January 11, 2010

Localising The "Yorkshire" Tragedy

Writing about A Yorkshire Tragedy (Tough Theatre) @ The White Bear Theatre from The Bardathon

As a follow-up to my review of the Tough Theatre/ White Bear Theatre Company production of The Yorkshire Tragedy, there were a couple of problems raised by the production that I considered would be better discussed here for the relevance they have to my own writing on the play.

The introduction to the play gave us a few "facts" which were, for the most part, correct. The play was attributed to William Shakespeare; it probably was one of a group of four plays, which may well account for the differences between the opening scene and the rest of the play; and it was based on recent events. I was slightly surprised that the company made no reference to the current overwhelming consensus that the play is by Thomas Middleton, which I thought would have been of interest even to a non-academic audience considering the currency of Middleton in the London theatre at the moment (Revenger's Tragedy and Timon in 2008; Women Beware Women this year etc.). The production was advertised as "Part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha", however, and it is this connection they re-emphasised, while commendably not advancing any arguments to support Pavier's ascription.

No, the bit of the introduction that bothered me, and which had serious repercussions for the remainder of the performance, was that the play is divided into ten scenes. No, actually, it's not. The 1608 quarto of the play, as is standard for the period, includes no act or scene divisions whatsoever. It wasn't until Malone's edition of the play in 1788, almost two hundred years after the play's first publication, that it was finally divided into ten scenes, on the neoclassical criteria of new scenes beginning every time the stage is (even momentarily) cleared.

This might sound like academic pedantry, but it's crucially important to an understanding of the play. Firstly, more recent editors have divided the play into eight scenes, realising that the action of the old scenes V to VII is actually continuous. There is a brief shift to an imagined 'outside' for a conversation between the Husband and the Master, but after a few lines it reverts immediately back to the bodies of the fallen, demonstrating that there is no clearing of the stage and no pause in the action.

Secondly, the play is dependent on its pace. The division into scenes is in itself not really a problem; the problem occurs if significance is attached to these divisions - which, I reiterate, are a product of the 18th century, not the play's own time. Yesterday's production not only adopted the ten scene model, but was slavishly adherent to it. Each scene ended with a choreographed scene change, complete with a different lighting state and incidental music playing over the speakers, as well as a placard to indicate the new location. Playing 17th century plays in this 18th century fashion is out of date, both in terms of current theatrical practice and in terms of the demands of the play itself.

The beauty of the unlocalised stage that The Yorkshire Tragedy calls for is that it allows for a consistent and heady pace to build up. The Husband's frenzy becomes an unchecked rampage that moves from victim to victim with no time to pause or reflect, building up in the viewer or reader a breathless impression of insanity and inconceivable violence. Playing space becomes fluid: we don't need to physically be shown the move between different rooms because the bodies of the players demonstrate that move. By having set changes to physically reconfigure the stage between each very short scene, this production had to entirely reimagine the play's pace and thrust. Here, the Husband was necessarily a more reflective figure (discussed more in the review), a move which worked sometimes but didn't fit with the roaring madness of much of his dialogue.

It also played havoc with the play's double-time scheme. While the play as written must logically take place over a period of at least some hours (including the Wife's departure and return; the Husband's flight; and the trial), the conversations of the play continue as if a barely-interrupted stream of dialogue, the overriding impression being that events are taking place in real-time. By emphasising the scene changes, an impression of substantial periods of time passing is necessarily given, slowing down the action to a longer-term and drawn-out period. This is fine in the earlier and later scenes, but has the effect of throwing down the action-focussed centre of the play to a series of artificially-divided vignettes, interrupting the Husband's trail of carnage and undermining much of the dramatic effect of the text.

Attempting to precisely localise the scene demonstrates more clearly the weaknesses of doing so. Take Scene II, which according to this production took place in "an apartment in Calverley Hall." This location is appropriate for parts of the scene between the Husband and Wife; but then, groups of Gentlemen walk in unannounced and begin to upbraid, and even fight with, the Husband. In any logical sense, it is clear that these scenes cannot take place in an apartment, but in a more public space. The answer is, of course, that on the unlocalised 17th century stage it didn't matter - characters were understood to be wherever they narratively needed to be. With a location emphasised, however, the audience are asked to simultaneously imagine both a 'real' localised scene and an imaginative, unlocalised one, as the only way of maintaining any kind of theatrical logic. This begs the question: why bother localising the scene in the first place?

Finally, the first scene was set in "a pub in Calverley." The first scene is notoriously difficult, but emphasising a made-up setting for it makes these difficulties very clear to an audience who would otherwise not have noticed them. Ralph, Oliver and Sam are the servants of a woman (unseen in the play) who the Husband had previously been in love with, and who is now pining away for the lack of her lover. Sam then arrives with news that the Husband has married someone (the Wife of the play) and had children with her, although he abuses them all.

If Ralph and Sam are in a pub in Calverley, and the Husband and Wife are the lord and lady of Calverley Hall, why does Sam arrive FROM LONDON with news of a marriage - and a marriage that has, by report, been celebrated some years since? By any kind of logic, Ralph and Sam can't be just down the road from the Calverleys. The answer, of course, is that they are in a different town. Part of my thesis argues (following earlier critics) that the entire point of the first scene is to locate the play in London, not in Yorkshire: if Sam arrives with news from London of the Husband's marriage, then the implication is that the Husband and Wife are in London, which then allows Sam to take his news back to Ralph and Sam, wherever they are (and why not in Calverley?). This would, in my argument, have been to satisfy the censors: with the Calverley trial still in progress, the location of the real crime was changed, and the characters anonymised, in order to not incur the wrath of Calverley's powerful family. It's difficult to explain the first scene any other way: however, even if you don't agree with this argument, it still stands that Ralph, Oliver and Sam must be somewhere that is not Calverley, in order that the news of the marriage can be, indeed, news. Again, this is a problem that would normally not even be noticed by audiences; but, by emphasising specific locations for scenes, the incompatibility of this unlocalised play with conventions of literal scenography is exposed.

What this production has done for my understanding, then, is to emphasise the importance of the play's lack of sense of 'place'. This is true both in the immediately domestic sense, that movement between areas of the Husband's homestead needs to be fluid and uninterrupted, and in the wider sense, that the dialogue does not support a strict geographical location for the action but is instead deliberately removed away from the historical location of the Calverley estate.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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