the texts, specifically looking at the character of Pandarus and the devices erotema, anthypophora, and interrogatio. Kim and Maria, along with Paul Rycik, Monica Tedder, and Riley Steiner present scenes from Shakespeare’s play along with staged segments of Chaucer’s poem. Matt then relates the use of rhetorical devices to the sexual euphemisms and circumlocution prevalent in both the poetry and the play. Matt then relates the play’s sparse production history to its literary origins, presenting arguments that the play “right from the start, was seen as a literary artifact” rather than as a playing text; Matt, however, argues that Shakespeare recognized the performative elements of Chaucer’s original and brought them to the stage. He concludes by restating his belief in the value of source studies.

Recovering London: Editing a Forgotten Script for Performance and Study, by Glenn F. Schudel (MFA candidate)

Glenn begins with the unusual publication history for A Larum for London, then asks the question, “Why would I spend so much time on a play no one cares about?” His answer: “This play is a lot of fun,” featuring bloodthirsty Spaniards, devious Belgians, a cannon discharging, lots of violence, and “a violent, jaded, one-legged protagonist named Stump.” Glenn connects his love for this play with the OCS”s tendency to revive obscure scripts. He moves on to the question of why anyone should edit an early modern playscript, and he suggests that a fair bit of it has to do with job security for “specialists in a fairly small field.” Glenn discusses the tendency of these specialists to gloss over the printing oddities and idiosyncrasies of early modern text while reading. While experts make these changes somewhat automatically, casual readers may not be able to adjust as swiftly — thus, the need for the production of edited texts. He introduces the frequent use of the long-s in A Larum for London and the confusions and potential embarrassment it could cause for teachers using an un-edited text where an “s” might easily look like an “f”, with the example, “the babe that sucks.” Other difficulties include inconsistencies in speech prefixes, syntactical errors, and unspecific directions. Glenn sums up his job rather neatly: “Every bit of clarity one can get is helpful.” Glenn calls for volunteers to do a cold reading, one of an unedited prologue and one of an edited epilogue: Bonnie, reading the prologue, stumbles through the reading, despite being, as part of this program, familiar with textual oddities, while Angelina, reading the edited epilogue, has no trouble either understanding the words herself, nor relating them to the audience. Glenn admits that “this is probably not a radical point that I’m making,” but it nonetheless proves that the job needs doing. His textual difficulties, he states, began with the title page, indeed, with the title of the play itself: A Larum or Alarum? How accurate is the subtitle, The Siedge of Antwerp? As Glenn notes, the 1914 Seige of Antwerp is notably absent from Renaissance drama; the 1576 Spoil of Antwerp, also known as the Spanish Fury, however, was a well-known event and a touchstone for Englishmen full of anti-Spanish sentiment. Glenn then calls up two more volunteers to read a passage, then says, “I’m going to dramaturg you. Don’t worry, it’s painless, usually.” He explains that the odd phrase “a Faulcon and two Harguebuz of Crocke” has several historical connotations lost on modern readers, which he would need to footnote in his edition. His visuals demonstrate that the “faulcon” is a rather solid and respectable type of small cannon, while a “Harguebuz of Crocke” appears to be “a goofy guy firing a gun on a stick,” explaining a character’s consternation at its use. Glenn concludes by noting that there is a lot of work left to be done in bringing this text up to standard.

Early Modern Murderesses, by Asae Dean (MLitt candidate)

Asae prefaces her presentation with readings from murdering females (and a hapless victim), given by Linden Keuck, Amanda Allen, Katie Crandol, and Johnny Adkins. She notes that early modern authors had their templates from Greek and Roman (specifically Sencan) dramas, and then distinguishes between the murderous woman and the murderess. The murderous, working through a proxy, takes after Electra, the murderess, taking action herself, takes after Clytemnestra. She then lists examples of each type, then goes into the victims (lovers, would-be lovers, husbands, rivals, etc) and the reasons for murder (revenge, fury, greed, etc). She notes her surprise that more of her murderesses are stabbers than poisoners, considering the cultural fear of marital murder via poison. Asae then presents a few examples of the murderesses of early modern drama. Her first example, Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy, does not begin as a murderess, but initially seeks another form of revenge. Asae suggests that Bel-Imperia demonstrates both excessive grief and heated passions, and that Bel-Imperia “learns to dissemble” from her murdering brother. She contrasts Bel-Imperia with Evadne from The Maid’s Tragedy, who begins sexually deviant and unrepentant, married to an honest man to cover her affair with the king. Where Bel-Imperia’s brother is the (inadvertent) source of her darker thoughts and actions, Evadne’s brother brings her back around to virtue — which she then expresses by murdering her royal lover. As Asae points out, “For Evadne, murder is an act of penance.” Both Bel-Imperia and Evadne stand by their murderous actions, however. In The Bloody Banquet, Thetis initially regrets her murder of her former lover; her husband then offers her the choice to eat her lover’s hewn limbs or starve, and Thetis chooses to eat. If her husband wants her dead, he will have to kill her. During the Q&A, Asae expands on the differences between the murderous and the murderess and on the gendering of murder.

The Physics of Contranymy: Indefinition, Sublim(inal)ity, and Play, by Zachary Brown (MLitt candidate)

Zach begins by prefacing the struggles of “meaning-making” in language. He states that he wants to investigate the signifiers attached to the word “pharmacon”, meaning most simply ” a drug,” noting that it can mean either “remedy” or “poison,” which does not do justice to the variant nuances attached to the original Greek term. He connects this idea to Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet in his 2.3 speech regarding the dual uses of certain flowers. Zach then discusses the complications of meaning that can arise from grammatical errors or ambiguities, using the example of the lack of definite aural difference between “insincerity” and “in sincerity” in Measure for Measure. Further passages out of the play suggest that the ambiguity in language mirrors the weaving-together of sincerity and insincerity in the characters’ words, actions, and intentions. Zach explores the contranymy of many words in the English language, where words that sound alike mean opposite things, which would be obvious on the page but may not be easily distinguished in speech, including “raise/raze.” He also examines the various meanings attached to Lucio’s name, meaning “light” in Latin, and with “light” bearing several variant connotations in early modern English (illumination, lack of weight, promiscuity), and finally connects all of the ambiguity to the actions of the Duke. During the Q&A, Dr. Menzer points out that, by telling us about the sincerity/insincerity difference which Zach argues depends on its subliminality, he may have erased that effect for anyone who has listened to this presentation or who reads this thesis; Zach suggests that, in action, the subliminality will take over again, that it’s possible to watch the play without consciously thinking about the ambiguities.

