Category Archives: Conference

La Haine du Théâtre

I spent three very enjoyable days at the Sorbonne last week at a conference held as part of the Haine du théâtre (The Hatred of the Theatre) project. I was going to write up my thoughts immediately afterwards, but than came down with some horrible digestive disease, hence this delayed and probably less accurate account.

Summing up three days and over thirty papers isn’t really possible. So I’ll divide this post into three sections. First, a passage on some of the most interesting points I heard over the course of the event. Second, a few observations of my own about theatre-hating. Third, a general conclusion about speaking and listening at conferences. Continue reading La Haine du Théâtre

Missed Chances

Prospero and Ariel with Miranda sleeping, by William Hamilton (1797)

Again, I’m going to start this blog-post with an apology. My latest lack of publications is the result of devoting all my spare time and energy to the writing of a great many applications for post-doctoral positions. Those same applications have, however, inspired this little text, so it’s not all bad news.

I want to write today about three kinds of missed opportunities. The topic came to me when I discovered that, by waiting till late August to start applying for jobs, I had already missed three or four Junior Research Fellowship deadlines in Oxford and Cambridge. I’ll be quicker on my toes next year, as my efforts in this cycle, running parallel to the writing up of my thesis, are very much a test run. Along with these missed deadlines, there was also one post advertised at Hertford College, Oxford, which – sadly – starts in January 2015, just 6 or 8 months too early for me. The job was a combined research fellowship / outreach officer position, which (no false modesty here) I would have been perfect for. Whichever lucky person does get in this year will stay until 2018, so there’s no hope for me. Continue reading Missed Chances

A Stirling Conference (III)

This wil be my last post, and will be just as egocentric as the last two. It will also deal with plenaries. Following on from de Grazia, the next eminent scholar to speak was Colin Burrow of All Souls, Oxford (charmingly mis-titled, All Scouts’ College). He spoke on ‘Shakespeare’s Authorities’, and made five “crazy” (his word) claims, which the audience, I’m sure, all believed by the end of his ninety-minute session.

  1. We should talk of Shakespeare’s authorities, not Shakespeare’s sources.
  2. The distinction between narrative and non-narrative sources is useless.
  3. Plays can be seen as an ‘argument’ of interacting authorities.
  4. Some of Shakespeare’s authorities were in Latin.
  5. Textual authorities often cluster around other moments of authority.

In terms of pure technique, it is interesting to note that Burrow, like de Grazia, also operated by elaborating the ramifications of a change in terms: ‘modernisms’ replaced ‘anachronisms’ earlier, and now ‘authorities’ replace ‘sources’.

It was only as I was going over my notes from this session that something very useful for my own work emerged from Burrow’s fifth bullet point. His idea that textual authorities cluster around moments of authority might make for an interesting way of thinking about adaptations of Shakespeare. Burrow’s point is best illustrated by his observation that it was common in Shakespeare’s time to multiply references to other texts as a way of multiplying the emotional impact of a specific moment. Hence we find lots of instances where Lear half-remembers Seneca’s De Irae or De Beneficiis; or Hamlet Thyestes.

Now, it is an idea of mine that adaptation of Shakesepare in the eighteenth century paid particular attention to the creation of powerful moments of emotional transition. Just as in Shakespeare’s time, moments of emotional intensity give rise to battlegrounds of textual authority. Of course, many adapters simplify Shakespeare into sentimental caricature and so eliminate his polyphonous use of other texts, but sometimes, those adapters also turn to authorities of their own, be they textual or, perhaps more commonly, performance. Garrick inserts an emotional climax to Macbeth, a scene where he, as the hero, would die on stage, and this insertion represents a conjunction of theatrical, physical, performance authority and emotional intensity.

I realise that I have wandered far from Colin Burrow’s original ideas here, but this is the fun of such things. It is also, I suppose, a sign that I should bring this series to an end. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

A Stirling Conference (II)

Let me continue the tale of my Scottish exploits with a few words about my own panel. A four-person monstrosity wedged into a ninety-minute slot, where the usual frictions of spoken communication resulted in our running over into the break, to the point that there was only space for three questions, two of them to me, which I fielded as rapidly as I could. Thankfully, there was plenty of time to talk to people about things afterwards.

It was in one of these brief conversations that I got, for example, a little piece of insight that solved a problem with my own paper. You see, I was keen to draw a distinction between actors pre-Garrick and Garrick himself: the latter tried to draw (and were seen as drawing) a line of apostolic succession back to Shakespeare; Garrick, however, acting in a completely new way, cast himself not as the great poet’s grandson but his twin, or, even, his second coming. The problem with this distinction, however, is a bit by Rowe about Betterton, where he suggests that this actor had a direct line to Shakespeare. Thankfully, the solution lay elsewhere in Rowe’s preface, as Margreta de Grazia kindly reminded me that Rowe is keen to emphasise how important Betterton’s historical research in Stratford was to his biography. The portrait of Betterton as antiquarian, trying to capture and connect to the legacy of Shakespeare still present in Warwickshire, places him in a much better place for the apostle / resurrection distinction I want.

