MLitt Thesis Festival 2014: Session 2

Rebecca Wright: “Infants as Characters: An Investigation of Babies Onstage”
Actors: Josh Brown,Ian Charles, Kelly Elliott, Amy Grubbs, Patrick Harris
Wright begins by interrogating the audience’s perceptions of props as tied to certain plays. To a list including rings, letters, beds, trunks, and rapiers, she adds “babies”. Wright wishes to interrogate the position of an infant on-stage as a character, rather than as an inanimate prop. She notes that most productions do not use live babies on-stage, though it has been done. Despite this, however, she finds few references to babies as properties. Wright notes the difficulty in presenting an inanimate prop as a live baby, generally unconvincing yet just as generally accepted by audiences.

The actors deliver a list of shows which call for the use of an infant onstage, from the early modern period up to modern musical theatre. Wright moves on to discussing the pageant of Princess Elizabeth’s christening in Henry VIII. She interrogates the interaction between Henry and Elizabeth in this scene, wondering if it is significant that Henry kisses but does not hold the infant. Conversely, in Titus Andronicus, off-stage trumpets herald the arrival of a prince — Tamora’s illegitimate child by Aaron the Moor. In this scene, a nurse enters with the child swaddled, sufficiently to disguise its skin tone, which she later reveals. Aaron takes possession of the child, asks who else has seen it, and murders the nurse to keep his secret, serving as the child’s protector both verbally and physically. In Pericles, the nurse hands the infant Marina to her father; Pericles chooses to lay the child with her supposedly-dead mother. Wright argues that, when an infant is set down on stage, the lack of actor interaction removes some context from the infant-as-prop. The actors then present a scene from The Winter’s Tale where Paulina lays the infant Perdita at Leontes’s feet; he refuses to take it up. The protecting male figure who does eventually pick up the child is, instead, Antigonus.

Wright argues that actors provide manipulation and significance to the prop infant. This is particularly important in instances where the infant, over the course of the show, grows to an adult character. She argues that infants “needs stronger character consideration on stage.” Wright then brings a live infant, her ten-week-old nephew William, onto the stage. She asks if having a real infant on stage seems “too real” compared to the fake babies, especially in context of the infant characters who have violence threatened against them. Still holding William, she asks her actors what challenges they felt interacting with her prop infant. Amy Grubbs identifies a challenge in expressing the nurse’s revulsion for the baby, competing with her experience handling infants. Ian Charles admits that he felt as though he had to be “acting for two”, which is a challenge, but also allows him to endow the baby with reactions through the eyes of his character. Josh Brown expresses difficulty thanks to his own inexperience with children, identifying his interaction with the baby as “glass-like”. Kelly Elliott saw it as “relief” to be able to transfer the baby off to Pericles and to gain the father’s acceptance. Finally, Patrick Harris discusses the challenge of fighting while holding a baby, trying to be threatening while not endangering the baby. “It was easy to forget that what I was holding was supposed to be alive”. Wright concludes that, whether a real baby or a property doll, the actors involved with an infant character need to work to endow the infant with character.

Q&A: Ralph Cohen begins by snapping a picture of “the youngest performer on our stage”.
Q: Matt Davies asks about how to invest the baby with its own movement, suggesting that it is dependent upon the actor holding it to be in constant motion. He suggests another play for Wright to look at, wherein a baby is stoned to death in its pram.
Q: Celi Oliveto wonders how much it has to do with the focus of the audience, suggesting that a live baby draws focus. A: Wright acknowledges the possibility, noting that, yes, it is more difficult to work with something alive than something inanimate. She would like to continue looking at how this idea influences other creatures onstage, such as the dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Q: Scott Campbell notes the similarity between a real baby and real stage violence as possibly being detrimental to an audience’s experience. A: Wright is still dealing with the discussion of what is “too real”.

