Thesis/Existential Crisis Moments

It is my firm belief, evolved over the past eight years of study (and likely to change at some point, pending further study), that any notion of “fidelity” to an “authentic” Shakespearean/early modern/classical text is, from a theatrical perspective at least, outdated, irrelevant, and unproductive. This is one of the reasons you’ll find me defending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project (though not the only reason). We can’t wake Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries from the grave to ask them what they meant. Even if we could, we might find that they–like so many living artists today–intended nothing at all, or not as much as we would have liked.

“Oh, ‘to be or not to be’? Yeah, I always hated that one, such a pretentious bit of poetry, but we had to cover a costume change somehow, and I thought, I dunno, Hamlet’s probably pretty depressed by this point in the play. It’s not that deep, y’know? You don’t have to read anything into it” (all spoken of course, in Ben Crystal’s best OP voice).

But as committed as I am to the idea that our collective love of Shakespeare is, to a certain extent, destructible and arbitrary, I am still a beneficiary of and a participant in a system that perpetuates his propping up. Without Shakespeare’s primacy, I wouldn’t have a job.

So this is where today’s (because there is one every day) thesis/existential crisis moment comes in: if the idea of fidelity to a classic text is irrelevant, and canon is fundamentally destructible, changeable, and arbitrary, why bother studying and producing texts like Shakespeare’s at all? 

I don’t have an easy answer. Like many of my thesis crises, it comes out of a certain degree of over-thinking. The canon is, even as it continues to be destructible, changeable, arbitrary. Shakespeare is a cultural touchstone; studying how and why this came to be doesn’t make it any less true. Canonical/classical texts, too, allow us to critique them in ways that wholly new texts (if there are such things) often don’t, or can’t. To what extent does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead resonate precisely because it’s a brilliant piece of intertextuality, as opposed to a stand-alone work? (Yes, of course, it is also a stand-alone work, but I think you know what I mean.) I’m currently developing a project that asks modern women to respond creatively to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I could quite easily create a piece of theatre about 21st century feminism without reference to Measure for Measure; but Shakespeare simultaneously grants me cultural capital with which to advertise the eventual performances and affords me an opportunity to create a piece in which a diverse group of women speak back to a white, masculine canon. Then again, to what extent is a piece about modern feminism necessary and timely as a result of that same canon?

I’ve procrastinated long enough, but I wanted to throw this question, this crisis, out to the universe. Is it possible, or even desirable, to escape from the grip of “authenticity” and “fidelity” in Shakespeare and early modern performance? And what would the implications be if we did? In the meantime, why continue to produce these plays?

Taking risks with Shakespeare: lessons from the Cumberhamlet

Although I haven’t yet seen the Cumberhamlet, it’s obviously been on my radar. Reviews and opinions from friends, professional critics, respected academics, and everyone in between flood my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Theatre reviewing etiquette has been breached, with reviews hitting front pages during previews, well before the official opening night. It’s the fastest-selling ticket in British theatre history. People who would not normally go to the theatre have flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch have a go at the most famous Prince of Denmark. The combined star-power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the darling of popular media is irresistible. It’s being broadcast to cinemas across the country. For many, this production will be their only viewing of Hamlet in a theatre; for them, this production will be Hamlet–its imagery, its voices, its style will form their mental picture of what the play is. 

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that the critical establishment has taken the opportunity to highlight all the ways in which Lyndsey Turner’s production is not the Hamlet it’s supposed to be.

First, of course, there was the problem of ‘to be or not to be’, which were the first words of the play in early previews. Kate Maltby kicked off the backlash against the shifted speech by calling the change ‘indefensible’. Michael Billington tells us that it ‘mercifully no longer opens the play’, but that there’s still too much ‘textual fiddling’ overall. They’re replaced ‘hoar’ with ‘pale’ in one of Gertrude’s lines–shock! horror! Quentin Letts complains that ‘Ms Turner has still fiddled around with the opening and the order of other scenes’–but, then, he does work for the Daily Mail.

Critics are kinder to Cumberbatch himself than they are to Turner’s production, with most agreeing that he is, in Domenic Cavendish’s words, ‘a blazing, five-star Hamlet in a middling, three-star show’. The production as a whole is considered ‘half-baked’, full of ‘ostentatious act[s] of liberty-taking’ (Cavendish again). According to Andrzej Lukowski, Cumberbatch ‘doesn’t seem to have come up with much of a reading of the doomed Dane. Or if he has, it’s drowned out by Turner’s enormous production’ (how dare she, like, actually direct the play?!).

Turner is hardly the first (nor, I hope, will she be the last) to treat a Shakespeare text playfully. Matthew Warchus’s 1998 Hamlet at the RSC, which also famously moved the opening scenes around, attracted similar kinds of critical attacks, for example. What’s worrying to me is not just that opinions of Turner’s and Warchus’s ‘textual fiddling’ are scarily similar despite the distance of seventeen years–it’s that this kind of critique seems designed to quash theatrical risk-taking, especially with “classics” such as Shakespeare.

