Research Musings: Disappearance and Reappearance

I wrote last week about the idea that a production can be judged or received separately from a script. In speaking about this with my supervisor, we bridged  into a discussion about the idea of a script as the record or memory of performance, with reference to the “bad” Hamlet quarto. Hamlet paved the way for a discussion about The Changeling’s 1653 quarto; Kate noted that it was first published during the Commonwealth, after the theatres were closed in 1642. I had not noticed the date’s significance before, and this discovery sparked a memory about the play being revived as part of the first season of plays produced at the Restoration in 1660. Kate and I both feel that there is something significant about The Changeling being among the very first plays to be revived after the Commonwealth. A theme of The Changeling disappearing and reappearing began to emerge.

We agreed that a focus on the play’s various disappearances and reappearances was a logical next step. These include: its appearance among the first plays remounted at the Restoration; its disappearance from 1660/1 until the late eighteenth century; its disappearance from the stage during the nineteenth century, despite its continued popularity among academics; and its reappearance on British stages in the late 1940s. Its twentieth-century life is slightly more difficult to speak of in terms of disappearances and reappearances, but the play does seem to repeatedly become very popular for a brief period of time and then return to the fringes again. This can be seen most clearly in the multitude of productions done in 1978.

As Tracy C. Davis says, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’; unfortunately, researching absence is, predictably, much more difficult than researching presence, precisely because of the aforementioned ‘absence of evidence’. In trying to meet the challenge of investigating and researching The Changeling’s long disappearances, Kate encouraged me to ask: ‘what is the cultural work of the play’s absence?’. The answer at the moment is “I have no idea”, of course. But I am glad that some kind of focus is finally emerging out of all my reading around!




Research Musings: I thought I’d said ‘no’ to this, but…

How is it–after completing an MA in Staging Shakespeare and vowing up and down that my doctoral thesis would be about something other than this ridiculous monolith we call the Bard–how is it that I’ve ended up writing and reading about Shakespeare basically all the time? He’s inescapable. Even the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton talks an awful lot about Shakespeare.

Since he seems to be following me–or, more accurately, since he takes ‘ubiquitous’ to a whole new level–I have come to begrudgingly accept that I can’t run away from him. It might be impossible; it’s certainly very difficult, and I am just a lowly doctoral candidate without enough real clout to declare to anyone besides my anonymous blog audience that Shakespeare is, objectively speaking, no better at playwriting than his contemporaries. Besides, that terrible, constructed dichotomy of ‘Shakespeare’ and then ‘everyone else’ really gets on my nerves (which is totally an academic turn of phrase). As I pointed out in a recent post here, it makes very little sense to me to go around comparing Shakespeare’s plays to, say, Middleton’s in search of a value judgement on either of their works. That would be like taking Shaw’s Pygmalion and Ibsen’s Ghosts and trying to decide which was the ‘better’ play. Ibsen and Shaw wrote different kinds of plays. Is it useful to compare and contrast them without making an (implicit or explicit) value judgement or pitting their works against each other in some kind of ridiculous battle for supremacy? Absolutely! But why does everyone insist on reminding their readers that the constructed idea of “Shakespeare” would cringe at some of the scenes in The Changeling? Please keep in mind that we’re talking about the man who wrote King John.

(Thinking about it in retrospect, I sort of take that back…it would be better to say that comparing Shakespeare and Middleton is like comparing Shaw to Shaw’s slightly-less-well-known contemporary who was notwithstanding a very good playwright. But I think you can see what I mean. Hopefully.)

I’m starting to think, however, that there might be interesting research to be done around what happens to the relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton over time. It’s probably not a topic unto itself (not yet, anyway, I’m still developing the idea), but it might be worth at least a chapter. How and why did Middleton return to vogue? Why was 2007 the year in which the first Middleton Collected Works was published? What does the 20th-century theatre see in Middleton that the 19th-century theatre didn’t (despite his strong–if Bard-qualified–presence in academia)?


