Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session I

I’m Charlene V. Smith, and I’ll be liveblogging Plenary Session I from 1pm to 2:15pm.

Leslie Thomson, University of Toronto
The Tempest and the Stage-Sitters

Thomson starts by pointing out that the King’s Men had already started using the Blackfriars by the time that Shakespeare started writing The Tempest. Thus he would have known that the most expensive seats would have been those on stage. Thomson asks what effect the gallants onstage might have had, for example they created a type of stage dressing, and caused an alienating effect by reminding the audience that they were at a play.

The stage-sitters would have completed with the players for staging space and for audience attention, so Thomson explores whether the plays at the time included elements meant to counteract this or remind the sitters to behave? Thomson argues that The Tempest is constructed to quiet the stage sitters using elements such as soliloquies, discoveries, masques, and other staging devices.

The Tempest‘s 78 uses of “now”and  numerous mentions of the island create a single shared time and location. Events in the play such as the shipwreck, banquet, and the masque draw attention to drama onstage as opposed to the drama offstage. The text also suggests a number of sitting, reclining, or leaning positions. Groups of figures are also regularly observed by others. All these features help point the audience’s attention to the play itself. Thomson then suggests that Prospero acts as a stage-manager, speaking directly to the playgoers, and controlling moments of action during the play.

Thomson concludes with the thought that the presence of stage-sitters couldn’t be ignored during the early modern era and therefore shouldn’t be ignored now. By considering their effect on the performance, we can gather a more accurate and fuller picture of early modern theatre.

Mark Z. Muggli, Luther College
“After the first death, there is no other”: Except in the Case of Falstaff

Muggli mentions that much attention has been paid to Falstaff’s reported death in Henry V, and says he instead wants to focus attention on Falstaff’s first death in Henry IV, part one. Falstaff, to avoid fighting in the battle, “falls down as if he were dead.” The “as if” is ambiguous.

Should Falstaff rise up thirty lines later to the audience’s complete surprise? Or should he fall down with a wink to the audience so that we know he is faking during Hal and Hotspur’s fight?

Muggli says that a Falstaff who informs the audience that he is faking is an impressive trickster, but he is only a trickster. A Falstaff that convinces the audience that he is dead is a Falstaff who has the power to resurrect himself.

Muggli mentions a production he saw recently where an overweight Falstaff apparently suffered a heart attack and falls down. To Muggli, it was convincingly real. While speaking to colleagues about this production, one disagreed, telling Muggli that “it was obvious that Falstaff was faking.” Muggli suggest the cultural legacy of Falstaff means that audiences, even nonspecialists, are aware that he does not die in the first play he appears, and so his resurrection can never truly come as a surprise.

Walter Cannon, Central College
Complex Hearing

Cannon describes complex hearing as a moment when a character hears something that he or she cannot respond to directly, either due to disguise, eavesdropping, decorum, tact, or prevailing social norms.
Cannon says the character’s reticence and a restraint can be used as a guide to emotional and psychological complexity.

To demonstrate his point, Cannon looks at two speeches of Edgar’s in King Lear. The first in 3.6 is a soliloquy in which Edgar speaks out-loud to himself. The second is the speech he delivers in 5.3 to Albany and Edmund. These speeches deal with Edgar’s disguise of Poor Tom.

Cannon points out that disguises are often used to gain or regain power, but Poor Tom gives Edgar knowledge, but not power. It is a disguise that puts an emotional burden on Edgar that he reveals after his fight with Edmund.

Cannon stages the speech in 5.3 in order to demonstrate that the onstage hearers guide audience response. Edgar faces entirely upstage, where Albany and Edmund are located. Edmund and Albany’s faces were therefore much more visible to the majority of the audience.

Bill Gelber, Texas Tech University
A “Ha” in Shakespeare: the Soliloquy as Excuse and Challenge to the Audience

Gelber begins by mentioning the large debate surrounding soliloquies: should they be internal and introspective or external and taken to the audience? To explore the answer, Gelber looks at Shakespeare’s use of a single word, “Ha.” “Ha” can be a shorter version of the word “have,” when elision is necessary, or it can be repeating to simulate a character’s laughter: “ha, ha, ha,” or it can be a word of chiding, especially when located after a question.