If we are to carry on producing Shakespeare and other classic, canonical writers (as I suspect we are), we have to get better at encouraging directors’ and actors’ risks. One of the best ways to innovate with these kinds of texts, to my mind, is to do precisely the kind of ‘textual fiddling’ that the critics so abhor, and to get past the persistent desire for the reproduction of an authoritative or “authentic” text.

Digging In: a response to (responses to) Dana Dusbiber

Those who know me know that I’m all about taking Shakespeare down a peg. But California high school teacher Dana Dusbiber’s now-viral dismissal of Shakespeare really made me think–or, more specifically, the responses to her made me think. Published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post education blog, Dusbiber’s article argues that Shakespeare does not serve the educational needs of her students, whom she describes as ‘very ethnically-diverse’. Following a rather weak opening in which she confesses that she simply doesn’t like Shakespeare herself, Dusbiber goes on to raise a few very legitimate concerns:

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. […]

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” […]

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”

I’ve been disappointed to find that most of the counter-attacks from the Shakespeare scholarly and theatrical communities have taken one of two approaches: they appeal to an outdated argument regarding Shakespeare’s unique grasp of the human condition, or they suggest that Dusbiber has never been exposed to “proper” Shakespeare.

If we’re going to argue for keeping Shakespeare on a national curriculum, the first approach clearly will not change Dusbiber’s mind or the mind of anyone who agrees with her. She says right in the article that she doesn’t buy Shakespeare’s supposed “universal” applicability–and to be frank, neither do I. Reminding us that Shakespeare wrote about people of colour and women will not erase the fact that he was, after all, a white dude from a relatively privileged background who wrote for actors from a very similar demographic. I don’t think we can still get away with arguing that Shakespeare uniquely speaks to some kind of essential humanity that transcends race, gender, and social class (not to mention geography and chronological time). Reminding us that everyone can relate to themes like love and loss will not change the fact that other writers (as Dusbiber points out) are equally capable of engaging with them. This essentialist approach isn’t going to help Shakespeare’s case, no matter how ardently you believe in his universal applicability.

The second approach follows a similar logic, in that it implies loving Shakespeare is the default setting of humanity, and so the problem is not with Shakespeare but with ineffective pedagogy. It comes in many forms, perhaps the most popular being the argument that Shakespeare isn’t properly taught as literature at all–that he needs to be staged or at least analysed from a perspective of performance in order to be really appreciated. While I happen to agree that teaching Shakespeare exclusively at desks is ineffective, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare must not have been exposed to the more theatrical way of learning his plays. Some people will never connect with Shakespeare because–despite centuries of protestations–his plays aren’t actually universally applicable (cf. Artaud). No one’s are. There’s no such thing. Yes, the plays are wonderfully varied and quotable, but there’s only 37 of them for goodness’ sake. Lots of people will find it easier to understand and appreciate Shakespeare when they’re taught the plays from a performative point of view, but that doesn’t mean the ones who don’t walk away adoring the Bard are somehow defective humans.

Of course, the proponents of these defences of Shakespeare have no intention of insulting the very humanity of those who don’t appreciate him–they simply want to share the joy that they’ve found through engagement with Shakespeare. And it’s entirely understandable that Dusbiber’s article would provoke that kind of response: she repeatedly tells us that she feels no personal connection to Shakespeare, despite being a ‘voracious reader’. But both these kinds of responses conveniently avoid the central question buried beneath Dusbiber’s muddy appeals to personal taste: What is the place of Shakespeare–and indeed of the traditional Western literary canon–in an increasingly expanded curriculum?

If we’re going to argue for Shakespeare’s place in the classroom, we’ve got to come at it from a place of historical contingency. Shakespeare was once just a white dude from England who wrote some plays, but in the 400 years since his death he has come to signify much more than the cultural circumstances within which he lived. Shakespeare is now not only part of the Western literary canon, but he has been adapted and adopted by people all over the world–often in ways that speak back to the conservatism of the traditional canon and to the imperialism that brought them the canon in the first place. An obvious example is Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which uses characters and situations from The Tempest in order to engage with issues of power, race, and imperialism. As Sonia Massai and Preti Taneja pointed out in a recent BBC Radio broadcast on Global Shakespeares, his plays were part of a British imperial agenda, and they have now become part of a worldwide conversation across literary and performance genres. They’re no longer limited to England, or even to the English language. That distinction between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the cultural icon is one of the arguments we can make for the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the classroom. It’s not that Shakespeare is somehow better at speaking to us about the human condition, but rather that he’s now so entrenched not just in Western literature but really in global literature. I certainly wouldn’t say that the plays are universally relevant, but it’s also hard to argue that they are completely irrelevant. Opening up the curriculum to include creative responses to Shakespeare allows a teacher to demonstrate the ways in which issues relevant to Shakespeare might also be relevant to us, while still questioning the canon and empowering students to critique and speak back to Shakespeare’s authority.