That’s it for Session 1 — We’ll be back at 1:30pm for Session 2, with five more MLitt candidates.

(Read more from Session 2 and Session 3).

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 4 February 2011

This week brought us scholarship through Twitter, a new podcast from the OCS, enlightening research on Shakespeare’s world, and the ongoing debate about the humanities in education.

  • I had a blast during #AskShakespeare Day. This idea, cooked up by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, brought scholars from all over the world together to answer questions about Shakespeare posed on Twitter. It was so wonderful to see how many people out there cared enough to ask questions about Shakespeare, and I got to trade ideas with some great scholars. We did see the authorship question pop up a few times, and plenty of people wanted to ask scholars and practitioners what our favorite plays and characters are, but we also encountered a range of other questions, some with concrete answers, but many that invited speculation: What race was Othello, really? Why do people talk about Hamlet having an Oedipus complex? Did Shakespeare pursue his own publication? What’s the most gruesome scene in an early modern play? (Votes went to the heart-on-a-knife in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and the head-bashing in Tamburlaine — both of which you’ll be able to see at the Blackfriars next year!). What’s the most underrated of Shakespeare’s plays? How would the plays have been different if women had been allowed on the stage? The whole experiment was so entertaining and a real intellectual rush. I think we should do it once a month. Of course, I’m happy to answer questions any day of the year — just ping @OCS_Cass.
  • The first Actor-Scholar Council podcast is up and waiting for you to listen to it. Greg Phelps, Tyler Moss, Sarah Fallon, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, and Jeremiah Davis joined a panel of scholars to discuss The Comedy of Errors. We’ll be recording the Council session on Look About You next week.
  • If you’re within easy traveling distance of Staunton, be sure to see Shannon Schultz’s directing project, an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet, on February 7th and 8th. The Staunton Newsleader interviewed Shannon about the project. (Please note that the Newsleader article has the performance time wrong: the show will start at 8pm both nights).
  • “Hellraising Antics of Shakespearean Actors Revealed”: The London Telegraph has posted an interesting article on what recent research has revealed about the theatrical world in which Shakespeare lived. Kidnappings, riots, thefts, vandalism, all brought to light courtesy of the new Early Modern London Theatres database.
  • If you still haven’t read James Shapiro’s Contested Will, here’s another review praising it as “an entertaining reappraisal of Shakespeare’s enduring fOCSination and a conspiracy story worthy of play by the great man himself.”
  • Dale Salwak of Citrus College, CA, shares his approach to getting his students to love Shakespeare. Cass says: I agree with a lot of what he has to say — that students say they hate Shakespeare because they really hate the way it’s been taught, that you don’t need to waste time teaching the plot, that it’s okay for art to make demands of the audience — but I still think he’s missing some key elements. His approach remains very page-based, with the augmentation of audio recordings. There’s so much to be gained by teaching the plays as plays and making the students take on the responsibilities and decision-making of actors.
  • And, because no edition of Imprimis would be complete without some links discussing the value of the humanities in education: How Liberals Killed the Liberal Arts, and The Humanities in America: An Endangered Species?

Imprimis will be on hiatus next Friday, as I will be at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference in Phoenix, along with Sarah and intern Liz, so you’ll get a double-issue on February 18th. Sarah and I will be Tweeting from the conference as well, and I’ll be posting about it when we get back.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 19 November 2010

A lot of education-oriented links this week, along with some items that are just good for a laugh.

  • Kevin J. Costa from the Folger talks about the thin line between teaching Shakespeare and directing it. Cass says: This shared skill set is something we’ve been trying to bring more to the forefront in our new study guides. It helps bring the plays to life so much more if the teacher can think like a director, moving the students through the action of the play rather than just talking about it. We know that trying to be a director can be a fear-inducing thing for some teachers, so we give the teachers the tools and the language to work like one.
  • The Kennedy Center has launched a new, interactive site for students. Sarah says: This one relates events/people to Shakespeare’s work in a new way. The site also provides some interesting videos.
  • A survey of job-related websites has ranked teaching as the fifth most stressful occupation, right behind combat soldiers, air traffic controllers, firemen, and coal miners.
  • Dan Rebellato at blog on The Guardian asks “What’s so wrong with proscenium arch theatre?”, and Stanley Wells, after asking “To thrust or not to thrust?“, also backs up Rebellato. Cass says: It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with proscenium theatres in general. It’s just that they seem less effective for early modern theatre, since proscenium arches don’t provide the conditions that early modern plays were written for. The opposite holds true as well, I think. Most Broadway musicals would never work on a small thrust stage like ours, for instance, and many new plays rely heavily on technological advances to tell their stories (I’m thinking of Closer, which requires being able to see an instant messaging conversation on-screen). There’s probably a larger blog entry in here for me, really, since this topic is so near and dear to the hearts of those of us at the OCS. I think the arguments against proscenium arches that others seem to be giving Rebellato miss the mark, and it’s certainly not like you can’t watch an excellent production with excellent performances on a proscenium stage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still drawbacks to that style, especially where early modern plays are concerned.
  • And now, for some shameless self-promotion: an article from Hood College, written by a student who came to see Othello, and one about the literary society from Randolph-Macon College coming to see The Taming of the Shrew. We’re so glad that these students had such positive experiences at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and we hope they’ll come back again soon.
  • MBC MLitt/MFA candidate and OCS employee Shannon Schultz has started a blog, More Things in Heaven and Earth, which will begin by chronicling her experiences directing an all-male production of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Finally, if your day needs a laugh, check out what would happen if Shakespearean characters posted on Craigslist.

