Over the past two terms the Paper Stage readings have seemed to me to have a growing sense of community, a sort of company of players. “Titus Andronicus” was the only one which I had already seen on stage, and it was fascinating to re-enact this. The pie scenario was just as repulsive! although obviously the obscenity of the mutilation didn’t have the same impact – someone near me fainted when I saw it on stage. But it’s always exhilarating to come to a piece of drama for the first time whether on the stage or on paper. In the Paper Stage, without any movement or props the text has to speak for itself even more strongly, which is quite difficult when reading an unseen script for the first time, often without any idea of plot or the complicated relationships existing between the characters before the plot begins. Would some kind of resume of the storyline at the beginning help or detract from the excitement of the reading? Would actors of this time know the stories before they saw the script for the first time?
As someone who knows nothing about the scholarship of early modern drama what fascinates me is the place of the conscious and sub-conscious in all this. To what extent did Webster, Lyly and Co “know” what was going on in their own and their characters’ minds amongst all the violence and often frenzied activity? Did they have any concept of the sub-conscious? How far can you assume hidden motivation and/or “modern” political or moral significances? Are these stupid questions? I’m sure studying the drama of this period would answer this for me but I’ve come to the plays without this background and still enjoyed them immensely.
In the discussion afterwards I do ask myself if we should be shocked at some of the assumptions, for example about the treatment of women, into which we read our own contemporary concerns or just accept that we’ve been in another place at another time. Is this a cop-out? I enjoy going to the Globe and now the Wanamaker Playhouse and have this vision of contemporary audiences for these plays being there for a good evening out, not sitting respectfully in rapt attention through the whole play, dwelling solemnly on ethical and moral considerations. And somehow, for me, the Paper Stage evenings get near to what I imagine (perhaps wrongly!) this atmosphere to be. What is so refreshing about the Paper Stage is the informality of the reading, being part of the story over a glass of wine, not worrying about in depth analysis or forgetting words and being able to enjoy the plays as vivid stories of people getting into sometimes impossibly complicated and crisis situations and trying to get themselves out of them! I’ve felt that the growing sense of community has enabled us to take more risks with getting into role as we’ve travelled through war, murder, adultery, witchcraft and various other combinations of tortured characters and their social and domestic power struggles and look forward to more of these to come.
I found it to be the most thought-provoking play we have read so far. Anne’s adultery and her husband’s punishment thereof raised several questions about morality, forgiveness, revenge.
How much of her adulterous behaviour came of her own free will, and how much was she coerced into it by her lover? Was the feeling between them equal or was he an abusive, controlling man? In those days, how much free will did women have and how much were they expected to submit themselves to men? Would the audience then have expected her husband to have condemned or forgiven her? His punishment of her could be viewed either as compassionate or utterly malicious. She wished only to die of shame but he insisted she live, but in emotional agony. How “kind” was he? Is there irony in the title of the play?
Lover-boy got off scot-free! Does this reflect the social mores of the time? A bit like in severely conservative societies today where only the woman is punished? I think this play raises moral questions that are not irrelevant to our own times, however tolerant our society seems today. There obviously was, and still is, hypocrisy and double standards in this field. I think the play could well transfer into modern times in order to raise debate about anyone who strays from accepted behavioural norms.
Furthermore, I note that the playwright described eminently credible personalities who functioned entirely by their own actions and beliefs, uninfluenced by, for example, any divine or magical input, such as occurs often in Shakespeare.
It was interesting how this play got us all talking afterwards – more so than any other we’ve read, and I like to think that the contemporary audience would have left the theatre buzzing and arguing over its moral mazes. The playwright does seem to leave conclusions to us rather than preach his own.
Our research and performance project of staging the twelfth century Play of Adam [see the blog] sprung from a shared interest in early drama, early performance practices, and practice-based research. With its hands-on approach, practice-based research can generate new types of evidence that traditional research sometimes struggles to produce. By staging a piece of drama we can test the practicalities around the performance of a medieval play and, inversely, test the boundaries of this type of research by asking ourselves where the evidence for a particular type of production ends and where artistic license begins.
The Play of Adam lends itself nicely to this type of project because the manuscript text gives us great insight into early performance practices. Excitingly, this play includes detailed and sometimes quite lengthy stage directions which is something that is very rare in both medieval and early modern drama. The stage directions – written in Latin to accompany the Anglo-Norman dialogue – are a great and valuable source for information about original staging practices and expectations of medieval performance. Also accompanying the fast-paced dialogue is a reflective plainchant that focuses the audience’s attention on the theological implications of the Fall through the repetition of lines found in traditional liturgy. These elements of the play as well as the striking visual imagery that was brought out through the reading at the Paper Stage give us a great flavour of how a staging of the Play of Adam might be conceived. Because the surviving text of the play is incomplete, it was important for us to use the table reading as a way to explore how we might build a complete performance from very little evidence.
We were struck by the contrast between the opening speech – a reading of the story of creation found in Genesis – and the colloquial conversation between the characters. The juxtaposition of fun dialogue and the exciting plot combined with the more meditative elements created an interesting tension between entertainment and education, action and contemplation. The humour in the play was discussed extensively following the read-through especially in the very entertaining rendition of the Cain and Abel story, which did not appear to be very funny on the page. Carol Symes’ translation gives us witty dialogue that at times feels very modern even though it is a very close translation of the Anglo-Norman. Something that surprised some of our readers was how easy it was to connect with and appreciate the comedy in the play and it challenged an old preconception that medieval drama is very serious. This is something that we want and hope to challenge even further through the staging of the Play of Adam.