Gelber is interested in this final use, especially when it occurs in a soliloquy. Shakespeare uses it sparingly, and Gelber with the help of the actors explores two examples.

The first is from Measure for Measure, 2.2. Angelo asks, “Who sins most? Ha?” In this moment he is looking to the audience for an answer. Gelber argues that the “ha” here is an interjectional interrogatory used to explain Angelo’s previous aside in the scene with Isabella, an aside that is an abrupt and surprising admission of temptation. In this soliloquy, Angelo is making his case before a jury of playgoers.

Gelber then briefly looks at a couple examples where “ha” us used in dialogue, where it is used to provoke other characters to respond. Gelber says “ha” is used in much the same way in a soliloquy, only the other character is the audience.

Hamlet says “ha” in his “Am I a coward?” soliloquy. Gelber argues that the “ha?” seeks an actual response, otherwise why would Hamlet bother? This soliloquy assumes response. Gelber mentions the famous production of Hamlet starring David Warner where one night when Warner asked, “Am I a coward?,” a man called out, “Yes!” When Mark Rylance played Hamlet he performed this soliloquy at the edge of the stage, as close to the audience as possible in order to provoke a response.

Evelyn Tribble, University of Otago
Inset Skill Displays

Tribble’s paper is on early modern actors and their skill set. She bemoans that this aspect is not paid much attention in current studies. For example, the art of gesture is often dismissed as static and old-fashioned. Tribble feels that we should look at these skills positively and as part of an ecology of skill.

Tribble notes that the abundant stage directions in early modern play texts call for a wide range of physical and verbal abilities, including speaking, fencing, wrestling, vaulting, dancing, tumbling, and singing. Londoners could experience many of these skills in arenas other than the theatre, meaning that they were educated and informed.

Fencing displays were part of theatrical tradition and also civic life. and therefore viewers of drama were likely to have a high knowledge of the sport. Many plays also call for highly technical forms of dance. Dance had a wide cultural currency. Spectators attended performances at London’s dancing schools.

Tribble encourages us to consider how an early modern performer’s skills existed in a whole culture that cannot be discovered by looking at the printed page alone.

Katherine Mayberry, Grand Valley State University & Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company
Judging Spectators: The Manipulation of Audience Critical Response

Mayberry took the stage to discuss the use of prologues and epilogues in early modern drama. These speeches address the theatre audience as an audience; they define the audience role and give specific instructions. These prologues and epilogues frequently refer to the audience’s power to judge the performance, but manage to shifts the responsibility for the play’s success or failure onto the audience.

Playwrights use several tactics in their prologues and epilogues, including scripting and cueing applause, preemptively apologizing, anticipating criticism and dismissing them, and stating that the play will appel to discerning auditors.

Shakespeare cues the audience’s applause in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and As You Like It. Puck says, “Give me your hands if we be friends.” This is a conditional phrase. The audience must either applaud or cease to be the players’ friends. Rosalind’s epilogue scripts the audience response: “bid me farewell,” and cues the audience: “when I curtsy.”

In the opening Chorus of Henry V, Shakespeare uses the tactics of preemptively apologizing, and anticipating criticism and dismissing it, specifically demands for onstage realism. The Chorus also enlists the audience in the creation of performance, thus suggesting if the play’s not successful the audience has failed.

Mayberry moves onto examples where the playwright is more insulting to the audience. Ben Jonson’s prologues were often antagonistic. He disparages the judgement of those who criticize the play.
Jonson doesn’t solicit the audience’s help, but places blame for negative response on the audience’s poor taste.

John Ford’s The Broken Heart offers auditors membership in an elite club of those with “noble judgement” and “clear eyes.” giving an incentive to like the play. Thomas Middleton’s No Wit/No Help Like a Woman concedes failure before the play begins: “How is it possible to suffice so many ears? So many eyes?”

Mayberry concludes that early modern authors recognized the audience’s power over playwright and performer and sought to control it. They sought to wrest that power back by orchestrating audience response.

The speakers in this session were aided by ASC actors John Harrell, Allison Glenzer, and Gregory Jon Phelps.