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 Tambasco

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!