Category Archives: Musing

Queen and My Thesis

This idea for a post came to me during a run. Around the twelfth kilometre, as the endorphins were kicking in and the village of Coton disappearing behind me, Queen’s 1991 hit, The Show Must Go On came up on my playlist, and it struck me that the lyrics of the song – recounting Freddie Mercury’s efforts to perform even as he died from AIDS – were susceptible to a reading in light of some of my recent thinking about theories of performance and actors. Here is the original music video, followed by a mix of my analysis and the words sung by Mercury, apparently recorded – much to the surprise of a concerned Brian May – in a single take after a large swig of vodka and the exclamation, “I’ll fucking do it, darling!”

Click on the picture to see the video (Hypotheses does not allow iframes apparently)

Empty spaces, what are we living for?
Abandoned places, I guess we know the score;
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero, another mindless crime;
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime;
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?

This opening question, asked over a subdued synth line whose repetitions and tempo help to build anticipation, is open to several readings. Who are “we”? On one level, “we” designates the performers, asking why they do what they do, over and over again. On another, “we” is much more inclusive, and covers everyone, performer and audience, asking, essentially, for nothing less than the meaning of life. Both readings of this are possible because of the long-held tradition that “all the world’s a stage” – Totus mundus agit histrionem, as they carved into Shakespeare’s Globe. It is a tradition that offers several possibilities: that the performer can represent real experience, that real experience can be explored through performance, and, most importantly of all, that there exists the potential for a deep, even personal connection between what is performed and what is lived.

What are the “empty spaces”, the “abandoned places”? The rhyme connects them, and I can see two interpretations. First, they designate the theatre and (by building on the ‘world as stage’ metaphor) the world of everyday experience as well. In both cases, these arenas are denigrated, called “empty” and “abandoned”: the magic, we are given to understand, happens elsewhere. This is something Diderot would have approved of, since his Paradoxe sur le Comédien argues that true imaginative construction occurs during the performer’s preparation, and all that occurs in front of an audience is the empty, mechanical execution of predetermined plan. The second interpretation of the “empty spaces”, however, sits in tension with this, and generates the pathos of the opening: the “empty spaces” and, especially, the “abandoned places” represent the performer’s view of his world, and thus express a deep melancholy in line with such existential questions as “What are we living for?” The theatre (and the world) only *seem* abandoned because of the performer’s emotional state. In the official video, Mercury sings these lines as we see images of screaming crowds or elaborate stagesets, in other words, very full and certainly not abandoned places: the emptiness and abandonment are within.

Diderot famously proposed that the best performers were the least feeling, coldly executing outward displays of emotion constructed from memories. What The Show Must Go On registers, however, is something more primitive: the desire to know what lies behind performance, the desire to lift the curtain. This gives us such lines as the couplet “Another hero, another mindless crime; / Behind the curtain, in the pantomime”, again rich with melancholy, and crucially indeterminate as to whether it is describing the content of the show or the real life experience of the actor. We can lift the curtain because all that lies behind it is another kind of show. The “pantomime” is both “behind the curtain” and in front of it: everything is a performance, so one can be a spectator of real life as much as the show, albeit at the price of abandoning the idea of an authentic, non-performed, ‘natural’ self, and opening oneself to the grim thought of Macbeth, “life’s a poor player.” When the verse asks its third question – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – the ambiguities of “we” are stated more forcefully: this is not just “any” performer, but “anybody” whatsoever. The show is everywhere, and we are caught up in it.

This explains the force of the chorus:

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah!
Inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on.

There is no explanation for why the show must go on, just the articulation of a desire to keep going. This becomes even more powerful as the song continues. As before, the lyrics let us into the personal side of the performer, and draw their pathos from the disjunction between external signs and internal emotions. As Hamlet puts it, he has “that within which passeth show”. Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner, commented that the lines “My make-up may be flaking / But my smile stays on” were the most potently autobiographical line of the song. As well as this, they are amongst the most powerful because they break the image of outwardly-brilliant and internally-suffering performer by suggesting that, tragically, the hidden state of the showman can no longer be fully kept from those around him. The illusion is failing, and soon there will be no more curtain left to lift.

Such urgency propels us into the desperate logic of the next verse.

Whatever happens, I’ll leave it all to chance;
Another heartache, another failed romance;
On and on, does anybody know what we are living for?
I guess I’m learning (I’m learning, learning, learning…)
I must be warmer now:
I’ll soon be turning (turning turning turning…)
Round the corner now.
Outside the dawn is breaking,
But inside in the dark I’m aching to be free.

