Thursday, October 18, 2007

Thinking Theatrically

My upper level students seem well prepared to talk about texts as written entities; they're less well prepared to talk about plays as playing texts, as bearing a relation of some sort to theatrical practices.

I think we rarely ask students to think about metanarrative issues in reading most novels or short stories; sure, if they're reading Nabokov, maybe. But mostly, I think, their novels classes tend to focus on narrative as narrative, and don't think about the material of the text as such. (I'm sure there are exceptions.) So they're not in the habit of thinking about texts that way. They tend to read for the "story" rather than for the telling, if that makes sense?

Early modern plays, on the other hand, beg to be staged, if not on a real stage, then on a stage in the reader's mind. Imagining the text as a theatrical text is especially difficult for our students who tend to have little experience with live theater, and who watch television and movies perhaps less critically than one might wish.

Early modern plays often reward the theatrically thinking reader with a rich commentary on the problems of representation, or theatrical desire, and of textual desire. I was struck by that in my class the other day, especially.

We've been reading Marlowe's Edward II, a play about the "troublesome reign and lamentable death" of Edward II. The play begins shortly after the death of Edward's father (Edward I, helpfully enough), and the return of Edward's beloved companion (and lover, in some senses) Gaveston, previuosly exiled by Edward I. Edward favors Gaveston, much to the dismay of his wife Isabella, and the nobles (especially Mortimer Senior and Mortimer Junior, uncle and nephew), and they force him before long to exile Gaveston again. But Edward mopes, and the nobles let Gaveston come back long enough to off him; meanwhile, Edward has met a new favorite, Spencer, and begins focusing on him. And Isabella and Mortimer Junior are having an affair. The nobles capture Edward and kill him, with Mortimer momentarily taking charge, until the young king, Edward III, has him killed.

It's easy for most readers to follow the nobles in thinking Edward is a bit of a naughty boy: not only does he have male favorites, but he spends money on them, gives them titles (which the nobles argue is wrong because the favorites aren't "noble") and ignores his wife and monarchal duties. In short, he's a partier who isn't taking his responsibilities seriously. And the play really does support this interpretation on some levels: we hear that France is invading; Mortimer Senior is captured by the Scots while serving in Edward's force and there's no money to ransom him.

But the play also subtly undermines this reading, reminding the audience that it's in the theater enjoying all the spectacular theatricality of a play, and desiring spectacle and pleasure. So, in a way, we (the audience and readers) are complicit with Edward and Gaveston in desiring pleasures.

Near the very beginning of the play, Gaveston imagines what he needs/wants to entertain Edward when they're together again. He says,
I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please;
Music and poetry is his delight,
Therefore I'll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies and pleasing shows,
And in the day when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad,
My men like satyres grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay;
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportfull hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring, and there hard by,
One like Actaeon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart,
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die;
Such things as these best please his majesty.
It's a brilliantly evocative speech with lots of vibrant imagery. Try reading it aloud, and imagining what fun it would be to see played out on stage. The pages (boys whose job is to run small errands around a household or court) will be dressed (clad) as woodland spirits (female). (Let me recall that on the English professional stage at the time, all female parts were played by boys or young men. Some writers show a lot of anxiety about the ways that men's desire may be "mistakenly" inflamed and misdirected from women to boys as a result.) So, in effect, those boy pages are a lot like boy actors, dressed up evocatively.

And then we have satyrs, hyper sexual man/goats, grazing and then dancing around (a "hay," according to the OED, definition n4.1, is "a country dance having a winding or serpentine movement, or being of the nature of a reel.").

Finally, Gaveston imagines a show of Diana and Actaeon, the guy in Ovid's Metamorphoses who saw Diana (aka Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt, and notorious skinny dipper) naked while he was out hunting with his hounds. Diana, being a goddess and pissed, turned him into a hart (male deer, buck, stag), and he got torn apart by his hounds. Fun times! But notice the "seem" in line 69 there. Gaveston is clear that we're going to see a theatrical production of some sort.

And seriously, when you read that, wouldn't you love to see all that on stage? nymphs, a satyr dance, and then a man turned into a stag and chased around by his hounds? It would be a theatrical extravaganza, a miracle of staging, a spectacle to draw all eyes. So we're right there with Gaveston, imagining ourselves watching this as he imagines Edward watching, taking pleasure, being drawn. And like Edward, we're drawn for the moment, pliantly, our desires for spectacle engaged at least a little.

And if the play could give us that spectacle, why we'd be pretty darned pleased, but it wouldn't be Edward II, of course. It would look a lot like some of the entertainments famously thrown for Elizabeth I, though.

What we get instead in this play is lots less spectacle. It's as if the play is resisting our desires; heck, we don't even get to see the best murders. (We get to hear Edward's, but not see it; does Edward replace Actaeon, while his nobles act as the hounds, rending him?) And if the play's resisting our desires for spectacle (because we go to the theater to see and hear plays, but Gaveston's speech is all about seeing stuff), then is it sort of punishing us for turning from our complicity with Gaveston and Edward and becoming complicit with those rather puritanical nobles?

I think it's mostly confronting us with our conflicting desires for hedonistic spectacle and tight social control, safety, and heirarchy. If we take Gaveston's speech seriously, and get into it, we have to recognize that we're at least a little on Edward's side, wanting pleasure even though others might want us to get back to work. (Early modern plays were played in the early afternoon, when weather permitted, outdoors, Mondays through Saturdays, that is, during prime working hours, and attended by apprentices and others who'd skipped work. Bosses complain about theater being a disruption to getting work done.)

And because I'm obsessive:

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second. Ed. W. Moelyn Merchant. (New Mermaids) London: A. & C. Black, and New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.


  1. Theatrical experience would help in two ways here -- help to imagine what Gaveston is talking about, as you say, but also help to imagine Gaveston speaking these words. He's alone onstage, so he's inevitably addressing the audience, even if he makes some pretense of speaking to himself. The complicity is built into the theatrical situation, and doesn't require any special literary interpretation.

    (Not arguing against you, obviously, just expanding the point.)

  2. Crap, why did I read this 4 days before this huge exam? Now I'm going to have to go track down and read Marlowe. I think I have Faustus somewhere waiting to be read...but...crap. This whole week I have NOT let myself start any book that might be good so that I won't be tempted to read and not's torture...and now that just made it worse.

  3. VANCE, Thanks for commenting; I'm not sure what you mean by "special literary interpretation," though.

    MSILF, Hah! You are so in trouble! Study this week, and then enjoy a play or two :)

  4. [Hmm, delete this if it's a duplicate.]

    That damp squib of a phrase was aiming at something that (on rereading) I see you already expressed at the beginning of the post -- that a sense of theater can get a reader to the kind of insight you illustrate, even without the literary-critical toolkit suggested by "metanarrative".

  5. I broke down and started A Passage to India last night.

    I'm from a theater family actually, so I can't read almost anything without imagining how it would be staged, who would be cast, etc. But I guess out of all the people in the world, not that many are from that kind of background.

    Did your fortune come true?