Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 1

Welcome to the first plenary session of the 8th Blackfriars Conference! I’m Cass Morris, and I’ll be live-blogging this session from 1pm-2:15pm. ASC Board Chair Mary McDermott is moderating.

Lars Engle, University of Tulsa
Performing Shameless Performativity in Antony and Cleopatra

Engle opens by stating that “Cleopatra is performative”, and then moves to unpacking what, exactly, that means. He questions the definition of performative and performativity, wondering how nearly it means “theatrical”, and connects it to theorists (Butler and Sedgwick) whose work examines the performing of gender and sexuality. He then discusses how performativity connects to ideas of shame, and posits that it is possible that society has now transferred shame from queer sexuality to those who would shame queer sexuality.

Engle moves to discussing how Cleopatra foregrounds the very idea of performing: “Cleopatra, catching but the least noise of this, dies instantly: I have seen her die twenty times upon far poorer moment.” In 3.2 (selections presented by James Keegan and Sarah Fallon), Cleopatra prepares a performance meant for Antony, instructing Charmian in a story to carry to Antony. She adjusts her performance in 1.3 based on her audience — on how Charmian finds Antony and on his entrance. In doing so, she throws off his pre-planned farewell speech.

Engle marks Cleoaptra’s shift from shameless performativity to an apparently genuine moment of self-searching at “Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it.” Following, she calls attention to the dangers both of performing and of believing in performativity. “This scene, then, both enacts performativity and anatomizes it.” Engle sees a philosophical warning in Cleopatra’s speech.

Alice Dailey, Villanova University
“I See Dead People”: 2 Henry IV and the Corpse of History

Dailey opens by discussing Nashe’s defense of theatre within Piers Penniless, calling upon the dramatic vitality of Shakespeare’s English history plays. Nashe argues that drama is a medium that can grant the figures of the past immortality, and Dailey notes that scholars have pointed to this passage as proof of Shakespeare’s ability to “make the past present.” She wants to look closer at what is made present and how. On stage, the Talbot Nashe describes in 1 Henry VI is “the walking dead”,

Dailey argues that theatrical revivification restores the dead hero as the subject of the dramatic present, but the subject remains bound to the object of his corpse. History plays stage a representational overlap of anterior and imminent death which argues against claims that theatre can create immortality. Dailey then considers the scene in 2 Henry IV where Morton relates the death of Hotspur to his father Northumberland. In doing so, he “constructs a temporal space in which Percy is both perpetually alive and perpetually dead”, never defeated and never undefeated. The text places the corpse prominently in the speech, with a dual meaning of both Hotspur’s body and the defeated body of the whole army. His metaphors of frozen fish and other motionless objects present a “compressed illustration of how the present of historical theatre unfolds” as a reminder of both deaths that have been and deaths that will be.

Dailey then presents a photo of Lewis Payne shortly before his 1865 execution, noting that, as we see the picture, he is both dead and going to die, and she connects this with the image Morton paints of Hotspur alive and a Hotspur who will die. “The heroes of the past do not transcend the corpse of history but are continually scripted to it.” Theatrical space then represents the “is”, the “was”, and the “will be” of the corpse all at once. Contextualizing Shakespeare’s play alongside photography highlights this temporal merging.

(Moderator notes that it’s always a relief to her when, at the end of history plays, everyone stands back up again).

Richard Preiss, University of Utah
The Alchemical Lavatory

“If you like reckless anachronism, I’ve got more for you. … In the first scene of Pulp Fiction…” Preiss describes a brief shot of a main character at the start of the movie, only revealed at the end of the movie when it becomes clear that the first scene is actually the last. The shot can only be caught, however, on repeat watching. Preiss notes that movies are now designed for “infinite instant replay”. He suggests that early modern theatre’s similar design was not in print, but in performance.

Preiss notes that the “notion of repertory as inventory is an abstraction”, considering the company in aggregate but not the individual plays. While a play may initially have occurred in repertory, we consider it a single thing. But — what if the form of the repertory permeated their content? He clarifies that he means the very fact of multiple performances, in that every play preceded and followed itself, whether or not immediately. Preiss then shares data about multiple performances in the early modern period, with some plays enjoying multiple-day runs and others running multiple times within a given period, though not consecutively.

“Does a play mean the same the second time it’s watched? How about the tenth?” Preiss suggests we experience plays as textual and singular, and that key moments are always described as though for the first time. Plays are considered self-contained and proceed without reference to earlier performances; “what we know by act five is all there is to know”. Early modern theatre, however, had to expect audiences for whom act one was also act six, as many may have seen the same production of the same show more than once, possibly within just a few days. Preiss suggests that playwrights may have written with this expectation in mind, and uses a scene from The Alchemist (performed by MBC students Joshua Williams, Aubrey Whitlock, and Shane Sczepankowski) to demonstrate. Immediate repetition seems to augment the humor for the audience in the theatre.

Theatre “feeds us ourselves” and “does so brazenly…. not made, but merely recycled.” Preiss employs many metaphors of ingesting, defecating, and sewage to underscore his point.

Amy W. Grubbs, Father Ryan High School
Rogues, Vagabonds, and Common Players: Late Elizabethan Playing Companies as a Stabilizing Force in Suburban London

Grubbs begins with a picture of early modern London as a desperate and impoverished place and foregrounds her intention to discuss the playhouses and their companies as a stabilizing force in an era when downward social mobility was high. She discusses three ways parishes might respond to the unsettled: charity, employment, and punishment. The general idea was that those who could work should do so, those who could not should be cared for, and those who could but did not should be whipped and marked out as “not part of a community, and therefore dangerous”.

