Hello everyone! Welcome back to the tenth biennial Blackfriars Conference! This is Alexandra LaGrand, reporting to you for our second paper session, centered around props and bodies. This paper session is moderated by Marc Connor from Washington & Lee University.
This paper session includes speakers Michael Hirrel, an independent scholar, Grace Tiffany from Western Michigan University, Matteo Pangallo from Virginia Commonwealth University, Lauren Robertson from Columbia University, Gretchen York from University of Virginia, and Sarah Neville from Ohio State University.
First up, we have Michael Hirrel, an independent scholar, with his paper, “Properties and Scenery: How Sparse Were They, Really?” Hirrel began with discussing Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. He noted that there are several properties listed in Henslowe’s diary specifically for this production, including a hell’s mouth. Some other properties include a tree of golden apples, a great horse with legs, a chariot, and Tasso’s portrait. All of these properties were associated with the Lord Admiral’s Men theatre company. Hirrel argued that it was entirely possible that other theatre companies had scenery and properties to this caliber as well, in spite of not having specific evidence such as Henslowe’s notable diary.
Next up we have Grace Tiffany from Western Michigan University with her paper, “Shakespeare’s Guns.” Tiffany began her discussion with the idea that modern productions of Shakespeare sometimes require modern properties, including cell phones and other forms of digital technology, but guns are also often used; however, Tiffany noted that guns are not the modern equivalent of the sword. Swords and rapiers required significant training in order to wield it. Because of this, the use of a sword or rapier was thought of as elevated and honorable. To use a gun, Tiffany, argued, offers a different perspective and interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. Tiffany noted that there are guns in the early modern canon, including in The White Devil and in Arden of Faversham; therefore, the use of guns were specifically called for and don’t necessarily warrant adaptation. Tiffany explained an interesting embodiment of guns in the character of Pistol in the Henriad, alluding to the use of guns as a method of base military power versus superior skill with swords.
We then have Matteo Pangallo from Virginia Commonwealth University, with his paper, “(False) Fire in a Crowded Theater, or, The Lively Failure of Deadly Props on Shakespeare’s Stage.” Pangallo recalled a recount of a juggler that ended up taking his life through the failure of his art by accidentally stabbing himself. Pangallo raises the question of whether or not we can analyze the failures of props as significant points in production meaning. Pangallo explained that as soon as the prop failed for the character, it becomes a weapon for the actor. He went on to note that the difference between props and actual objects is that the goal of prop objects is the failure of use, whereas the actual object is dependent on the success of its use. A prop gun, for example, succeeds when it does not actually fire, whereas a real gun actually does succeed when it does fire.
Lauren Robertson from Columbia University with her paper, “Theatrical Convention, Audience Expectation, and Falstaff’s Lively Corpse” comes next. Robertson began by arguing that many theatrical conventions found their origin by being unintentional. The ending of conventions, however, produces new meaning because of the opportunity to work with new conventions. She offered the example of how a corpse was typically carried offstage during the early modern era. Falstaff, however, remains onstage playing dead, and thus overhears Prince Hal’s negative elegy to him. Prince Hal exits, and does not carry – or attempt to carry – Falstaff offstage. Robertson went on to explain her belief that this speech serves as embedded stage directions for Prince Hal to attempt to carry Falstaff offstage, only to repeatedly fail. She noted the three couplets that work as exit signals for Prince Hal, showing his attempt to leave, but he goes on continuing to speak, demonstrating the failure in the exit. This, when coupled with the understanding that corpses were usually carried offstage, offers the argument that Prince Hal might have been trying to carry him off throughout the entirety of the speech.
We now have Gretchen York from the University of Virginia with her paper, “In the “Likeness” of Falstaff: The Image of Power in 1 Henry IV‘s Play-Within-A-Play.” York began by discussing the use of bombast in the early modern era as a material used to stuff various costume pieces, particularly for those to denote a heavy weight, such as that in Falstaff. York mentioned that the play-within-a-play gives the opportunity for the characters to urge others to quit playing and be exposed, in that they are not only actors playing characters and characters playing other characters, but they are also urging the other to quit playing within this play-within-a-play. The play-within-a-play suspends the typical political hierarchy, in which Prince Hal, playing as Falstaff, bows to Falstaff playing the King. Theatre, York argued, is never what it seems, but rather, what the actor can convince you to believe.
Finally, we have Sarah Neville from Ohio State University with her paper, “Staging Management in Julius Caesar.“ Neville began by explaining how this paper works as part of a larger project in which she studies how props relate to a larger meaning and intent. Neville went on to explain that the hands-on materials of theatre allow for intention to be managed, mis-managed, and manipulated. Cassius, within Julius Caesar, serves as a sort of stage manager within the scene when they bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood. In the chaotic aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, Neville argued, Brutus’ stagecraft is wholly dependent on the stage management of Cassius. Without Cassius, Brutus falls flat in action. Neville also noted that that which was a character – Caesar – becomes a prop and costume costume piece through the use of the blood.