Another little moment of enlightenment actually occurred in the frantic course of our panel. First up was Andrew Rudd, who gave a very entertaining (and, as was my lot, difficult to follow) account of John Soane’s use of Shakespeare. I won’t detail his argument here, but will say how struck I was by his list of moments when Soane discovers passages of a technical value in Shakespeare’s oeuvre: there are lines in Cymbeline describing the best possible front door; act 5 of The Winter’s Tale gives, unsurprisingly, excellent instructions to the sculptor, and Troilus and Cressida is filled with good advice for the aspiring student of the beaux arts. This employment of Shakespeare’s language fits with something I myself have found in acting manuals (and elsewhere), and can be summarised as the belief that this writer, as well as producing excellent plays, may also furnish us with specific, useful, technical knowledge (be it the height of a door or the best way of striking a pose of fear). This view of Shakespeare frees him from an antitheatrical criticism of art’s uselessness that goes back as far as Plato’s Ion, when the poor rhapsode is asked whether he needs to know about charioteering in order to descant on it.

I can’t do more with this point about language for now, but it does give me a useful weapon for when I return to what I have been calling chapter two. This is currently written as an end-of-year piece of 15 000 words, and will need some manipulation before it can become a part of the PhD.

It may well also need more such moments of insight and illumination, the kind of catalysis that only occurs in a good conference, and which this event had in spades. Enough at least, for one more blog post…

A Stirling Conference (I)

I’ve just got back from the biannual meeting of the British Shakespeare Association (BSA) in Stirling, just outside Edinburgh. Hence the pun in my title, which even the Bard would blush at, despite its accuracy as a description of what was an immensely enjoyable few days in the beautiful scenery and agreeable warmth of a soft Scottish summer.

To be fair, the BSA was always going to appeal to me, as their organisation is founded on three pillars that I, too, try to include in my work as much as I can: teaching Shakespeare, researching Shakespeare, and performing Shakespeare. I’ve even applied for a job as their webmaster, although the competition looks to be pretty stiff, as there were many keen postgraduates and early-career researchers at the conference – one thing, which, as the organisers pointed out, bodes well for the future growth of the association.

I could go on for a long time about each of the eleven sessions I attended, but prefer rather to focus on the highlights. There are still many (more than a single post’s worth) of these, and only a very small number of weak papers. Of course, my opinions are extremely subjective: as any reader will soon see, my interest in a paper correlates directly to that research’s utility for my own work, and it will be no surprise therefore that one highlight of the conference was my own panel.

With my confession of egocentrism made, I can now begin with the event’s first plenary session, a lecture given by Margreta de Grazia and entitled ‘Shakesepare’s First Anachronism’. As someone who had just given a paper on Malone’s cataloguing of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, I was immediately interested. De Grazia’s paper taught me a great deal: in many respects, are arguments were similar, but her work was both more wide-ranging (running the length of the eighteenth century, from Rowe to Malone, via Betterton and Garrick) and more focussed (concluding with a very compelling reading of Troilus and Cressida as a play written in a proto-antiquity). I’ll have to try and be more like this when I speak and write.

De Grazia’s trifold argument – that there was no anachronism before chronology, no out-of-period before in-period, and that the characters of Troilus and Cressida grope towards a future philosophy beyond their reach – contained the wonderfully pithy observation that Shakespeare’s anachronisms are, in fact, modernisms. That is to say, they represents Shakespeare’s updating of his material to engage with his audience. This got me thinking, for – while undoubtedly right – this reading institutes a particular paradigm of performance, one where the playwright reaches out to his public.

Yet there is another paradigm for appreciating plays (on stage and page), and that is the absorbtion of the reader or spectator into the world of the play. The reader dives in, rather than the author reaching out. This paradigm of performance is, like the critical paradigm of periodisation, is also extremely sensitive to modernisms/anachronisms, since they wake the reader from Shakespeare’s supposedly superlative dramatic illusion, from the believable, truly natural world that he has created.

Of course, this doesn’t alter the fundamentals of de Grazia’s argument, but rather extends them. Her points about periodisation are paralleled in theories of how imaginative engagement with Shakesepare is understood. ‘Anachronism’ is identifiable either as the product of Shakespeare’s (or others’) imposition of modernisms to connect with an audience, or as that which jolts that audience from a complete theatrical world.

As you might be able to tell from the above, my thoughts still haven’t settled down and become sufficiently clear yet. This will be a running theme in these posts, endings which can – I’m sorry – only leave the reader hanging.

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.