All entries for September 2010

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.....

September 24, 2010

"Cardenio" at the Warehouse Theatre – WATCH OUT!

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Very excited to see today that Aporia Theatre are presenting a take on Cardenio at the Warehouse Theatre in November.

But wait, what's this?

Written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher or Thomas Middleton

What's Middleton doing there? Hang on, there's more...

In an unnamed state, the adored ruler Cardenio has been dethroned by the tyrannical Fernando for dubious reasons. What is the cost to the people when their new leader pursues his own dark desires without any check or balance? And just how far can our suspicions govern our judgements? In 1611 a play was submitted to print with highly intriguing penmanship.

They haven't, have they? Yes they have. This isn't Cardenio at all - it's The Lady's Tragedy or The Second Maiden's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton. In his book Cardenio, or, The Second Maiden's Tragedy (Lakewood, 1994), Charles Hamilton made a case - based on palaeography - that this was, in fact, Fletcher and Shakespeare's lost play with the names of characters changed, despite the fact that a) the plot bears no resemblance to the "Cardenio" story and b) we don't have sufficient handwriting samples of Shakespeare to justify these kinds of claims on palaeographic evidence alone (see also - Thomas More). There IS an early connection between Shakespeare and this play - he was one of three possible names pencilled on and then crossed off by George Buc, apparently unsure as to who the author might be - but there is nothing to connect it with Cardenio.

Hamilton's thesis has been widely discredited, and no reputable scholars (that I'm aware of, anyway) follow this argument. Universal consensus accepts that Cardenio only survives (if at all) in severely adapted form as Double Falsehood; and that Lady's Tragedy/Second Maiden's Tragedy is by Middleton alone. However, Hamilton's ludicrous but publicity-friendly claims have survived into commercial culture, and this isn't the first production (apparently oblivious to scholarship) to tout Middleton's play as Shakespeare's/Fletcher's.

It's a real shame. I love Lady's Tragedy, it's one of my favourite of Middleton's tragedies, and it can stand quite well without the Shakespearean "help." It's a frustrating instance of authorship taking priority over play - particularly as, in order to fulfil the "Cardenio" claims, the play has to be entirely repackaged, not least in the renaming of characters. It also sets up a promise which people will ultimately find to be false, particularly if they've been following the ongoing high-profile arguments over the nature of Cardenio in the press this year - of all the times to revive the old spurious argument, to present Lady's Tragedy as Cardenio just as the wider public has become more aware of the strength of Double Falsehood's claims seems the worst.

If you go to this, go to see whatever remains of one of Middleton's finest and most rarely-played tragedies after the adaptors have finished trying to make it fit the theory. Don't go expecting to find Shakespeare, except in the dubious and baseless claims of marketing campaigns.

September 15, 2010

Early Modern Exclusions @ The University of Portsmouth

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Rosie Paice introduced yesterday's interdisciplinary conference on "Exclusions" in the Early Modern Period as having emerged from a conference last year on "Amity". What is included in the language of amity, community, friendship and unified society is defined not only by the positive bonds that tie people and institutions together, but also by the "other" that they define themselves against. It's a fascinating concept, and one with enormous relevance to my own project on the "Apocrypha", a group of plays unified by their exclusion from an authorised canon.

This one-day conference was, as a result, one of the most fascinating I've been to. Naomi Tadmor kicked the event off with her keynote lecture on social exclusion, a tightly historical paper attending to the rules and rhetoric surrounding certain exclusions, particularly those enacted on the family unit; tales of enforced marriage, parish "banishment" and the self-regulating practices of gossip and informing that kept communities in line.

The fascinating thing as an auditor in the first two parallel sessions was that, despite the historical specificity of the exclusion narratives discussed, the same issues and ideas kept presenting themselves: the limits of physical exclusion as a way of ultimately marginalising socially excluded figures; the ghettoising of excluded groups and the policing of those borders. Marion Pluskota's paper on prostitution in Bristol and Nantes made an observation that particularly resonated with me; that the authorities generally took action against bawdy houses only when the activities of the house impinged on the wider community; ie in case of disturbances or violence. Stories of "out of sight, out of mind" repeatedly surfaced. Elena Taddia's discussion of Genoese plans to marginalise illegitimate children, shipping them off to Corsica, perhaps best illustrated the questions of morality raised.

A fascinating panel on "Protestantism and Exclusion" followed. Daniel Trocme Latter gave an extremely interesting paper Huguenot settings of Psalms; and Rosie Paice discussed issues of translation arising from Paradise Lost, relating this to anxiety over Biblical translations and the purpose of translation itself; issues of supreme importance which I'm more used to hearing in a contemporary context, but even more powerfully relevant here. Naya Tsentourou, meanwhile, examined early modern prayer manuals and the performativity of prayer despite instructions to remove the body to the "closet"; raising fascinating questions of the intended audience - the self or God? Tsentourou plans to relate this to closet drama, and I'll be extremely interested to see where this work takes her. The idea of private performativity is, it seems, sorely under-explored.

My own panel on "Staging Exclusion" drew a small but extremely generous audience. My paper, as you might expect, dealt with textual exclusions, focussing on the 1610 additions Mucedorus; first arguing for the role of the additions in reshaping the play as an old-fashioned romance in order to distinguish it from the new tragicomedy, particularly muting the "surprise ending" of the original; and then following through the implications of Mucedorus's perceived identity for his actions throughout the play, especially those dealing with Bremo, the wild man of the woods. I think, unintentionally, I also sold the play as a great piece of theatre! I was preceded by Richard Chamberlain, previewing his new book on Shakespeare's "refusers" - the characters who refuse to "play" and exempt themselves from amity and conviviality in deliberately disruptive and discomfitting ways. The really innovative thing about Chamberlain's work is seeing these characters, not as exceptiosn to a general rule of concord, but as key to an understanding of the plays' larger conceptions of community. Focussing on Troilus and Cressida, Thersites and Achilles were offered as two types of refuser: the active and the passive. Achilles' refusal to participate, and the destruction wrought by it, makes him one of the most powerful "refusers" in the canon. Louise Denmead, meanwhile, attended to plays I'm far less familiar with (Fletcher's The Knight of Malta and Monsieur Thomas, Massinger's The Parliament of Love and Brome's The English Moore) to highlight the discourses surrounding black maids. These characters are treated as licentious, in control of their own sexual identities and frequently (intended) substitutes in bed-tricks. The fear of the other, and their degradation as sexually available and immoral, contributes to a subset of intersecting discourses that become embodied in the black, female body. I was disturbed, listening to Denmead's paper, to think how endemic this has become to the point where white characters who fulfil similar functions - Emilia and Bianca, Diana in All's Well, Margaret in Much Ado - are frequently played by black actors on the modern stage.

The really great thing about the day, though, was that it was one of the friendliest small conferences I've been to, decamping to the pub immediately after the last panel and allowing breaks to run over in order that we could continue the ongoing discussions; and due to that, I got a great deal more out of it than I could have expected. Lovely to finally visit Portsmouth, great to meet so many interesting people, and I'm now feeling newly inspired and confident to rebuild the relevant section of my chapter.


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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