Hide death upon her face.
There are few forums in which the discourses of theatre history and theatre praxis meet, and fewer still where they mutually inform. On a cool Friday evening, the departments of Theatre and English at the University of Illinois collaborated on an enraging performance art piece that put criticism and performance in direct conversation. The event Be Stone No More was equal parts contextualizing talk, comparative performance, and group discussion. Dr. Andrea Stevens began with a brief talk covering the state of the Renaissance repertory stage in 1611. This was followed by a performance of a scene from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale blended with a scene from Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the combination of which—orchestrated by Sara Boland-Taylor—aimed to test the performed female body. The Q&A component was then not situated as a space for intellectual overflow, but a formal component in which the audience as a group conducted a kind of group analysis of the repertorial comparison. Unlike anything I have seen, the evening gave context, primary evidence, and analysis equal time and weight and wherein emphasis was distributed between director, critic, and performer.
Repertory studies is increasingly a powerful methodology for organizing early modern drama and exposing the analytical capacities for its performance. It has often been confused with repertoire: the collection of strategies and skills an actor collects, perfects, and deploys over a lifetime. Repertory is a two fold concept: a) a system of performance in which a playing company rotated a series of plays on the boards, putting a different play up every day, and b) the collection of plays a company purchased, revised, and/or commissioned, curated into a set by a company (with varying degrees of intention) that exposes possible immanent readings. This performance piece provided a snapshot of what repertory is capable. By staging comparable scenes of still and silent females—one a statue, the other a painted corpse—the performance was an act of both recovery and myth-busting. Putting Shakespeare on equal footing with Middleton reveals and begins to recuperate the merit-worthy drama as yet under-examined, undermining the supposed pre-eminence of “the Bard.” So while we could never recreate original conditions of early modern performance, the evening seems to argue that we can in fact apply original practices as we know them in order to summon up thematic and ideological approximations.
Staging a slice of the 1611 repertory in an open forum like this presents the critic with the challenge of taking a leap into imaginative speculation. It is a leap that the current positivist discourse of theatre history shuns despite valorizing the rigor repertorial comparisons provide. In this case, where co-directors Sara Boland-Taylor and Stevens wanted to explore the fetishizing of the female as art object on the early modern stage, it seemed a necessary and productive move away from the entrenchment of the historical record. The most immediate realization in observing these blended scenes was the presence of a still, silent body. While in the seventeenth century the female stone/dead bodies would have been performed by boys between the ages of 7-17, here they were performed by a dancer and an actress, both lean and blonde. The dancer performed the stone body of Hermione and the Lady’s corpse, the actress her daughter in both cases but alive and as a spirit, respectively. In both cases, it was unclear to the audience throughout the scene whether the stone/dead body was going to perform reanimation, or continue as a form of inanimate stasis. This was especially powerful in the case of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione becomes reanimate in a gesture that suggests her persecuting husband’s recuperation, but never in fact speaks in that reanimation from stone (if she was ever really convincingly stone at all). The effect was a blurring of that moment of change, questioning whether any change occurred at all, or as a third option, leaving room for individual audience members to interpret the conditions of change individually. While that suggestion might be made by a single play, the comparative and excerpted staging compellingly suggested the notion that a staging could carve out a polyphonous interpretive space.
In the end, two innovations came to the fore in Be Stone No More. In the first, the comparative mechanism highlighted the repetitive invocations of art, artifice, and the forcing of beauty on an object to create art, suggesting a kind of metatheatrics. What conditions of silence provide room for a range of interpretations? Was flexible interpretability a value in the early modern theatrical marketplace? To what degree were the King’s Men, in a drastically reduced and censored marketplace, cultivating competing and comparative resonances through parallel motifs and compositional strategies? In the second, the innovative event format of context, performance, and analysis provided an actual formula for scholarly and performative investments to commingle without having to first prove their respective relevancies to one another. And in an unexpected turn, while most of the evening’s investments were in undermining the Shakespeare Industry’s preeminence in period production choices, it was also a kind of recovery for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play whose criticism is dominated by the puzzle of the oft-quoted stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a Bear” (III.iii). In recuperating comparative and collaborative methods of assessing drama, across disciplines and between works, perhaps it will only be the methods of isolated textual analysis that are in this manner discharged.
- This one-night only event took place at the Channing-Murray Foundation building (a space often used for period performances) at 7:30pm and was free and open to the public. It was a full house, including some standing-room only participants. No future versions are currently in development.
- Interested in Dr. Stevens work? She teaches in the departments of English and Theatre at the University of Illinois (check out her profile here) as well as recently published her first book, Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama 1400-1620 (Edinburgh Critical Studies in Renaissance Culture).
- For more events on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus concerning early modern English theatre and culture, follow the Early Modern Workshop blog: earlymodernworkshop.tumblr.com.