Research Musings: Shakespeare, and…

This one will be brief, but I made a pact with myself to write something every single day, so here goes:

In doing some preliminary online examinations of archives today (Bristol Theatre Collection, RSC/Birthplace Trust, etc.) it occurred to me to see what the Globe had available online. While I knew that the (new) Globe had never produced The Changeling, I was surprised by the other early modern plays I found in their ‘past productions’ section. In its entire existence, the Globe has produced only five early modern plays which are not ascribed to William Shakespeare: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Maid’s Tragedy in 1997, A Mad World, My Masters and The Honest Whore in 1998, and Doctor Faustus in 2011. Compare this to the eight plays the Globe has produced since 2009 that fall under the category of ‘new writing’. 

One of the questions that I wanted to research as part of my PhD was the thought process behind a company’s choice to produce The Changeling. I was especially interested in companies whose mandate is explicitly to produce Shakespeare’s plays–and when you’ve called yourself ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, one might assume that your company’s mandate has something to do with the Bard. The Globe hasn’t produced The Changeling since its resurrection, but Thomas Middleton is the second most recurring playwright in their repertoire, miles ahead of Marlowe or Beaumont and Fletcher.

Two questions are arising out of this discovery for me:

Firstly, are the Globe’s choices significant? In other words, does it matter which early modern plays outside of the Shakespeare canon the Globe chooses to produce? Is their choice to do, say, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside more significant than anyone else’s? And what, if anything, is to be made of the fact that Middleton’s two most-performed plays (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) are nowhere to be found?

Secondly, am I wrong to be framing any part of my research (and eventually my argument) in terms of Shakespeare or Shakespeare-focused companies? I had this thought today whilst trying to block out the sounds of circus performers just outside the library windows (seriously). Every single source I’ve read so far about Middleton or Middleton and Rowley or The Changeling or all of the above comes back to a comparison to Shakespeare. Shakespeare certainly isn’t routinely compared to another playwright in critical analyses of his works–or if he is, it’s done to make a specific point about a specific relationship between characters or plot lines or dramaturgical considerations; very rarely is Shakespeare broadly compared to one of his contemporaries in critical writings. Middleton, on the other hand, is always analysed in terms of Shakespeare. Am I crazy to dream of a day when Shakespeare will be analysed in terms of his contemporaries’ work just as often as his contemporaries are analysed in terms of his work? And is it really any kind of meaningful rebellion to leave Shakespeare out of my analysis of Middleton and Rowley’s play? Will that just seem negligent? Or will anyone even notice?


Research Musings: Evaluating Sources

During this very early stage of my research, I’ve been trying to think of myself as a kind of sponge, absorbing all the information that comes my way without too much discernment. After all, who knows what will actually be useful when it comes time to write this darn thing? And I’ve tried to have the attitude throughout my life that even negative experiences can teach me something. Today, however, I stumbled across a book that was just so awful, I’ve got to blog about it.

Evaluating sources is something that I’ve never been 100% confident about, but I’d like to think that I have a decent grasp of which sources are most appropriate for my research and a general sense of which sources are most likely to be reliable. I think there’s a lot to be said for the importance an intelligent-souding title, a strong bibliography, and a reputable publisher (not necessarily in that order). At the moment, I’m pulling sources from the library without doing much in the way of pre-screening in order to immerse myself in the available writings on Middleton, Rowley, and The Changeling. Thus, when I came across a book in the library this week entitled Thomas Middleton: Renaissance Dramatist that covered most of the major plays in intelligently categorised chapters and was published by Edinburgh University Press, I was feeling pretty okay about its chances of being worth reading. My hopes were very quickly shattered.

As an example of its poor editing and sloppy scholarship, let us examine the author’s version of The Changeling’s modern performance history: ‘It was revived once more in 1961, and was performed regularly until the 1980s in Britain–it returned to the stage in 2006’ (132). Aside from the completely unnecessary comma, the sentence completely misses out, for example, Michael Attenborough’s production for the RSC in 1992 (which continued to tour throughout 1993) and the 1993 BBC television version. In addition, the exclusion of the ’90s misses out on the very interested adaptation by KneeHigh Theatre Company in 1999. Not to mention the Tobacco Factory’s 2005 production. I think my point is obvious. This kind of omission would be enough on its own to make me question the credibility of this source, but the author takes it one step further.