In addition, I would argue that teaching Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is much different from teaching a unit, module, or entire course of English or European Renaissance literature. Lots of responses to Dusbiber have critiqued her by saying that Shakespeare’s plays range all over the world, and therefore should be applicable to everyone. His scope seems rather narrow, however, compared with other playwrights of the period. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for example, ranges all over the Middle East and offers obvious departure points for discussions about racial and religious differences, xenophobia, imperialism, torture, and other issues that are still highly relevant today. So, too, does Fletcher’s The Island Princess, set in the “spice islands”, or modern-day Indonesia. The Island Princess also lends itself to discussions about globalisation and international trade. The subplot of Jonson’s Epicoene allows for conversations about globalisation, too, and its main plot offers plenty of space for discussions about sex and gender identities–as, indeed, most of the comedies from this period do. I could go on.

I realise, at this point, that I might be accused of making exactly the same argument that I refuted above: that the plays of the English Renaissance have some kind of universal relevance. That’s not at all my point in bringing up the various relevances of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays. Rather, I want to demonstrate two things. First, Shakespeare’s plays are not unique in their ability to speak to contemporary issues. Secondly, and therefore, if we’re going to argue that English Renaissance literature is important, we can no longer limit ourselves to Shakespeare. I could envision an exciting and dynamic set of lessons covering global literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which uses English Renaissance drama as a point of departure for a much broader conversation. I could also picture a much less chronological syllabus that pairs a work of English literature with an adaptation or a piece covering similar themes from any period in history, and anywhere in the world. As an example from outside the Renaissance, I remember reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea immediately after Jane Eyre in my first year of undergrad and feeling like my entire world had been exploded–in the best possible way.

None of us will be able to convince Dusbiber that she’s wrong about Shakespeare, and Dusbiber probably won’t convince the Shakespeareans and early modernists of the world that we’re wrong about him, either. But if we’re going to argue for the place of Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama (or indeed, English literature more generally) in an expanding canon, then we need to stop countering calls for change by digging in our heels and start looking at how to adapt.

Shameless plug: NRN 2nd Annual Symposium

As many of you know, I’m part of a stellar team known as the New Researchers’ Network. We’re a sub-committee of the Society for Theatre Research, and over the past two years, we’ve pioneered the live streaming of the STR lecture series, kick-started a website redevelopment, and revitalised the STR’s social media presence. We’re also responsible for a dynamic programme of study days, theatre visits, and symposia.

I’m really, really ridiculously proud of the work the NRN Committee has been doing in the last year. I’m especially proud to say that our second Annual Symposium has attracted twenty-five papers (which we’ve squeezed into one jam-packed day!) and seventy delegates so far. I’m extra, super-duper proud of the fact that we’ll be live streaming the entire event for anyone, anywhere in the world, who wants to spend the day talking about theatrical archives and documentation with us. Because we’re all about being inclusive at the NRN.

There will be a link to the live stream soon, but for now, save the date: 19 June 2015, from 10:00am. For details of the programme, see below and check out our website. And if you want to register to attend in person, better get moving–there are only five spaces left! See you at the Shard…

The Society for Theatre Research

New Researchers’ Network

Second Annual Symposium

“Dumb objects, spoken for”? On Performance Archives and Documentation

Friday 19th June 2015

The Shard

17th Floor, Warwick Business School

32 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9SG

The Society for Theatre Research’s (STR) New Researchers’ Network (NRN) is pleased to announce their second annual symposium, which will centre on the theme of Archives and Documentation . In recent years scholars have taken greater interest in the documentation of live performance and the construction and curation of archives. The foundations of these ideas can be found in Foucault’s A rcheology of Knowledge (1969) and Derrida’s Archive Fever (1995), as well as more recent texts by Carolyn Steedman (D ust , 2001) and Helen Freshwater (‘The Allure of the Archive,’ 2003). Matthew Reason (‘Archive or Memory,’ 2003) suggests that a more nuanced understanding of human memory may offer ways to further explore the relationship between the live performance and its documents, and argues that an honest assessment of the archive must overtly perform the fact that it consists of ‘dumb objects not allowed to speak for themselves, but spoken for’.

These discussions have been recurring themes at the NRN’s events this year, in part due to the development of new technologies which simplify both the archiving and accessing of material. As new researchers, we are at the forefront of the developing field of new and exciting archival technologies, and whilst these new ways of archiving can bring exciting discoveries and increased accessibility, they also bring new challenges and difficulties. For example, digitisation is an expensive and timeconsuming process, and as a result, which archives are catalogued, searchable, and accessible online is an increasingly political matter.

Other questions, raised at an NRN study day at the Live Art Development Agency, relate to the relationship between live performance and the ‘mad fragmentations’ (Steedman 2001) which form the collections of theatre archives. What does it mean to intentionally document a performance? How much can we really learn about past performance through the ephemera (flyers, promptscripts, photographs) which somehow, against all odds, now possess call numbers and item descriptions in our archives? How do those who curate theatre collections decide which of these scraps of paper merit preservation? What does it mean for those of us researching past performance that these processes of selection remain largely opaque?