Imprimis will be off next week for the holiday, so look for an extra-big listing on December 3rd.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 12 November 2010

Quite a few links this week, on a smattering of different subjects:

  • Are naughty words a vanishing species? An op-ed wonders about if profanity becoming so common and unshocking is de-valuating powerful words. The article includes a brief discussion on Shakespeare and Bowdlerization.
  • Meanwhile, an editor at the Desert Valley Times think we should be insulting each other with greater flair and panache and suggests that politicians should borrow some of Shakespeare’s zingers during debates.
  • In the wake of the US’s recent turbulent elections, here’s a ballot I think we can all get behind: Shakespeare/Marlowe 2012. Bumper sticker sales are going to a foundation that promotes Shakespeare and theatre education for young folks across the country. Cass says: I wonder who would run against them. Beaumont/Fletcher? Jonson/HisEgo?
  • Some suggestions on teaching Shakespeare from a “computer buff” who “likes to write.” Sarah says: He begins by stating his chagrin regarding students and adults, then suggests some ways to relax students. He includes teaching the plays as performance and suggests movie viewings… I say movies in bits but go “performance”!
  • Tips on working through a Shakespearean monologue. Sarah says: While I don’t agree with all of Alex Swenson’s terminology and conclusions (“Some of the language in Shakespeare is outdated and therefore hard to understand”), I think the steps of exploration (paraphrase, scansion, character clues within the play) may be helpful to students and teachers. I would offer that a word-for-word paraphrase, leaving the syntax intact, would also reveal clues about the character that students should explore.
  • A compendium of the articles of David Crystal. Sarah says: My obsession with word meaning, invention, and instruction comes into play in this recommendation. David Crystal figured heavily into my thesis, so imagine my joy finding all of his articles in one place! I would also encourage you to follow his blog… some Shakespeare, lots of word talk.
  • Intern Natalie blogs about the thesis festival. Sarah says: I know I am citing our own blog here, but gosh, if Natalie can’t get a point across eloquently. Read it to see what you missed on Monday.
  • Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman. Cass says: Bardfilm blogs about the intersection of two of my favorite things, in honor of Neil Gaiman’s 50th birthday. Anyone who hasn’t read, well, all of Sandman, really, but especially the issues featuring A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest has completely missed out. One of my favorite moments actually comes when Morpheus, the Shaper of Dreams, first meets Shakespeare in a pub and overhears him talking to Kit Marlowe, saying: “I would give anything to have your gifts, or more than anything to give men dreams that would live on long after I am dead. I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon.” (Fun fact – almost everything Shakespeare says in his first appearance is in iambic pentameter. Because Neil Gaiman is Just That Good).
  • Finally, San Jose State University theatre is putting on a steampunk Twelfth Night. Cass says: I felt like I had to include this one, following the Gaiman link, just in case there was any doubt about my level of geek-dom. Seriously, though, this is the third steampunk Twelfth Night I’ve heard about in, I think, three years. Why is this play getting all the steampunk love and not the rest of the canon? Christina has suggested a steampunk Civil War Cymbeline, and I’m for it. What other plays do you think would work well all steampunk-ed out? (And for any of our readers asking “What on earth is this ‘steampunk’ thing Cass is going on about?”, here’s a collection of descriptions of the aesthetic/movement/genre).

Enjoy your weekends! Anyone who’s seeing some good early modern plays ought to let us know about it.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

And we’re back for the third and final session of this semester’s MLitt/MFA presentations. Four more presenters this time around:

If the Shrew Fits: Chronology, Misogyny, and Dichotomy in the Taming Plays
presented by Andrea Kelley

Andrea’s presentation opens with a video montage of various productions and adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, illustrating Kate’s dramatic arc throughout the course of the story. The selection includes the Taylor-Burton Shrew, a puppetry show, 10 Things I Hate About You, and a recent BBC update, thus representing selections from across several decades of modern media.

Andrea then explains that this montage shows that there is no one Shrew in the cultural consciousness — and there never was. Seven different adaptations existed between 1594 and 1754. To examine the differences between these adaptations, Andrea has chosen to focus on the infamous “final speech” by Katherina. Katie Crandol and Sarah Keyes Chang help Andrea by speaking passages of this speech from different adaptations, beginning with Shakespeare’s. In the 1594 The Taming of A Shrew (anonymous), the speech calls even more strongly on biblical allusions, placing wives in context of Eve and Sarah to Adam and Abraham. The third version comes from The Tamer Tamed, a sequel, in which Petruchio’s second wife, Maria, completely up-ends Kate’s veneration of her husband. Next comes Sauny the Scot, a 1698 play by John Lacy, wherein the Kate analog, Peg, gives only a two-line speech, which Petruchio then follows up with a reference to Tamer Tamed. Neither of the works entitled The Cobbler of Preston include an analog for Kate’s speech, as both derive from the Sly frame story only. Finally, in the 1878 Booth adaptation of the 1754 Garrick play Katharine and Petruchio, the text pulls some of Shakespeare’s text directly, but abbreviated. Andrea notes that nothing in any of these plays can serve as either a description of or a prescription for all early modern marriages, as they differ in of themselves.

Andrea moves on to present several other presentations of early modern marriage: a dialogue between a good wife and a shrew, by Erasmus; a 1652 polemic by John Taylor, which suggests a song a husband may sing to a wife “if she begins to yell at him” — which seems to suggest beating a wife to death with a club; a description by Frances Boyle Shannon in 1696, which opines that it would “be now another wedding miracle” to see obedient wives; and a ballad “The Taming of a Shrew, or, the Only Way to Make a Bad Wife Good, or at Least Keep Her Quiet, Be She Bad or Good,” which posits the suggestion that men have faults, too.

Andrea concludes by stating that even the totality of all the available Shrews does not represent an accurate depiction of early modern marriage, any more than a representation of all modern sitcoms represents all modern marriages.

What to Expect When Staging the Expecting: Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama
presented by Amanda Noel Allen

Amanda’s actors begin by punctuating attitudes towards pregnancy: Linden Kueck is well-padded and resting her hand on her stomach in the universal signal for “baby on board”, David Ashton represents the patriarchy, complete with misconceptions and bad puns, Brian Falbo seems grossed out, and Rob Cantrell merely hangs his head in shame. Amanda prefaces the several issues involved with presenting pregnancy, including discomfort, the feminist trouble with women who define themselves by the ability to give birth, and the nurturing/threatening binary which tends to dominate portrayals of pregnancy. Amanda questions why so much rehearsal time is given to battles or portraying deformities (as in Richard III), but so little given to how to present pregnancy.

