Syncopation

I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I went to a seminar on Stein’s idea of ‘syncopation’ in her essay ‘Plays’, and have decided to do it now, even if my memory of what happened is fast fading. Actually, the question of the temporality of response is one that fascinates Stein, so perhaps it’s for the better that I come to give my own response to her at a potentially problematic juncture.

Stein’s essay, for those who don’t know, is interesting in that it proposes the idea of ‘syncopation’ as a way of understanding the experience of a spectator at a play. Stein writes,

Your sensation as one in the audience in relation to the play played before you your sensation I say your emotion concerning that play is always either behind or ahead of the play at which you are looking and to which you are listening. So your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play.

I quote at length here to give you a sense of Stein’s own unique way of writing. In some respects this helps her argument, as it demands an unusual attentiveness from the reader. The key, and hard to miss, point here is that audience response is syncopated with respect to the performance, which is to say, “your emotion as a member of the audience is never going on at the same time as the action of the play”. Such a situation is what, according to Stein, “makes one endlessly troubled about a play”. For while excitement in real life occurs when “people … whom you know behave unexpectedly”, our limited knowledge of those characters we see on a stage prevents familiarity and so causes disquiet. Similarly, while real life provides the “completion of excitement”, the theatre simply allows “relief from excitement”. Behind all this is the larger idea that the stage is out of the audience’s control, so that they are always trying to catch up with it.

Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906
I don’t want to summarise this essay in too much detail, as it very much deserves to be read in its own right. I just want to finish this post with a few of my own comments on Stein’s idea of ‘syncopation’. First, I was struck by the way Stein’s essay reaches out into other disciplines for language to describe its aims. Music theory gives her ‘syncopation’, but later sections concerning how Stein herself managed the audience’s engagement with a play she wrote talk of “portraits” arranged in a network to create the effect of a “landscape”. Such a spatial model seems designed to resist syncopated responses. These words might also be indicative of the influence of Cubism on Stein’s dramaturgy, or it may simply be a case that Stein’s insights, like so many others’, depend on the importing of one discipline’s theoretical standpoints into another’s.

A second observation about syncopation is the question of whether the actor is as syncopated as the audience member. If the spectator is always trying to catch up, isn’t the actor (if they are not totally lost in the emotions of performance) always trying to prepare for the next line, the next move? Of course, this kind of syncopation, on the modern stage, can be extremely productive: ‘total theatre’ may try and drown out such syncopation on the part of the actors, while Brechtian performance will draw our attention to such tensions as part of its verfremdungseffekt.

I just imagine now the ideal version of a play (as far as such a thing is possible) as a line, a wave moving through time, and with the audience a little behind and the actors a little ahead. Yet the beat is and must be, I guess, always evident. I’ll leave you with that image.

Editors and Actors: Malone

This is the final, brief and incomplete summary of an editor whose works I am studying for the first chapter of my thesis. It’s taken me a long time to get here, Malone’s 1790 edition of The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, since setting out from a summary of Rowe‘s attitudes to actors I made back in Winter 2013. Of all the editions I’ve looked at, Malone’s was also the most challenging: it runs to 11 volumes, and incorporates a wealth of material: not just Malone’s comments and emendations but also those of many of his predecessors, several critical essays, and a great many reproductions of Malone’s sources. Having gone through it all, and produced what LibreOffice tells me is 13 632 words of notes, I can now write this post.

Perhaps the key word when talking about Malone’s approach is ‘historical’: unlike Pope or other early critics, his goal is to “restore” Shakespeare’s works to the condition they were in when they were first created. For this reason, Malone (with apologies) will keep Mercutio’s lines about a “Poperin pear”, the indecorous use of “grunt” in Hamlet, and more, for even if they are offensive to late eighteenth-century readers, they were not offensive to Shakespeare’s original audiences. Shakespeare was of a time, and editorial efforts to refine the playwright into something that suits the taste of another age are misguided, and should be replaced by a method which aims “to support and establish what the poet wrote, to illustrate the phraseology by comparing it with that of his contemporaries, and to explain the fugitive allusions to customs long since disused and forgotten”.