In a recent talk as part of the STR’s Annual Lecture Series, Prof. Heike Roms acknowledged the trend for theatre and performance historians to abandon the archive in favour of more performative methods of research. While Jacky Bratton has used walking as a research tool in her book The Making of the West End Stage , others have used reenactment or reconstruction as part of their methodology to answer questions about theatre and performance. As a result, Roms asked ‘what is at stake in approaching historical evidence as event?’.

Join us for a keynote from Matthew Reason and subsequent panels, installations and a roundtable discussion addressing the following topics: historical evidence as event; archives in the digital age and the future of the archive; the archivist as curator; the benefits and problems of legalising and copyrighting art work; the performativity of the archive; the detritus of performance; beyond the archive: Walking, Mapping and ReEnacting.

REGISTER FOR THE EVENT HERE

PROVISIONAL PROGRAMME

9:30-9:50 – Registration Opens

9:50-10:00 – Opening Remarks

The NRN Committee

10:00-11:00 – Keynote

Professor Matthew Reason (York St. John University)

Archive, Place, Family: The Resurrection of Joyce Reason

11:05-12:20 – Panels 1

a) Methodology: Beyond the Archive

Joanna Bucknall (University of Portsmouth)

Raising the ruins: (re)enactment and ‘remembering’ as a mode of documentation

Naomi Paxton (University of Manchester)

Standing where she stood: is it possible to glimpse the past in the present?

Emma Meehan (Coventry University)

Revisiting Lunar Parables: The Archives of Dublin Contemporary Dance Theatre

b) Performing the Archive

Allan Taylor (Falmouth University)

From presence to performativity: how the still image ‘does’

Steven Paige (Plymouth University)

The Ties That Bind: Reusing Online Archival as an Interdisciplinary Artist

Jindeok Park (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama)

‘Archival Choreography’: exploring the transformative impact of the past on the present improvisation

12:20-1:35 – Lunch

Film / Presentation

Susan Croft, Unfinished Histories

1:35-2:50 – Panels 2

a) The Distorted Archive

Conor Clarke (Plymouth University)

Afterliveness

Nikolas Wakefield (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The Secret: or how throwing it away makes it appear

Samantha Manzur (Universidad Catolica de Chile)

The Performativity of The Archive of Invisible Dances: The Emergence of a Disappeared Dance through The Trace of Grammatology

b) Archiving Companies

Catherine Trenchfield (Royal Holloway, University of London)

The Kneehigh Archive & The Asylum – archive and ‘repertoire’

Ella Hawkins (University of Warwick)

From physical to digital: curating an archive for Dash Arts

Sally Barnden (King’s College, London)

Liveness, photography and the RSC’s Dreams, 1954-77

2:50-3:05 – Break

3:10-4:25 – Panels 3

a) Digital Archives

Claire Swyzen (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Tim Etchells’ A Broadcast/Looping Pieces: of memory and making sense of data

Leah Dungay (Plymouth University)

‘That B**** Ruined My Walk’: Exploring Protest through an Online Media Archive

Becca Savory (University of Exeter/NIAS)

Popular performance online: the archive is the medium is the message

b) Selections

Łukasz Borowiec (Wydział Nauk Humanistycznych)

Performances of English Drama in Poland 1945-2000: An Attempt at a Critical Overview of Archive Research Potential

Monika Meilutytė (Arts and Culture Magazine ‘Kultūros barai’)

Ethics of Representing Archival Materials in Exposition and Performance: The Case of Lithuania

Rosanna Traina (University of Reading)

Transparency: Liberating the past, empowering the researcher

4:30-5:15 – Panels 4

a) Documenting Cities

Nela Milic (Goldsmiths, University of London/Middlesex University London)

Materialising Site

Beatrice Jarvis

Title TBC

b) Recordings & Notations

Rebecca Stancliffe (Coventry University)

The ontological status of the score in live performance and in the documentation and dissemination of choreographic practice

Poppy Corbett (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Archiving the voice: Alecky Blythe and the Recorded Delivery technique.

5:20-6:20 – Roundtable

Hannah Manktelow (University of Nottingham/The British Library)

Reclaiming Regional Theatre History with the British Library Playbill Collection

Helen Gush (Queen Mary, University of London/Victoria & Albert Museum)

‘Active things, speaking’: Reimagining archival material for a Theatre and Performance context

Barbara Roland (ULB)

Speaking for the reality: How to make present the absence

6:20-6:30 – Closing Remarks

The NRN Committee

All Day

Janine Cowell (University of Bristol/University of Exeter)

‘Someday just began’: Meeting, making and mounting memories in the field — an interactive exhibition

Frances Howard (or, what I’m working on in Texas)

I haven’t posted anything in a little while, partly because my first draft (yes, really!) was with my supervisor for a few months, and partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time doing the “boring stuff”–footnotes, lit review, checking that everything actually did make it into the bibliography…

But on Monday I started a two-and-a-half-month stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where I’m the guinea pig for a developing exchange programme between UT and Exeter. And while I’m here, I’m going to take advantage of UT’s excellent libraries to finish a second draft.