Amanda defines 3 criteria for the pregnant characters she chose to examine in her thesis: 1) Characters who are undoubtedly pregnant (excluding Doll Tearsheet, who may be faking), 2) Characters who are enough along that a physical representation would be expected (excluding Helena of All’s Well, as her gestation is uncertain), 3) Characters whose pregnancy is a driving force in their plot. Thus, she chooses Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, and Juliet from Measure for Measure.

She begins by examining Hermione in several different productions of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione’s pregnancy became an issue of anxiety for Leontes. Amanda addresses the notion that “the public nature of the later months of pregnancy” necessitates reactions from the other characters on stage. Falbo, Kueck, and Ashton portray a scene calling attention to Hermione’s maternity. Amanda relates Leontes’s and Polixenes’s desire to avoid upsetting a pregnant woman to early modern conceptions about what could happen to a child in utero, including that disturbing sights or thoughts could be harmful, and that pregnant women ought to moderate their emotions to keep from causing deformity in the child’s physical form or personality. Amanda then ties this idea to modern notions of how mothers should act. She argues then that the later scene, when Leontes accuses Hermione, can be informed by the idea that Hermione must be attempting to retain composure.

Amanda moves on to consider the Duchess, who attempts to hide her pregnancy, unlike Hermione, whose pregnancy is completely public. She asks what other signifiers can be called upon if the “baby bump” is hidden by loose garments, and her actors read from What to Expect When You’re Expecting to call upon other playable symptoms of pregnancy. This gives the Duchess (Ashton) something to perform, and Bosolo (Falbo) something to attempt to observe. Amanda states that she thinks “distractingly large bellies” may do the actor and audience a disservice by making it harder for the audience to focus on the actor’s words. Such choices could also become too comic or too monstrous, and thus inappropriate for certain plays.

Finally, Amanda considers Juliet. She has Kueck and Cantrell portray the scene between Juliet and the Duke, first with the expected genders (Kueck as Juliet and Cantrell as the Duke), then again with the genders reversed (Cantrell as Juliet and Ashton as the Duke). She says that pregnancy “automatically writes sex on the body,” as an outward manifestation of something a man can’t physically do. She questions whether or not a man playing a pregnant woman may actually be easier for an audience to accept than a man playing any other woman — or if such a staging is even more jarring. Amanda then notes that Juliet, unlike Hermione and the Duchess, is in no position of power, of inferior social status and unwed, and that this may inform portrayals of her. She also thinks this makes Juliet a key figure representing the silences and omissions surrounding the portrayal of pregnancy.

Amanda concludes that the issues and awkwardness in presenting pregnancy speak to a problematic societal idea about pregnancy as only important when it affects men. Why isn’t the potential for life given as much weight and consideration as the potential for death and ruin? She asserts that “actual, specific, fierce maternal love… should inspire awe, not sentiment.”

Textual Necromancy
presented by Tony TambOCSo

Tony discusses his experience reviving and amending a text of The Merry Devil of Edmonton for performance in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, combining traditional bibliography with more practical theatrical concerns. He begins by describing the history of Merry Devil, sketching out contemporary references to the play, its apparent popularity, and its multiple printings in the early modern period. It remained popular during the Restoration era, and then disappears from performance record. He states that editors up till now have ignored the application of the play to the stage when producing their editions, perhaps because of the inherent difficulties already present in editing it.

The play is already brief, shorter than Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, perhaps due to having been cut prior to preparation for publication. Tony discusses the possibility, via the competing opinions of Tiffany Stern and Andrew Gurr, that plays may or may not have been cut for touring productions. At least one scene is definitely missing, as its absence is palpable, which suggests that others may be missing as well. Tony then launches into a quick run-down of the differences between the many early quarto versions of the plays, as well as the passing ownership of the play between editions.

Tony states that he wanted to involve his actors in the editing process as much as possible. His initial compilation text used Q1 as the control, allowing actors to see some of the differences between the editions. He discusses the relationship between a director and the text, describing it as “stewardship.” Since modern directors almost always cut classical texts, and since they also cannot re-create all the conditions of early modern theater, Tony argues that every modern production of a play is thus, in some ways, an adaptation. For his production, rather than producing a sole conflated text, Tony gave his actors instructions on how to edit their texts and left them to make their decisions for themselves. Unlike in most productions, where an actor’s notes on blocking, scansion, diction, or other choices are generally ephemera, lost after the production is over, for Tony’s Merry Devil, these notes were used to help re-inform the editing of the overall text. He hopes this will have improved the quality of the text through performance practice — while admitting that no performance can completely get at “what the text says or means.”

Shakespeare’s Operas: The Development of Music and Drama on the 17th Century English Stage
presented by: Amanda Devlin Knowlton

Amanda begins by describing the origins of “opera,” both as a word and as a form of theater and discusses the early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into this new theatrical form. She suggests that the more supernatural plays, such as Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lent themselves more easily to this adaptation, perhaps because of the connection between music and magical incantations.

She looks first at the music within Shakespeare’s plays themselves. Midsummer, she notes, has a surprisingly little amount of music for a comedy with such supernatural themes — yet the inclusion of music at all marks something different for Shakespeare. She refers to the lullaby in 2.1, which links the ideas of song and spellcasting, and Shannon Schultz performs a modern adaptation of the song, with the scene acted out by several others. She also examines the musical quality, if not outright melody, of many of Puck’s lines, created by the combination of his meter, rhyme schemes, and repetition. Amanda suggests that many of these themes recur years later in The Tempest.

Amanda then discusses Macbeth, which does include songs, but songs which were lifted out of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. Her performers present “Come Away” in the context of Macbeth, including only part of the original from The Witch, as only part of it seems to fit in — but Amanda notes that many editions include the entire song. She also considers the “Black Spirits” song from later in the play, which in full describes a number of spirits and calls them by name, never otherwise mentioned in Macbeth.

Continuing the theme of supernatural worlds lending themselves easily to musical accompaniment, Amanda moves on to discussing The Tempest. The Tempest has eight songs within its text (compared to three in Midsummer and Macbeth). Ariel in particular uses songs as enchantment, and Amanda’s performers demonstrate this with the scene in which Ariel leads Ferdinand along. Amanda then compares these songs to the rowdy tunes sung by Stephano and Trinculo, suggesting that they may be ironic parodies of Ariel’s enchantments.

