September 26, 2010

Hoffman Symposium, Magdalen College, Oxford

There was an exciting moment towards the conclusion of this, a one-day conference on Henry Chettle's The Tragedy of Hoffman, where a delegate finally asked a question that I'd been expecting to come up much earlier: "How does this play fit in with the rest of the Chettle canon?" It wasn't so much the answer that interested me (although there was an entertaining pause as everyone tried to remember what else was in the Chettle canon) as the fact that the question hadn't previously come up in a day of intense discussion of this one play. This, to me, was an exciting demonstration of the forms discussion can take when "authors" take a back seat to wider issues of repertory, genre and performance.

The day began with a fully-staged reading of Hoffman based on John Jowett's edition of the play (which I didn't realise existed, having only encountered the play in the Malone Society reprint), and directed by Elisabeth Dutton, which I've discussed over at The Bardathon. Even though 10.15am on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning is not my preferred time to watch obscure revenge tragedy, this was a truly inspired way to begin a conference. Levels of familiarity with the play ranged from the intimate to the uninitiated, so Dutton's clear, provocative and thoroughly entertaining production gave the delegates some common ground and raw material for the rest of the day's discussions.

Despite an extraordinarily distinguished line-up of contributors - one panel alone saw Dutton responded to by Andrew Gurr, John Jowett, Manfred Draudt, Brian Gibbons and Katherine Duncan-Jones - a collegiate spirit informed conference proceedings, even to the extent that co-organiser Emma Smith sacrificed her own short paper on Hamlet, Hoffman and Antonio to facilitate longer open discussion. Conversation pursued a number of topics: Draudt gave a detailed introduction to the play's geography, Tom Rutter argued for the play as a response to Hamlet specifically geared towards the skills of the Admiral's Men, and there was a great deal of lively debate over the role of Lorrique, dually prompted by George Oppitz-Trotman's paper on the type of the revenging servant and Nicholas Shrimpton's stunning performance in the role.

What emerged, from my perspective at least, was a fascinating range of responses to the play that situated it, not within an authorial framework, but within the more interesting "canon" of revenge tragedy, Admiral's Men's plays and the drama of the early 1600s. The close relationship between the play and Revenger's Tragedy was continually referred to, particularly prompted by the presence throughout the panels of the skeleton borrowed from Oxford Medical School for the production; but I was perhaps more fascinated by assertions of the play's later influence on Webster as well. As someone mentioned at lunch, we have a bad habit of considering a play a "failure" when it doesn't seem to have been reprinted; yet the mere fact of Hoffman being printed at all in 1631 seems to allow for the possibility of a powerful and influential stage history. That the play may have some resonance with the theatre of the Caroline era is, too, a tempting thought.

On a side note, the presence of the skeleton perhaps encouraged people to take the image too literally, and one sideline of discussion found people wondering how a skeleton would have been represented on the early modern stage - a picture or a real one? The quarto, however (as far as I can see) only specifies a "body" in stage directions - I imagine the most obvious, and perhaps very effective, early modern staging solution would have been to have an actor "play" Hoffman's dead father, maybe even capitalising more strongly on the visual recollection of Spanish Tragedy and allowing for an interesting build-up of bodies as Charles and Lorrique are added to the grisly display.

I'm already getting excited again thinking about the event. The intersection of performative exploration and academic discussion was an extremely fruitful one, and I do hope this is a model increasingly followed at Malone Society events. Congratulations to all involved; I'm already trying to think of ways I might crowbar the play into my thesis.....


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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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