Blackfriars Conference – Plenary Session VI

Hi there! Molly Beth Seremet again, reporting from the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse. Plenary Session VI is underway, running from 2:30pm – 3:45pm. This plenary session is moderated by Barbara Bono.

Amanda Zoch (Indiana University)

Maternal Revision in Middleton’s More Dissemblers Besides Women

Zoch’s work will focus tightly on Middleton’s play, a play once called by a patron “the worst play I ever saw.” Zoch’s interest lies in the Page, a character who is actually a pregnant woman in disguise. The Page, a cross-dressed lover, eventually goes into labor during a dance lesson. Zoch point out that even in this moment, the dance-master considers the laboring page a miracle, a boy who is with child, failing to recognize maternity even in its most emergent (and obvious) moment.

Zoch now turns to a historical consideration of maternal legacy. She describes the manner in which expectant mothers materially prepare for childbirth during their pregnancies. Texts authored by mothers in later life, however, often do not refer to pregnancy at all. Zoch terms this phenomenon ‘maternal revision,’ in which the fears and dangers of pregnancy cause mothers to define themselves as maternal figures and not formerly pregnant women.

Zoch compares Middleton’s Page to Shakespeare’s Hermione, managing their self-presentation in the ways they revise themselves as maternal figures. The dramatic representation of the Page in Middleton’s work stages pregnancy by staging the Page’s body, troubling the other characters’ conceptions of the world. Zoch points out that frequently in Middleton’s text, other characters discuss the physical ambiguities of the Page’s body within the text. Zoch parallels this with societal discomfort with the ambiguities of the pregnancy body, suggesting that Middleton’s dramatic language stages a cultural concern with the maternal power of the female “troublesome body.”

Zoch describes an instant in the Middleton text in which the dance-master instructs the Page to dance faster and harder, spreading his (her) knees “Wider. Wider. Wider!” and exhorting “have you ever seen a boy dance this clenched-up.” Not surprisingly, the Page in trying to comply with the dance-master’s order goes into labor and calls for the midwife. Thus, the boy begins to give birth.

After this vivid imagery, Zoch moves into an exploration of the Page’s silence after the moment of the birth, a silent presence in the play’s final scene. Zoch contends that this moment would be highly noticeable in the world of the play, staging maternal silence after the rich of activity of birth.

Zoch’s paper ends on a cliffhanger, however, as the Bear chases the valiant Zoch offstage!

Bob Jones (University of Texas – Austin)

“Heave Up!”: The “wicked weight” of Shakespeare’s Antony and York’s Christ

This paper features American Shakespeare Center actors Gregory Jon Phelps, Alli Glenzer, and Chris Johnston.

Jones comes out of the gate with a raucous comparison of Shakespeare’s Antony with a crucified Christ.  Jones posits that the hoisting of Antony up over the balcony constitutes a “naughty challenge” in the theatrical world. Jones suggests that the Folio text of Antony and Cleopatra demands that Antony’s body must be ‘heaved’ into position, given the fact that no exit is specified for the character in this moment. Indeed, Jones urges us to remember that the word “heave” is a unique word with distinct physical behaviors required as a result.

Jones provides an example of this stage direction in practice, describing a Shakespeare in Winedale production in which Antony almost fell.  That Antony happens to be in the house for this plenary and corroborates Jones’ anecdote from the balcony, to cheers and grimaces from the gathered scholars.

Jones now turns us to a close look at the crucifixion scene in York, pointing up the challenges of depicting an onstage crucifixion without actually resorting to the action itself (more laughs from the audience). Jones suggests an inherent tension between theatrical display and oral discourse. The ASC actors and Jones now move to a presentation of the crucifixion scene. Glenzer, Johnston, Phelps, and Jones stage a moment in which they work together to lift the (imaginary) cross and bear it heavily on their shoulders, while grimacing their way through York’s text.  This staged teamwork reinforces Jones’ position that these dramatic moments stage both language and the effort embedded in the text.

The scene now shifts to the scene in Antony and Cleopatra in which Antony is lifted to Cleopatra’s monument. Johnston and Phelps support Jones, holding him up to the aloft Cleopatra, portrayed by Glenzer. Jones’ Antony cannot reach his Cleopatra and the audience enjoys this productive “failure” heartily.