After having asserted that the play was not performed from some unidentified year in ‘the 1980s’ until 2006, she actually brings up and discusses the very Michael Attenborough RSC production that I mention above (136). She might–might–get away with her nod to the 1993 BBC television version (133) because she specifies that the play ‘returned to the stage in 2006′. But completely leaving out an RSC production that she then referenced four pages later was one mistake too many for me, and it’s just a sampling of the kind of errors in editing that run rampant through this book.

The question now, of course, is what to do with this source. I know that a good scholar does not run away from unreliable or “bad” sources, but I’m not entirely sure what else to do. Should it show up in my literature review? Is it even worth that much attention? As a lowly MPhil/PhD, am I even qualified to call out a real professor’s shoddy work?  These and other vaguely philosophical questions will hopefully be answered in my next supervision….

Research Musings: Cutting Text

Daily writing exercise number two comes to you courtesy of another Thomas Postlewait quotation, this time about the significance something can have by virtue of its absence. This comes from the third chapter of his Introduction to Theatre Historiography, in which Postlewait examines the various components that contribute to the reconstruction of an historical event. He notes that, when seeking the distinctive features of a particular event, ‘We can even argue that things that do not happen, such as Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, can be perceived as contributing aspects of an event. In other words, the perception of absence (e.g., of something missing) fills the void with meaning: the lack of signification becomes a locus of significance’ (111).

To me, this idea of significance in absence screamed to be applied to the way in which any given play is cut for performance. Margaret Jane Kidnie examines this very thing in Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, looking at the controversial cuts made by Mathhew Warchus to his 1997 production of Hamlet for the RSC. These cuts were so contested in the press, she argues, because of the play’s revered canonical status. She quotes Warchus downplaying his cuts, saying that ‘in a previous RSC season he cut one thousand lines from Jonson’s Devil Is An Ass and “absolutely nobody noticed”‘. She goes on to use another example from the RSC: Gregory Doran’s 2003 production of All’s Well That Ends Well. Kidnie notes that Doran ‘cut an entire scene from the text of All’s Well That Ends Well without attracting any of the controversy caused by Warchus’s decisions to cut from Hamlet the opening scene on the battlements’ (35). Her point is that plays which the (critical) audience is less familiar with are less likely to fall prey to accusations of butchery when the text is substantially cut.

In the case of The Changeling, substantial cuts to its text were apparently commonplace and generally accepted as beneficial to the play during the mid-twentieth century. Reviews of productions that cut the subplot almost uniformly praise the decision, claiming that its content is inferior. One reviewer for The Times  in 1960 went so far as to title his review of the BBC Third Programme radio version ‘A Case to be Grateful for Cuts’ and to assert that the subplot is ‘so crude in both conception and execution’ that the viewers, purists and all, should be beholden to the BBC for sparing them ‘a mixture of boredom and nausea’. For reviewers, the absent scenes in The Changeling apparently have (or at least had) the opposite effect to absent scenes in Hamlet. In either case, the scenes are significant to the theatrical event by virtue of the fact that they’re not being performed. And despite apparent critical acceptance of cutting The Changeling’s subplot, I would argue that this kind of cut substantially alters the play in ways at least as significant as those generated by cutting the opening scene of Hamlet.

Trevor Nunn said once that the way a director cuts the text is his version of the play, implying that a particular director’s vision can be encapsulated in his decisions regarding cutting (quoted in Kidnie). If this is the case, might it be productive to pursue a line of inquiry that looks specifically at the ways in which The Changeling’s text has been cut for performance during its lifetime?

