Walking to a chair

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to participate in a read-through of the text that the RSC will be using for their production of Arden of Faversham later this year. The play, printed in 1592, tells of the various attempts made by Alice to kill her husband Arden so that she can be with her lover Mosby. Ultimately, she succeeds, but not after many bungled attempts by (among others) the brigands Shakebag and Black Will, a painter who claims to make pictures that kill all who look on them, and Alice herself. The various twists and turns of the plot take us from Faversham in Kent to London and back again, and at each step reveal more and more of the deeper problems in the play: the lover Mosby resents being treated as a social climber, Arden receives a grant of land but is blind to the suffering his good fortune causes, and Alice, for all her importance in the plot of the play, seems out of place in a world dominated by men.

The first quarto edition of Arden of Faversham, from 1592.
In order to make the most of the reading, the director and dramaturg lined up twelve chairs in a row in front of the audience’s seats. Everyone then sat down looking at these empty chairs, but would rise whenever they were meant to be on stage and go occupy one of them. This gave a sense of how much traffic there would be coming on and going off at different times, as well as how much the audience would get to see of characters who said little.

I was reading Mosby, which meant quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, but still left time to observe the other readers. There was lots to see, for even though we were all reading, and had only to stand up, move and sit down, there was a discernible urge to act in the room. When the person reading Alice spoke the lines declaring her love to Mosby, she fixed me briefly in the eye. Whenever I came on stage, I (as Mosby) tended to sit as near to ‘Alice’ and as far from the guy playing Arden as I could. If there was a quick entry or exit, some of the readers would deliver their lines half-way to the chairs, and orientate their bodies so as to both speak to the audience and to their interlocutor.

I could go on with this list, but I wanted to write this blog post as a short testament to how little is needed for a performance. I am completely certain that this reading of a draft script was also a performance, and am especially so for how the peculiar situation still had the ability to activate the instincts and techniques of theatre. Of course, I am far from the first person to realise this, and I guess all this post does is give evidence that on a rainy day in a bare, underground drama studio in Cambridge, Peter Brook was proved right:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.


I have a document on my computer where I jot down ideas for blog posts. In this place, my thoughts about Benedict Cumberbatch, Love, Death, and talking about my research languished until recently. Now, I have just two topics left. One involves carpets, the other is about a Japanese anime film. For all those who are excited about the latter, I’m afraid that today’s post is for the carpets.

A Carpet. Eighteenth-century tragic carpets were often green.
It all started when I stumbled across a comment by Francis Gentleman on Garrick’s additions to Macbeth: “a dying speech, and a very good one, has been furnished by Mr Garrick, to give the actor more éclat; but we are not fond of characters writhing and flouncing on carpets; and as from the desperate state of Macbeth’s mind we think his immediate death most natural, we could wish it to take place.” Why would Garrick be “flouncing on carpets”? I eventually got my answer from a book by Kalman Burnim called David Garrick: Director, which explained that the carpet in question was known as a ‘tragic carpet’, and was laid on the boards so that the actors’ costumes were not damaged when they died.

I mentioned the ‘tragic carpet’ in a lecture I gave two weeks ago now (preparation for which was the the cause of this blog’s hiatus, I’m afraid). When I first talked about these things, ‘tragic carpet’ was misheard as ‘magic carpet’, which, alas, is something quiet different. Once people got what I was going on about, I even had a few emails from members of my audience pointing out other appearances of the tragic carpet in literature. The best of them was in Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher residing in London to his friends in the East (1760-61) where the bemused foreign philosopher describes a particularly hectic night at the theatre as follows:

The fifth act began, and a busy piece it was. Scenes shifting, trumpets sounding, mobs hallooing, carpets spreading, guards bustling from one door to another; gods, daemons, daggers, racks and ratsbane. But whether the king was killed, or the queen was drowned, or the son was poisoned, I have absolutely forgotten.

What’s interesting about this quotation is the question it raises of how visible the carpet was. To the Chinese philosopher, casting his naïve eyes over the stage, the carpet is as ridiculous as it would be nowadays at the National Theatre. But the whole point of such a naïve point of view is that it throws up the absurd things people have become blind to (see: Candide for Voltaire’s pushing of this to the limit), hence maybe tragic carpets were not really remarked upon by the audiences of Garrick’s time, being no more noticeable than the scenery shifting or the movements of an unruly audience.

This is an important thing to bear in mind, as the temptation is to argue that the tragic carpet earnt its name as harbinger of death. If the carpet was laid out, surely we were to expect the death of one person, and, if several carpets were arranged, a bloodbath might be in the offing. This would be a great insight into eighteenth-century theatre if we could be sure of it, but I don’t think we can. As well as the arguments about a habituated audience no longer really paying it attention, there’s also the point that surely the audience would be expecting to see some carpet at the end of their tragedy, and the real shock would come if none were laid out.