Research Musings: “Reading Around”

I know that I’m at the phase of my doctoral work when I’m supposed to be “reading around”–getting to know my field from every conceivable angle and reading everything I can get my hands on that might even vaguely be a little bit related to my ever-changing topic. The thing is, every time I read something new, I wonder whether I should be including it into my dissertation. 

For example, today I re-read Women Beware Women as part of my ongoing effort to become familiar with most of Middleton’s major works (Rowley’s are on order from the British Library, which is apparently the only library that actually has any of them). As my research continues, I’m tending more and more to gravitate toward late twentieth and early twenty-first-century productions–basically 1946 and later–and so I’m not totally sure what I’m accomplishing by reading these other plays besides completeness. (Not that completeness is undesirable). And yet, reading Women Beware Women today, I wondered whether that play should be included in my overall topic. After all, it gets performed about as often as The Changeling, and it gets talked about quite a lot in most of the critical writings available on Middleton. True, the choice to include Women would skew my research in Middleton’s favour (over Rowley), but I’m not really focusing on authorship. At least, I don’t want to focus on authorship, despite the fact that I seem to be talking a lot about authors lately, particularly other playwrights in relation to Shakespeare. 

Are you confused yet? Because I certainly am.  

Research Musings: Ghosting and Surrogation

I finished reading Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage yesterday, and it provided some really interesting perspectives on my research so far and The Changeling in performance. Carlson never mentions Middleton, of course, but his examination of the ways in which the theatrical past inevitably haunts the theatrical present has raised several new questions for me. 

For example, Carlson uses Joseph Roach’s term ‘surrogation’ to talk about the ways in which the present fills in perceived gaps left by the past: ‘

Surrogation, suggest Roach, occurs when “survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates” into “the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure.” The fit, of course, can never be exact. “The intended substitute can either cannot fulfil expectations, creating a deficit, or actually exceeds them, creating a surplus.” A new actor attempting so haunted a role as Hamlet seems to me a particularly complex and interesting example of this process, since he’s attempting to act as surrogate for a whole host of departed predecessors, against whom he will inevitably be compared, to his advantage or disadvantage’ (80). 

When I read this, I immediately thought of the ways in which The Changeling and Middleton and/or Rowley’s work in general might sometimes function as a surrogate for Shakespeare(‘s plays).  Like the ‘new actor’ taking on Hamlet, early modern plays written by anyone besides Shakespeare are ‘inevitably’ compared to plays written by Shakespeare, to their ‘advantage or disadvantage’ (more often disadvantage, it seems). Since one of my research questions has to do with the reasons behind a company’s choice to produce The Changeling, I think that the idea of the play functioning as a surrogate and being compared to plays by Shakespeare is a relevant and interesting one.

It’s also a frustrating one, partly because it’s almost an apples-to-oranges comparison. In the same way that it doesn’t really make sense to compare, say, Jude Law and Laurence Olivier’s respective Hamlets, at least in terms of value judgements, it’s a bit tricky to compare a broad sense of what “Shakespeare” is (or should be) to the rest of the early modern theatrical repertoire. For one thing, styles of writing varied greatly among the different playwrights and over time. This is visible even with the Shakespearean canon: Titus Andronicus looks almost nothing like The Tempest, for example. I suspect it would come across as a bit silly to compare, say, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Jonson’s Epicoene. They’re completely different generically, not to mention chronologically.  So why is it that it’s  completely acceptable to compare Middleton and Rowley or anyone else to Shakespeare on the basis of his canonical status?

As usual with these posts, I don’t really have a conclusion about this. I’m told that this is symptomatic of first-year research, so I’m trying not to worry about it. I’m just letting things percolate and hoping that they eventually form into something coherent. But I do think I need to get out of this “why Shakespeare?” rut sometime soon.

Julius Caesar!