The read-through also articulated the imagery that was created by hearing the various characters’ lines together with the stage directions and music. The final section of the play contains a number of prophets prophesying about the advent of Jesus’ appearance which is quite long and dull on the page. However, when the dialogue and stage directions were read aloud, it was evident that the surviving text ends in a wonderful tableaux of the prophets. Because the manuscript of the play is incomplete, hearing these portions of the text read allowed has given us a number of ideas about how a future performance might make use of the surviving text and where other contemporary material might be inserted in order to smooth the play’s narrative arc. The question of where evidence ends and artistic license begins was at the fore of the discussion and the reading provided great insight into how we might approach this project as a piece of practice-based research.
Thank you to all that participated in the event and spurred us on in our research project! We will continue to work during the spring and summer terms to inform our performance with research, workshops, and discussions. We hope to see you all at the work in progress performance in June and more importantly at the actual performance in October!
Wonderful to see and hear a new generation discovering the sheer vitality of Medieval Drama at a reading of ‘The Play of Adam’ at the Paper Stage! I’ve directed various Adam and Eves in Cathedrals throughout the UK (including a superb performance by my Drama Dept colleague, Jayne in Canterbury) but this version was new to me. Two complementary events in one week: the reading and a conference to celebrate the 50 anniversary of the publication of Jan Kott’s ‘Shakespeare our Contemporary’ and how contemporary ‘The Play of Adam’ actually is! Corruption and power, evil and knowledge: the lethal mix of our lives! The play needs to flow out of a building and either surround or physically come near to the audience. Characters and music must emerge from the shadows or surrounding space and the flicker of hell fire must never be too far away. Even the exposition of the prophets (massive cuts essential) can still be highly dramatic: the Christian symbols embedded in the dialogue must emerge from that rich language and voices can come from all over the place. But it must all be contemporary in its use of movement and humour and, possibly, costume? The acting needs to be simple and strong: the important thing is not to react but to listen and then react. The freshness and vitality of this translation demands that it is handled with sensitivity and fluid movement.
Paper Stage recording – Pyramus and Thisbe
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.106-345; images from Stephen Greenblatt et al. (eds), The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd ed. (London: W. W. Norton, 2008).
It’s difficult without the plays in front of me, but I think I remember being taken by those speeches where a character makes a long list of matched, dichotomous items, e.g., “…neither black nor white, neither big nor small…”. That’s a very simplistic example I made up. Such phrases are delightfully balanced and reminded me of algebraic equations, maybe simultaneous equations.
Another thing I like about Lyly is that he imbues his characters with much more personality than some of the other playwrights we have looked at. In “Endymion”, I found myself actually caring what happened to some of them, and I’m thinking that this must mean Lyly cared too and somehow – I can’t work out how yet – humanised them. This means that one is rather gripped by the play despite there actually being very little action or ‘business’. The characters themselves bring the play to life and render what at times is silly plotting, vivid. In “Arden of Faversham”, for example, I really couldn’t have cared less about any of them, they were all so two-dimensional, and the action, far from interesting, was ludicrous and not redeemed by ‘modern’ character painting.
I found Endymion very ‘Shakespearean’ – I realise I shouldn’t say that if Lyly came first. Again, I think because he draws characters.
So far, I find Lyly the most ‘modern’ and accessible. I found myself plotting how to direct the plays we have read! And I think that he, like Shakespeare, has the potential to be adapted to present-day stagings and filmings.
A belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all! I hope you’ve renewed your appetites for Renaissance drama because we’ve got two cracking plays coming up for The Paper Stage. First up on Mon 2 Feb is John Lyly’s Endymion, or the Man in the Moon, an early court comedy in which a courtier falls in love with the goddess of the moon. And on Mon 16 March we’ll be reading Thomas Heywood’s wonderful domestic tragedy A Woman Killed with Kindness.
Both events will be in the Gulbenkian Cafe from 7pm. Please let me know if you can make it along for Endymion, and whether you’d like small, medium or large part, or would prefer to just listen in.
This play was bloodthirsty and hilarious, a mix I am seeing more often in Early Modern plays. Could we read more of John Lyly’s plays?
A few thoughts on what I remember from last week:
Some Paper Stagers were old-timers, I think, and the flair they added (not to mention Dr. Forbes’ mini-harmonica!) was wonderful in helping more people relax and settle down into their roles. It was also interesting to observe the freshers (like me) trying out lines and sliding into character — at first some lines might have been slightly mechanical but in the middle, as the plot thickened and more people were (unfortunately?) involved, you could sense people trying out twists and variations in the way they delivered (perhaps more movement and gestures would have helped loosening up even more — what little could be achieved in chairs anyway!), as if they were fitting their hands into a new glove, flexing, stretching, and maneuvering inside their newly acquired skins.
I was actually wondering at several points about what became of Margaret in the play, since she seemed to simply disappear into thin air…
The version you read from had the stage directions “The Lord Admiral is found in bed”, but the one I read from (and by far the prevailing version I was able to hunt down on the Internet) had them like this: “Enter the Admiral in his bed”, and it killed me. I guess I took it too literally at first sight, but this misinterpretation of mine did seem very, very, unexpectedly (and therefore all the more) comical. This also led me to wonder if stage directions in Early Modern drama proved even more volatile than lines? To what degree were they consistent (I’m guessing consistency was a direct result of the development of print?)?
On the theme of locally relevant plays of the period, there are a couple of others you may know. A Christian Turn’d Turk by Robert Daborne, a tragedy, printed in 1612. This has some points of comparison with The Jew of Malta – set in the Mediterranean with battles between Christians and Turks (Muslims), this one with a pirate from Faversham as main protagonist. The other is A Shoemaker, A Gentleman, a tragi-comedy by William Rowley, written about 1618, about two Christian noblemen (Crispin and Crispianus, later made saints) in flight from Roman governors in Canterbury – they hide out in Faversham (again!).