Good Afternoon. My name is David Meldman, and I’m a first year student in the Shakespeare and Performance M.Litt program. Today I’ll be blogging Paper Session I from 1:45pm to 3:00pm, with moderator Sam Koogler from Mary Baldwin University.
Rob Conkie, La Trobe University, Backstage Merriment
Conkie introduced us to his topic via a production he directed of The Merry Wives of Windsor using many elements of Blackfriars staging and original practices. He noted that the production was well received commercially and critically with an excerpt from a review,
“The stage is certainly busy…entrances practically trip on the heels of exits in a mad, exhilarating swirl.” -The Australian
History of Emotions, who funded the production, informed several questions for Conkie to consider backstage. What kind of emotional work is being conducted backstage? What is the relation between backstage and onstage emotion? Might this relationship correspond with early modern practice?
An excerpt from Ben Jonson’s The Staple of Newes (performed by Allison Glenzer) describes the Tiring House of the Early Modern Theater as a sweaty, drinking, bustling locale via the description of a “stewed poet.”
Conkie spent an evening backstage with the permission of his ensemble and took notes of their behavior, paying attention to backstage and onstage rituals, as described by Mark Rylance, which seemed to carry the actor from themselves to their character as they moved onstage. Conkie identifies seven areas of ritual his actors were engaged with (Attachments and Support, Script, Corporeality, Lollies <being particularly surprised by the number of sweets they consumed>, Water, and Assistance.) He quotes an actor from the ensemble who asserts they “…couldn’t have run the show without them.”
Conkie offered a variety of visual images to illustrate his points, including photographs of intricate charts actors posted backstage to help them track their multiple roles, and drawings from an actor’s script which strongly evoked the strength of the actor’s connection to their script as a guide post even long after they were off book.
“The little rituals became like touchstones…(t)he physical transition of changing from Shallow to Mistress Ford allowed me to throw off his emotional state with the act of discarding the role’s hat and shoes,” one of Conkie’s actors summarized, describing the pscyho-physicality of moving from one space to another.
The Bear snuck out of their cave, and Conkie wisely concluded his presentation, noting that he continues to look for collaborators for future work, especially actors.
Christina Dennehy, Northern Arizona University, “I Find the People Strangely Fascinated”: Performing King John in the Trump Era
Dennehy began by citing Tyler Huckabee’s tweets of November, 2016, which drew parallels between President Trump and King John from Disney’s Robin Hood. Both wildly lash out, rely on yes men, and simultaneously bully while acting like a child. These parallels can easily apply to Shakespeare’s King John, an arguably illegitimate ruler hungry for power and reliant on propaganda.
Portrayals of the seductive nature of power resonate with contemporary audiences in age of Trump. Pressure if often felt by Shakespeare companies to localize their plays, stressing “relevance.” Here, King John can be cast easily as “local,” set during a period of instability and intrigue.
Dennehy offered three examples of parallels between speeches located in King John and speeches delivered by President Trump or his allies. John Harold performed the address to the citizens at walls of Angiers, which speaks both of France’s danger and John’s singular power to stop the destruction, then read a section of Trump’s address at the UN on the dangers posed by North Korea. The similarities were uncanny. The subsequent examples paired The Bastard’s speech to the nobles, using spin rather than facts to persuade, with comments by Steve Bannon (both performed by Allison Glenzer,) and King John’s assail of Hubert about the death of Arthur with Trump’s equivocation about guilt and responsibility for the murder of a young activist at the Alt-Right rally in Charlottesville this past August. In both cases blame is recast from the agent who ordered or supported the actions to the victims themselves (performed by John Harold.)
Dennehy concludes that it is all but impossible to produce a contemporary King John that is not in conversation with Trump. An overzealous insistence on the leader’s own right and power dominate, and questions of legitimacy and illegitimacy haunt both, with citizens torn between the desire recognize a leader and to withhold the right of leadership from those seen to be unworthy.
Lia Wallace, American Shakespeare Center, Much Virtue in “If”: A Case Study of Editorial Consequences
Wallace’s presentation began with Allison Glenzer performing Viola’s ring speech from Act 2, Scene 2 in Twelfth Night. A seemingly straightforward speech often used as an audition piece, Wallace described how she discovered an editorial variation in the script which could have drastic impacts on the way we read Viola.