I interrupt my regularly scheduled research-related post to write about my friend Laura’s practice-as-research project: a gender-bending production of Julius Caesar. Since my blog takes its name from that very play, I couldn’t really get away with not posting about it; besides that, I’ve been given the opportunity to play the man himself–or should I say herself? That’s right, folks: in this version Caesar is female, as is Antony. And Calphurnia is being played by a man. The rest of the major roles are gendered as written which means that, most significantly for Laura’s research, all of the conspirators are male.

Laura has set up this gender scenario partly  in order to raise some questions about women in power and partly to experiment with ways of cross-casting classical texts without falling into the traps of parody and stereotype (hopefully I got that right, Laura?). There are all kinds of interesting questions to be asked about a group of men who conspire to take down a female leader because of her “ambition” and even more about the way in which they get rid of her. There are all kinds of sexual implications in a group of men stabbing a female Caesar to death, but what happens if she is poisoned or beaten or killed in some other way? Additionally, what does a female Antony add to that equation?

I know I’ve been a bit down on Shakespeare lately, but I have to admit that it feels really good to be working on a play again. Despite what I’d like to say about his inappropriately canonical status, the man wrote a good script, and Caesar is one of my favourites. So for the next five weeks or so, I’ll be peppering my research posts with Caesar posts. Hopefully there will be some really interesting gender debates that arise out of the work!

Research Musings:

Just a quick one tonight:

I’ve been continuing to read up on what happens when theatre companies decide to do an early modern play by someone other than Shakespeare, and I came across something I didn’t expect today. This is a quotation from Pascale Aebischer’s article ‘Shakespearean Heritage and the Preposterous “Contemporary Jacobean” Film: Mike Figgis’s Hotel‘ in Shakespeare Quarterly: 

‘In spite of their apparent rejection of Shakespearean nostalgia,  [Susan] Bennett argues [in Performing Nostalgia], the Jacobean revival productions are less transgressive, less oppositional than their harnessing of “the Jacobean” initially suggests, for the imperfect past they invoke is “nonetheless one which can help us legitimise our own defective present. The designation’s function, even as it marks transgression and dissidence, points to a continuous and repetitive history, the inevitability of which we can do no more than accept.” Despite the difference in tone that sets late twentieth-century “Jacobean” productions apart from Shakespeare productions at the RSC and the National Theatre, the impulse behind both is nostalgic. […] A glance through reviews of Jacobean revivals by the RSC confirms the accuracy of Bennett’s analysis: there is much self-congratulation at having made the effort to offer a non-Shakespeare production in the first place and a wistful acknowledgment of the relevance of Jacobean themes to present crises’ (282).

And once again, research slaps me in the face and scrambles everything I thought I knew. I guess I should get used to this, right? I fell into the trap; I assumed that studying someone besides Shakespeare was cool and hip and off the beaten track. In some ways it is, of course, as evidenced by all the dead-ends I’m hitting in research. But it’s so easy to think that by resisting Shakespeare one is doing something completely different, and that is obviously not the case. These playwrights–Shakespeare, Middleton, Rowley, Marlowe, Jonson–all worked in very similar contexts, and while their differences are definitely important, their similarities are just as significant. I still think it’s ridiculous that every other playwright from the early modern period gets compared to Shakespeare, but maybe the actual act of comparison isn’t at fault.


Research Musings: ‘Contribution to Knowledge’

We (the cohort of first-year PhD students) have been told ad nauseam in the past two and a half weeks that the defining feature of a doctoral dissertation is its contribution to human knowledge. You’ve got to provide something new, something that no one else has done before or thought of in the same way.

I’m suddenly concerned about my ability to contribute to knowledge, partly, I think, because I’ve started to contemplate what contributing to knowledge actually means.  I’m reasonably confident that I can contribute something beneficial to my field and that I’ll be able to come up with a fresh perspective on The Changeling in performance. I can say that I see gaps in research and that I hope to fill or begin to fill them. But is any of that really a ‘contribution to knowledge’? Or is it just a reconfiguring of existing knowledge?