Research Musings: Frustration and Productivity

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here, despite my initial resolve to write something every day. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt completely submerged by my research, to the point that I struggled to find any kind of meaning in all the data that I had collected. I referred to it as ‘research nesting’ to a friend last week, but now I’m not sure that was the right way to describe the feeling: it’s more like research hoarding. There was an awful lot of gathering and collecting and holding on to potentially insignificant things, but I couldn’t discern any sense of order or meaning in what I had accumulated; I think this is why everything I read felt simultaneously fascinating and entirely useless.

As my wonderful supervisor kindly reminded me when we met last week, I’m only two months in: it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and anxious to begin the ‘real’ work of writing the dissertation (although, objectively, I’d like to believe that the research is as much an end as the written product of the research. But that’s for another post, perhaps). As Kate and I talked through the work that I had done so far, we could both see themes and potential hypotheses emerging that I hadn’t been able to see whilst I was working on my own. It was a huge relief to realise that, actually, my research hadn’t been nearly as aimless and meaningless as I had perceived it to be   and to realise that I could trust myself to know what to do.

So what were those themes and hypotheses, you ask? They all stemmed out of my insistence on combining theory and practice: I truly believe that practice without theory is impotent, and theory without practice is blind (thanks for letting me bastardise your quotation, Albert Einstein!). Apparently most people studying Middleton and/or The Changeling disagree with me, since there is a huge gap in the research around scholarly analysis of the play (any of Middleton’s plays, really) in performance. From Bawcutt, Scott, Neill, and others one can piece together the bare bones of a performance history, if one defines ‘performance history’ as a list of which productions occurred where and when and a basic outline of their aesthetic and/or thematic components, but little, if any, analysis of what these things actually mean when considered together with scholarship on the play, socio-political contexts, and available edited editions.

Since the release of the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton, however, there has been at least one production of The Changeling every year in London, and a significant increase in the frequency of production of other Jacobean tragedies as well. This indicates to me a potential relationship between the printed, edited text and the staged and performed text of The Changeling. I have a feeling that this relationship might be more direct than is usually supposed, although I know that I’ll have a hard time proving that. At best, the increase in productions since the release of the Collected Works is correlative, and I learned in Psychology 100 that a corollary relationship must not be mistaken for a causal relationship. So how to go about testing my hypothesis? One strategy is to look for other spikes in productions that occur close to major publications, and vice versa. Another is to seek for relationships between productions and contemporary printed texts: is it possible to find ways in which a particular production responds specifically to the version(s) of the printed play which is used as its script? More specifically, can connections be made between a print version of a play and the productions that are staged close to its release?

I have a feeling that these relationships are more complex than I  would like them to be. For example, most producers choose a season based on a wide variety of factors, including their target audience, their ticket take from the previous season, and their budget. If they expect or desire school audiences, they have to look at the curricula of the age groups they’re targeting (The Changeling was added to the AQA A-level curriculum within the last three years, incidentally). Early modern and other out-of-copyright plays become more appealing when the budget is tight, particularly if the director is willing to a modern interpretation or at least use costumes, props, and set already in stock. And plays have a way of becoming contagious: if one theatre successfully produced The Changeling in the 2011 season, it’s more likely to show up at other theatres in 2012 and 2013. So it’s not as easy as saying that the Oxford Collected Works catalysed The Changeling‘s recent popularity on London stages; I will (hopefully) argue, however, that the publication of new editions of the play might have more of an influence on a theatre’s season than is usually supposed. It’s still very early days on this, so I’m afraid I can’t say much more specifically at this time. 


Another theme that emerged from my hoarding was that of the tension between specificity and chaos, or order and disorder, in the play, both on the page and on the stage. In discussing Joe Hill-Gibbins’ soon-to-be-revived production for the Young Vic with Kate, I talked about how his version of the ending struck me as a perfect commentary on the play as a whole. It had the appearance of complete and total chaos: bits of food were everyone, most of the characters and the stage were covered in strawberry sundae sauce and other consumables, the cacophonous noise of overlapping lines from Isabella and Vermandero competed with Alsemero’s epilogue, which was shouted into a microphone whilst ear-splitting, discordant electronic music played over the top of it all. It was a chaotic image, aurally and visually, and yet the practitioner in my knew that something that appearance of disorder on the stage masked a precision in direction, a specific choreography of sounds and motion. This same tension between seemingly chaotic but actually ordered scenes and images runs throughout the text of the play as well, and this is the subject of the written work I’m doing this week. Despite depicting the breakdown of established social codes (‘You must forget your parentage to me’, De Flores says to Beatrice) and the disastrous consequences of mad excess and unbridled desire, the play has an impressively precise dramaturgical structure. A simple example is in the distribution of hospital (subplot) scene and castle (main plot) scenes: after the first scene, the only scene which actually takes place outside Vermandero’s walls, there is a stable pattern of one scene set in the hospital followed by three scenes set in the castle; this holds true even when the plots converge in 5.2 and 5.3. While the quarto doesn’t divide the acts into scenes, there is a stable ratio even in the numbers of lines associated with each location, irrespective of the number of editor-determined scenes. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that Middleton and Rowley’s (or at least their 1653 printer’s) lineation is not always as regular (read: Shakespearean) as their editors would have it be; I’m currently crunching numbers to investigate whether some kind of ratio holds when quarto lineation is used rather than edited lineation. In any case, it’s still just a suggestion of order rather than something totally concrete: no manuscript exists for The Changeling and even if it did, we probably wouldn’t know what the playwrights actually “intended” for the mise-en-page of the play.

What is clear, however, is that I’ve come through the first of many tunnels to find a little bit of light. And I promise to be better about updating here from now on (or at least until Christmas…).



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