Through the placement of a comma, the use of a colon vs a full stop, and the changing of the ecphonesis ‘O’ to the word ‘our’, Wallace guided us through the complex editorial history that changed the 1623 Folio’s ‘O, frailty’ to ‘our frailty’ and ‘For such as we are made, if such we be:’ to ‘For such as we are made of, such we be.’ Contemporary editors appear to be accepting the latter versions unquestioningly, per Wallace, either offering no justification for the change or offering middling and unconvincing ones that shift the blame from editorial choice to tradition.
Wallace then had Allison Glenzer present a variety of readings of these lines using original and new editing. As we could see via Allison’s performance, the seemingly mild alterations of emphasis created by a comma and the word ‘if’ are significant in creating divergent sets of meaning in Viola, from a “sarcastic feminist” to a woman experiencing a terrifying realization.
“Make a Choice, I don’t care which, so long as it is a choice,” Wallace concluded. The original punctuation may make a far more compelling character than the one with vestigial patriarchy we have inherited through editing traditions.
Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare Institute, Houseplay in the Playhouse
“My talk will be as short as I am,” Stern began to many laughs. Her question seemed dubiously simple: “Why are playhouses so called?” and what meanings can we find in that single word?
Stern began with the word “house,” and pointed to an early dictionary which defined the suffix house thus: “There be many other endying in house which signify the place where things be kept and occupied” -Peter Levens. The Norden Map of London identifies a Bear House, which seems plain, as bears are occupied and kept there. Then what does “play” signify?
Citing lines from an Early Modern play, Whisperer or What You Please, sharer papers from Cuthbert and Richard Burbage, and contemporary advertisements, Stern demonstrated multiple meanings the word “play” held simultaneously, including sword fighting, drama, contests of wit, sale of food and drink, and so forth. The word “house” was also shown to have multiple, simultaneous meanings, referring to specific theaters and theaters in general, portions of the building inside the theater, e.g. tiring house, privy house, tap house, and bloodlines and families.
Stern was drew a conclusion in the face of the encroaching Bear, showing how Shakespeare himself, player, poet, sharer, and housekeeper had the words “play” and “house” layered in his name. How resonant with meaning, then, must they be when occurring in the scripts of his plays?
Paul Menzer, Mary Baldwin University, Nuncle
“Shakespeare didn’t always write as well as he wrote,” Dr. Menzer asserted at the top of his presentation. Menzer then went on, with the aid of John Harold, to demonstrate an incomplete list of some of the most tortured lines found in Shakespeare’s canon. For everything beautiful there is ugly.
Critics across time have argued one way or another against elements of Shakespeare. Criticizing Shakespeare, Menzer asserted, can certainly be a posture to make the critic seem important or to promote their own views. For example, JRR Tolkein thought Shakespeare had a faulty take on elves.
“Nuncle,” a slug of a word per Dr. Menzer, was the topic of his assault on Shakespeare’s taste. It sounds harsh t the ear, despite having sound etymology, or as a colleague of Menzer’s declared, it is “an asshole of a word,” or “Nasshole.”.
Nuncle is not exclusive to Shakespeare, and there exists many instances of ‘nuncle’ among many early modern plays serving many roles, such as the talk of rustics, fools, or the Welsh. ‘Nuncle’ is “baby talk in adult mouths” and thus in bad taste, sometimes quite literally. Shakepeare ties ‘nuncle’ to eggs, eels, and other distasteful bits of cuisine in King Lear.
Menzer then cited other critics and their opposition to ‘nuncle’ going back to be the 17th century, offering a firm pedigree for his hatred of ‘nuncle.’
Perhaps audiences only seem to dislike ‘nuncle’ because it makes them “taste” different social classes, allowing the audience to position itself in a socially superior position, but to others it carries a visceral effect, like the words moist or curd.
When it comes to critical history of Shakespeare, Menzer concludes, we also make a history of contemporary taste, for whom ‘nuncle’ may be sour or a sweet ‘nuncle.’