Having studied Measure for Measure this term and having watched it in performance at the Young Vic last month, I was fairly confident that I knew this play reasonably well when I arrived at this week’s reading. However, during the reading, it quickly became apparent that I had almost completely forgotten about certain minor characters. During the reading experience, it also occurred to me that it is the minor characters – the characters who represent the sexual underworld of the play that Angelo is trying so hard to rid the city of – that gain the most laughs from audiences of Measure for Measure (1.2, to name just one example). I would argue, though, that the very fact that these characters are comic and represent the common people is rather disturbing and problematic; after all, it is characters such as Mistress Overdone and Pompey that will be most affected when ‘all houses in the suburbs of Vienna [are] plucked down’ (1.2.80). I would invite readers, listeners and spectators of Measure for Measure, then, to consider the implication of finding comedy in scenes that include lines such as Mistress Overdone’s ‘What shall become of me?’ (1.2.88). By laughing, are we not agreeing with Angelo’s attempt at oppressing the common people in the play? Isn’t what we are finding funny the fact that these characters’ livelihoods are going to be destroyed?
Reading and watching Shakespeare, I’d always managed to skirt around Titus one way or the other, probably due to the infamous death counts and the even more infamous ways in which they come about. Wikipedia knows all about it. All this dread amassed over years accounted for my sudden prick of squeamishness as I waited for Spring Term 2015’s first Paper Stage meeting to commence – we’ve certainly had bloodbaths before (The Massacre at Paris; Arden of Faversham; Sejanus His Fall – all had their fair share, yum), but none so legendary that I cringed a little at the thought of even touching the page. The slaughter was doomed to come, however, and we sat around in a circle in the Peter Brown Room, just as always, and began.
A few pages into the reading and wading steadily into more bloody waters, we already had an interesting variety of reactions: sucked-in breaths, raised eyebrows, indignant mutters, teeth-gnashing, and the occasional stifled giggle, slightly uneasy, which was to grow into full-scale laughter as we ploughed our way through the play. One of the first things that struck me was brought out soon after the grisly demise of Alarbus:
Lucius. See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites! Alarbus’ limbs are lopped,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky. (Act I, Scene I)
The stage directions (‘Enter the sons of Andronicus again, with their swords bloody’), read out so casually, grated on my ear, yet at the same moment, I realized how differently that line would have been had I been reading the play ‘alone in my room’, as Harry had said. By myself, I would probably have skimmed over it, gotten an idea of how the character died, and moved on (a bit quickly, I admit). Now, in a room and surrounded by readers all too eager to act out their parts with gusto, every line and every word was enunciated, and the sheer time it took me to sit through every bloody detail gave me a strange sense of relish which would by no means have become apparent had I been on my own. Resentment, venom, craftiness; anguish, bewilderment, and, in the final scene where us readers watch Titus execute his revenge (in the most literal way imaginable), a lethal, numb calm. All these emotions and more besides were brought out in the full, as was black comedy abundant. Wonderfully agile in their pauses, links, and reactions, many of my fellow ‘readactors’ were most adept at eliminating awkward pauses or halting waits; they did not leave their lines loosely dangling in the air, but rather wielded them as one would rapiers, matching one another stride for stride and strike for strike. Between all of us, I am proud to say, we made the written word stand up on the page. Paper stage, indeed.
Our full-scale laughter was as much caused by each other’s sidesplitting reactions (coming just about every other line) as by Shakespeare’s innate talent to stuff the iambic pentameter chock-full of double entendres and innuendo. Even in the most horror-inducing sequences, puns typical of the man wormed their way in, replacing pent-up heaviness and discomfort with much-needed relief, yet a relief that was uneasy, too. Consider, for instance, this infamous exchange between Aaron and Tamora the Goth Queen’s sons:
Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother. (Act IV, Scene II)
You need to read a play that can pull a joke like that, seriously.
(Audio version available at: http://prosperoart.com/shakespeare_2/index.html, and no, this is not an ad.)
Besides verbal acting, the Paper Stage is equally a not-to-be-missed chance for any avid reader as a play-reading series: even as we are testing the words against our tongue and flavouring them with what action we can provide from our seated positions, essentially it is also a group reading session. For me at least, who checks her phone for messages far more often than is healthy, the Paper Stage offers me a chance to settle down, read an entire piece through (except when we halt halfway through and run joyously outside the table ‘for top-ups’, i.e. chat about the play and grab new handfuls of chips and popcorn courtesy of Harry – verbal murder can be awfully spending), and feel my attention span stretch like taffy. Surprising, really, to think that you can read a play out loud in roughly two hours, but what with the possibility of straying off when you’re alone, silent reading may actually take longer, thereby making the task seem more daunting. With the Paper Stage, reading is more like an activity you go through together with friends, a play you stage, and by the time we get to the end, you’d be puzzled at where the time went – who’d even think of dropping off mid-reading? Simultaneously employing the eye and ear, too, means that a demand is being made on your reading speed, and if you don’t want to miss any of the action, you simply have to trot along, though it would be a good idea, especially for students, to jot down the lines that prove more of a mouthful, to go over them again afterwards.