Amanda then discusses how the closing of the theaters allowed for the advent of secular music as a more prominent performance event. In the Restoration, English opera flourished, despite the threat of influence from Italy. Until 1710 and the arrival of Handel, opera in England remained a thoroughly English affair — and many of those composers tested their experiments on Shakespeare. Amanda discusses the first full adaptation, of The Tempest, in 1667; subsequent re-mountings of the production grew closer and closer to what we think of now as “opera.” She also discusses the popularity of Davenant’s “operatic Macbeth.” She also notes the comparative unpopularity of Midsummer during the Restoration, which was considered “insipid” by the end of the 17th century. Henry Purcell took up the play in 1692 with The Fairy Queen, which was briefly popular but which quickly disappeared from repertory.

Amanda concludes by presenting a choral piece out of The Fairy Queen.

And that’s it for thesis presentations until spring! It’s been quite a day — we’ve had a lot of excellent scholarship and engaging ideas presented. Best of luck to all the presenters in completing their theses!

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 2

So we’re back, after what Dr. Menzer hopes was “a substantial lunch, for a zesty palate cleanser of scholarship.”

Ford, and Jonson, and Middleton, Oh My!
presented by Carolyn R. Alvarez

Carolyn introduces her presentation by stating that she was attracted to the idea of looking at early modern authors who are not Shakespeare. She questions the societal influences that have made Shakespeare the “poet of the millennium.” She then brings out “Gary Taylor” (presented by Bonnie Morrison) and actors portraying a number of early modern authors: John Ford (portrayed by Riley Steiner), Thomas Middleton (Stephanie Tschetter), Ben Jonson (Katie Crandol), and William Shakespeare (K.C. Capron) — chosen in part due to revived interest in production or publication of their plays. (Kit Marlowe also appears, briefly, only to be told that he died too early to be considered in this thesis). Carolyn takes a few moments to provide biographies for these authors, while ‘gentlemen’ themselves snipe and snark at each other in the foreground (Crandol’s Jonson, nipping liberally from a flask, gets in a few particularly good zings, as does Steiner’s geriatric Ford).

Carolyn uses the contrasts between these authors to circle in on the idea that what’s made Shakespeare popular throughout time has been people — actors, publishers, readers, and scholars. She suggests that Shakespeare’s exclusive attachment to one company had a lot to do with his enduring success. She then touches briefly on the idea of the editorial hand, comparing Shakespeare’s publications to those of Jonson, who took a stronger hand in making sure what went into print were the precise words he intended.

She moves on to looking at the idea of Shakespeare as a brand, leading to the labeling of certain texts as “bad” quartos, or of questioning the validity of “lost” plays. This concept also connects to the relationship between art and money, legitimizing the plays through their monetary value. At this point, Marlowe reappears, only to be stabbed in the eye by “Gary Taylor” — allowing Carolyn to make the point that timing was important, too. Shakespeare made an impression on the publishing world before his death, and by the time the other authors on stage died, his first complete works was already on the market. Carolyn then questions the motive behind the compilation of the First Folio, and she suggests, in conclusion, that there may have been a great deal of personal emotion behind the publication, as opposed to merely financial reasons.

X-Treme Casting
presented by Jeffrey Chips

Jeff is looking at the possibilities engendered by breaking the traditional rules of doubling: allowing doubled characters to meet on stage, performing shifts by changes in posture and voice rather than by use of costume and props. He begins by presenting a scene out of King John, with only five actors presenting (by my count) eleven characters. The actors are in blacks, with only a few props (a lion-skin, a sword, a couple of crowns) either to help them change characters, or to stand in place of those not currently being portrayed.

Jeff goes on to describe production companies that use “x-treme casting,” noting that the challenge lies in telling the story clearly and efficiently. He contests that this may be “entry-level Shakespeare,” not merely an exercise for advanced and experienced actors or scholars. Jeff has his actors present instances where characters within the play actually tell stories by means of casting themselves as other characters. Sarah Keyes Chang then presents a scene out of The Comedy of Errors where one character (Dromio of Ephesus) presents a conversation between himself and Antipholus of Syracuse, including engaging in stage combat with herself; AJ Sclafani does the same for Bottom presenting Pyramus and Thisbe, and Paul Rycik goes on to present Lance, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, who tells a story involving six characters, casting his own shoes as two of them.

Addressing the “entry-level” issue, Jeff suggests that younger audiences actually respond more favorably to x-treme casting than do their elders, perhaps because their experiences of Shakespeare have not already been fixed. He then presents a scene out of a reconstruction of Cardenio where a key character, who is in the process of being described by another character, is portrayed by a hat up until the moment when the character speaks and an actor takes over.

Jeff goes on to suggest that professional skittishness about x-treme casting derives from fear, particularly the fear of asking too much of the audience. The audience, however, by Jeff’s assertion, desires a higher degree of involvement with theater, that the actor-spectator relationship is crucial and that x-treme casting can be a new and exciting way into that dynamic. To illustrate the importance of the audience’s imagination, Jeff has his actors present a scene out of 2 Henry IV, using no costumes or props, but only their own bodies and voices to draw character distinctions. Jessi Malicki presents five characters in rapid succession; the device works well because Shakespeare’s words give such a strong indication of each of the supposed soldiers being considered for Falstaff’s army, giving Malicki plenty to work with in drawing each of the five.

Quoting from a number of actors and production companies who have experimented with x-treme casting, Jeff considers both the possible losses and possible discoveries inherent to this form of doubling. Some actors find that cutting plays to make these doublings possible necessitates a flattening of some characters, while others discover nuances when forced to distinguish between two characters present on stage at the same time. He also nods to the economic benefits of a smaller cast and minimal reliance on costumes and props, but he asserts that this is not a reason to use x-treme casting. He concludes by voicing his opinion that x-treme casting can enhance the imaginative qualities of Shakespeare’s plays, and that fears of alienating the audience should not keep a company from experimenting with the choice.

Performance within Performance
presented by Clara Giebel

Clara begins by defining her focus for this presentation: looking at the interperformativity of actors and musicians with both on-stage (in-play) and off-stage (in-theatre) audiences. She considers first the “catch-singing” scene of Twelfth Night, looking at how the on-stage performances can affect the off-stage audience’s perceptions and sympathies. The scene transforms Andrew (Michael Wagoner) and Toby (Liz Lodato) from drunken fools to more nuanced characters, genuinely absorbed in and moved by Feste’s (Zach Brown) song. Clara considers the linguistic differences in Andrew’s and Toby’s speech here than elsewhere in the play, particularly Andrew, who so often fails to use complex vocabulary appropriately, but here gets out “mellifluous” both accurately and out of his own imagination, rather than from following Toby’s lead. It seems to be “a transformation springing from Feste’s performance” — and Clara suggests that this is a nice thought, that we could all be bettered by seeing good performances (indeed, an engaging thought for those who make a life out of creating theater).