Which brings me to Frances Howard. One of the bits that needs serious re-working following the first draft is the introduction/lit review, and so I am working hard to clarify, expand, and fact-check my sloppy first go. For the past couple of days, I’ve been spending time with Middleton and Rowley’s sources for The Changeling. Today, I spent a good long time with Frances Howard and her divorce and murder trials.

I’ve never thought that much about Howard before. I knew that she had been examined by a jury of matrons and midwives to determine whether she was a virgin or not as part of her divorce trial (more on that delightful episode in a moment). I knew that it was this same trial that inspired most of Act 4 of The Changeling, including the virginity test and the bed trick. I knew that her trials were the source of much scandal in Jacobean London. I’d glossed over a lot of the details because, at the end of the day, my thesis spends more time in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than in the seventeenth.

Then I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on The Changeling as part of a module on Renaissance and Restoration Theatrical Cultures that I was shadowing. After assigning the “Court Scandals” reading group to tell the class about Frances Howard, I thought I’d better brush up on the details. Lo and behold, two things that I had completely overlooked before:

1) Howard and her second husband, Robert Carr, were pardoned and released from prison less than 6 months before The Changeling was licensed;

and

2) This painting:

Frances Howard, we think. Or it might be her sister. Shh…

Look at that brazen display of lustfulness! Or so commentators on Howard’s life and trials would have us think. These two overlooked factors re-ignited my interest in Howard, and I put her name on my list of things to follow up in Texas.

Fast forward to today, in the Perry-Castañeda Library, in a seat that was one of many available (*cough*Exeter*cough), when I got to sit down with David Lindley’s book-length study on The Trials of Frances Howard. Seeking to rehabilitate Howard, or at least to question the accepted narrative of her lustful maliciousness, Lindley walks us through the primary sources and suggests that we have been too quick to dismiss and condemn Howard. And his work got me thinking about one of the central pieces of my thesis: the tension that inevitably results from staging a 400-year-old play in the present. So here are some of my thoughts, as they arose today, on Howard, Lindley, patriarchy, and performance:

Frances Howard, her husbands, her divorce trial, and her involvement in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury were a huge scandal in the Jacobean period, and her release from the Tower in January 1622 would have meant that the circumstances of her imprisonment were fresh in the minds of Londoners when The Changeling premiered. In 1606, at the age of fourteen, Howard was married to Robert Devereux, the thirteen-year-old future Earl of Essex. They were kept apart and not allowed to consummate the marriage until they reached the age of majority. In 1613, Howard and her family requested an annulment of her marriage with Essex; it is usually assumed that the suit was a direct result of her supposed affair with Robert Carr, the first Earl of Somerset and the King’s favourite. Arguing that she had made every attempt to have sexual relations with her husband, but to no avail, divorce was requested on the grounds that her husband was impotent, the marriage had never been consummated, and therefore she had never truly been married to Essex. Unfortunately, the laws of the time required that he publicly declare his impotence in order to support her case, which would have precluded any future marriages on his part. Hoping to preserve his prospects and reputation, Essex declared that he was very capable of performing sexual acts with any woman except his wife. Rather than verify this claim upon his body, the court determined that Frances herself should be examined, and the status of her virginity determined. She was declared a virgin by a jury of matrons and midwives. Significantly in relation to The Changeling, her request that she be veiled during the examination fuelled rumours that she had hired a substitute—a true virgin—to stand for her. The annulment was eventually granted, largely due to the intervention of James I, who added ‘two judges bound to vote in favour’ to the commission.[1] Howard and Carr married immediately following the verdict.

A few years later, in 1616, Howard found herself on trial once again, this time for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, her new husband’s trusted advisor and a strong opponent of their marriage (or, rather, of Howard’s divorce). She plead guilty to the charges and was imprisoned, with her husband, in the Tower. As noted above, Howard and Carr were both pardoned by King James and subsequently released from prison in January 1622. The Changeling was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert on 7 May of the same year.[2]

The virginity test and bed trick sequence in Act 4 are the most obvious elements of The Changeling that allude to Frances Howard’s life and trials. As David Lindley rightly points out, there are more parallels between the real-life scandal and the play than these two episodes (although understanding these episodes in the context of the Howard divorce is crucial to an understanding of The Changeling). In his book-length engagement with the trials of Frances Howard, Lindley argues that one the most significant factors in Howard’s annulment trial and its subsequent representation ‘is the fear of female sexual expression’.[4] This fear, which Lindley argues ‘underlies, unacknowledged, much of the commentary on the divorce’, can also be read as one of the underlying, but often unacknowledged, assumptions in Middleton and Rowley’s play. An examination of The Changeling alongside Howard’s divorce and murder trials therefore calls into question Middleton’s frequent labelling as a feminist or proto-feminist playwright.