Research Musings: Futility and Curiosity

I officially started work on my PhD this week, and my supervisor has suggested that I continue to use my blog as a place to work through ideas in writing. Since it’s a public forum, it will force me to pay attention to what I write and offer the potential for people to feed back and give opinions on my work as it progresses. So I’ll be writing a series of short reflections on my research, starting today. Please keep in mind when reading that these are not fully formulated ideas but rather my musings on a day of work. 


I’ve been refreshing my theatre history skills lately by reading The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography by Thomas Postlewait  (CUP, 2009). So far, it’s proved to be a really good overview of what exactly a theatre historian (or any historian) should and should not do. In the first chapter, Postlewait uses Shakespeare’s Globe (past and present) as the starting point to discuss the right and wrong ways to think about theatre history. Discussing the anti-theatrical pamphlets published in Elizabethan London, Postlewait asks difficult questions about the limits of their usefulness as historical evidence: 

‘is this evidence sufficient for a historical conclusion about the anti-theatrical status of theatre in London society over six or seven decades at various theatres? To what extent can a few pamphleteers stand in as representative figures for most of the people in the city?’ 

This skepticism about the relevance of the pamphleteers to the general condition of sixteenth-century London theatregoers started me thinking about reviews and all of the other promotional paraphernalia that accompany a show’s opening in our own time. To what extent can a reviewer or a group of reviewers ‘stand in as representative figures’ for the theatre-going population of, for example, twenty-first-century London?

Experience tells me that actors and directors, at least, have little faith in any given critic’s ability to understand or properly communicate a performance to the public. This is a gross generalisation and also an unfair expectation: theatre is ephemeral by its very nature, and as such it cannot possibly be accurately or “properly” communicated via language. Those who see a piece of theatre experience it in the moment, and try as they might to recreate that moment for themselves or others, it was lost before they even registered its existence. Like Coleridge in the footnote to ‘Kubla Khan,’ they are left with only fragments of the entire picture. 

What use, then, is a review of a play? 

A review expresses the opinion–educated or otherwise–of a single person. At best, if all or most of the reviews agree, a review can provide insight into what a very particular group of people thought about a particular performance of a particular production of a play. They are, at heart, subjective. Despite this, they can often provide useful insight into the design, dramaturgy, and overall aesthetic of a production: Reviewer A might think that Ariel’s entrance of a swing with a rainbow scarf was fabulous and Reviewer B might have found it horrifyingly amateurish, but both are likely to agree that the entrance happened (although sometimes even such mechanical details can be disagreed upon). 

I guess what I’m grappling with here is the notion that, in fact, I cannot do the thing I’ve asked myself to do. I cannot conclusively say that such-and-such a production of The Changeling reflected or utilised or commented upon such-and-such a political/social/moral dilemma. Theatre is, alas, not so definitive; I’m not sure that any field is. I can look at the reviews and perhaps even interviews with the artists involved or promotional trailers or posters or programmes or any number of other documents, but at the end of the day I’ll only be able to say what those things have shared with me about a particular production and its impact.

I’m strangely okay with that. My curiosity, my desire to know, is currently winning out over the knowledge that I cannot know. At the very beginning of the Introduction to Theatre Historiography, Postlewait quotes Michel de Montaigne saying that ‘The active pursuit of truth is our proper business. We have no excuse for conducting it badly or unfittingly. But failure to capture our prey is another matter. For we are born to quest after it; to possess it belongs to a greater power…The world is but a school of inquiry’. I like Montaigne’s approach to truth, as I think it fits in very nicely with what doctoral student of theatre history might hope to accomplish: a ‘quest’ for truth rather than an attainment of truth. In other words, as one very wise professor noted this morning, ‘a degree is not something you do; it is something you begin‘. 

I’m ready to begin beginning.  

What Shakespeare Taught Me About History

Reading, analysing, and/or producing a play by Shakespeare (or any other early modern playwright, for that matter) is often an exercise in futility and frustration. Futility because there’s absolutely no way to get it right; frustration because I so badly want to feel that I’ve got it right. I’m a self-acknowledged perfectionist / borderline control freak, especially when it comes to research and production. I have a deep psychological need to be right. At least I admit it–they tell me that’s the first step to recovery. But it makes it damnably difficult to accept the inherent ambiguity of dealing with something written by a dead guy. 