Of course, this is not so straightforward as Malone makes it sound. One peculiar result of insisting on Shakespeare’s historicity is that this edition also puts great weight on the way Shakespeare tends to make all periods resemble his own. Thus characters who could not know the Elizabethan terms for deer hunting use them in Henry IV part II, Coriolanus uses the technical language of Shakespeare’s stage, Caliban knows about the motley worn by fools, and so on. Malone’s observation of anachronisms (or, perhaps better named as ‘jacobo-elizabethanisms’) occurs throughout his notes, and runs counter to an argument made by people like Elizabeth Montague, who held that Shakespeare creates such convincing dramatic illusions as to carry us back to Rome or Henrician England. Instead, Malone is actually much closer to a criticism levelled by English critics at writers like Corneille and Racine, who were accused of Frenchifying everything they wrote about. What separates Malone, however, is that Shakespeare’s way of seeing his subjects through the language and traditions of his time is not a flaw, but rather something integral to his genius and so requiring explanation from the editor.

Edmund Malone, by Joshua Reynolds (1786)

Malone’s efforts to historicise Shakespeare govern his edition’s attitude towards actors. In all the notes, only one actor from the eighteenth century is mentioned: Garrick, whose name appears at the end of Romeo and Juliet in a note pointing out that his adaptation of the work continues a tradition, begun by Otway, of rewriting the tomb scene so that the lovers have a final kiss. In the prefatory materials, Malone provides an ‘Historical Acount of the Stage’, which, as its name would indicate, devotes a great deal of space to the conditions of Shakespeare’s own theatres and acting troupes, finishing only with a brief section on the limited performance of Shakespeare in the period 1616-1741 (i.e. from Shakespeare’s death to Garrick’s first appearance on the stage). Even with such an emphasis on reconstructing the past, Malone does make some interesting points about Shakespeare and actors. He suggests, for example, that Shakespeare may have been a better actor than we give him credit for (although, of course, he was far superior as an author), and – in the odd note here and there – makes the case for Shakespeare’s experience as a man of the theatre influencing his language and choice of incidents. Similarly, his deeper understanding of the historical stage allows him to refute those criticisms levelled at actors since Pope. For instance, most textual corruption is, for Malone, the result of scribal error or restrictions opposed on the stage by the Master of Revels, rather than the corrupting influence of the actors.

Unfortunately, one other side effect of Malone’s clearer understanding of what the stage was like is that it closes down the amount of conjecture and reflection he makes with reference to performance. Whereas Theobald might try and imagine a performance in order to guess at Shakespeare’s decisions, Malone avoids all this. This is clearest when glossing the line “That from her working, all his visage wann’d”, used to describe one of the players in Hamlet. Here, Malone reprints the ideas of previous editors, who argue about whether an actor might be capable of changing his skin tone when in the grip of an emotional performance, but then dismisses this question as “unnecessary to inquire”, preferring to use internal textual evidence from Shakespeare’s oeuvre to prove that the playwright “thought he could”. The real concern, for Malone, is not whether Shakespeare was right about what happened on stage (and thus whether he should be corrected so as to be right about it), but rather if Shakespeare’s opinion can be construed from his other works, regardless of whether his observation fits what actually occurs in a performer.

It is because of examples like this that Malone is my last editor. His historical and historicising approach to Shakespeare’s text represents the end of the figure of the actor as a various and suggestive tool for thinking about Shakespeare, and instead makes performance, along with legal history, old slang, disused customs and more, just another aspect of those historical conditions so necessary to restoring Shakespeare back to his original condition.

Charity and the end of an actress

Not too long ago, I took my family to the Ashmolean in Oxford, where I stumbled upon this remarkable painting (click to enlarge).

linleyCharity

Joshua Reynolds painted this image of Elizabeth Linley as Charity as part of a 1777 commission to provide designs for new glass in the chapel of New College, Oxford. This painting, only ever meant as a model, was never brought to completion, but I find that it makes its beauty all the more haunting. Indeed, until you recognise the characteristic glow of Reynold’s style, you might mistake this piece for something from the nineteenth century, and not the last quarter of the eighteenth.

Reynold’s model was a famous beauty of the eighteenth century, who is now known mainly for being the wife of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The playwright actually eloped with her to France in 1772, but as she was still only seventeen, their marriage was invalid. Upon their return Sheridan fought a duel to defend his fiancée’s honour, and Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Linley, eventually relented and allowed the couple to marry.

As was not uncommon for the time, Sheridan married Elizabeth on the condition that she stopped performing on the stage, ending a career that had begun at the age of 12. Married at the age of eighteen, Elizabeth suffered many miscarriages, gave birth to a son and then died of tuberculosis at thirty-eight. Portraits of her hang in Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and, of course, the Ashmolean.

