All entries for August 2010
August 27, 2010
It's been a very good week for publications. Firstly, a special issue of Shakespeare has just been published, entitled "Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art", which includes an edited version of the paper I gave at the the conference of the same name last year. My paper, " "What's Past is Prologue: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare", interrogates the implications of the chosen tense in theatre reviews, and makes a case for the informed use of the past tense in most cases.
Unfortunately, the journal issue itself is rather expensive, and Warwick doesn't subscribe to this journal, so I'm hoping for a free copy, especially because there are other papers - particularly that of Jeremy Lopez, which appears from the abstract to tackle a similar issue to mine, perhaps from an opposing perspective - that I haven't seen or heard before.
Today, meanwhile, I noticed that the next batch of RSC Shakespeare single editions are out, including two more for which I've contributed the performance histories, Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. As ever, the performance histories are necessarily brief, but I think they're okay given the remit and space, and it's certainly a confidence boost to see stuff I've written on bookshelves, even if it's right at the end of the book!
(NB the Troilus image is different to the one I picked up today. I'm guessing this is an old rejected cover - note the quote from As You Like It which shows it was never a final draft. The new one uses "Power into will, Will into appetite")
August 24, 2010
I recently wrote a very short piece for the Warwick "Knowledge Centre" on that old chestnut, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I think you need to be a current or former member of the University to view it, but the piece is here, entitled "Knowing Will Too Well". I don't have space to go into the specifics of the authorship argument, but point out the most basic flawed principles upon which anti-Stratfordian arguments rely. I then point out that the question persists because orthodox Shakespearean biography uses a similarly imaginative approach, thus legitimising the methodology used by conspiracy theorists. Only by understanding Shakespeare in his collaborative, theatrical context is this question ever going to be resolved.
August 10, 2010
I've been reading about bears all day, and come across the wonderful term "Bearist" as used by Helen Cooper and Teresa Grant in correspondence in the London Review of Books. I'm not really concerned with the specifics of the use of animals, though a middle ground between two extreme points seems to make sense: the use of bears for court performances of Mucedorus and The Winter's Tale seems to me to be entirely probable and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion; when the plays were performed on the public stage, however, Cooper's arguments that bear costumes would have been employed make sense. What's important to me is the implication - one I think is justified - that Mucedorus was revived in 1610 to capitalise on the availability of two polar bear cubs, and that the additional business with Mouse early in the play (one of the few additions not to be concerned with emphasising the prince's true identity) takes explicit advantage of this.
I'm tickled, though, by Cooper's description of Grant, Anne Barton and others as "bearists." A Bearist would then presumably be an aherent to Bearism? Does that make Cooper an anti-Bearist? Or a Bearnostic? More seriously, is a belief that bears were utilised on the early modern stage worthy of a specific label? It seems that Cooper's implicit division of critical positions into "Bearist" and "non-Bearist" is perhaps taking categorisation too far. Or is there a real schism here in animal-based literary studies? The idea of what Chris Holmes refers to as a "cabal of zealous bear theorists holed up and busily engaged in impassioned debate", frankly, scares me a little bit.
(This is the third in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
Mucedorus has had something of a tough rap. Its unprecedented number of early editions (seventeen known) makes it, on paper, the single most popular play of the Renaissance stage, yet this popularity has been largely attributed to provincial touring, entertainment over art, expedience and sensation - the chance to make use of a live bear. More recently, though, a revived interest in the influence of the romance genre on the early modern theatre - inevitably, primarily on Shakespeare - perhaps gives us a better route into understanding and appreciating a play that, while flawed, is thoroughly entertaining.
1) In terms of genre, it's fascinating. A framing device between Comedy and Envy makes the conflict of tone explicit; and there are two onstage deaths amid the clowning. This is no mongrel conflation of styles, though, but a comic romance in the old vein that deliberately articulates the negotiation of mood it enacts. For a modern audience, there's the genuine possibility for surprise.
2) It begins - in the original text at least, following the induction - with a bear chase! There are few more exciting starting points in the early modern drama.
3) It's ahead of its time. Part of my thesis argument points out that the additions made to the third quarto conceal the fact that, in the original version, we don't find out Mucedorus's true identity and rank until the final scene of the play. These "surprise endings" were far more common in the 1610s, but relatively rare in the 1580s/90s.
4) It's amusing. Mouse, the deaf and greedy clown-servant, is relentless in his banter, and provides a great opportunity for a capable comic actor. His banter with the dastardly Segasto provides good value too.
5) Bremo is a fascinating figure, the wild and cannibalistic king of the woods, who is animalistic in his actions but all too human in his assumption of power within his own realm. Prefiguring Caliban by some twenty years, he is softened by the presence of a woman, and creates a perverted mirror-court reflecting civilised society. He's a disturbing and threatening presence within the play.
