Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference 2011
Writing about web page http://www.shakespeareassociation.org/
I’ve spent most of the last week on the other side of the Atlantic, at the thirty-ninth annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Bellevue, Washington. This was my first SAA and, in fact, my first international trip for a conference, and I’m now deeply regretting not having been previously. While I was prepared for the size, scale and prestige of the event, I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity and friendliness of the overwhelming majority of people I interacted with, and by how (relatively) relaxed a community this was.
I began the conference with a rehearsed reading of A Yorkshire Tragedy organised by Jeremy Lopez and the team at Shakespeare Bulletin, an amusing round-the-table affair which, perhaps inevitably, found the play funny rather than tragic (I ended up playing the Wife during the big fight scene…). Although I was still horrifically jetlagged, it was a fun start to the event and a great chance to meet people before the official opening.
Thursday offered a gentle opening to the conference proper. I attended a paper session on “Actors as Shakespeare Critics” featuring Gail Marshall delivering a version of a paper she trialled earlier in the year at the London Shakespeare seminar on the notes of Victorian Shakespeare actresses such as Sarah Siddons; Denis Salter on Henry Irving’s revolutionary “evil” Macbeth; and Richard Schoch on a satire of Collier’s forgeries called “The Grimaldi Shakespeare” which anticipated some of the more substantial critiques leading to the denouncing of the Perkins Folio.
This was followed by Charlotte Scott’s seminar on “The Book on Stage”, which was importantly relevant to the seminar in which I was participating (on which, more later). It hardly does justice to a two hour seminar featuring a range of fascinating papers to try and trace the conversation, particularly when I of course hadn’t seen any of the papers, but suffice to say this was a wide-ranging discussion which covered the pedagogical implications of books; the problems of textuality in a contemporary culture whose verbal and material words are ever more widely-dispersed; and the use of the book as a theatrical space.
In the evening, we adjourned to another hotel a block away for a lively opening reception, before a group of us returned for the Taiwan BangZi Opera Company performing Bond (discussed over on The Bardathon) which, although I didn’t enjoy it much myself, provided a great deal of discussion over the next couple of days.
Friday began with the annual Graduate Breakfast, a lovely opportunity to meet other doctoral candidates and the trustees of the Association (and, on a personal level, I was very pleased to get the chance to have a proper conversation with Suzanne Gossett, whose work I hugely admire). The plenary session followed, boasting an outstanding paper by Laurie Maguire on the multiple uses, meanings and implications of “Etc.” in early modern texts. This was one of those rare talks that awake your mind to the importance of something you’ve seen a million times but never thought critically about: how a phrase signifying implied continuation carries euphemistic, rhetorical, commonplace and censorious meanings. Bradin Cormack followed with discussion of thy/their slippages in emendations of the sonnets, and then Stephen Orgel presented a characteristically entertaining paper entitled “Textual Narratives” which addressed the theoretical problems of editorial clarification of textual problems, our need to resolve a dramatic text.
A panel on “Memorialising Shakespeare” followed that covered some fascinating ground. Ramie Targoff discussed the implications of tombs as related to Romeo and Juliet, exploring the cultural purpose of epitaphs and communal burials and, most interestingly, the problematic role of Paris in the group burial. Karen Brown addressed the pedagogic use of memorisation of Shakespeare and its role in his canonisation; while Alan Stewart offered a history of memorial reconstruction predating Greg’s conceptualisation, suggesting a more sophisticated approach that combines misrememberings/mishearings of the ear with the work of poets and misreadings. The annual luncheon followed, with an hilarious address from president Russ McDonald.
I spent the afternoon in part two of Leslie Thomson’s split seminar on “Lacunae in Theatre History” with an august group (Ros Knutson, John Jowett and David Kathmann all feature prominently in my thesis, and the chance to hear even these three in conversation let alone the other exciting members, was too good to pass up). The debate was extremely lively, discussing in great depth the methodology of theatre history. I’m hugely interested in the question of how we construct narratives: several panellists gave reiterated warnings about the danger of making assumptions when we know so little; while at the same time others argued that the role of the literary historian is to attempt to make responsible sense of what information we do have. Thomas More got discussed at some length too, raising some questions I’ll need to revisit in revising my current chapter.