Broader concerns about the legibility of the female body and a woman’s sexual autonomy infuse both fact and fiction, and it is significant that only one known contemporary source questions the logic of testing Howard’s virginity to prove her husband’s impotence: William Terracae, who points out that she could just as easily have been having an affair, and so her sexual status tells us nothing about her husband’s.[5] Lindley spends a long section of his introduction applying an historicised understanding of these concerns to the well-known painting of Howard (see above), which has often been cited as evidence of her sexual promiscuity and maliciousness, by modern scholars as much as by her contemporaries.[6] As Lindley points out, however, ‘[m]any court ladies of unimpeachable moral life were depicted in exactly the same kind’ of low-cut dress, and Queen Elizabeth herself was famously described as wearing an open-breasted dress—which revealed her ‘somewhat wrinkly’ bosom—by a French ambassador.[7] The point is less her revealing dress and more what the gaze of the viewer reads into it.

The treatment of Howard extends to a larger question about Middleton and Rowley’s play, and indeed about Middleton and Rowley themselves, in the present day. Several prominent readings of Middleton’s canon see it as participating in a kind of proto-feminism, creating exciting, challenging roles for women and publicly questioning the oppressive patriarchal structures of their world. This reading of Middleton ignores two crucial points: firstly, that these exciting, challenging roles for women would have been played by young men, and, secondly, that these exciting, challenging women are always punished, often to the death, for resisting oppressive patriarchal structures. This is not to say that resistance cannot be staged through defeat; rather, it is an attempt to historicise and contextualise The Changeling within the frame of a Jacobean world view. Additionally, I want to be clear here that there is a difference between staging a feminist Changeling and arguing that The Changeling inherently espouses proto-feminist agenda: the former is a legitimate and often necessary theatrical manipulation of a play which is, in many ways, outdated; the latter is a distortion of history to co-opt Middleton and Rowley to an anachronistic interpretation of societal structures.

To demonstrate this difference in action, I once again call upon Lindley’s reading of Frances Howard. Musing upon Howard’s portrait, Lindley articulates a simplified version of our relationship to the past:

At one level the projection of lustful purpose into this image […] is uncomfortably close to the way in which in our society it is still possible for a rapist to plead that a girl’s short skirt might be taken as a mitigation of his crime. The desire of the beholder is converted into the intent and fault of the object.[8]

I regret to note that this comparison is as potent in 2015 as it was when Lindley was writing in 1993. It evokes a powerful current cultural touchstone, and effectively rehabilitates Howard as a victim of patriarchy rather than a malicious witch. This is important work, but Lindley’s comparison also collapses 400 years of history, placing Howard and late-twentieth-century sexual assault victims side-by-side. Although Lindley himself qualifies his comparison, there are many others who are content to let this kind of juxtapositioning stand unquestioned. The resulting accordion effect is problematic: it asks us to erase the often unsavoury and always specific cultural circumstances in which the early modern work arose.

Kim Solga addresses this problem from a different angle, with an eye to modern performance of early modern plays, when she asks ‘how do we square this work’s enormous cultural capital with its profound distance from contemporary attitudes towards social justice and human rights?’[9] In terms of The Changeling specifically, how do we stage Beatrice-Joanna’s rape without engaging with the hugely problematic assumptions that surround it? When we choose to erase the cultural gap between then and now, we risk losing sight of the fact that The Changeling and many of the other Jacobean plays (comedies and tragedies alike) are cruel, bloody, and horrible, particularly to women. And when we lose sight of that, we risk seeing Middleton, Webster, Rowley, Jonson, et al as “just like us”. And once they’re just like us, we’re less likely to confront the uncomfortable content of their work. If Middleton and Rowley are feminists, then we have to explain away the highly masculine closing of ranks at the end of The Changeling, for example. We have to conveniently forget that Beatrice-Joanna’s virginity is a ‘precious’ commodity which is being bought and sold for her as a matter of course. We have to justify, somehow, the fact that she is killed–after a scene in which she is called “whore” repeatedly–for her desperate attempts to determine her own sexual fate. We have to ignore the repeated structural and formal hints that the play drops–including the entire character of Isabella and the relentless Edenic imagery–which tell us that Beatrice is inherently bad and evil and wicked.

As I note above, I am not trying to suggest that The Changeling cannot be interpreted and performed in a way that empowers Beatrice, or at the very least suggests that she is a victim of a patriarchal super-structure rather than her own inherent wickedness (keep in mind that Middleton was a Calvinist–so in his world everyone is predestined to Heaven or Hell at birth). I would like to suggest, however, that erasing the gap between past and present is more problematic than we sometimes like to admit.

Notes:

[1] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 120.

[2] See M. Neill, ‘Introduction’, p. xxxiii

[3] Q1 fol. F1v

[4] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 121.

[5] Cited in Lindley, p. 115. The original documents can be found in the Northamptonshire Record Office, Finch-Hatton MS 319, fol. 21v.

[6] See The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 6-11.

[7] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 7-8.

[8] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 7.

[9] K. Solga, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, p. 2.

[10] Q1 fol. D3f.

[11] K. Solga, Violence Against Women, p. 7

CFP: NRN Symposium on Archives and Documentation

Friends, readers, researchers! Lend me your abstracts!

There’s just over a week left to submit abstracts for the second annual STR New Researchers’ Network Symposium. This year, based on conversations arising at our other events, the committee has chosen the theme of Performance Archives and Documentation.