At the turn of the 17th century, London’s theatrical suburbs were full of people who “did not belong”. Grubbs then shares early modern testimony suggesting that theatre companies, far from contributing to vagrancy, were known to be charitable and encouraged the employment of the unsettled. She cites the apprenticing program of bringing young boys into the companies, which could become a familial and therefore stabilizing dynamic. Grubbs also notes the relationship of the theatres to the watermen of the Thames, helping to create other economic opportunities in their neighborhoods.

To the third response, punishment, Grubbs notes that pickpockets in the theatre were treated similarly to adulterous women, forced to acknowledge their faults and ask forgiveness, positing the theatre as a community similar to that of a parish church. Grubbs suggests that, while these communities may have been temporary, citizens sought them out. The cheap price of entry encouraged this, as even the unsettled and poor could afford to attend as groundlings. “Something about the Globe was, evidently, important enough to the King’s Men” that they rebuilt even at cost, thus enabling them to continue offering cheap entertainment, even though by that time they had a more lucrative operation at the Blackfriars. “Their actions… show that the playing companies did engage in a stabilizing relationship with London’s unsettled.”

Grubbs finished by stating her hope that this research might inform the performance of plays with unsettled characters as well as the production of plays in our own unsettled and poor neighborhoods.

Tiffany Stern, Oxford University
Dumbshows, Revision, and Authorship

Stern opens by noting that she’s been thinking about stage directions and dumbshows: “Dumbshows: Why are they so weird?” She puts the 1604 version of the Hamlet dumbshow on the projector, followed by the 1623 Folio version, noting that the dumbshow is verbally different, but describes the same actions, in both dumbshows. She wonders, then, why did the dumbshow get changed? Where did the new words come from? “Why rewrite words that will never be spoken?” She then presents the two overlaid with each other, to illustrate some “pointless revisions”.

Next, Stern shares a segment from John Lyly’s 1591 Endimion, followed by the same play printed in 1632. By 1632, a dumbshow has been added to the selection, though the text of the plays are entirely the same. The songs and dumbshows added, she suggests, traveled differently from the rest of the text — but why? Stern shares examples of texts where both songs and dumbshows appear collected together at the start or end of a play. For songs, this is easily explained, but she questions why the same thing would be true for an unspoken dumbshow.

“This might help us think about it,” she notes, showing the frontispiece of Locrine, with a note on it illustrating that dumbshows were not necessarily written by the same person who wrote the play. Like songs, Stern suggests that many dumbshows may have been lost or moved due to the simple fact that they were on different paper, which might fall out or get reassembled. She also suggests that they may have had separate rehearsals.

Stern finishes by stating that this was a way of helping her explore stage directions, of which dumbshows are one kind, and she notes that the term “stage direction” does not occur until the 18th century. As such, when we think of stage directions, we may be imposing something onto the term which does not necessarily exist. The first use occurs in Lewis Theobald’s 1733 version of The Works of Shakespeare, and Theobald uses it to say “this is a really rubbish thing” regarding the dumbshow in Hamlet.

James Keegan, ASC & University of Delaware
Macbeth and PTSD: Combat Trauma and the (Un)Doing of a Character

Keegan speaks of his own creation of Macbeth, for whom “doing and undoing” is central. The title of the piece, and a key component of his character work, stems from Shay’s work on soldiers with PTSD after combat. He notes that Shay used Lady Percy’s description of Hotspur from 1 Henry IV as a diagnosis of combat trauma; Sarah Fallon presents the speech with Keegan interjecting the symptoms Shay identified. He notes that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer many of the same symptoms – insomnia, traumatic dreams, hallucination, a sense of the dead being more present than the living, social withdrawal, isolation, lack of capacity for intimacy, depression, loss of ability to experience pleasure – and Keegan and Fallon enact examples from Macbeth.

Keegan notes that while it might not be unusual for a man who murders a houseguest king to suffer PTSD over the act, he is arguing that Macbeth was actually suffering PTSD before the murder, which in fact made him more susceptible to committing it. He aligns the early description of Macbeth in combat as a “berserk combatant”, and notes that Macbeth suffered two of the triggers Shay identifies for causing a soldier to enter such a state. Drawing from this, Keegan states that it made it easier for him to consider the witches as a sort of hallucination; he admits that the matter is complicated by the fact that Banquo sees them too, but he notes that Banquo has come from a similar berserker state. The 2014 casting of three muscular men in the roles of the witches “had a martial aspect that resonated” with the described scenes of battle. Patrick Midgley, in fact, doubled as the bloody captain and quick-changed into a witch.

Macbeth, fresh from the brutality of war and the predictions of the witches, can be seen as similar to Achilles in the Iliad, though Keegan notes that Macbeth has less reason to believe himself betrayed than Achilles. Keegan describes the scene where Duncan names his successor — not the warrior he has admitted deserves the honor, but his son, who had to be protected in battle. Keegan argues that Macbeth might see this as a betrayal of what is right, even though it was not a betrayal of anything promised.

Keegan notes that his examination of the character in this light is not to excuse his actions, but to explore where his decisions to act came from. Lady Macbeth attacks the essential component of his martial aspect, his courage. Killing Duncan brings those martial aspects into the domestic sphere, ultimately upending the rest of Macbeth’s life. Keegan notes the use of this concept in other productions, quoting Michael Fassbender about his role preparation and speaking of a production which tried to add in battle scenes to assist the audience in their understanding.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

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