Even though Reynold’s died before completing the New College commission, Thomas Jervais finished the job. With some spare time in the city, I took a trip to the look at his handiwork, hoping to see what remains an unusual piece: a child-actress and great beauty of the stage, forced out of the public eye and then immortalised as Charity in the stained glass of an Oxford chapel. I was disappointed, though. There is little of Linley in this (click to enlarge):

WindowCharity

All of which makes the Reynold’s painting, with its classical allusions and use of contrapposto, all the more unique. I am over-romanticising here, but can’t help but compare Reynold’s unrealised sketch to Linley’s unrealised promise.

The Lion

One reason why this blog has become a bit less regular of late is that I am supervising this term. That said, supervising students this term is also one reason for me to discover and rediscover a lot of new material for this blog. Hence this post, which is born out of a little seminar I did on Addison’s contributions to The Spectator. As undergraduates here in Cambridge are all absurdly busy, I felt that I could only set nine essays, eventually settling on numbers 1 (Mr Spectator), 9 (Clubs), 13 (The Lion), 16 (Charging whole armies only), 19 (The Envious Man), 25 (Letter from a Valetudinarian), 57 (Political Zeal in Women), and 93 (Filling the Empty Spaces of Life). There are some big holes here, notably the sequence on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ (numbers 411-421), so do feel free to post comments on any of your favourites I also left out. I’m sure there’s much I’m still to find.

A real stage lion, uploaded by a brave Flickr user.
This post, as its title indicates, is about Spectator number 13, published Thursday 15th March, 1711 with the epigraph from Martial: “Dic mihi si fueras tu Leo qualis eris?” – ‘Tell me, if you were a lion what kind would you be?’ The article tells the story behind a scene in the opera L’Idapse fedele which had come to fascinate the town by portraying a battle between the work’s hero and a lion. Despite the (no doubt profitable) rumours, the performer Mr Nicolini was not going toe-to-toe with a real lion, but rather someone in a lion’s outfit. Mr Spectator then relates that three different people played the lion. First, a “candle-snuffer, who being a fellow of a testy, cholerick temper over-did his part, and would not suffer himself to be killed so easily as he ought to have done.” Unsurprisingly, this man was soon replaced with a tailor, who “was too sheepish”, and even if “he once gave [his adversary] a rip in his flesh-coloured doublet, … this was only to make work for himself in his private character of tailor.” The final lion is a “country gentleman” who, completely disinterested, “indulges an innocent pleasure” by participating in the opera and has “drawn greater audiences than have been known in the memory of man.”

There’s much to comment on in this article about the stage-lion, not least the emphasis that it, like many Spectator essays, puts on the benefits of disinterestedness. What I want to pick out, though, is the peculiar belief that the character or temper of these actors becomes evident when they play the part of the lion. Surely the tailor could have made more of an effort, the gentleman grown frustrated or the candle-snuffer controlled himself. But they don’t, nor is it suggested that they might. Rather, each of the three men performs according to their own temperament, and so playing the role of the lion allows the clear-eyed Mr Spectator an opportunity to observe the nature of each man’s emotional constitution. This leads to a larger point. If actors act according to their own character (what this story, and much other writing from the period implies), then putting on a role is not so much a disguise as a moment of revealing what you are like. The country gentleman does not stop being gentlemanly as a lion, and indeed his gentlemanly disinterestedness shines through all the more when he is on the stage and concerned with doing simply what is right for the performance.

The idea that playing a role reveals something about who you are is not too counter-logical once you start to question the limits of dramatic illusion in the wider experience of the theatre. After all, our instincts tend to lead us this way anyway. I was shocked to learn, many years ago, that David Tennant was Scottish, having only seen him perform roles in RP; and Matt Damon’s performance as an anxious father in Contagion made me question what his other action-hero parts had given me as a mental image of his ‘real’ character. But all this confusion between an actor’s ‘public face’ (the aggregate of all their roles and other appearances in the public eye) and their ‘private face’ (how they are amongst intimates) is a bit beyond the scope of Addison’s essay, which is making the simpler claim that any actor who acts on feeling must necessarily reveal some of that feeling on the stage.

There’s no clear modern parallel to that. I like to think, though, that an actor, late in his or her career might relish the opportunity to look back over all the roles they’ve played and trace amongst the vagaries of casting decisions the contours of their changing self. To quote T.S. Eliot, some might even realise that:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…