Clara moves from this performance, with Feste, universally recognized within the play as a skilled performer, to that of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the on-stage audience indicates that the aritsans are far from proficient actors. She points out that Shakespeare spends more time having characters discuss “Pyramus and Thisbe” by way of introduction and interjection than he does on the play-within-a-play itself, by a good 100 words. She hypothesizes that bad performances within performances need more explanation than does a good performance within a performance (like Feste’s). Lodato presents Quince’s prologue, with Wagoner, Brown, and Katy Mulvaney acting the hecklers; Clara uses this to comment on the theatrical practice of a prologue excusing a play, as well as the necessity of conveying intended meaning to the audience. She then has Lodato present the prologue again with altered punctuation to portray more accurately what we can assume Quince meant to say, thus demonstrating that there is nothing wrong with what Quince says, only with how he says it.

Presenting a number of other examples where characters use music or performance to affect their own emotions: Hermione restored to life, Lear restored to sanity, characters staving off madness or despair. These transformations then net in the audience as well, bringing them along with the emotional shifts or tests of endurance. Clara sums up her ideas on performativity quite elegantly: “Through the influence of performance, the audience can lay hold of miracles.”

The Dramaturg as Director: Reviving The Misfortunes of Arthur
presented by Rachel L. Kohler

Due to the nature of Rachel’s MFA project, wherein she acted as dramaturg in charge of an Actors’ Renaissance Season- style performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur, this presentation is less lecture-formatted and more a re-enactment of certain portions of her experiment. Rachel begins by recapping information about her MLitt thesis, which had examined the presence (or, rather, absence) of plays about King Arthur in early modern theater. She determined to use the sole surviving Arthurian play as the basis for her dramaturgical exploration. Rachel describes the process of putting together the play, including the challenges of replacing actors at the last minute. She deliberately provided no dramaturgical information before the initial “Ren run” of the show. Brian Falbo, Liz Lodato, Dan Trombley, and Elizabeth Rentfro re-enacted a bit of the fumbled initial run (to general amusement).

Rachel then describes what her dramaturgical packet entailed: everything from vocabulary to historical references and costuming. She relates that her actors, having stumbled through the initial run of the play, found the packet helpful for moving forward with the play. Dan Trombley comes out to describe how he used Rachel’s information to put together the characters of Gawain and Gildas; then Rin Barton does the same for Cawdor and Constantin, explicating that knowing familial relationships, never mentioned in the play, made those characters make a lot more sense.

Rachel explains how, throughout the rehearsal process, she attempted to let the actors make their own decisions, facilitating but not directing. Rentfro and Lodato present a scene, and Rachel then explains (via Dan Trombley acting as a director) how a director might instruct actors both on character motivation and specific actions and timing; Rin Barton then steps in, presenting the persona of dramaturg, to illustrate providing characters with historical notes and options for performance choices, rather than making those choices and telling the actors what to do.

Among the greatest challenges in The Misfortunes of Arthur were the highly stylized, and frankly, quite bizarre dumb-shows between each act. Rachel explains her dramaturgical notes helped the actors make sense of the convoluted descriptions for those dumb shows, transforming them into something with greater clarity. Rachel finishes by asserting that, as far as experiments go, she considered this one a success. The Q&A involves not only Rachel, but also her actors, as their experiences are crucial to analysis of the experiment.

And now it’s time for a tea break! I’ll be back at 4:35pm for the third and final session.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 1

Welcome back to another live blogging event here at the American Shakespeare Center. We’re pleased to bring you the Fall 2010 Thesis Festival, featuring presentations of the works of MLitt and MFA students in our partner program at Mary Baldwin College. We’ll start off with three papers in our morning session, followed by an early afternoon session after lunch, and then a later afternoon session after a tea break. There will be a separate blog post for each session, which I’ll be updating as we go.

Miranda as Native: An Exploration of Sexual Politics and Cultural Hegemony in Caribbean and African Postcolonial Adaptations of The Tempest
presented by Amy L. Bolis

Presentation begins with Maxim Overton reading a speech of Caliban’s, while Kimberly Maurice and Johnny Adkins echo with descriptions of the character from elsewhere in the play. Amy explicates that the language reveals the “legacy of colonization,” and that in The Tempest, we see Caliban as the colonized and Prospero as the colonizer, and then asks — where does that put Miranda?

She links this idea with the influence of Shakespeare in colonized regions, introducing the idea of examining post-colonial adaptations of The Tempest from regions such as Zambia and Trinidad. Amy posits that casting Miranda as “native to the island” gives her rape the connotation of the results of colonization; she then explains that Johnny will be portraying Prospero throughout her presentation, Kimberly Miranda, and Maxim Caliban. Amy then helps out those of the audience un-familiar with the term “post-colonial,” situating the term in helpful concrete terms, with the unifying “central concern of cultural power”.

Amy then discusses a tradition in productions of The Tempest which focuses on spectacle, highlighting spiritual themes and quotes like “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and “O brave new world.” Amy asserts that these productions take a reluctant approach to the colonial implications. Casts Prospero as sympathetic, makes audience “inclined to pardon Prospero”. Her actors then presented a scene which foregrounds Caliban’s implied inferiority; she highlights Miranda’s complicity in this view, that the gentle girl who sympathized with the shipwrecked sailors could not help “being socialized into” the view of Caliban as part of a “vile race.”

