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.  


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