Here, the resignation of leaving “all to chance” is mixed with a variation on the “another hero, another mindless crime” lines from before. Again, the “heartache” and the “failed romance” are either the contents of a show or the realities of the performer’s life (or both). Yet, pairing these events with such resignation offers a more subtle response, one that fully recognises the flaws of the previous desire to “hold the line”. The simple statement, “I guess I’m learning now” draws on what Diderot saw as the irrefutable proof of the actor’s power over himself during performance, the ability to modify it according to on-stage circumstance (a dropped object, a missing prop, etc.). A limited version of this self-consciousness, made possible by the resignation of the opening line, is present in these lyrics. The singer may not know what’s coming, but he knows where he is, and can see a little in front: he knows he should be “warmer”, that he’ll “soon be turning”, that a new day “is breaking”. And yet, the final line reveals how double-edged such consciousness proves to be: the performer knows above all that he is “aching to be free”. Before, the problem was expressed in a general – “does anybody want to take it any more?” – now things are more personal. The response, however, remains irrational, potent, and rich with emotion.

The show must go on!
The show must go on! yeah yeah!
Ooh, inside my heart is breaking,
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on

Yeah yeah, whoa wo oh oh!

This brings us – with a key change – to the final section of the song.

My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies,
Fairytales of yesterday will grow but never die:
I can fly, my friends!

The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…) yeah yeah!
The show must go on! (go on, go on, go on…)
I’ll face it with a grin!
I’m never giving in!
On, with the show!

Ooh, I’ll top the bill, I’ll overkill,
I have to find the will to carry on,
On with the show…
On with the show!
The show, the show must go on…
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on, go on, go on, go on
Go on, go on…

If we moved from the general (“does anybody want to take it any more?”) to the personal (“I’m aching to be free”), we now step even deeper into the performer’s own internal pantomime, the show within the show, where even the “soul” is “painted”. This is, in my view, the richest line of the entire song: “My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies” not only marks the deepest point of the descent into the performer, it also reaches out the furthest. We could go back, for example, to Ancient Greece, and the way that the word psyche meant both “butterfly” and “soul”, which suggests the tautology that “my soul is painted with the wings of [souls]”, i.e. that performance is what the performer is, right down to his core. Alternatively, we could remember that once a butterfly’s wings emerge it only has a short time to live; or, to evoke menace in a different way, it shouldn’t be forgotten either that a butterfly’s wings often act as camouflage from predators. If I wanted to bring all these different threads together, I suppose the best bet would be something like the idea that by accepting performance, by performing at every level of his being (from painted face to painted soul), the performer may not live long but will also stand a chance at escaping oblivion. Such a reading seems to be confirmed by, first, the next line’s “fairytales of yesterday will grow old but never die”, and, second, the surge of exclamations beginning with “I can fly my friends!”

In the final seconds of the song, the main vocal line stops, and we hear only the repetition of “go on”. In a way, this is apt: finishing on a bang would not be appropriate for a song that is about both decline and artistic survival; further, though, the disappearance of the main vocals makes for an extremely haunting conclusion. So late in the track, the listener is deeply involved with the main singer, having been led to step over the barriers between internal and external that Diderot anatomised. When this presence vanishes, we are left with a doubt: for a little over four minutes, we have been plunged into a life where everything appears a show, both within and without; when we hear that ‘the show must go on’, we now understand that the show must go on because the show is everything and everything the show; and yet, hearing the faint “go on”, we know that such an aspiration can never be realised as fully as we would want it to. The show must end.

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

Anne Barton and My Thesis

I came across Anne Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play on a nicely named ‘local interest’ shelf at the Chaucer Head bookshop, Stratford-upon-Avon. The title immediately leapt out at me, as it offered a way of formulating my own thoughts on Shakespeare and drama in the eighteenth-century: the phrase ‘the idea of’ neatly allows Barton to both talk about concrete realities of the stage and the metaphorical uses of such realities, something I’d very much like to do in my own research. Turning the book over to look at the blurb, I noted that this book started life as Barton’s thesis, something at once encouraging (a real book may come of a thesis on Shakespeare and the stage) and frightening (this thesis book was not only published in 1962, but then reissued into this Penguin Shakespeare Library edition five years later, presumably because of its popularity). Needless to say, I bought the slim volume for £3.75 (it was originally five shillings), eager to find out what Barton had to say, but also how she says it, given the similarity of our interests, if not of our time periods.

Barton’s approch is impressive. She divides the book into two halves, the first offering an insightful description of how plays from the thirteenth century to the mid-1500s speak about the nature of plays themselves. A lot of this section is to do with audiences, how they were first deeply implicated in the religious blend of drama and ceremony of medieval texts, before shifting to be represented by a ‘double’, the ‘Mankind’ or ‘Everyman’ of morality plays. The over-arching theme becomes the question of how the audience is excluded or included in the world of the play, with Elizabethan drama reaching the precarious equilibrium whereby the ‘play world’ excludes the audience at the same time as recognising its presence. A typical paragraph from this half of the book, stunning in the breadth of knowledge that must underwrite all such apparently simple description, merits quotation.

