Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session IX

The snow is falling, but the conference continues apace! Undaunted by the precipitation, we’re back for Plenary Session IX, moderated by Marc Connor from Washington and Lee University. I’m Cass, and I’ll be live-blogging from 9am to 10:15am.

Iska Alter, Hofstra University, and William B. Long, independent scholar: “Love’s Labour’s Lost Once, Love’s Labour’s Lost Once Again: What Happens When Plays Move House”

Alter opens by stating that they intend to demonstrate that, in addition to text, actors, costumes, sets, and the other typical components that contribute to a play’s meaning, the theatrical space also contributes to its effect. Long takes over, discussing a theory that Love’s Labour’s Lost is the precursor of the modern “college comedy”, characterizing the King of Navarre and his friends as “frat boys” in a recent Globe production. He notes that critics who saw the production at the Globe and those that saw the production on tour came to the same conclusion, but noticed other discrepancies. Long believes these differences were due to the difference in the space.

Long cites several contributory factors to the different effect in different spaces: the size of the performance space itself, the relationship of actors to audience, and the movement of actors in the space. Long details the space he and Alter saw on tour, a proscenium with a fully-seated audience. Though the stage provided opportunities for the actors to leave the stage and engage with the audience, Long believes that the effect fell flat. At the outdoor Globe, the “complex geometry” allowed for greater audience engagement, with the audience member “shifting and swerving” to keep up with the verbal sparring between characters. He also details the “almost physical equality” between actor and spectator when an actor changed levels, moving from a standing position to a crouching or recumbent position, which would place him on eye-level with the groundlings in the pit.

Alter takes over to discuss the differences created by light and sound, and how those factors contributed to the “raucous and bawdy” atmosphere. The indoor space attempted to emulate sunlight, but Alter felt that the conceit only “reinforced the artificial”. She discusses the difficulties presented by the ambient sounds at the Globe, but suggests that those were less distracting than the reverberations of actors’ voices in the indoor space. She concludes by saying that scholars ought to examine more frequently what happens when a play written for one space moves elsewhere.

Christine Parker, Victor Valley Community College: “Thomas Middleton’s Use of the Gallery Space”

Parker proposes that Middleton uses the gallery to highlight characters who act with moral depravity. She prefaces her consideration with reference to A Game at Chess, a black pawn (representing a corrupt Jesuit) spouts Latin from the upper space, “in an attempt to inflame anti-Catholic sentiment”. She concedes that Middleton does use the gallery for the usual conventional reasons, but that, more often than other early modern playwrights, he uses the space thematically. She cites The Changeling, where corrupt characters often occupy the space; also in The Witch, Women Beware Women. Parker connects this use with a reversal of expectations; corrupt rather than romantic, and elevating characters who would not typically be given status by rank.

She moves back to consideration of A Game at Chess, Middleton’s play which was banned for religious and political reasons, partially for fear it would lead to anti-Catholic riots. She describes several politically controversial scenes which place devious or low-ranked characters in the gallery space. She thinks that the black pawn’s position in the gallery was “an incendiary device”. MBC actors present a short portion of the scene, and Parker states her belief that the intimidating effect of the Latin preached “as though from a puplit” would have been inflammatory in the original performance.

Amy R. Cohen, Randolph College: “Grand Scope and Human Scale: How Size Matters”

Cohen begins by jocularly confessing that she “betrayed her father” by choosing classical studies over early modern, due to the fascinating considerations presented by Euripedes. She comments on Aristophanes’s opinion of Euripedes and Euripedes’s response to criticism, also comparing Euripedes’s use of low-status characters to the typically high-status concerns of Aeschylus and Sophocles. She then moves to the practical circumstances of performance space which contribute to a play’s success, comparing the large outdoor Theatre of Dionysos to the small indoor Blackfriars Playhouse. She shows a Greek-style mask, large and thus easily seen,. Cohen cautions that “our actors can look like children, or tadpoles, or bobble-heads”, especially if an outdoor performance moves into an indoor space. She thinks that, in an indoor space, it takes the audience twice as long to begin ignoring the masks in favor of the performance. The size, she thinks, reflects in the characters as well as in the masks, that plays written for an enormous space requires characters “of mythological proportion”, and that those large characters may feel awkward in a smaller indoor space. The smaller space “requires characters on a more human scale, however noble or royal they may be”.