A reception celebrating the fortieth anniversary of English Literary Renaissance followed, with tributes and, more importantly, free champagne. Following that, I escaped for my only substantial conference break to Seattle itself, with dinner in a gorgeous seafood restaurant overlooking the bay with mountain views, and an impromptu seminar on wine selections.
Saturday was overshadowed by preparation for my own seminar in the last session of the day, but that didn’t prevent me from attending some great papers. I was part of a breakfast focus group for the Arden Shakespeare in the morning (some very exciting developments happening with their online content), then went to the appropriately-themed “Editing Shakespeare” seminar. I was too late for most of A.R. Braunmuller’s paper on his experience of editing Measure for Measure, but thoroughly enjoyed Alan Galey’s research on digital editing, which located the new possibilities of the computer within older discourses of lithographic reprinting and the like. I had hugely looked forward to “Alfred W. Pollard Redux” delivered by one of my academic heroes, Paul Werstine, and was horrified when at first he appeared to be about to do a much better version of my fourth chapter, beginning with comments on the RSC Shakespeare and the conflict between the Folio-ideology and the requirements of a Complete Works. Happily, he moved instead to a discussion of emendations and a revival of Pollard’s views on the quartos being closer than the Folio to performance texts.
I skipped the next session in order to re-read my own paper, but after lunch came the close contender to the plenary session for Most Inspiring Set of Papers. “Beyond Playbooks” featured three extraordinary scholars: Richard Preiss, James J. Marino and Tiffany Stern. Preiss presented his work on the role of audiences, discussing the unreported (in textual form, at least) contribution of early modern audiences to the plays they attended and the importance of taking into account the experientiality of which playbooks can only give us a distant suggestion. Marino addressed the significant problem of the dominance of textual scholarship by editorial practice, calling for a reclarification of our textual study and a new focus on questions that do not pertain to editorial ends, such as the part-based revision of Romeo and Juliet, of which he gave a compelling account. Lastly, Stern discussed early modern fairs and their significance for Shakespeare’s plays. I hadn’t realised that Bartholomew Fair (and the associated Southwark Fair) ran for over 700 years from 1133 for a month of the year, and that its Southwark location was so close to the theatres. Stern discussed anecdotes of entertainments and their close corollaries in references made by Shakespeare’s characters; while also tracing the survival of Shakespearean characters in fair entertainments. This importantly changes our understanding of how a play circulated in culture, with characters in particular surviving independently of the plays they originated in and a performative understanding of popular entertainment crossing authorial and chronological boundaries.
My own panel, on “Shakespeare For Sale”, featured a range of “book geeks” (not my phrase!) from the well-established to the junior (ie me): Douglas Bruster, Peter Berek, Fran Connor, Alan Farmer, Sarah Neville, Tara Lyons, Emma Depledge, Vimala Pasaputhi, Christina Furtado and Ryan Zurowski, with Adam Hooks convening and chairing. The conversation was hugely stimulating. Methodological problems similar to those brought up in the theatre history seminar were raised, about how we draw narratives from the available evidence and what we can reasonably hope to know; and the ways we interpret that evidence were particularly up for grabs – what does the fact of reprinting actually tell us? How much can we glean about the way readers chose and collated books? I’m less knowledgable about these issues, but learned a great deal from both papers and discussion. The other major strand had more direct implications, as we discussed how authors are constituted and circulated through print. Questions of anthologising, serialising, reading out of order and the role of prologues, title pages and other paratexts are some of my favourite and, while I don’t have the space to go into detail here, will be directly formative on my work as I hit the final redrafts.
Dinner followed, and the conference closed with the infamous Malone Society dance. Which won’t be spoken of further here.
On a professional level, the conference was hugely stimulating and a great motivation at a time when I sorely need it; and the opportunity to talk to such a range of academics was enthusiastically embraced. On a personal level, I managed to catch up with several old friends and make a great many new ones; and the flight home with a 747 full of Shakespeareans was a lovely way to end, even if I regretted the lack of sleep the next day. I’m already looking forward to Boston in 2012.