The Blackfriars Conference kicks off with remarks from Aubrey Whitlock, Doreen Bechtol, Matt Davies, Jemma Alix Levy, Brandon Carter, and Ralph Alan Cohen. We return after a four-year hiatus, and how lucky we are to do so! This weekend, Shakespearean scholars, practitioners, and enthusiasts all over are gathered at the ASC to share various topics and interests.
We are so thankful to all the amazing people who have come together to make this year’s conference happen, including Finch, Lia Wallace, Anna Bigham, and the graduate students of the Shakespeare and Performance program at Mary Baldwin. These past four years of separation and plague have forced us to get creative in how we share art and knowledge, but our community has overcome. To quote Brandon Carter and Ralph Alan Cohen:
We then kicked off with the first Paper Session of the Blackfriars Conference!
In her paper Staging Shakespeare’s Caves, Holly Pickett from Washington and Lee University argues for the importance of staging caves in the Shakespearean canon. She explores how various areas in the Early Modern theatrical space, such as the balcony, the discovery space, and even the trap door, can act as a potential way to expand practitioners’ perspectives and understandings of caves.
The cave, as Pickett discusses in her paper, is not just another location for another scene or moment in the play; it is also a place of character transformation and thematic exploration.
Throughout the presentation, Pickett’s argument was assisted by MLitt student Ethan Goodmansen and ASC actor Jess Kadish. The two performed various excerpts from various Shakespearean plays, including Titus Andronicus, As You Like It, and Cymbeline, by using the trap and the discovery space as a way to show how caves can act as a space of violence and revenge in Titus Andronicus or religious transition in As You Like It. The cave can even be used as a location for gender transformation and exploration in Cymbeline. These demonstrations show that, as Pickett quotes at the end of her presentation, that caves are not just a dark location filled with echoes, but rather “Caves [can] revert back to their ancient use… a place of rebirth.”
Pickett concludes by stating that the use of caves in Shakespeare’s canon not only indicate another location in the narrative, but they can also be a place of knowledge, thematic discovery, and transformation for the characters entering and exiting them. By considering the various ways caves can be staged in the performance space, theater makers, both present and future, can explore how the vast, transitional space of the cave can potentially change the vast, transitional world of performance.
Elizabeth Dieterich from Carnegie Mellon University invites us to explore the implications of staging conditions of the portrayal of Blackness in her paper, “So Open and Black a Theater”: Staging Race Indoors and Outdoors in Early Modern Drama. To explore this idea, she looks at how the performance of race in John Webster’s The White Devil, specifically with the character of Zanche, the Black Devil to counter Vittoria’s White Devil is portrayed. Dieterich posits that the staging conditions of the play affected how audiences experienced the performance of race, particularly whether the play was staged outdoors or indoors.
The first performance of the White Devil took place outdoors, in what Webster called “so open and black a theater”. Its revival, however, took place indoors, where brighter light would have made it easier for audiences to visibly note the difference between Blackness and whiteness. It was important, for example, for the audience to distinguish between Zanche’s Blackness and Vittoria’s whiteness. Zanche threatens the social order of both the world of the play and the world of the playwright, so this visual distinction would have been incredibly important. As such, the reduced visibility of an outdoor theater might have impacted the success of the production.
With this in mind, Dieterich implores theatre-makers to grapple with the depiction of Black bodies onstage through dramaturgies that explore how these depictions were talked about and put into practice.
Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy from Western Washington University presents her paper To Blanch an Ethiop: Motifs of Blackness in The Tempest and Jonson’s Masque of Blackness. In this presentation, Gutierrez-Dennehy explores how, and what effect, blackness is staged in The Tempest and Jonson’s Masque of Blackness, calling attention towards the racial violence and exclusion in both works.