You see, even if we could resurrect Mr. William Shakespeare from his grave (or, more likely, from somewhere downstream of his grave) and ask him what exactly he meant when he wrote ‘To be or not to be’, or whatever, we still might not have a single “correct” answer. It’s entirely possible and even probable that his zombie-self would use words that carried a different meaning in the seventeenth century–a meaning now lost to us. Shakespeare’s zombie could therefore easily misrepresent himself unintentionally whilst attempting to clarify his own texts. That’s assuming, of course, that the undead Bard knows how to explain what he meant. Creators are so often unable to speak objectively about their creations; attempting to analyse, explain, or justify one’s own work is a worthwhile but incredibly difficult academic exercise. This fun little fantasy also assumes that twenty-first-century English-speakers would understand the dialect of a long-dead Stratfordian playwright. I think you understand my point: it is all but impossible to definitively interpret a document produced by someone who has long been dead and buried, at least in arts and humanities. 

So it drives me a little bit bonkers when people claim that they can definitively interpret an historical document such as, say, the United States Constitution. 

(Quick disclaimer: I have nothing against my country or its Constitution. I just think it’s impossible to know exactly what John Hancock and George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and all the rest were thinking. I’m no expert in politics, and most of my legal knowledge comes from Schoolhouse Rock, so I’m going to stick to the text. That’s all.)

There’s no question that the Constitution is well-written. There’s no question that the people writing it had intentions for its interpretation. There is also no question that it is impossible to determine exactly what those intentions were. Let’s take a look at just the preamble in order to prove this point: 

‘We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’ 

It’s very stirring, isn’t it? It’s structured logically, with a build to the crescendo of announcing ‘this Constitution for the United States of America’. It also fits nicely into a Schoolhouse Rock tune. 

We’re in interpretive trouble from the very beginning, however: ‘We the People of the United States’. First of all, who is included in that ‘We’? Are the delegates to the Constitutional Convention referring to themselves specifically, or to a more general group? Based on syntax, one might reasonably suggest that ‘We’ refers generally to ‘the People of the United States’ rather than exclusively to the delegates. Before the “Captain Obvious” jokes start, stick with me for a second. Who, exactly, are ‘the People of the United States’ in this document? Its citizens? I can say with confidence that citizenship meant something very different in the 1780s than it means today, but the writers of the Constitution chose ‘People’ over citizens here. This choice leaves more ambiguity. Is every inhabitant of the newly established country included? Are women and children ‘People’, for the purposes of this document? What about native Americans? Or African slaves? Do they count? What about white men who don’t own their land? What makes someone a part of that ‘We’? In 2012, most people would probably agree that no one with legal status in the United States is excluded from the ‘We’; in 1789, I can’t imagine that the general mindset was so egalitarian. 

This small example illustrates my general point: that interpretation of the Constitution is integral to its usefulness in the present, but contemporary interpretation should not and must not be confused with authoritative knowledge of what the Founding Fathers did or did not intend. We do not have that knowledge, and we never will. As I demonstrated in the Shakespeare-zombie example above, even a time machine could not provide definitive knowledge of their intentions. We have the document in which they did their best to express said intentions, but we can only interpret it through the lens of the present. This is true of any historical document and its author(s). What matters is not how George Washington interpreted the Constitution, or even how Abraham Lincoln or FDR or Ronald Reagan interpreted the Constitution. What matter is how we, in 2012, in the current version of The United States of America, interpret the Constitution. The words on the page are all we have, frustrating though that may be. And while it’s interesting and even worthwhile from a scholarly perspective to research how previous generations may have interpreted a document, we need to live with it here, in the present. And so, frustratingly, Hamilton’s (or Shakespeare’s) intention doesn’t matter because there’s absolutely no way to know what it was or how it might apply today.