Jones posits that these moments in early modern drama stage moments of ‘burlesque comedy of effort” allowing for instants of surprising success.  Jones suggests that these moments exist precisely to stage work, while also epitomizing sacred events.  Further, secondary characters bear the responsibility of the effort in these moments, staging the work they do and their comic struggles to fulfill their orders.  As Jones urges, these moments instill feelings of relief and pride in ‘jobs well done’ into the theatrical frame, foregrounding the physical labor that enables theatrical work with cognizance of its own fragility.

Dan Venning (CUNY Graduate Center)

Great Lengths? Shakespeare’s History Cycles on Stage

Venning begins his presentation with an anecdote from current Broadway show Something Rotten, saying “Why is he doing Richard II? He just did Richard III? Who goes backwards?!” Venning points out that while it is easy to imagine history plays as cycles, these plays were likely not written as marathon theatrical events. Venning notes that the first recorded instance of the history plays as a cycle appears in history in 1864 in Germany, helmed by Franz von Dingelstedt.

Venning postulates that history play cycles serve as an assertion of  virtuosity in Shakespearean performance. He refers first to a German staging of the history cycle by von Dinglestedt, influenced by Schiller. This cycle was presented right after a staging of Schiller’s history cycle, uniting English and German history in parallel dramatic history marathons.  Historically, this is a fascinating image of unification in a historical moment.  Venning then explains that von Dinglestedt’s cycle aimed to a site-specific endeavor which Venning compares to work made in the reconstructed Blackfriars Playhouse.

Venning now moves to an exploration of marathon plays at large, which he defines as plays extending for longer than five hours in length. He explains that these cyclical plays may be “necessarily boring,” requiring that audiences perform a feat of their own in endurance spectatorship. This brings up interesting intellectual and theoretical issues as these history cycles deal thematically with issues of war and human suffering, in which form seems to highlight content. Venning concludes that directors frequently invest audiences in a particularly clear version of today’s world through engagement with these historical cycles.

Melissa Aaron (Cal Poly Pomona)

The Bear Essentials: Cost-Effective Bears in Original Practice Productions of The Winter’s Tale

Aaron leads off by saying, “It all begins with a bear,” summoning up images of her own initial experience with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Aaron is particularly interested in non-textual Shakespeare and in reading Shakespeare through an economic lens, such as looking at the acquisition of props, costumes etc.

Aaron now moves to a historical look at early modern fascinations with white bears, such as those staged in Oberon and Mucedorus. As a result, Aaron posits that the King’s Men would have already owned a bear suit and suggests that having a bear suit on hand means the bear practically writes himself into The Winter’s Tale at all. In addition, Aaron points out that this repetition is a productive and common one in early modern original practices.

Aaron now dangles the provocative question, “what is the economic significance of original practices?” Aaron suggests while we must be careful to not become Doctors Frankenstein in our engagement with early practices, we must not ignore the benefits we might gain from echoing historical practices. Aaron then wonders what might be gained from borrowing historically informed theatrical economics. She suggests some possible examples in this model such as no more purpose-built theatres, actors providing their own costumes, and reusable props. She also suggests some shifts to the public funding paradigm, but due to time (and bear!) constraints, she asks that we chat about those aspects over a drink after her paper presentation.

Aaron now moves to a specific examination of the Blackfriars Bear. She reminds us that bear suits are expensive and not terribly cost-effective, unless reasons can be found for it to be staged frequently. Aaron then calls out the frequency with which companies like the American Shakespeare Center stage The Winter’s Tale and then employ the Bear to chase recalcitrant scholars off the stage during the Blackfriars Conference. Aaron asks “do we ever get tired of the bear?” earning a hug (and a curtain call) for our trusty bear.

In conclusion, Aaron urges us to consider the ways in which mirroring early modern business practices can enrich modern day theatre-making. The Bear cheers!

Patrick Midgley (American Shakespeare Center)

Echoes and Entreaties

This paper features American Shakespeare Center actors Chris Johnston, Alli Glenzer, and Gregory Jon Phelps.

American Shakespeare Center actor Patrick Midgley now takes the stage! He begins with a list of the questions he and the other actors answer over and over again. “How do you speak in old English? How do you learn your lines? Do you ever forget what play you’re in?” and so forth. Midgley tells us that this is paper written from the wings, as it were, focusing on theatrical echoes in the space of rehearsal and performance.