6) The semi-magical wood, ruled over by an otherly force and into which characters disappear on their flight from society, is a recurring motif throughout the drama of the period - see Two Gentlemen, Dream, Philaster and others. Mucedorus is only one influence, but its apparent popularity reminds us that it's no doubt an important one.
7) It's an interesting play in terms of class conflict and prejudice. The battle for the hand of the princess between a rich suitor (made rich by his father's usury) and an heroic shepherd (even if, by 1610, we know he's really a prince) allows for a great deal of debate about the worth of a human being, and Amadine's choice to live wild with a shepherd and disown both father and society is a powerful one.
8) For a comedy written of as simple and uninteresting, it has some surprising moments of poetic interest. Mucedorus's comparison of himself to Orpheus in Scene xv stands out, and Bremo's introductory soliloquy of Scene vii is an assertive and disquieting moment.
9) It even comes with its own doubling chart, ready for performance!
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The recent work focussing on Shakespeare's "late" plays, both in terms of genre and in the retrospective mood of the 1610s, has brought Mucedorus back to the fore, with critics accepting the influence of this popular play on the new, more sophisticated takes on romance in Italianate tragicomedy. It'd be fascinating to see the play treated again on the stage - a double-bill with Winter's Tale or Cymbeline would be especially welcome.
August 03, 2010
(This is the second in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
Unlike Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Book of Sir Thomas More requires little pleading. It's a great play, and one of the more widely available of the apocrypha (in the 2nd Oxford Complete Works, the Revels Plays and an RSC performance text from Nick Hern).
What is more often overlooked with this play is how coherent and satisfying a piece it is as a whole. The repeated printing of merely the Hand D extract (the section generally believed to be by Shakespeare) has encouraged the interest in the play for the fragment of Shakespeare it preserves, and it's only really been in the last twenty years or so that scholars and theatremakers have championed the play over its author(s). Here are some of the reasons why:
1) Thomas More himself - one of the largest parts in the extant early modern drama, and a joy for actors. Constantly joking, playacting and philosophising, seen both in public and intimate settings, managing his house and rioting multitudes, and steeling himself for his final inevitable execution, the part requires an actor of tremendous range, charisma and capability.
2) The dramatists' attention to character even in the small parts is quite extraordinary for a chronicle history of this sort. Doll Williamson is one of the liveliest characters I've ever come across, while bit parts such as Falkner, Randall and Lifter are sympathetically drawn. Even the nameless Warders and Woman of V.i are surprisingly fleshed out.
3) The riot scenes of the first two acts are a source of genuine excitement, picking up on similar scenes in 2 Henry VI and Jack Straw that allow rioting citizens to both air their grievances and condemn themselves with their foolishness. Lincoln is a complicated anti-hero, noble at first then succumbing to more base demands, before being allowed a fine gallows speech. The bustle of these scenes is expertly drawn to give More's speech all the more impact.
4) There's some beautiful poetry, particularly in More's reflections on his own rise and fall. The start of Act III ("It is in Heaven that I am thus and thus") is a particular stand out, although obviously the "Shakespeare" speech has attracted most attention.
5) The mid-point set-piece, the playlet of The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, is not only a great character moment for More and a well-constructed piece of drama, but also provides some fascinating insights into the contingencies of early touring players: Luggins has run to get a beard, one boy actor is down to play three parts, and Wit is required to improvise to match More's interruptions. As a snapshot of the expectations and potential of early modern players, it's extremely revealing.
6) Amazingly, the play works despite effectively lacking an antagonist. As in Cromwell, Henry VIII is kept resolutely offstage, his distance from events this time precluding him from seeing More as we see him, allowing us to (dangerously) invest more in More's position than the official line. The play's more obviously unpleasant characters - particularly the French of the first scene - are deliciously obnoxious, but it is in the silent Downes that the opposing forces of the play find embodiment. Only opening his mouth to announce More's arrest, he's a powerful presence.
7) It's a satisfying arc: we get a full ascendancy, a brief period of power and favour, and then a slow descent to the execution. The moments of More's career chosen to illustrate this movement are well-chosen, oscillating between his most public appearances (the May Day riots, his execution) and private ones (his conversation with Erasmus, his defence of his position to his family). In balancing character and plot, the dramatists create a coherent portrait that, ultimately, goes to show the fickleness of favour and the cost of piety.
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Despite a major RSC revival, the play still hasn't made as much of an impression on the modern stage as it deserves, but as it gets included in more Shakespeare series, no doubt we'll see much more of More. I've seen it once, and it's a thoroughly stageworthy and entertaining piece; and as a piece of literature, it repays repeated readings.
August 02, 2010
(This is the first in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
The True Chronicle History of the Whole Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell is one of the most ignored of all the "Shakespeare Apocrypha", and if I'm being honest, it's not hard to see why. Its plot is linear and rambling; it has almost no poetic value (you're unlikely to read many plays this mundane in terms of language); and it has an overly moralistic tone that grates. Yet it's also one of the plays I'm most drawn back to, and bears much closer attention than it has garnered.
