I caught the last half of a lively two-day conference at Rutgers last Friday. Early Modern Theatricality in the 21st Century, organized by Henry Turner, brought an international crew together to put pressure on “theatricality.” The organizing gambit was 10-minute papers and one-word titles, from “now” (Scott Maisano) to “formactions” (Simon Palfrey) to “festivity” (Erika Lim) and “indecorum” (Ellen MacKay), plus a few dozen others. I missed the early sessions, at which Henry seems to have entertained the crowd with multiple dramatic readings of the conference’s one-paragraph blurb, but caught the last 13 speakers in 2 sessions.
A couple things struck me. Most of all was the concentrated effort to expand theatricality’s range, to move this concept away from familiar haunts. I missed Peter Womack’s “Offstage,” but many of the talks gestured beyond the wooden O to street festivals or Parliament or philosophy. Even when we stayed on or near the stage, we often lurked at the margins, or at the borders between players and audience.
The presentations also collectively showed how little current criticism defines early modern drama as consubstantial with Shakespeare. Will made some appearances, but his plays were part of a group and a broad culture of theatrical practice. Perhaps the signature moment of this tendency came when Mike Witmore semi-apologized for drawing all the examples in his talk about “eventuality” from the final moments of Shakespeare’s romances, “because of where I work.”
Some familiar border skirmishes between history and literary habits showed themselves in a cluster of talks by Peter Lake (“Import”), Chris Kyle (“Parliament”) and Blair Hoxby (“Passions”), but in general the anachronism police were not in evidence. Everyone seemed happy to think in divided chronologies, standing astride the 21st and 16th-17th centuries. “Theatricality,” of course, is abstract enough to draw from both periods, w/o the special difficulties of a 19c term such as “ecology.”
I was left mulling about limits and senses of ending. One of the things I love about going to the theater is that it ends, the curtain closes, and we get to go home. If we invest our critical energies in pushing theatricality offstage, might we risk attenuating the pleasures of closure? Where might theatricality end? There is a significant performative aspect to all human interactions, but might the difference between theatricality and performativity be that theatricality is a sub-set, a special case in which a certain space and time gets marked off as different, temporary, luminous? I’m tempted to think so.
We ran out of time before I could ask whatever half-phrased version of that question I was trying to squeeze in, but Scott Maisano’s conference-ending comment also pointed toward the limit or borders of the theatrical transaction. Scott observed that Britomart’s ordeal in the House of Busirane (FQ III.12) contains virtually all the features of theatricality the conference had raised — but, as Scott did not polemically conclude, can a poetic epic really be theatrical? Mike Witmore had also framed his talk by describing the pleasurable and bewildering experience of teaching Heliodorus to undergrads — but when I chatted with him about that at the break, he suggested that the scene in the Ethiopian court was an ekphrasis of the theater, & thus, perhaps, about theatricality even if not presented on stage.
Clearly both Spenser and Heliodorus are thinking hard about theatricality– but surely these moments are not theatrical is the same sense as The Winter’s Tale or the Shoemaker’s Holiday or a Lord Mayor’s show or even a session of Parliament? Don’t we need at least two real human bodies in a particular shared space and time to have theatricality?
Poetic epics and prose romances can be theatrical, or meta-theatrical, or engage in a critique of theatricality. But I suspect that it might be worth drawing a distinction between a performative enactment in an at least partially marked-off time and space, and a textual product like a poem or a prose fiction. There are lots kinds of of overlap and exchanges between page and stage, and artifacts like a film or a digital audio file might blur these lines, since they are artifacts that contain traces of “real” bodies. The long tradition of oral recitation as a primary means of transmitting prose texts — the “fair ladies” in Sidney’s Arcadia — also pushes these two modes together. But bodies and words still might be distinguishable from words alone.
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