To finish off this post, I’ll pick up a modern analogue to all this eighteenth-century stage business. Last year, a modernised version of Edward II ran at the National Theatre. I didn’t see it, but am told that, towards the end, a large cloth had to be laid over the stage to protect it from an imminent bloodbath. This practical concern, similar to that of the tragic carpet, had to be incorporated into the play, so much was made of a bourgeois concern cleanliness in the scrupulous arrangement of the cloth. This seems the opposite of the eighteenth-century approach, incorporation of a stage property into the world of the play, rather than Drury Lane’s reliance on a blindness arising from convention and habit. After all, there seems no other way for a carpet to be laid on Macbeth’s final battlefield…

What are you working on?

“What’s your research about?”

I think this is a fairly common situation for someone doing a PhD, and I know for sure that it’s something I’ve struggled with. This blog has a ‘big picture‘ page, which, in quite a lot of words, gives you a breakdown of what I (currently) want my thesis to be about. Unfortunately, this is not a very useful text to use as a response when someone asks me, “so, what are you working on?” Often such an interlocutor won’t be a specialist in my field, and so I need to say something back that is at once comprehensible and avoids too much misrepresentation.

A mathematical diagram, the kind of elegant expression to which my PhD is not very amenable…
Interestingly, when I first started my doctorate, I was very bad at answering this question. As things have got clearer, I’ve grown a little better, and I thought I’d share here some of what I’ve found out about the process of explaining PhD research in the humanities to non-specialists. Of course, my improved explanations are as much the result of working out more about my thesis itself as of any advances in method, so the obvious rule to lay down here at the beginning is that your explanation will only be as good as your understanding of your research.

Using my own thesis as an example for a moment, I used to tell people that I worked on “the reception of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century”. This is about 50% accurate, as it says nothing about what part of Shakespeare’s reception I study. The same problem occurs when I drop the Shakespeare and say, “I work on the theory of drama in the eighteenth century”. Neither gives the whole picture.

There’s another problem too with these replies: both “the reception of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century” and the “theory of drama in the eighteenth century” are too enormous, so enormous that people don’t really know what I’m doing in these large fields, merely that this is where my research is located. I could, for example, be devoting three years to such futile questions as whether people believed they’d seen Shakespeare’s ghost in the period, or whether food was important to David Garrick’s performances. A far better approach would be something like, “I’m looking at the relation between Shakespeare’s reception and eighteenth-century theories of performance”, since at least here the conjunction of both topics provides a better sense of the kind of research I’m doing.

Now, there’s one more thing to add here, and it’s the difference between writing and speaking about my thesis. Read the sentence above (“I’m looking at the relation between Shakespeare’s reception and eighteenth-century theories of performance”) and it’s easy to grasp; say it out loud and the amount of prepositions and other connectors make it a nightmare to understand without some kind of diagram. There are two potential solutions to this. The first is to build up slowly to this sentence, beginning with Shakespeare, then saying Shakespeare’s reputation in the eighteenth century, then elaborating to the role of the stage in Shakespeare’s reputation in the eighteenth century, and finally concluding with the relation between Shakespeare’s eighteenth-century reception and the theory of drama. Often, though, you don’t really get this much time: it’s a sad fact, but I find most people either ask me about my research in order to have an excuse for talking about their own or switch off when I say “Shakespeare” since they believe everything that can be said on this subject has already been said. Many times over.

In these cases, there is the second approach, which I’ll call the ‘headline’. For an example, see the title of this blog: “A Muse of Fire: Shakespeare and Acting in the Eighteenth Century”. This gives a pretty decent idea of where my research is focussed, and uses no more complicated a word than “and” to enclose all the “relation between”, “reception” and so forth that have made the earlier examples so tricky.

Whether you go for the slow build up or the headline, you may sometimes stumble upon someone who actually wants to hear even more about your research. In such situations, I favour a mix of example and interpretation. I try and tailor these to the person I’m speaking to, but most often I find myself saying things like, “Did people think Shakespeare was a good poet because he was a good actor?” or, more simply, “what are the connections between authors and actors?”. Both questions are broad enough that the other person might be able to hazard a guess, thus leading nicely into a bit from me about what I’ve found out so far.

Ultimately I suppose, I can summarise all this by saying that talking about your thesis should be as inclusive as possible, a conversation and not a lecture. Some of the specific things I’ve discovered are:

  1. Your explanatioon is only as good as your grip on your research.
  2. Any spoken explanation with complicated conjunctions and prepositions is a bad idea.
  3. When talking, either build up slowly to a good explanation or try for a headline sentence that does a decent amount of justice to your work.
  4. If you have the opportunity, give examples, especially those that encourage other people to participate in the conversation: you can show off later.

