Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy #5: Asides and Villainy

Good morning! I’m Cass Morris, and I’ll be liveblogging one of this morning’s six colloquy sessions: “Asides and Villainy”.

Chairs: Laury Magnus and Walter Cannon

Participants: Julia Griffin, Alan Hickman, Arthur Kinney, Caroline Latta, David Loehr, Ashley Pierce, Deb Streusand

Magnus and Cannon open the introductions, then have the participants introduce themselves and their favorite villains. Loehr’s is Richard III, Streusand’s is Mendoza, but favorite in Shakespeare is Claudius. Pierce says she loves them all, but claims Tybalt as a “twist my arm” top choice. Kinney’s is Iago, as is Hickman’s; Latta has chosen the Queen from Cymbeline.

Magnus notes that, for villains, asides are both secretive and attention-getters. She goes on to discuss several different types or purposes of asides as used by villains, including letting the audience in on their plans. She also notes, quoting Jim Hirsch, that villains can also deliver “asides” which are actually staged for the benefit of other on-stage characters, as with Edmund in King Lear. She adds that while there are comic villains who use asides, their use as a purposeful strategem seems more characteristic of dramatic villains.

By way of defining villains, via Charney: they “establish a network of evil”, they like to kill, they are arbitrary & irrational, they lack belief in anything greater than themselves, they try to present selves as plain and unadorned speakers, and soliloquies and asides are important to them.

Latta shares thoughts from an actor on soliloquies as discussions with the audience, then says she “began to obsess over how many different kinds of asides I could identify”. She shares a “taxonomy of asides”, with designations including: shared asides, conversational asides/solo asides, partial asides (by way of adlib/improv/impromptu remarks), whispered asides, shared onstage asides, visual/gestural asides, withdrawal asides/”fauxversations”, rapt soliloquy, cascading asides.

Streusand worked on The Malcontent, wherein the hero and villain “get more or less an equal amount of soliloquies”. She frames this as a competition for the audience’s interest and attention. Mendoza does not pretend to be a plain speaker, setting him apart from the typical Shakespearean mold.

Loehr worked on Richard III, noting that he is “an actor in life”, taking on various roles for his own self-interest. Throughout the play, he acts for everyone around him, showing his true self only to the audience and sometimes to his accomplice Buckingham. Loehr, Streusand, and Pierce read through a scene wherein Richard has examples of both overheard and non-overheard asides; the overheard aside forces Richard to adapt to the immediate circumstance. Loehr also notes that Richard takes a comic joy in his own villainy, demonstrated in the jokes he shares with the audience.

Kinney begins by saying, “We’re all trying to work out how villains make asides, and I’m trying to figure out how asides make villains.” He is looking at Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, which lacks a clear villain.

Pierce has looked at both Tybalt and Iago. Though a small speaking role, Tybalt often still receives treatment as the villain of Romeo and Juliet. He has no prescribed asides, but there are two moments where performatively he is “alone” on stage, and they are the only moments when he speaks in rhyming couplets. “When Tybalt is wanting to kill and cannot kill, he speaks in rhymes to himself.” Iago not only uses asides, but uses them to his advantage. Pierce gives an example from 3.2, in which he comments on Desdemona and Cassio in earshot of Othello, but plays it off as an aside. Pierce claims that “[Iago] is fully aware of the impact of asides”. Magnus wonders if there are often verbal markers like “O” or “Ha” to villains’ asides.

Hickman is looking at Malvolio, often deemed a comedic villain in tragic circumstances. He notes that modern productions tend to “pile on the pathos”. Hickman theorizes that Malvolio does not begin the play as a villain but is one by the end: “Some are born villainous, some achieve villainous, others have villainy thrust upon them.”

Latta, working on the Queen in Cymbeline, distinguishes her from Charney’s definition of villainy — she is a careful plotter rather than irrational; she is capable of murder but does not treat it as a game; her interest is more for her son than for her own self. So, in considering her as a villain, “she is, but on her own terms.” She then uses student Glenn Thompson and Loehr to illustrate an instance of the “fauxversation” between Cymbeline and the Queen while Cloten talks elsewhere.

An auditor questions the use of asides taken to particular portions of the audience; colloquy members note that at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the gallant stools are often used in that way. Another auditor mentions that prologues often point out different sections of the audience.

Auditor Thompson questions the categorization of Malvolio as villain, and if it’s possible under Charney’s definition to identify Toby, Maria, et al as the real villains, particularly since Malvolio is generally acted upon rather than acting. Hickman notes that, “Malvolio drives Sir Toby to marriage, so he’s a villain.” Another auditor points out what Shakespeare chose to name the character, which literally means “evil wishes”.

In the last few minutes, Magnus redirects the focus to the performers in the room about the demands that asides place on an actor. Latta suggests that the specification of audience members is advantageous to bringing the audience in but also a challenge, since it requires making decisions swiftly in the moment. Loehr describes it as “making that person your scene partner”. Streusand comments that the audience member’s response also affects how the actor can deliver the aside. Pierce notes the “close connection” with the audience as one of the biggest advantages of acting at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Cannon closes by posing a curiosity about the definition of villains and villainy and if it’s substantial or adequate, and offers a thought experiment regarding the character of Hal/Henry V.

–Cass Morris
ASC Academic Resources Manager

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