Arlynda Boyer: “Plague, Playing, and Publication: A New Narrative”
Boyer seeks to re-examine Shakespeare’s publication history, particularly the gaps which occur when “he ought to have been at the height of his popularity”. She notices a correlation between these gaps and years of plague, particularly with regard to the tendency of title pages to publicize “diverse and sundry performances”. She suggests that “plague interrupts playing interrupts publication”.

Boyer traces the relationship of the plague to the theatre, noting that anti-theatrical polemics tended to see them as God’s judgment upon the theatres. The conditions to close the playhouses changed over time, from total mortality rising above 50 per week, to plague-specific deaths rising above 30; for the playhouses to re-open, mortality had to drop below 30 for three weeks. She notes the difficulties in assessing closure dates from mortality records, since the strictures were not always exact. She points to the 1603 major outbreak of plague, which did not ebb and flow as expected, but persisted in London for eight years. Shakespeare’s plays written in this period had to wait to see audiences until there was a break in the plague. Boyer cites Roz Knutson’s theories on quartos serving as part of the marketing strategy for a play, as much to sell books as to remind potential audiences that a play was ongoing. Plague disruptions affected this interaction. “If a play never had its full first run, what reason would a company have for allowing it to reach a stationer?”

Boyer refers to a handout, which demonstrates that plays supposed to be written in plague years were more likely to be first published in the Folio rather than in quarto. She notes that Julius Caesar and As You Like It, likely written in 1599, were also not printed until the Folio. Though there was no plague that year, there was a strange closure in the summer of that year. These closures may have had more to do with financial difficulties, renovations of the Rose, or staggered re-openings. Boyer also notes the possibility that plague may have been used as an excuse to close theatres, when the real reasons were more political. 1599 saw rumors of a second Spanish Armada and threats of revolt, and these may have contributed to authorities’ decisions to close the theatres. Boyer then examines the complicated textual history of King Lear and Pericles. Boyer concludes by reiterating her hypothesis that publication depended on performance, and that plague disrupted both.

Q&A: Paul Menzer confirms Boyer’s acknowledgement that this is a London-centric narrative, since plague closures in London did not necessarily mean no plays happened, since companies were likely to tour during plague closures. A: Boyer is still working on incorporating that element into her thesis, but states that since print industry was centered in London, the correlation remains strong.
Q: Matt Davies questions the printers’ advertisements and their role in the thesis. A: Boyer notes alternate title pages which either swore that a play was or wasn’t performed.
Q: Dane Leasure asks if Boyer had considered using the 2nd edition of the Oxford’s chronology of the plays. A: Boyer has not, but will.
Q: Menzer asks how the Stationer’s Record weaves into the conversation. A: Boyer notes that the information on Shakespeare’s plays is scant in the Stationer’s Record. Boyer notes that, of other plays published in plague years, their title pages almost never mention performance. She acknowledges the difficulties in determining chronology to begin with, pointing to the recently changed supposed performance date of Twelfth NIght from 1599 to 1601i

Clare von Rueden: “The Moral of the Story: Medieval Morality Plays and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale”
Actors: Monica Cross, Amy Grubbs, Megan Manos
Von Rueden begins with a story about Disney, regarding the influence that Lady and the Tramp II may have had on her youngest sister’s attitude towards their parents. She notes that stories have an ability to impact not only children, but also adults, in terms of behavior and identity. “Stories shape who we are”. Morality plays, she argues, recognize this ability “and exploit it.” She specifies that she will be discussing pre-1500, pre-Protestant Revolution plays. Through “a rhetoric of ethics”, morality plays seek to persuade audience members towards certain behaviors. Shakespeare, Von Rueden notes, was aware that theatre “plays a part in our ethical lives”.

Von Rueden examines the use of audience contact in morality plays, suggesting that morality plays developed this relationship in order to enhance the play’s ability to affect its audience. Amy Grubbs presents a selection of Lucifer soliciting the audience for sympathy, which Von Rueden notes as typical to, not extraordinary for, morality plays. She relates this to the fact that every named murderer or commander of murders in Shakespeare gets a monologue with the audience in which to explain himself and try to earn sympathy. This extends even to intended or attempted murderers, as Monica Cross demonstrates with a monologue of Leontes. Von Rueden notes that the more vice characters, in Shakespeare or in morality plays, solicit the audience, the more likely they are to lose sympathy, especially when they start to sermon against themselves. Von Rueden also discusses the interactions of virtue characters with the audience.