The difference in the spaces leads to the differences in the plays written for them. Cohen also believes that this leads to Shakespeare’s success in mixing high and low characters, “where Euripedes sometimes fails”. The comic characters in Shakespeare “enhance, rather than diminish” the effect, even of deeply tragic plays. She anticipates that further exploration will reveal more about why Greek tragedies are the way they are, how that large scale affects the audience, and how it is successful in an appropriate space. In the “reach out and touch you” scale, she would like to speculate: Whether the size of the theatre is one of the circumstances of performance that allowed for the inclusion of low-status characters even in tragedy. She finishes by admonishing that early modern scholars remember, when discussing how their playwrights improved on the ancients, “that: we’re bigger than you.”

Jennifer Low, Florida Atlantic University: “Perspective and Painterly Technique in Jacobean Staging”

Low presents an aspect of art history relevant to early modern staging, first noting the visual parameters of an indoor space like the Blackfriars Playhouse. She posits that Dutch painting of the period was appropriate for use of the discovery space, as the techniques of Dutch painting used same frames, perspectives, and architectural settings which have a similar effect as that the audience experiences in an indoor early modern theatre. She speculates on the visual pictures created by scenes in The Changeling, discussing the delayed revelation of the visual, which augments both the audience’s anticipation and their shock. MBC actors present the crucial scene of Beatrice-Johanna’s mutiliation and death in two different ways: entering through the stage right door, or revealed through the discovery space.

Low argues that the tableau is more effective when using the discovery space. This would also provide opportunities for props and set pieces that could have “filled out” the image within the discovery space — such as a bed, or a medicine cabinet (to augment the medical and pseudo-medical themes in the play). She posits that Beatrice-Johanna’s revelation is then an invasion into other characters’ attempts to restore rationality and normalcy. Low suggests that the original production tied the emotional experience to the optical experience, which would be stronger with the discovery space staging. The discovery space also offers an opportunity to present different sights in foreground and background (relating again to the Dutch painters’ techniques).

Melissa Aaron, Cal Poly Pomona: “Play It Again, Hal: The 1605 Revival of Henry V

Aaron relates the story of the 1605 revival of Henry V, which had to compete with the spectacles of James’s court and the inventions of Inigo Jones. She positions the play in relationship to the company’s financial state at the time of the first performance and at the time of the revival, arguing that material concerns could very well affect play creation and selection. The turbulent financial state of England at the time encouraged dependence on royal patronage, which led to a different concern: “How do you avoid becoming a fully-owned subsidiary of King, Co.?” Aaron examines the repurposing of plays for both the new space of the Blackfriars Playhouse and for the expansion of royal patronage, using the example that, if you get your hands on a bear suit, you find an excuse to use it (and our in-house bear demonstrates). Playing companies were also affected by new outbreaks of plague from 1603-1609; playhouse closures also enhanced dependence on the king’s beneficence.

Aaron then traces the fortunes of the King’s Men from 1603 to 1605, both the closures of the theatre and the court performances and attentant payments given by the king. She notes that Othello and Macbeth were written in this period, and also that The Merry Wives of Windsor seemed to be a favorite for royal performances. She suggests that, by the Christmas season 1605, the King’s Men desperately needed a new play that Queen Anne had not yet seen. Henry V, with its dependence on imagination over theatrical spectacle, performed on January 7, follows a day after the performance of The Masque of Blackness, an elaborate spectacle. Aaron speculates that the King’s Men were reducing, reusing, and recycling, using plays that had originally been in the same seasons together, economizing even in the face of Jonesian competition. The acquisition of the Blackfriars Playhouse allowed the King’s Men to go back to a more independent company, less directly attached to royal patronage.

Peter Kanelos, Loyola University Chicago: “Ghost in the Machine?”

Kanelos interrogates why we, late-modern, have the originalist impulse to gather in an early modern space and re-create early modern productions. He wonders if it’s a romantic impulse, a nostalgic fit — then suggests the opposite, that “this enterprise, while it appears retrograde, is actually an intently post-modern one”. He traces the impulse back to William Pole in the late 19th-century, who aimed to correct misconceptions about Elizabethan stagecraft that had developed over the past centuries. Kanelos positions this idea in relationship to Stanislavski’s theories of acting, developing at the same time and, Kanelos argues, stemming from the same conditions and desires. He discusses the period’s concerns with authenticity and the inwardness of character. “For all three, language and action are opaque, in need of literary analysis.” It was the actor’s duty to probe beneath the language for the true meaning. The 20th century, he says, created a widening gulf between artistic performance and academic analysis.

Kanelos then discusses how the post-modern ideas relate more to what seems true of the early modern plays: that there is nothing beneat the surface of the text, that everything about the character is there, in the words. “Early modern theatre created the illusion of inwardness.” He says that we have reached an opposite of Stanislavski’s principles.

Kanelos is then cut off by the bear, complete with a bear cub.