The Masque of Blackness was Jonson’s first masque that was performed at the Banqueting Hall in the White Palace in front of Stuart court in 1605, as well as the foundation for future Early Modern masqueing conventions. This is not limited to the masque-like qualities that appear in Shakespeare’s later plays such as The Tempest, in which Gutierrez-Dennehy points out in her presentation that Shakespeare most likely pulled inspiration from Jonson’s play. Demonstrated through passages performed by MLitt students Mikaela Hanrahan and Godfred Ogoe, Gutierrez-Dennehy argues that Caliban’s outspokenness surrounding his race ties into the inward inferiority put on him by Prospero. In a systematic world of whiteness, states Gutierrez-Dennehy, “blackness cannot be changed”. This also ties into the conventions of fairness and beauty. Through excerpts performed by Ogoe, Gutierrez-Dennehy demonstrates in the Masque of Blackness Anna and her court had painted beauty, specifically beauty that is “tinted by blackness”. The hyperfixation of beauty in relation to race is not only prominent in Early Modern drama, but has transcended into the present.
Gutierrez-Dennehy introduces her presentation by stating that “During the beginning of COVID in 2020, 38 professional productions of the Tempest have been produced.” As most audiences will more often recognize The Tempest over The Masque of Blackness, Shakespeare over Jonson, it’s in a world that’s living in racial prejudice and marginalization is still very prominent, the call for racial perspectives and anti-racial works is also still quite important, especially in the Shakespearean world. By examining the portrayal of blackness in The Tempest and Jonson’s Masque of Blackness, Gutierrez-Dennehy invites us to consider the ever-present reality of racial injustice and prejudice in the Early Modern playing space.
Patrick Harris of the University of South Carolina explores discussions and portrayals of race in Eleazar was a white man: Phenomenologies of Race & Performance in Lust’s Dominion. Harris connects the use of blackface in early modern performance traditions to the linguistic depictions of race in Thomas Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion. “I argue,” claims Harris, “that dissemblance of Blackness through costume undermines the play’s efforts to stage Eleazar as a stereotypical Moor.”
Harris explores how textual discussions of race unequivocally associate darkness with badness, creating a linguistic dichotomy. He also looks at how descriptions of race are inconsistent, refusing to provide a coherent visual description of Eleazar’s blackness. Therefore, when characters don blackface, the audience can’t help but notice the fact that their black color is as false as Eleazar’s, who is just a white man in blackface.
In her presentation Adopting Ancient Royalty: Cleopatra VII in Early Modern Drama, Laura DeLuca from Carnegie Mellon University argues for the importance of staging ancient queens on stage. By examining production history of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, as well as other ancient queens in Early Modern history and performance, DeLuca is interested in analyzing how women, specifically racialized women, are portrayed and discussed in Early Modern drama.
Shakespeare pulled inspiration from various sources when constructing his plays, and his portrayal of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is no exception. It is most likely that Shakespeare garnered inspiration from Pultrarch, as DeLuca points out in her presentation, since both Shakespeare and Pultrarch describe Cleopatra as having dark skin. However, according to DeLuca, Cleopatra is much more sexualized in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra than Plutrarch’s version, since the Egyptian queen uses her beauty and magical nature to “veer Anthony’s militaristic plans off course”. The exoticness surrounding Cleopatra as an Egyptian also plays into her Early Modern portrayal, as DeLuca points out that images of Egypt are viewed as an exotic space, separated from Western Europe that’s free to engage in luxury. This combination of race, gender, and nationality ties DeLuca’s argument together. Cleopatra, as well as other ancient queens, are ultimately alienated in an ancient world where their identity is fraught. Much like other presentations in this plenary, DeLuca highlights the ever-present importance of racialization and sexuality in our contemporary world through the (ancient) Early Modern one.
Elissa Wolf questions the editorial marking of asides in the Arden, Oxford, and Norton editions of plays in Shakespeare’s Asides. She identifies a variety of “aside indicators” that offer opportunities for different kinds of asides, all of which serve the story very differently. Wolf argues that “Marked asides hinder artistic choice.”
For example, she ran an asides workshop featuring Act I, scene iii of Merchant of Venice, wherein Antonio says to Bassanio that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”. Some editions mark this as an aside, but Wolf encouraged her participants to explore different interpretations. Keeping the line as an aside prevented the two men from further offending Shylock, while saying it boldly said multitudes about the men’s brazen disregard for Shylock and Shylock’s choice to ignore the remark.