These sympathies often relate to ideas of grief and repentance, as Von Rueden and her actors demonstrate in two reconciliation scenes: one from a morality play, and one from The Winter’s Tale. The latter, she notes, is not presented, but recounted by witnesses. Von Rueden posits this as an example of Shakespeare’s awareness that everyone who sees a play will respond to it emotionally, though perhaps in different ways, and that plays “exert an ethical influence on our lives”. She concludes by suggesting that productions need to be responsibly aware of this connection as well.

Q&A: Kelly Elliott asks for clarification if Von Rueden was intentionally connecting Leontes to the vice characters. A: Not intentionally; more of a vice “state”, since he’s attempting to justify murder.
Q: Charlene Smith asks if Von Rueden had read Shaw’s writings on Shakespeare, since Shaw complains about Shakespeare’s lack of moral instruction. A: No, but Von Rueden did read something which stated “Shakespeare is not a moralist, but presents morals”, actually allowing a stronger emotional response from the audience, since they have to work through it themselves. Ralph Cohen suggests that she also look at Tolstoy’s comments on the topic.
Q: Celi Oliveto asks if Von Rueden can identify places where Shakespeare may be consciously drawing on the morality play tradition and either subverting or mocking it, or using it to do something else. A: Von Rueden has not looked specifically at that, though he does refer to the vice characters.
Q: Scott Campbell questions her final thought about production responsibility, if Von Rueden is looking specifically at this moment in time, as 21st century theatre needing this responsibility, or more generally. A: Both. “We need to be aware that we are encountering their ethical being.”

Nora Manca: “Shakespeare Walks into a Bar”
Actors: Ian Charles, Kendra Emmett, Jess Hamlet, Meredith Johnson, Aubrey Whitlock
Manca’s presentation opens with an imagined conversation of several of Shakespeare’s early contemporaries, including the famous invectives of Robert Greene, together with commentary by Nashe, Lodge, Peele, and Marlowe. The scene explicates the marks against Shakespeare according to the established poets and playwrights of the age: too common, too contradictory, too prolific, too imitative, too uneducated, too avaricious, a moneylender. It falls to the imagined Marlowe to defend Shakespeare on these counts, but a malfunctioning time machine prevents Will from appearing himself.

Manca explicates that she hopes to take the facts known of Shakespeare’s life together with his own writings to explore the idea that Shakespeare’s portrayal of “Others” in his plays stems from his identity as an “Other” himself. Manca discusses the sociological tendency of all groups to set themselves up as the “One” in opposition to the “Other”. She notes the contempt of the University Wits for Shakespeare, as seen in Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit”. Manca then looks at Shakespeare’s family history, particularly John Shakespeare’s social climbing, and how it positioned William Shakespeare in society. She moves on to the theory that Shakespeare’s family may have been Catholic recusants, then to the circumstances surrounding Shakespeare’s marriage. She then attempts to fill out some of the missing years in Shakespeare’s history with supplements from events that occurred in his home county of Warwickshire. Manca then draws a correlation between Shakespeare’s experience as an “Other” and the character of Shylock, whom she posits would be more Othered than any other character if dropped into Shakespeare’s England. Her full thesis will involve a closer reading of the character of Shylock.

