Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 4

Welcome to the fourth plenary session, and the first of day two of the conference! I am Mary Finch and I will be live blogging this session that runs from 9:00 – 10:15 am. Thanks for joining us!

Hsian-Chun Chu, National Changhua University of Education
Performing Magic on StageL Conventions, Strategies, and Audience Participation

Chu began by defining magic in order to understand the term correctly: “the art of producing illusion as entertainment by use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, and so on.” Using magic in plays can both intrigue and horrify audiences, and often contributed to the success of a play on the Elizabethan stage.

Sorcerer Plays, or magus plays, were a popular genre that featured a powerful magician at the center of events. The events normal included a search for power, a rivalry, a quest for advantage, and success (or failure) or the quest. In these plays, there were two kinds of magic: spiritual magic (which was more benign and used nature as a source of power) and demonic magic (which involved the invocation of otherworldy creatures). So the plays used literary and folklore traditions surrounding magic.

Chu then discussed the strategies for performing this magic on stage. The fantastical spectacles often use equipment, such as we see in The Tempest (a staff) and Doctor Faustus (books). Chu then analyzed an image from a title page of Doctor Faustus and images surrounding the magician: robes, books, a staff, and so forth.

Using Prospero as an example, Chu looked at the text to look at the appearance of a great magician. When Prospero removes his magic clothes he changes from being a magician to being a man. The robes were a means of transformation, and reflected the Elizabethan tradition of connecting clothes to status. Prospero also uses books, another sign of status and magic. The staff, which is only mentioned at the end of the text, is also used in The Tempest. Like a king’s scepter, it is a symbol of power and authority.

Jumping to the conclusion, Chu was interrupted by the bear.

Lauren Shepherd, University of Toronto
“Supposed to be distracted”: Performing the simple, mad, distracted lunatic

Shepherd went to England to examines the language of court records of institutions housing mental patients during the Early Modern period. These records allow actors and directors to make a connection between real life and the text of plays.

Starting with the word “lunatic,” Shepherd read several accounts of individuals being described as such and sent to Bethlehem. The origins of the word attributes the madness to the moon. Although not limited to women, the word was more commonly used to describe women. Looking at Twelfth Night, Shepherd asked actors to stage Malvolio’s diagnosis of being lunatic (Patrick Harris as Malvolio, Ian Charles as Feste).

Shepherd then turned to the term distracted, a word more commonly used to describe men than women. Hamlet’s madness frequently is described as such. Again, actors staged the moment when Hamlet considers murder (Patrick Harris as Claudius, Ian Charles as Hamlet). Distracted generally communicates not knowing how to behave, rather than a loss of control.

Finally, Shepherd discussed simple and ignorant, which are permanent rather than temporary (as lunatic and distracted were understood to be). Simple was often paired with distracted for female patients and alleviated some of the blame for their behavior. Again though, Shakespeare attributes these phrases to men more than women, in contrast of the common tradition. Shepherd staged the final monologue of Richard II (Marshall Garrett) as an example.

Temporary instances of madness are described as lunacy and distraction, while simple and ignorant indicate a permanent condition that is outside the control of the individual.

Sara B. T. Thiel, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
“Cushion come forth”: Materializing Pregnancy on the Stuart Stage

Thiel described the “chaste nymphs” of The Golden Age by Heywood which documents pregnancy, as being hidden and then discovered. In a dumb show, the characters undress and pregnancy is seen by all on stage and, maybe, the audience. The convention of an all male audience raises questions about what exactly everyone saw. This paper looks at the intersection between the boy actor and the pregnant character.

Pregnancy was a highly visible stage convention, and Thiel plans to look at possible ways of staging the pregnant body. In some cases, as in The Heir, costumes are removed to deconstruct gender and reveal a fake pregnancy or a disguise. Actors Marshall Garrett, Patrick Harris, and Ian Charles staged the moment of discovery with the stage direction “He flings the cushion at him” giving us a clue as to how they staged the pregnancy. The OED has a separate definition for this use of cushion, specifically known as “Mary’s Cushion” after Tudor Mary who was frequently mistakenly thought to be pregnant.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 also has a moment of claimed pregnancy when Doll Tearsheet is arrested for murder and the officer refers to a cushion.

In The Golden Age, the text draws attention to the pregnant body; actors again stage the moment, but this time the actor’s belly is upstage and therefore out of sight and the actors’ reactions tells the audience what has happened. In a second staging the actors faced forward allowing the audience to see the prosthetic belly. In other plays, the birth of a child reveals the pregnancy, but in this play it is the physical swelling that signals pregnancy.

Looking at this moment from The Golden Age illustrates how pregnancy can both create and dismantle the costume of the boy actor on the stage.

Claire Bourne, Virginia Commonwealth University
Turn It Up (Or Down): Dramatic Action and Typographic Experiment in Early Modern Playbooks

Bourne begins by challenging the assumption that 17th century printers were unconcerned with the typographic design of printing their plays. The awkwardness of the page shows “active experimentation” rather than indifference.

The turn up/over method showed that printers considered the relationship between dialogue and stage directions, and the nature of verse. Printers attempted to account for action on stage and make it legible to readers. In the earliest examples, the occasional brief stage direction was simply set to the edge of the page. As time goes on, stage directions become more detailed and more carefully situated on the page and varied in font, corresponding with the dialogue that should accompany action. Combing lines was also an economical decision; less lines meant less pages which meant a cheaper printing.

Bourne showed several examples of printers using parenthesis to indicate how the stage direction relates to lines other than the ones with which it shares space. In some cases, there are multiple of these where the stage direction spans several lines.

The printers used these cues to show the integral relationship between the interlexical business and the dialogue. The use of different alignment, font, and conventions were not meant to create division between the words and the directions, but meant to be legible and easy to understand.

Claire Kimball, independent scholar
Important Silence: Dumb Shows in Dekker and Middleton’s The Bloody Banquet

Kimball opened by announcing that The Bloody Banquet was staged for the first time in four hundred years this summer in Washington DC. As the title suggests, the play was served with lots of gore to a positive acceptance. Within this play, are two dumb shows which has caused scholars to question how they came to be in the play. Kimball asserts that these dumb shows are not textually inferior, but a moment for actors to take creative liberty.

The first dumb show gives exposition, and the second gives important plot and reviews major events; both are [paired with lines from the Chorus. Based on stagings and readings that remove dumb shows, it seems that many think these are antiquated and redundant.

“We don’t always trust them” — scholars and directors are unwilling to fully trust the text (and the dumb shows).

In staging the dumb shows, Kimball recounts how actors must give it an honest chance without making fun of it, even when the events are seemingly absurd. Kimball used actors to contrast the use of a chorus and the use of a dumb show (actors Ian Charles, Merlyn Snell, Meredith Johnson).

One audience member from the performance in Washington DC listed the dumb show as one of the most branding images of the play, equal to the gruesome cannibalistic violence.

Kimball closes by insisting that dumb shows are in the text for a reason, and that directors have a responsibility to stage the silent moments seriously, in order to see if they are worth performing.

“Pantomime performances are thorny, but inventive spaces,” and should not be lightly cast aside.

— Mary Finch
MLitt Student at MBC Shakespeare and Performance

One thought on “Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 4

  1. Pingback: Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Liveblogging Masterlist | ASC Education

Comments are closed.