Well, I hope readers of this post find it helpful. To conclude, I’ll repeat an observation that a friend at Oxford, writing a thesis on Jane Austen, made to me this week. She said that both she and I were lucky, since at least people knew the authors we were writing about. Upon further reflection, though, we soon realised that this was a curse as much as a blessing, and that simply saying “Shakespeare” or “Austen” really gets you nowhere. Unlike, I suppose, the handy method I outline above…

Benedict Cumberbatch

I heard the other day that Benedict Cumberbatch (aka. Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange, and Smaug) is going to be playing Hamlet in London towards the end of 2014. There is much excitement about this, on a par with that surrounding David Tennant’s Hamlet with the RSC in 2009.

This way of talking about somebody‘s Hamlet made me think of something Charles Lamb wrote about the unavoidable limits of performing Shakespeare on the stage:

[…] such is the instantaneous nature of the impressions which we take in at the eye and ear at a playhouse, compared with the slow apprehension oftentimes of the understanding in reading, that we are apt not only to sink the play-writer in the consideration which we pay to the actor, but even to identify in our minds in a perverse manner, the actor with the character which he represents.

On the surface, it looks like the tendencies Lamb describes here are still very much alive today. We’re not going to see Cumberbatch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but rather just to see Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. We go to see the character connected with the famous actor, and not the play, the complete expression of Shakespeare’s mind. Do we remember who, for example, played Ophelia to Tennant’s Hamlet? Or do we know the Claudius to Cumberbatch’s prince?

There’s another way of thinking about this though. Cumberbatch doing Hamlet is so important because it can be taken as a claim for his acting powers: he is of sufficient status and skill so as to be ready to undertaken one of the greatest plays in the English language. Would as many people be as eager to go see Cumberbatch’s Dr Faustus as his Hamlet? Perhaps not. Seen from this angle, then, the play and its playwright are just as important to the creation of the event as the choice of actor.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock
Leaving Lamb behind us, the phrase ‘Cumberbatch’s Hamlet’ also brings up another issue. How much can the person who is directing this production of Hamlet change the text, move a scene, encourage a particularly stylised way of presenting emotion? The audience, after all, have not come to see the director’s Hamlet but Cumberbatch’s acting of it. On top of this, they will want Cumberbatch’s Hamlet to be a coherent whole so as to be able to talk about this actor’s version of the dane, and to compare it with other actors’ takes on the character, such as David Tennant’s, Jude Law’s, or Laurence Olivier’s. If this Hamlet is Cumberbatch’s, that is to say, above all the property of the actor (just as eighteenth-century actors literally owned the text of their parts), then the director can only do so much: his audience’s expect a Hamlet to emerge coherently from the play, not several possible Hamlets.

Comparing this to eighteenth-century thought and expectation about, say, Garrick’s Hamlet, we find some differences. Lamb may have been right to criticise Garrick and others for associating “in a perverse manner” his name with the character he played, but this association did not result in the kind of pressure for an actor to give his single, coherent Hamlet to the world that Cumberbatch must feel. Rather, eighteenth-century audiences valued the rapid changes of emotion, the swings between the melancholy and the manic that Garrick’s sprightly form was so good at, and remember not so much the whole man as presented bit by bit the length of the play, but rather the particularly striking moment: when Garrick’s Hamlet sees his father’s ghost (immortalised in Fielding‘s Tom Jones) or when, frustrated with Gertrude, the young prince knocks over a chair (an inherited piece of stage business captured in many paintings and engravings).

I wonder if, come autumn 2014, we could still watch Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in such a way, praising specific moments of virtuoso performance and caring less for any overall impression of the character…

Thou art a scholar, speak to it… (II)

BSECS 2014 is next week, and I’ve finally got a draft of my paper together. As is becoming my habit, I recorded myself reading it as a way of measuring length and clarity, and now, finding myself with this recording, have decided to put it up as a blog post. Enjoy!


“The rubbish cast on thy fair page”: Shakespeare’s Editors and Actors


Part I: Theobald

Part II: Johnson


If you liked this, you may also enjoy the recording of my paper for Yale.

On Death

A cheery subject to start 2014, I know.

I’m going to be giving a lecture at the English Faculty in mid-January (which I’ll probably post a recording of here too), entitled ‘The Death of the Actor: Shakespeare and Tragedy in the Eighteenth Century’. Before writing the whole thing, however, I wanted to sketch my ideas out, and decided that such a sketch would make a good blog post. I’m going to arrange things in three sections, beginning with how actors performed death in the eighteenth century, then talking about why such moments are of interest to me with regard to performance theory of the period. In the last section, I’ll consider how the death of the actor relates to Barthes’s famous essay on the death of the author.