Q&A: Amy Grubbs asks if Manca found any connection to the French Catholics possibly present in London. A: Manca has not, but is interested.
Q: Martha Walker questions if Manca’s thesis would hold up under any other definition of “Other”, depending on the absolutism of alterity. A: Manca believes that it does, though she is unfamiliar with the alternate definition Walker presents.
Q: Matt Davies asks, “Why does biography matter?” A: Manca thinks that the facts of Shakespeare’s life are key to whether or not he can be defined as an Other. Q: Davies continues, asking, “To write about Iago, why does he need to be an Other?” A: Manca admits that he doesn’t, necessarily, but posits that all of us are Others in some way and believes that that would have influenced his writing.
Q: Clare von Rueden asks if this can then influence the performance of Otherness in his plays. A: Manca says yes, and she hopes that this will help her in her directing in the future. Q: Von Rueden continues, asking if Manca has had any revelations on that count thus far. A: Manca thinks that, for an actor, understanding Shakespeare’s Otherness “would probably be influential”.

Nicola Collett: “But One Only Man: Masculinity in Julius Caesar”
Actors: Marshall Garrett, Jamie Jager
Collett suggest that Julius Caesar, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, is “about men” — not a single man, but four very different men with competing interests and variant approaches. Collett posits that Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Cassius represent four distinct aspects of masculinity, which she defines as imperial, stoic, performative, and emotional, respectively. She runs through other critical approaches to analyzing masculinity in Julius Caesar, before moving on to her own approach, analyzing masculinity “not as a unified whole, but as fragmentary”, which she will present in opposition to each other rather than in opposition to femininity.

First, she examines the disconnect between the frailty of Caesar’s mortal form as opposed to the strength of his immortal, imperial spirit. Both Cassius’s stories, Casca’s reporting of his swoon, and Caesar’s own admission of physical failings demonstrate his weaknesses. Yet Caesar puts forth an image of himself as “constant as the Northern Star”, immoveable and eternal, and his assassination in fact cements that immortality of spirit, despite killing the body. By contrast, Brutus is dominated by his stoic philosophy, focused on denial or control of the passions. “His struggle is that his emotions are in conflict, with themselves and with his reason.” Cassius, meanwhile, conflates the personal and the political, particularly in regard to the wrongs Caesar has supposedly done him. Collett links these passions with Cassius’s tendency towards suicidal rhetoric and, eventually, to suicide itself. Jamie Jager presents Cassius’s offer of suicide in the 4.2 “tent scene”, when he offers himself up first to the absent Antony, then to his own dagger, wielded by Brutus. Though Cassius’s emotions give him insight into other characters, they also lead to his downfall. Collett identifies Antony as an actor, able to adapt his presentation to the circumstances. His offer of suicide is calculated, not emotional, and a bluff that he knows Brutus will not call. Collett notes the rhetoric of Antony’s funeral oration as manipulative of his audience’s emotions, even to the extent that he denies his own power to do precisely what he’s doing. Antony also shows himself as an expert in the use of props: Caesar’s will, Caesar’s mantle, and Caesar’s body.

Collett concludes by reiterating the four disparate types of masculinity the men embody, and then offers a rhetorical analogy: that Caesar represents ethos; Brutus, logos; Cassius and Antony, pathos (internal for Cassius, externally for Antony).

Q&A: Menzer begins by stating that masculinity “seems to keep shimmering between material and immaterial” and asks how Manca has addressed that idea of where masculinity is located. A: Collett has not addressed that yet, but hopes to find it through her future rhetorical analysis
Q: Cyndi Kimmel asks if Collett has looked at the presentation of male friendship through a homosexual lens. A: Collett has encountered it tangentially, but believes it beyond the purview of her project at this time.
Q: Patrick Harris questions if, in performance, a female actor playing one of these roles could embody that aspect of masculinity and still play the role as a female. A: Collett thinks, yes, that would be possible.
Q: Ralph Cohen suggests an article for Collett’s inspection, as well as mentioning Vanessa Morosco’s recent re-gendered Cassius.
Q: Marshall Garrett questions where Octavius fits into all of this. A: Collett places him under Caesar’s aegis, noting that he “comes on and becomes the spirit of Caesar”, a “new physical locus for the idea of Caesar-ness”.
Q: Monica Cross asks if Collett sees an effect of one type of masculinity on the other. A: Collett is still working on that aspect.