Amy goes on to note that the post-colonial adaptations she studied give Miranda a greater connection to the island than does Shakespeare’s play (where Miranda willingly leaves). “She becomes the battleground upon which the battle for serenity is being fought.” She then considers the sexual politics at play, from Prospero’s obsession with Miranda’s virginity to the implications of sexual relations and procreation between two different races. To illustrate this, Amy has her actors portray scenes from the four adaptations she considered:

1) from Elizabeth Munez’s Prospero’s Daughter, with a scene illustrating Virginia’s innocent inability to differentiate between races. Also highlights Virginia’s association with the island, which she comes to consider herself indigenous to, though she was born in England; Kimberly delivers a monologue where Virginia explains this.
2) from David Wallace’s Do You Love Me, Master?, where Miranda describes herself as “cross-grained,” underscoring her mixed-race background. Prospero, despite having no respect for Miranda’s mother, holds his daughter to a higher standard, seeking to match her to the only other European on the island. Miranda retains an awareness of her mixed-race throughout the play.
3) A Tempest, by Aime Cesaire, which higlights Miranda’s comfort and familiarity with the island, which she wishes to share with willing listeners. Cesaire even reassigns some of Caliban’s lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Miranda, changing the tenor of those lines.
4) George Lamming’s novel Water with Berries, which Amy uses to discuss the sexual politics, as the Miranda-character describes the graphic rape which dissociated her from identification with the island. The islanders here become the savage stereotype, but only because they have learned it from their colonial masters.

Amy finishes by presenting the idea of stories as the means of identification for conquered peoples. The presentation of Miranda as native “foregrounds questions of indigenousness” and allows The Tempest to become an enduring arena for a discussion on the power dynamics between colonizers and the colonized.

Rosalind and Cleopatra: The Androgyne in Performance
presented by Lem A. Prades

Lem begins by connecting the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays to the sexual/gender ambiguity of Queen Elizabeth, at once the ultimate female and a removed, and thus asexual, force. Using this conception of Elizabeth, Lem suggests a connection between Elizabeth’s persona to both the comic cross-dressing heroines and the primary females in tragedies who also take on mOCSuline attributes. Lem states that the aim of his presentation is to examine the “collapsing mOCSuline and feminine features in Shakespeare’s dramatic features,” using the comic example of Rosalind and the tragic example of Cleopatra. Lem suggests that “Rosalind and Cleopatra exercise the greatest degree of autonomy,” layering sexual identities that “perpetuates autonomy over the self and others.”

Lem begins by explicating the theories of gender and performativity that he will be working with throughout his presentation. This introduces the third gender, the androgyne, taken from Plato, an idealized figure synthesizing both the mOCSuline and the feminine attributes, transcending duality. So where in this do Rosalind and Cleopatra most neatly fit?

Lem suggests that the most basic level of gender synthesis is transvestism, seen literally in the comedies, but more figuratively in the tragedies. Rosalind initially uses transvestism as a defense mechanism, but it evolves into a more enduring identity. Lem quotes Marjorie Garber, who attributes Rosalind’s continued cross-dressing, even after the threat has been neutralized, to an essential effect on Orlando’s development, because Rosalind can only get close to Orlando in the guise of a boy. Cleopatra’s transvestism, on the other hand, is less obvious; she occupies a male position in society, as ruler. Lem relates societal disease with this idea, despite the present of female monarchs in the 16th century, to Knox’s “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” This discomfort appears in the play, when Enobarbus questions Cleopatra’s right to take part in the wars; “Enobarbus sees Cleopatra as a distraction rather than the ruler responsible for the kingdom,” and he relies heavily on insecurities related to sexuality. Lem states that the Romans see Cleopatra as “too feminine when she shouldn’t be, and never quite feminine enough” when she ought to be.

Lem goes on to discuss the power wielded by Rosalind and Cleopatra through love. He looks at Rosalind in 3.5, when she discovers audacity after watching Phebe and Silvius. Rosalind there discovers that she has attracted Phebe despite her harsh words; Phebe explicates her attraction, and reveals her attraction to both mOCSuline and feminine attributes. He then compares this to Enobarbus’s initial description of Cleopatra, wherein Cleopatra asserts her power and sovereignty. “Her creative personality has little to no end of mOCSulinity in it.” Yet she never gives over entirely to mOCSulinity; nor does Rosalind. Both blend their power plays with feminine mischief and coyness, and each woman exercises teasing command over her partner.

Each woman, though, Lem notes, resigns herself to a role as “feminine counterpart;” both women agree to follow rather than to lead. Rosalind tells Orlando, “I am yours,” handing herself over to him entirely. Interestingly, Cleopatra’s declaration comes with her death, as she prepares herself as a bride for the already-dead Antony, and takes her doom to her breast, mixing the most life-giving and supremely feminine image of the nursing mother with the poison of death. Lem finishes by asserting that transvestism provides opportunity for change, and for exploring the grey area between the binary opposites of mOCSuline and feminine.

‘Sblood, Zounds, and Marry: Oaths as Indicators of Character Change on the Early Modern Stage
presented by David C. Santangelo

David opens by suggesting that oaths and expletives can express, not just momentary frustration or reaction, but aspects of character or of change. He grounds uses of these in the context of an Act which levied fines on any uses of profanity, as well as several other laws, from the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, with penalties ranging from 12p fines to whippings. He also refers to some polemic attempts by clergymen to “dissuade Englishmen from swearing.” These acts also led to some instances of censorship, particularly in the Caroline period.

David moves on to explaining that his thesis focuses on the oaths of Hamlet, Othello, and Iago, but for the purposes of this presentation, he’ll be looking solely at Iago. Iago’s opening line, which includes “‘sblood,” indicates that Iago’s tendencies lean towards the blasphemous and the profane. He continues to swear throughout his first scene, “blaspheming three times in quick succession,” indicating that he “is not only vulgar, but may be of a questionable moral standing.” When talking to Othello, however, Iago adopts the more unusual “by Janus” as his oath of choice; the god involved, the double-faced god of doorways and of looking both forward and backward, however, may relate to Iago’s own two-faced nature. His oaths become milder when he feels the need to maintain his “honest” affectation. David also asserts that Iago’s jesting, mild oaths demonstrate his disregard for his wife (later augmented by, well, murder).

David goes on to explicate the other character attributes that Iago’s oaths reflect: his arrogance and that he is a liar. As a self-proclaimed villain, his frequent blaspheming underscores his surety in his villainy. He makes false oaths, swearing “by this hand,” by an honor the audience knows he does not truly have. Iago thus tailors his oaths to who is listening and to the ends he desires to achieve. David sees these techniques as evidence of Iago’s intelligence and cunning.