Half ceremonial, half drama, the guild plays which developed outside the Church were poised precariously between ritual and art. The people who crowded about the pageant on the feast of Corpus Christi formed an audience, certainly, but an audience actively involved in the performance of a community rite, a re-accomplishment of sacred history. By the fifteenth century, the special demands of the Morality form had produced an alteration in this relationship of actors and audience. The audience now depended upon a double, in the form of the central character for its part in the action. It was granted a second role as well, that of enlightened Mankind, which permitted it a greater measure of distance from the events of the play. Gradually, the spectators assumed possession of reality, while the world of the stage dwindled. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the tradition of the audience as actor became more a hindrance than an asset.

Once she has brought the narrative up to the dawn of Shakespeare’s time, Barton closes the first half and devotes the rest of the book to a close reading of Shakespeare’s use of ‘the idea of the play’. This remains more or less chronological, allowing her to trace Shakespeare’s artistic debts and innovations, as well as his development. Beginning with the early comedies, she then analyses the motif of the ‘player king’ (very much a Shakespearean innovation, albeit connected to such ancient tropes as the ‘May King’) before tackling Hamlet and Julius Caesar as the apogee of Shakespeare’s confidence in the power of the stage. Next she identifies a decline in such confidence, with unflattering portraits of players and audiences in Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and more. This then gives way to a new approach in the ‘romances’, particularly The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, where illusion tends to become reality: Perdita, for example, plays the role of a queen at the shepherds’ festivities, only to be discovered an actual princess a few scenes later. This point about the ‘romances’ is very similar to one made by Barton at greater length in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, which I discovered as an undergraduate.

The final few pages describe the way in which Shakespeare’s late plays break down the barriers and subterranean connections between stage and reality, notably in Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech. This sweeping away leads directly into the Jacobean fondness for masques, whose involvement of audience and actors in a mix of drama and ceremony brings us almost full circle, back to a secular version of the medieval plays Barton began with. Such a relation between plays and reality destroys the fragile and productive equilibrium of Shakespeare’s stage, meaning that this aspect of the golden age of British play-writing, even before the closure of the theatres in 1642, was “gone beyond recall”.

What did I learn from Barton’s methods? First, that despite the title’s emphasis on ‘Shakespeare’, she is not shackled to the bard, and her book is all the better for being about more than just William. In my own work, I should also be prepared to dive into the prehistory of each area before examining Shakespeare’s place within it: the French sources of English acting manuals, or the methods of classical scholarship that informed the editing of Shakespeare.

The book in question, Anne Barton being Anne Righter before marriage.

Second, the organisation of this book in chronological order, paired with a division into two parts, each with their own chapters and sub-chapters, makes this text very easy to read, with a clear sense of one’s position in the argument. Part 1, Chapter 1, Sub-section 3 is on early drama, specifically mystery cycles and morality plays, and even more specifically on the ‘tyranny of the audience’ over how things could be represented. Such organisation is again testament to Barton’s formidable command of her material, but also an awareness of the needs of an academic reader of any level. If I can, I would like to bring some chronological organisation to my work, although (given my current skeleton) this will be at a chapter and not at a thesis-wide level. Similarly, I will certainly need to break chapters down into subsections, not just for my own sanity but also to provide a logical and clear map to any reader.

Last, but not least, I enjoyed Barton’s willingness to let the texts speak for themselves. She quotes a great deal, and lets what she means by ‘the idea of the play’ emerge naturally as something multifarious and constantly evolving. In part, this is because other elements of her study are very clearly defined: she sticks closely to theatrical texts, with only brief sallies into Plato, Francis Bacon and other prose thinkers. In the Shakespeare section, she focuses all her attention on the text, avoiding discussion of staging or other theatrical conventions unless they are built into what Shakespeare wrote. There is nothing here on collaboration, for example. I suppose the lesson here involves what one must sacrifice to get a coherent narrative, the importance of something stable (i.e. the focus on the playtext) in the telling of a complex narrative. As things stand with my thesis, I suspect that I still have too many moving parts: potential simplifications could involve the concentration on the figure of the ‘Shakespearean Actor’, removing anything on ‘dramatic illusion’ unless directly relevant.

As well as all this thought about the ‘how’ of Barton’s book, I also picked up some useful ‘what’. I’ll summarise it here in a few bullet-point observations with no particular order:

  1. The eighteenth-century interest in the connection between actor and dramatist (Garrick being seen as Shakespeare’s double) pulls against what Barton identifies as a tendency in Elizabethan drama to connect dramatist and audience. That said, Prospero is both actor in and dramatist of his own world, proving Shakespeare’s own evolution.
  2. Shakespeare was very unusual amongst his contemporaries for rarely including references to contemporary theatrical conditions. I guess this made him “not for an age, but for all time”…
  3. Many of the plays Elizabeth Montague discusses in her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare are grouped by Barton as evidence of Shakespeare’s most unique responses to the idea of the play: the player king in the histories, Brutus and Cassius’ descriptions of themselves as actors, and Hamlet’s use of illusion as a weapon.

Points one and three fit into a chapter on dramatic illusion, while point two doesn’t yet have a home unless it be the introduction. Whether I use the material or not, Barton’s book has already taught me a lot.