In case you need some extra incentive to submit, we’ve secured Professor Matthew Reason as our keynote speaker, and we’re hosting it at THE SHARD. Yes, that Shard. It promises to be an excellent event, and we hope that you can be a part of it! Abstracts are due by Friday 20 March. All details below and at http://strnrn.org/cfp-2nd-annual-symposium-on-archives-and-documentation/ I can’t wait to read your abstracts!

“Dumb objects, spoken for”? On Performance Archives and Documentation

Friday 19th June 2015

The Shard

17th Floor, Warwick Business School

32 London Bridge Street, London, SE1 9SG

The Society for Theatre Research’s (STR) New Researchers’ Network (NRN) is pleased to announce their second annual symposium, which will centre on the theme of Archives and Documentation. The symposium will also feature a keynote address by Prof. Matthew Reason (York St John University).

In recent years scholars have taken greater interest in the documentation of live performance and the construction and curation of archives. The foundations of these ideas can be found in Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge (1969) and Derrida’s Archive Fever(1995), as well as more recent texts by Carolyn Steedman (Dust, 2001) and Helen Freshwater (‘The Allure of the Archive,’ 2003). Matthew Reason (‘Archive or Memory,’ 2003) suggests that a more nuanced understanding of human memory may offer ways to further explore the relationship between the live performance and its documents, and argues that an honest assessment of the archive must overtly perform the fact that it consists of ‘dumb objects not allowed to speak for themselves, but spoken for’.

These discussions have been recurring themes at the NRN’s events this year, in part due to the development of new technologies which simplify both the archiving and accessing of material. As new researchers, we are at the forefront of the developing field of new and exciting archival technologies, and whilst these new ways of archiving can bring exciting discoveries and increased accessibility, they also bring new challenges and difficulties. For example, digitisation is an expensive and time-consuming process, and as a result, which archives are catalogued, searchable, and accessible online is an increasingly political matter.

Other questions, raised at an NRN study day at the Live Art Development Agency, relate to the relationship between live performance and the ‘mad fragmentations’ (Steedman 2001) which form the collections of theatre archives. What does it mean to intentionally document a performance? How much can we really learn about past performance through the ephemera (flyers, prompt-scripts, photographs) which somehow, against all odds, now possess call numbers and item descriptions in our archives? How do those who curate theatre collections decide which of these scraps of paper merit preservation? What does it mean for those of us researching past performance that these processes of selection remain largely opaque?

In a recent talk as part of the STR’s Annual Lecture Series, Prof. Heike Roms acknowledged the trend for theatre and performance historians to abandon the archive in favour of more performative methods of research. While Jacky Bratton has used walking as a research tool in her book The Making of the West End Stage, others have used reenactment or reconstruction as part of their methodology to answer questions about theatre and performance. As a result, Roms asked ‘what is at stake in approaching historical evidence as event?’.

We invite proposals for papers that may consider, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  • Historical evidence as event

  • Archives in the digital age and the future of the archive

  • The archivist as curator

  • The benefits and problems of legalising and copyrighting art work

  • The performativity of the archive

  • The detritus of performance

  • Beyond the archive: Walking, Mapping and Re-Enacting

The NRN Committee welcomes proposals for papers of up to fifteen minutes from new scholars, postgraduates, and early career researchers, on any aspect of the conference theme, broadly interpreted.  Abstracts of up to 250 words should be submitted tonrn@str.org.uk by 20th March 2015. Successful applicants will be contacted by 20th April. The papers will be arranged into panel groups sharing a common theme; although we anticipate receiving a majority of proposals as single papers, we will also accept proposals for three-paper curated panels.

For queries, please contact Claire Read and Nora Williams on behalf of the NRN Committee:nrn@str.org.uk

For more details on the NRN, see www.strnrn.org

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Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NewResearchersNetwork

Twitter: @nrn_str and @TheSTR

Postdoc project proposal

Because I’m pretty proud of it, and I have a secret fantasy about someone awesome who hires people accidentally stumbling upon my blog, I’ve decided to post a portion of my recently-submitted postdoc application. My supervisor keeps telling me to be more confident in my work, so sharing this work publicly is part of that journey as well.  Feedback welcome, as I’d like to keep refining my ideas for future applications.

My doctoral research has focused on a re-reading of the English Renaissance playwright Thomas Middleton through the lens of his 1622 collaboration with William Rowley, The Changeling. This work is at the forefront of a resurgence of interest in Thomas Middleton and other non-Shakespearean early modern playwrights, which has its roots in post-war educational reforms and has particularly gained steam in the past ten years. More specifically, scholarly and practical interest in Middleton has grown in recent years, evidenced by the publication of the Oxford Middleton series and the RSC’s upcoming tour (with English Touring Theatre) of A Mad World My Masters—one of very few national tours of a non-Shakespearean play by that company. My research contributes to this resurgence by bringing together the fields of print and performance, and considering collisions of scholarship and production. A consideration of Middleton’s plays in performance, and particularly in modern revivals, is one of the most obvious gaps in the Oxford Middleton, which focuses primarily on the texts’ original circumstances. My dissertation makes an important contribution towards filling that gap. In addition, my work builds on the content of the Oxford Middleton by considering texts specifically in relation to performance, rather than as separate entities. This has resulted in work which questions the ways in which Middleton’s plays are edited for students, for example. By bringing together cultural performance histories and textual histories, my work bridges the disciplines of English and Drama, putting a new historicist study of particular cultural moments in the life of the play into conversation with traditional textual criticism and performance studies. This will change the field of early modern studies by providing a model with which to think simultaneously about a given play in print and in performance, broadening interpretive possibilities whilst grounding each case study production in its particular cultural moment.