Midgley elucidates that for him, the word “rehearsal” is aurally evocative – ” re — hears — all.” He mentions, however, that during the ASC’s Actors Renaissance Season, the abbreviated rehearsal process and cue script practice is more like “first time ever, hears a little.”

Midgley now turns to an exploration of language in Webster’s The White Devil. Actor Chris Johnston performs some of Flamineo’s text, harkening up the animal imagery in Webster’s text, revealing a repeated motif of animalistic imagery such as “bitches, dos, curs, spaniels” etc. Midgley muses about the uses of researching this aural motif as an actor, and how to work with this repetition in performance practice. Midgley further details that this motif is well-researched, called up and glossed by many prior scholars.

Midgley then explains that he took an interest in looking for similar motifs in other plays in Actors Renaissance Season as well.  He points out the word “entreat” appears 14 times in The Taming of The Shrew, occasionally with an alternate spelling echoing after the normal spelling of “entreat.” Midgley jokes that “you can’t play an alternate spelling” and he is right, though actor James Keegan heckles him from the peanut gallery saying, “maybe you can’t!”  Midgley gathers us back into his argument, noting that unlike Webster’s animal imagery, the switches between “entreat” and “intreat” in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew are not often researched by scholars. He ponders this and asks us to imagine what performance might unlock about the significance of these switches. Midgley turns to an exploration of the way the words “entreat” and “intreat” function across The Taming of the Shrew, spelling variants notwithstanding. He terms this an echo and asks us to hear this echoes as “calling backs.”

Midgley now calls on fellow American Shakespeare Center actor Alli Glenzer to demonstrate the multiple uses of the word “entreat” in Kate’s monologue and the presentation closes out with those lovely words resonating through the Blackfriars.

Matt Kozusko (Ursinus College) 

Implied Stage Directions

Kozusko begins his paper by calling out a final moment of proto-feminism in the final scene of Measure for Measure. He asks the audience to locate the embedded stage direction in the text of this final scene. As Kozusko points out, there is a pause in the Duke’s proposal line in this scene which might open up a moment in which Isabella responds in some way to the situation. Kozusko’s work will explore embedded stage directions and implied embedded stage directions.

Kozusko now asks us to look at a moment from Romeo and Juliet, in which the Watchman introduces us to a Friar who “trembles, sighs, and weeps” and also bears a “mattock and this spade.” This moment is performed nicely by American Shakespeare Center actors Johnston and Glenzer. Kozusko points out that this moment stages several overt stage directions that govern both performative behavior and stage properties.

Now, Kozusko turns to a moment in Comedy of Errors, in which Egeon asks Antipholous of Ephesus, “Why look you strange on me?” which the actors again perform for us. Kozusko suggests that this might be an embedded stage direction dictating behavior, but also be a moment in which the text replaces a visible behavior.

We now return to the original Measure for Measure example, which Kozusko stages for us as well.  Here, Isabella (played by Glenzer) backs away from the Duke (Phelps) when asked for her hand. The Duke pauses and turns towards Claudio (Johnston) who smiles to the audience, perhaps in preparation to offer his own hand. The audience delights in this moment and laughter fills the playhouse. Kozusko notes that this staging may be an exaggerated bit of silliness, but also points out that the silence in the text at this moment might make us see something.

Now, Kozusko presses on this moment further, suggesting the potential this moment has to make us as an audience look (or perhaps not look) as Isabella. The notion that Isabella needs to respond non-verbally in this moment suggests a behavior of consequence. If Isabella were supposed to “look strange” upon the Duke, we might assume that the text would say so.  Kozusko then offers this Measure moment as a challenge to notions of embedded stage directions and the behaviors they dictate.  For Kozusko, this moment of silence creates discomfort which may perhaps represent authorial intention and may also show an audience something uncomfortable that we need to see.  He concludes his work be celebrating this uncertainty and the potentiality for reading and staging possibility.

Three cheers for a rousing and enlightening plenary session!

-Molly

About mothbelly

I'm the kind of gal who makes bad decisions with great enthusiasm. Regularly. And then writes about them, while feeling anxious. And drinking coffee and/or wine. It's my process.

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