First, then, how did an actor perform death? Before we get to the actor, we should first talk about the stage on which he has to die. The stage was made of wooden boards, and probably quite dirty. In order to protect the actors’ costumes (a theatre’s most valuable assets), a thick carpet was routinely laid over the stage for the actor to die on. This practice of laying the so-called ‘tragic carpet’ fascinates me, but is infuriatingly difficult to find out more information about: how much carpet was used? Did the placement of the carpet clearly indicate where the death-scene would occur, and would there be multiple carpets for multiple deaths? I could go on, but the larger question behind these niggles is whether the tragic carpet was even visible to the audience of the time. By ‘visible’, I mean something more like ‘noticed’: just as the lighting gallery or raised stage curtain are present but unremarked in modern theatres, was the ‘tragic carpet’ so routine a piece of stage property that the audience could still be surprised by the deaths it heralded?

So far, I know only that the carpet was probably set down in the interval preceding the act in which characters were to die, following the entr’acte entertainment. I suspect too, that it was placed near the front of the stage at Drury Lane or Covent Garden, since an actor’s slow collapse upstage would have been difficult to spot due to his necessarily reduced height. Knowing these two things, it is useful to turn to a speech that David Garrick added to Macbeth, intended to be spoken as he, in a departure from the original, succumbed on stage. This speech is long, too long to quote here, but would allow ample time for Garrick to lower himself onto the carpet with great precision. Such a slow death would also give the opportunity for Garrick to employ all the action for which he was so famous: many a dramatic pause or sharp change of tone are possible as illustration to these dying words, as are the changes of skin colour, rosy to pale, that contemporaries reported seeing in his Romeo and Hamlet.

Such death scenes were often the crowning glory of a part. Garrick certainly would not have added one to his Macbeth if such a passage could damage the spectacle. At the same time as being a highlight, however, dying on stage also poses a great many theoretical problems. It is interesting to me, for example, that while most acting manuals talk about love and beauty, I’m yet to find one that tells an actor how to die. This is, I believe, because such manuals are founded on the belief that the best actors are those who can draw on their own experience to inform their action: real-life lovers are meant to be the best at playing the role of lovers, for example. Yet, how can someone have experience of dying? At best, only the outward signs can be copied, with no knowledge of what a person feels at the end of their life to awake the sensibility that is meant to drive the actions of the performer. In the moment of death, therefore, the actor is at his most theatrical: in a positive sense, because this moment offers an opportunity to show off all the nuances of physical action at the performer’s command; but also in a positive sense, because it is a moment that proves the actor performs without feeling what he acts, that his imitation is only skin deep.

A quick aside. From my own theatre experience, I know that an audience’s attention is powerfully drawn to a dead body on the stage. Myself and others cannot help looking to see if the character is still breathing. Of course they are, but still we must look. It is perhaps for this that I can’t immediately think of many Shakespeare plays where the attention is left on a dead body: Hamlet dies, and Fortinbras enters with a fanfare; Lear dies, and Edgar, Kent and Albany step forward to survey the massacre; Othello dies, and Iago must be dealt with. The only two counter-examples are, first, when Falstaff pretends to be dead in Henry IV part I, and, second, when the statue of Hermione comes to life in The Winter’s Tale. In both cases, it is clear that Shakespeare has constructed the scene in a such a way that it only work if the audience obeys its natural inclination and stares at the supposedly dead figure.

Garrick’s monument in Wesminster Abbey (top right).
Back to my larger argument. An actor’s death is the crowning moment of his role, but also the point at which the limitations of performance are at their most visible. This brings us to Barthes. His essay, ‘the death of the author’ proposed that the author should be excluded from literary criticism, always considered dead, dead to the literary critic. I’d like to take this idea and apply it to the actor, suggesting that something happened to cause the actor to ‘die’ in the eyes of the literary critic, to become dead to criticism. What caused the critical death of the actor? Many things, but first among them was, I believe, the very materiality of performance – tragic carpet, dramatic pause and all – that came into conflict with a new emphasis on the imagination and interior life of the author and his characters. This new emphasis is at its clearest in the writings of Lamb, Hazlitt and Coleridge, but can be found elsewhere in the decades following Garrick’s death. Lamb puts things most eloquently. Looking at Garrick’s funeral monument in Westminster Abbey, Lamb challenges the claim of its epitaph, that Garrick and Shakespeare were “twin stars” by arguing that any actor can only give a limited incarnation of a role, and so must reduce the breadth of the original vision. The moment of performance may be powerful, but it is also (and must be to have any effect) transient, and limited. The actor must die so that, in Lamb’s eyes, the great author lives.