The problem is, as with so much of the non-Shakespearean drama of the period, that an unfavourable aesthetic judgement leads to critical neglect; yet Thomas Lord Cromwell, while not pretty, offers a great deal of interest to scholars, and it's a not-uninteresting hour for the casual reader too. The latter is particularly neglected because there is no decent modern-spelling edition available for readers, which no doubt contributes to the play's entire absence from the stage. Here, then, are some of the reasons to revisit this forgotten play.
1) It's incredibly accessible. What it lacks in imagery or complexity, it makes up for in a quick and efficient style that even readers unfamiliar with early modern language could read with no difficulty. The story of Cromwell is, of course, fascinating in and of itself, and particularly since the Globe's successful revival of Henry VIII and the runaway bestseller Wolf Hall's Booker Prize victory, I'd be surprised if there isn't something of a market for a dramatisation of his life.
2) It's a rags-to-riches tale. These are extremely rare in the period; the interest in historical figures is usually confined (in plays at least) to the figure's public life (cf Thomas More). Cromwell begins with the student, living in a room above his father's smithy, and follows him on his travels around Europe, long before his elevation to Wolsey's service. It's a real surprise that this hasn't received further attention; clearly, Cromwell's life was felt to be of particular interest to theatre audiences. It's also, perhaps, our best evidence for the lost play(s) on Cardinal Wolsey taking a similar approach: Wolsey's background as butcher is alluded to throughout Cromwell, and no doubt the Cardinal's background was a similar source of fascination.
3) We know the characters. Aside from their historical interest, this is a fascinating companion piece to both Thomas More and especially Henry VIII. Particularly after seeing the Globe's production, I've become interested in how prominent both Cromwell and Gardiner are in that play, having played such a major part in the company's earlier play on Cromwell. Thomas More, too, appears in all three, as well as Norfolk and Suffolk. Combined with the other plays of the period on Henry's reign - the lost Wolsey, When You See Me You Know Me etc. - there's something very interesting going on with this same recurring group of characters appearing in a variety of situations, in different companies, by different writers.
4) It tells history from the ground up. Perhaps in a bid for popular appeal, Cromwell shares with More a weighted attention to how the history of this court appears from the perspective of commoners and the middle classes, all concerned with their own day-to-day existence. Cromwell takes this to an extreme, with an entire subplot set among the mercantile middle-classes, and repeated commentary from citizens on Cromwell's actions. The construction of the play's protagonist through the voices of his subordinates is a particularly effective method, of course, of garnering sympathy for him.
5) It's implicitly critical of authority. Henry's absence from the play (probably occasioned by the date of composition) allows the dramatist(s) to show what happens when a King cedes too much authority to his councillors. Repeated appeals by Cromwell for the King are denied; he is rendered ineffectual through his distance from immediate affairs.
6) Cromwell doesn't go down lightly. Unlike More's pious acceptance of death, Cromwell complains to the end, after having been so patient throughout. He repeatedly attaches blame to Gardiner, cries out in despair when he realises he missed Bedford's warning, and gives warnings rather than stoic council to his son. This rather bitter end defies expectations and adds to the implicit criticism mentioned above.
7) It's quite funny. Hodge is an amusing comic sidekick for Cromwell, with some wry commentary after their robbing in Italy and opportunities for a great set-piece when he disguises himself as Bedford. The motif of the servant putting on the clothes of a lord and getting lost in his elevation recurs in More and Shrew, and offers great comic value. I also find Bagot, a pantomime villain if ever there was one, surprisingly amusing, particularly as his evil plot is never allowed to get too threatening. His offstage execution is a sobering moment in a comic subplot.
8) It's surprisingly neatly-structured. The various plot lines of the first three acts are pulled together in the fourth as Cromwell brings together acquaintances from all periods of his life for a celebratory dinner, thanking his various benefactors. The core moral message of the play ("Do unto others...") is rehearsed in a number of scenarios, particularly among the reciprocal acts of kindness of Friskiball and the Banisters.
9) It carries an interesting political contrast to Henry VIII and More. The rising and falling of More, Wolsey and Cromwell under Henry VIII were clearly popular stories; yet it's fascinating to see More and Cromwell, in particular, giving heroic status to two very different - even opposed - figures. Cromwell is the play far more in keeping with a strictly Protestant ideology, celebrating the mover of the English Reformation and demonising the bishop who attempts to prevent his labours. When put into conversation with More, though - celebrating a Catholic martyr - we start to see that it is not politics or religion so much as personal integrity that matters to both sets of dramatists.
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I don't claim any great status for the play; it's a modest piece, clearly important enough to be performed and printed, and no work of art. However, its treatment of a personality clearly embedded in the public consciousness; its connections to several better-esteemed plays in material and structure; its accessible and interesting narrative and its political interest demand the play be read once more.