David also looks at the timely use of “As I am an honest man,” which he paints as “a cunning comment on Iago’s character.” It comes when he has just, quite dishonestly, manufactured the brawl which destroys Cassio’s reputation. He thus perpetuates his honest image while in the process of wreaking chaos. He sees this, and other instances of saying one thing while meaning another, as evidence of Iago’s “Janus-like character.”

Iago’s final oath, “Zounds,” in Act 5 brings him back around to the foul-mouthed soldier we saw in the first scene; with his plans discovered, he can safely drop the honorable image and revert to form. Iago’s profanities, in this instance, come from his inability to control the situation. He thus begins and ends the play with blasphemy, abandoning the more elegant and crafty oaths used elsewhere in the play. “He is, at his core, vulgar.” David ends by asserting that oaths exhibit character change and personality, and that studying these oaths can help an actor when working through roles.

And that’s it for Session 1 — I’ll be back at 2pm (Eastern) for Session 2.

"On dangers past, and pleasures to ensue" – The Spanish Tragedy

One of the best things about theatre in Staunton is the opportunity to see so many rarely-performed plays. Not only does the OCS make an effort to include selections from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, predecessors, and successors in the repertory — this year alone, we’ve had Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jonson’s The Alchemist, and Massinger’s The Roman Actor in the Actors’ Renaissance Season, with the 1790 Wild Oats by John O’Keefe currently playing and Thomas Heywood’s 1631 Fair Maid of the West opening in October — but related programs in the area have also taken to branching out in a similar fashion. The theatre department at Stuart Hall, headed by a graduate of the MLitt/MFA program, has in the past performed plays like John Lyly’s Gallathea alongside more traditional Shakespearean fare. The MBC program often trends towards the revival of obscure plays, whether by Shakespeare or by his contemporaries, and this year will be no exception, with productions of The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1587 play by Thomas Hugues, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a 1599 city comedy by Thomas Dekker, both upcoming in the fall.

Last night’s selection, put forth by the University Wits, was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, generally considered to be the forerunner for Hamlet and any number of other plays in the revenge tragedy genre. As such, this play is fertile ground for thinking of the chains of inspiration and derivation in early modern theatre. (Thesis project, anyone?). As director Asae Dean noted in the program, and as I noticed while watching the play, you can see in Spanish Tragedy the seeds of many other plays. I thought of the unapologetic vengeance of Vindice, from Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. I thought of the brother-sister relationship in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I saw Iago’s cunning, Titus’s devotion to wholesale destruction, the concealed passions of so many lovers meeting by moonlight. I was also put in mind strongly of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at a moment where Hieronimo comments on the nature of acting:

That we do as all Tragedians do:
To die today for fashioning our scene
The death of Ajax or some Roman peer–
And in a minute starting up again,
Revive to please tomorrow’s audience.

Though Stoppard’s play obviously derives from Hamlet, he seems to have borrowed from Kyd when Guildenstern complains that actors “die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat.” The Spanish Tragedy thus becomes a sort of echo-chamber, not just to a viewer with a broad experience of early modern theatre, but with ripples that come down to the present day as well.

Though Spanish Tragedy is most often linked to Hamlet, I found myself thinking not about the similarities between the plays, but of the differences. The connection between the two plays is strong, but in many ways, it appears to be one of inversion rather than replication. The ghost of Don Andrea, who appears at the beginning of the play (and remains onstage for the duration), doesn’t affect any of the action as Hamlet’s father does; though the people responsible for Don Andrea’s death do pay in the end, his death isn’t what they’re paying for. The revenge belongs to another character, for another death. The play-within-a-play isn’t meant to out anyone watching it; it’s designed as a trap for two of the actors. A father mourns for a son, not a son for a father. The people left standing at the end of the play occupy wildly different places in the plot than those left at the end of Hamlet. The biggest difference, though, is how much Spanish Tragedy struck me as a play of passions, whereas I’ve always felt Hamlet to be much more cerebral (and a little bloodless). Wooing and love-play in Hamlet take place off-stage, or before the play begins, but in Spanish Tragedy, the audience gets to see it — Horatio and Bel-imperia have some wonderful romantic teasing, and the awkward advances of Balthazar are plainly presented for the audience to cringe at. Though such fleshy interests are in Hamlet’s mind, we never see his mother and stepfather-uncle in their private moments, nor do we see Hamlet court Ophelia — all we get are the remnants in the form of Ophelia’s love-tokens. Shakespeare’s doing something interesting there, turning the physical inward, making the audience imagine or remember along with Hamlet, rather than allowing us to experience the moments as we do in The Spanish Tragedy.

The Spanish Tragedy is a play I’d read several times but never seen before, and as I watched the show, I remembered several of the things we’d discussed when reading this play in the Contemporaries class at Mary Baldwin. Many of the things we’d identified as “problems” in class seemed perfectly natural on the stage — most notably the ending play-within-a-play, where each of four characters speaks in a different language (none of them English). The text of The Spanish Tragedy indicates that “this play of Hieronimo, in sundry languages, was thought good to be set down in English more largely, for the easier understanding to every public reader,” but it does seem clear that, in performance, it was done in those sundry languages. As a reader, you wonder how this can possibly work, but on the stage you discover that, since Hieronimo has helpfully explained the plot (which unsubtly mirrors the plot of the play they’re all in) in a previous scene, it really doesn’t matter if you can’t understand what they’re saying. You get the idea, and they move along to the homicides rapidly enough that the strange tongues don’t become tedious. The bloodshed at the end does lean towards the absurd, but — similar to The Revenger’s Tragedy — I was entirely okay with that. The entire play has an edge of the ridiculous to it, which the cast embraced rather than embarrassedly shying away from. Like Revenger’s, The Spanish Tragedy dances on the thin line between high tragedy and black comedy, and I find that juxtaposition delightful.

I’m sure I’ll be working with these connections a lot over the next year, as I prepare a study guide for Hamlet, which will necessarily involve looking at Hamlet‘s antecedents and at the revenge tragedy genre as a whole. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see such an energetic and committed production before I begin that work — it’s always great to have a live production in mind from which to draw inspiration. If you ever have the chance to see this play in performance, do so — you won’t regret it. If you’re looking for a non-Shakespeare play to produce, consider it — this play is well-worthy of revival. And if you’re in Staunton, you can still see the University Wits’ production tonight, 7:30 PM, at the King Theatre at Stuart Hall.