Day 3: Strange Plays, Here We Come

By all accounts, Day 3 of BritGrad started with an incredible panel by Alex Whiteley and Rebecca Fensome, taking the comparative study of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and Despicable Me 1 and 2 to unparalleled heights of academic excellence. I wouldn’t know first-hand, because unfortunately despite the best of intentions I didn’t wake up until 9:05. The mention of these two papers is a testament to how much, despite the ravages of the BritGrad party, I was still hoping to see them.

Just two bros, united by a love of Renaissance dramaturgy

The first plenary of the day saw Anna Marsland and David Rintoul discussing The Roaring Girl and The White Devil, two RSC productions on which they respectively worked as assistant director and actor. Much of the initial question-and-answer section drew attention to the questions of gender surrounding the plays and the Roaring Girls season itself – while Rintoul was surprised to realise that he may have only worked with six female directors over the course of his career (and up to fifty men), Marsland was confident that the theatrical landscape was beginning to change. She spoke about the unbelievable life of the real Moll Cutpurse, who escaped unwanted emigration on a boat to Virginia by swimming back to shore, and responded to comments on the more conventionally-feminine attire of Lisa Dillon’s Moll at the end of the play by emphasising how the character’s costume aesthetic has by this point spread across the whole sweep of the stuffy Victorian society in which Jo Davies had set the production. There was a genuine excitement to her comment that the upcoming White Devil cast featured eight female parts, one of which (Flaminia) has been cross-gendered; a decision which seems increasingly timely in the wake of performers who deconstruct traditional understandings of gender, from Lady Gaga to Conchita Wurst. The play is only just about to go into rehearsal, so it wasn’t only the audience who were keen to discover what effect this would have on the sexual politics of Webster’s tragedy.

The Roaring Girl, temporarily not roaring
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Middleton’s verse is quite hard to remember

Rintoul, meanwhile, displayed all the charm and grace one might expect from TV’s former Mr Darcy. Asked about the particularities of memorising and performing non-Shakespearean verse, he proposed a sustained and remarkably accurate analogy to jazz – from the steady beat underlying Marlowe, to the development of syncopation/less forcefully iambic lines, to the Charlie Parker-style improvisation of the Jacobean era. He also considered the play in relation to the RST run of Henry IV, pointing out parallels in the split between a rule-bound, conservative group of characters and the free play of London street-life, while emphasising the specifically Jacobean focus of The Roaring Girl on contemporary society. Both discussed the production’s relation to last year’s A Mad World, My Masters, and the Swan’s position as a space designed for non-Shakespearean drama: would Middleton sell in the main house. Surely it’s worth finding out?

Sadly it doesn’t seem as if the Swan will be staging Heywood’s Age plays any time soon, so it’ll be a while before we can find out exactly what’s meant in stage terms by the ‘strange fiery-workes’ which accompany the appearance of Medea in The Brazen Age. This was the subject of Callan Davies‘s fascinating paper, exploring the links between strangeness, spectacle, scepticism and intellectual uncertainty in early modern England. What use would a stage direction including the abstract term ‘strange’ be to a stage-hand trying to produce a visual image? asked Davies, before taking us on a tour of Renaissance oddity including ‘Strange News out of Kent’, a phenomenon represented today by this Daily Mirror article about massive rats. Far from mere tawdry shows, then, ocular wonder required intellectual engagement from an audience, and reflected a wider uncertainty over translating the material world into moral terms. Davies linked these occurences of strangeness to Montaigne’s doubts over the stability of perception, and the ethical stability this entailed, as explored in his essay ‘Of Massive Rats’.

Callan Davies (L) in intense discussion (as far as I can tell from my own position of intellectual uncertainty)

Fans of Heywood should, at this point, be reminded of the Lizz Ketterer Trust Heywood Marathon, which began today at the Shakespeare Institute with the intention of reading and recording all 37 of the plays attributed to him. Regardless of what Heywood’s spectacles ‘meant’ to their original audience, the role of the visual and ephemeral on the Renaissance stage has been consistently ignored by scholars looking for the sources of Shakespeare, argued Kim Gilchrist in a thought-provoking, original speculation about the ‘imbecilic’ works encountered by early modern playgoers. Gilchrist made the case for what has been in the dry transcription of Queen’s Men plays such as The Famous Victories of Henry V, presenting the complex, metatheatrical improvisation of clown-actors like Richard Tarlton as a tradition which has, by its very nature, disappeared from literary history. Nonetheless, the work of this first acting celebrity – known for his playing extempore – must have been assimilated and transformed by Shakespeare, just as much as that of literary forebears such as Marlowe. While the Prologue to Tamburlaine was a direct challenge to the rhyming and jigging of this kind of theatre, its echoes survived even as they could not be written down. Gilchrist’s own acting was able to give us a speculative flavour of what Tarlton and his fellows might have been doing; the mechanical dolphin which Greenblatt suggests might have provided Shakespeare’s introduction to theatrical spectacle sadly remained unreconstructed.

Somewhere, Henry V is feeling threatened

These issues were picked up (dolphin notwithstanding) in the final plenary session of the day, and of BritGrad 2014. Dr Will Sharpe and Dr Peter Kirwan demonstrated considerable powers of off-the-cuff discussion as they introduced us to the theory and practice behind their recent co-authored project on the collaborative plays attributed to Shakespeare. Their volume takes in not only Arden of Faversham, Double Falsehood and Sir Thomas More, in which Shakespeare’s hand has regularly been suspected, but also The London Prodigal and Thomas Lord Cromwell, two plays in which they found no evidence of Shakespeare’s own writing, but historical attributions which made it clear that they were first received in a Shakespearean context, perhaps due to the influence of the King’s Men’s house dramatist on the company’s wider output – collaboration is never just a case of sharing billing. Even the first Folio fudges the issue of collaboration, implying that authorship in the period didn’t mean exactly the same thing as ‘who wrote what’.

Sharpe and Kirwan expressed their hope for the demise of the circular argument that goes: Shakespeare could never have written this; this can’t be by Shakespeare, because it isn’t good enough. They also explained the logic behind presenting the whole of each play, rather than excerpting the potentially Shakespearean passages: not only are many of these collaborative works worth reading in their own right, but the mechanical aspect of stylometrics makes it difficult to declare  with 100% certainty which author wrote a single scene. Given the amount of French in Henry V, most computer systems would confidently assert that Shakespeare had never laid eyes on it. Despite the quality of some of these plays, however, Sharpe wearily noted the tendency of media coverage to focus on the novelty of new Shakespearean attributions, rather than the actual contents of the work – an awareness of which had to underlie the presentation of the book itself, to make it a viable commercial proposition. Kirwan argues that the desire to ‘own it all’ – everything Shakespeare ever wrote – is part of a modern consumerist mentality, but also speculated on the Internet as a factor contributing to a resurgence of interest in anonymity. As questions from the audience made clear, however, the value of the volume lies not least in its making available, in clear, clean and lucid texts, plays which might now be used by actors and theatre companies, extending the relatively narrow scope of the early modern drama which is staged today – and in discussing those works, as Sharpe wryly commented, in ‘essays that people can read.’

And perhaps it’s fitting to conclude with a comment on accessibility, in a conference which we the BritGrad team hope serves as an entry point to conference attendance for a generation of postgraduate students.

‘Books in the running brooks, and good in everything.’ – Delegates, chillin’
Bearded debate
Your humble author
Two teas? Or not two teas.

More photos, courtesy of Ronan Hatfull, can be found at the BritGrad Facebook page. We look forward to seeing you all next year!

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