We return for the third and final session of the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival.
Characters Performing for Characters in the Plays of Philip Massinger, by Brian Falbo (MLitt candidate)
Brian begins with a quick introduction to The Roman Actor and the scene presented by Katie Crandol, Elizabeth Rentfro, and Liz Lodato. Brian then states that he divides performance-within-plays into two major categories: frame performance (plays, masques, religious ceremonies, and legal proceedings) and natural performance (deceit, manipulation, disguise). The Roman Actor contains examples of both types, often layered upon each other. He also distinguishes the on-stage, in-play, scripted audience from the in-theatre audience (who, he notes apologetically, matters less for the purposes of his thesis). In The Roman Actor, the eponymous actor, Paris, presents an idealized version of theatre, with the ability to instruct virtue. Brian then looks at the arbitrary political executions and murders of retribution, relating them to the frame devices and examining Domitian’s use of theatre as thought-control on his audience. Domitian’s attempts fail entirely, because “theatre is suggestion and not thought-control,” and Domitian has to resort repeatedly to his only real power – that of life and death over his subjects, executing those who displease him by failing to get the message of the performance. After Massinger displays Domitian’s failure three times, he moves to the Empress, whose failure is different in that “she attempts to make the theatre conform to her life,” to the extent that she genuinely fears the death of the actor in whom she is interested; the Empress is incapable of separating role from actor. The blurred lines culminate when, during another performance, Domitian takes a role and then uses a real weapon and kills the actor Paris. In Paris, Domitia, and Domitian, Massinger presents three extremes of theatre, all of which critically fail, suggesting that “a compromise of all three viewpoints is a possible” reconciliation — though Massinger does not suggest how to go about finding that middle ground. Brian suggests that this play, Massinger’s first as a house playwright, may be Massinger’s “manifesto,” a demonstration of three extremes of theatre which he vows not to stray too near to.
“Perchance to Dream”: Shakespeare’s Dream Imagery within Early Modern Dream Culture, by Melissa Tolner (MLitt candidate)
Melissa begins by introducing the concept of dreams, in personal, scientific, and historical terms. She cites several sources for dreamlore in early modern England: Greek and Roman sources, medieval English folklore, and religious texts. She also notes the overlap of dream symbolism with sympathetic magic and the occult. Additionally, she covers the history of publications of books on dreams and dream interpretation in the 16th century, which included such strange notations such as “if one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow.” Melissa suggests that dreams on stage bridge the gap between realistic story and overt allegory. She examines dreams within Richard III, beginning with Clarence’s dire premonition (presented by Bobby Byers and AJ Sclafani), full of macabre imagery, designed to move audience sympathies to align with Clarence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Melissa examines Shakespeare’s inheritance of themes from medieval traditions and Chaucer’s, with Nick Bottom’s dream speech presented by Angelina LaBarre. Melissa also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains only a single actual dream — Hermia’s nightmare in Act Two (which Angelina also presents). Melissa then moves to Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio’s speech about “the fairy’s midwife,” better known as the Queen Mab speech (presented by Elizabeth Rentfro and AJ). She compares this discussion with Romeo’s description of his ironically optimistic dream in 5.1, where the audience witnesses Romeo analyze his own dream. Melissa concludes by commenting on the point of intersection between Shakespeare’s audience and our own as the key place for finding the transcendent meaning of dreams on the stage.
“I told you, if those should holde their peace, the stones would cry”: Drama and the Emergence of a Caroline Culture of Censorship, by David Ashton (MLitt candidate)
David begins by reminding us of the dates of the Caroline reign (1625-1649, Charles I’s beheading) and of Carolina drama (1625-1642, the closing of the theatres). He then introduces his focus: what did playwrights have to say about censorship and how did they contend with it? As a point of reference, James I exercised censorship twice as often as Elizabeth had, but Charles I exercised censorship five times as much as his father. David details the various (and numerous) institutions which Charles directed or constructed to deal with matters of censorship. He then contrasts these methods with the actions of Parliament over the authority of the King, first banning playing on Sundays in 1641, then closing the theatres entirely in 1642. David introduces the scholarship of Annabel Patterson, who focused on the idea of examining “functional ambiguity” within early modern drama. He then shares his working definition of censorship. David then moves into looking at specific hearings on censorship of printed works and the 1000-page polemic against theatre, Histriomastix, written by William Prynne, for which Prynne was tried in Star Chamber for slander and libel against the King and his people. David identifies this trial (late 1632-early 1634) and its judgment as the turning point for censorial efforts in the Caroline era. Prynne’s downfall found its way into several plays of the period, as playwrights enjoyed themselves at his expense, and James Shirley, who went on the attack against Prynne, rose to a prominent position in court. David notes that this sequence of events shows that the theatre was not always at odds with the censorial authorities, but sometimes benefited from their actions. David concludes by linking these events to the idea of a “culture of censorship” in the Caroline era.
What a marathon of a day it’s been — Congratulations to all of the presenters for their fine work!