The ‘reading’ aspect brings itself out as well, in how rather than predominantly poring over your own lines and cues, as might be the case in the beginning stages of rehearsing a staged version, you get to see the entire play in perspective as you read it line by line. The reading itself is casual, cosy and fun, but you have to stay alert and not miss your line – harder if you’re assigned multiple roles and even end up ‘talking to yourself’. What all this ultimately means is that if you want to get the most out of it, stay tuned the whole way through. What you’d want is to get into the atmosphere of the play, to figure out the relationship between the characters or untangle the plot-line, if you are unfamiliar with the work, or to taste the language in more detail if you are, and to marvel anew at the sheer wit of puns and at unexpected punchlines, made all the more effective because they are being read with all due bravura at the same moment the printed word is being taken in by the eye. That, in a (lengthy) sentence, is what the Paper Stage has given me, and I’m sure you’ll find it true of you too.
And finally, if you were wondering about the final death counts in Titus, and aren’t afraid of spoilers, here’s the summary of what we’re left with in the end (or better yet, just read the play (out loud)). Apart from how (just about) everybody dies, on one particularly gripping page, we had three lines bracketed by two deaths, and one inserted in between. Now there’s a bit of juiciness you wouldn’t want to miss, oh-so-tender-and-delicious. Happy Bloodbath!
(P.S. Of course what one can see once one sees past the bloodshed is worth considering too. But that’ll have to be another story.)
Reading the part of Faustus was more of a revelation than I had imagined. I was amused at just how much Faustus says ‘Mephistopheles, come!’ (and indeed by how much a Marlovian protagonist talks). But the real fascination was that it takes the idea of complicity to an entirely new level. Invoking devils using incantations, and reading out a solemn deed giving ‘both body and soul to Lucifer’ were incredibly powerful speech acts to perform. It’s almost disturbing how much it feels like one is actually summoning devils and giving away one’s soul. Reading it also made me notice the contrast between the intensity of the first scenes and the middle section more clearly, and brought home the pettiness of Faustus’ actions in his four-and-twenty years of being served by the devil. Then there’s the last scene, which exceeds the force of the beginning, and the power of the poetry is that it forces one to voice Faustus’ dread of the inexorable flow of time. The remarkable thing is the way that Marlowe paces his writing so that the long speeches are punctuated with exclamations and questions that carry the flow, and, when read, nearly puts one into the very state that Faustus is in. I was struck by how Marlowe’s poetry comes alive when spoken out loud.
There’s a lot more comedy, particularly slapstick, in this play than I remembered! On reflection it seems to me that the lower characters such as Wagner, Robin etc. are aping Faustus at the beginning in their pursuit of magic (the comic scenes seem to juxtapose his, in my memory) but, despite his seemingly noble intentions to use his association with Mephistopheles to further his knowledge of the cosmos, ultimately his own use of magic also becomes merely comic. He becomes an entertainer and has given up knowledge for fame and fortune. Is this part of his tragedy – not just the loss of his soul but the way in which a potentially great man has become diminished?
There was a fairly intimate group for the reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by Canterbury Branch of the Paper Stage. It is always a pleasure to have the local lad’s words creeping the paper boards at the Public Reading in the Gulbenkian Cafe. One surprise of the night was how well the doubling up of parts managed to work. One needn’t have more than a company of 10 to stage the play well.
Rosemary Walters gave a tour de force as Faustus – it was clear she enjoyed having a part she could sink her teeth into. There are also quite a few small parts that people could inject character into, including such luminaries as the Pope, and the seven deadly sins. Representing Sloth, or Avarice using only the timbre of one’s voice is the sort of creative opportunity that is, for me, the highlight of the paper stage. There is also the opportunities for mischief; the part of the horse-courser was read as a hoarse horse-coarser. I should warn you however, to check how many lines a part has before committing to such a comic turn.
On the 6th of October the Canterbury Branch of the Paper Stage read Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. It is a fun Elizabethan Comedy, with classic early modern tropes including disguise, elopement, and mistaken identity. Also, amusing Dutch accents. As with many playwrights of the time, Dekker seems to have asked himself ‘why have one entendre when you can have two?’. And when Dekker sets about writing a play laced with double entendre, he doesn’t stint. One of the characters most responsible for comic relief is Firk, a journeyman shoemaker. In case you were worried it was mere coincidence that even his name sounds rude, let me set your heart at rest: it is not.
We discovered, in the course of our reading, that one of the copies of the text upon which we were relying had taken a more proactive approach to edition than the others. A copy of the text had decided to remove the rudest bits from the play (known to the cognoscenti as Bowdlerizing it). This included excising mention of a non-speaking character by name: Cicely Bumtrinket became merely ‘the maid’.
Putting to one side the merits and deficits of editing a play to expurgate the lewder language, the experience of reading a play and finding that one script doesn’t contain the same text as the others is always disconcerting. When we did find that we were missing such euphonic gems as ‘Cicely Bumtrinket’ from being read aloud, one must confess, we felt a little cheated. Proceedings were interrupted momentarily while Cicely was reinserted into the oration. The Bowdlerization of the play also produced other reactions. When Firk was discussing a couple performing the traditional dance ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’, there was a certain amount of surprise that this was not considered ripe enough to be plucked from the text.
Tomorrow in Mantua will see the first of a three-part reading of Il Dottor Faust, an Italian translation of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by Nemi D’Agostino. Readers will be getting together for a lively and interactive reading of the translation, which is based on the B-text of 1616, on the 15th, 22nd and 29th of September. The Italian readings are organised by Clara Prezzavento, founder of Il Palcoscenico di Carta (‘The Stage of Paper’), which is one of three societies of The Paper Stage, a public Renaissance play-reading network. The other Paper Stage societies in Surrey and Kent are also organising readings of Doctor Faustus for some time in the next 6 weeks, so watch out for news on this blog.