In so doing, my work examines the complicated nexus of printed texts and performances in all of their incarnations. How does an early modern play progress from author’s pen to scribal sides, to performance, to printing press, to revival, to commonplace entry, and eventually to scholarly edition, university revival, and modern professional production? What happens when that production is backwards-engineered into print in the form of reviews and scholarly commentary? What is the role of the theatrical prompt-book, both as a record of performance and as a textual witness? And how can the influence of performance be traced onto scholarship and scholarly editions of the plays, and vice-versa? The answers to these questions are evidently different in different sets of cultural circumstances, and the web of influence grows as the print and performance histories of any given play expand.

As Middleton’s most popular collaboration with William Rowley and one of his most-performed plays outside of his collaborations with and revisions of Shakespeare, The Changeling is an ideal focus for this kind of study. It offers a rich and diverse post-war performance history in Britain along with a wealth of scholarly attention, especially since the nineteenth century. The trajectory of The Changeling on stage and in print over the past four hundred years mirrors the trajectory of Middleton’s own renaissance, which began in print with the Romantics and in performance with educational reforms following the second World War and continues in the present. Concurrently, general interest in Jacobean tragedies and city comedies, with all their corruption, gore, and dark humour, is also at a peak, as evidenced by the re-launch of the Swan Theatre at the Royal Shakespeare Company as a space for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the triumphant opening of the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe, the arrival of the Arden Early Modern Drama series, and, of course, the publication of the Oxford Middleton collection. As we approach the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, more and more scholars and practitioners are calling for a broader appreciation of the rich theatrical culture within which he lived and worked. This work on The Changeling and Thomas Middleton is therefore timely and important.

As a [insert position here], I would anticipate working to publish my dissertation as a monograph. In addition, I propose a project which broadens and builds upon the work of my doctorate. Titled ‘Playwrights and Place’, this work would result in a second monograph-length study, this time considering the influence of place on early modern drama written by people other than Shakespeare. More specifically, the project will look at productions of early modern plays which take place outside of London and the RSC, including locally-produced work and regional tours. Whilst most of the current work on productions of non-Shakespearean early modern plays has been focused on major producing companies and venues in London and Stratford—including the Globe and the RSC—very little work has been done so far which gives specific attention to the regions. Producing companies such as Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, as well as touring houses and theatres which both produce and receive tours, are an integral part of the theatrical culture of Britain and have been largely ignored with regard to the ways in which they produce, promote, receive, and archive early modern plays. In addition, whilst projects such as Claire Cochrane’s history of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (2003) provide in-depth studies of particular theatres, there is still work to do in terms of trends across the country. Casting back to consider how early modern touring and performance patterns outside of London map onto twentieth and twenty-first century models, the project will be structured around three key research questions: 1) how and why are particular plays produced in or toured to the regions? 2) how are they received by a given community? and 3) how are they archived and remembered?

Primary research involving newspapers, prompt-books, programmes, oral history, and other ephemera of performance will be my main research method, using collections held both in London and across the UK. Details about funding from the Arts Council and other sources, educational outreach, and broader cultural programmes will also be relevant. I am primarily interested in thinking about the ways in which non-Shakespearean early modern drama functions culturally for a community: how is a touring production of, for example, The Changeling, received differently in London, in Bath, in Glasgow, in Cardiff? How does a tour differ culturally from a local production? How does a place’s history of early modern performance impact upon and shape its present and future?

The relationships between print and performance explored in my doctoral research will also be important here, as many of the productions I will examine exist only as fragments of print, rather than as ephemeral performances. Even where it is possible to see a production in person, printed materials such as reviews, prompt-books, programmes and even scholarly writings are crucial to any academic consideration of a given production. In this way, I will continue to investigate and question the ways in which the disparate forms of print and performance intersect and interact.

Such a project would make an original contribution to the field of early modern studies by considering both long trends and specific moments in the cultural life of plays performed outside of London and Stratford. It contributes to a significant gap within the study of early modern drama’s place in present-day theatres, which largely ignores regional theatres besides the RSC and does not adequately consider the special circumstances of a touring production. It builds upon my doctoral research whilst broadening its intellectual scope, continuing the work of connecting performance and print whilst questioning the long-standing focus on London and Stratford as the dominant producers and consumers of early modern drama.

And finally,  (I hate that I have to say this, but…) this is my intellectual property. No stealing, or I  will send Liam Neeson after you.