Past Performances & Performing the Past

After a recent theatrical visit our Artistic Director started to think about the performance history of dramas and how this can influence an approach to a production. Here are some of her thoughts and ideas.

This week, I had a chance to see the York Minster Mystery Plays. Whilst watching, I inevitably thought of all the other mystery plays I have had the chance to see and work on, in York and elsewhere in the country. I thought about all the mystery plays I have studied; both in the twentieth-century, the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. I could no more have watched the play “just for fun” – un-analytically – than I could fly to the moon. And, in a way I hadn’t quite thought about it before, it occurred to me what an enormous weight there is on the shoulders of anyone working on historic drama.

In the past, it’s been a general axiom of mine that, if you’re getting ready to work on a play, you should definitely not watch other versions of it. Read the source text, or see the film, if there is such source material, but don’t see other productions of the exact same play you’re preparing for. It’s far too easy to latch onto someone else’s ideas, onto things that have already been done; better to come to the project with fresh eyes, I would think. But I realised, sitting in York Minster, that actually, that isn’t necessarily the best approach to take, because historic plays – have history; and the audience (or actors and others involved) may have a history with them.

When you tackle an historic play, it’s not just another script. It’s not even just a work moored to a particular place and time in the past. It has an entire entourage of heritage in production, and some of those productions may be well-known. How does that change things for your audience, or your actors? They’ll have expectations. They’ll have their own ideas about how things “should” be done, or something they expect the performance to give them. That’s not to say that you are obligated to give them what they expect or think they want; arguably part of what you’re often trying to do is come up with something that presents the play in a new light. But you can’t do new, if you don’t know what’s already been done.

I’m not suggesting that you need to know every production in existence of, say, Hamlet, before working on it. It’s not possible. But it might be a good idea to have some idea of what baggage might be coming into your theatre through the audience or those working on it, beyond the history as presented in the play. Like a snowball rolling downhill, growing larger as it picks up detritus along the way, an historic play will have an entire performance history battened onto it: seminal productions will be remembered, extraordinary performances vividly recalled. And in some ways, this history actually does change the play itself. The 2016 York Minster Mystery Plays would not be what they are if the past sixty years’ large-scale productions hadn’t happened; they were a departure in concept and style, in nearly every sense, from their original form, and have become their own proud tradition, because of that history. People engage with them, as performers and audience, as a direct result of that past. While ninety-five percent of audience members probably aren’t encumbered with in-depth academic knowledge of those earlier productions, and therefore aren’t analysing what they’re seeing with that dancing across the back of their mind, they’re not watching a play which is divorced from that heritage, either. The production history doesn’t have to be conscious baggage. Some of it – or most of it, perhaps – can be subliminal, or simply ambient culture. (Not everyone has seen The Sound of Music but I challenge you to find anyone who has absolutely zero knowledge of it.)

From a purely pragmatic angle, there is also a practical benefit to seeing other productions of a work you’re pondering. Without advocating for the wholesale lifting of any part of another production, seeing a few will give you some idea of broad concepts which work, or don’t. You can look at one and realise that there is an idea you think works very well, or at another and know that you want to do something particular differently because you didn’t think it served the play well in that form. The idea is not to make judgmental comparisons for their own sake (unless, perhaps, you’re in the field of criticism) but to get at why you might think one choice works better than another. In a world of theoretically infinite possibilities, it’s not really a bad thing to do some judicious winnowing of choices, and this is one way of starting to do that.

All of this is broadly true of any drama, of course, not just historic; the historic has just had longer to evolve and has often accrued more cultural baggage, more expectation, or tradition. As much as we’d like to think we come to it with a completely new perspective, we’re part of that wider cultural matrix, and so we should probably approach it intelligently, by being well informed. Besides, as a colleague commented recently, every chance to see theatre is a chance to think about these things, even if it’s a totally different play – you should go any chance you get. There are, as this very situation points out, always chances to try on new ideas.

Fact versus Fiction, An Historical Quandary

Some thoughts on historical fact and fiction from our Artistic Director.

Thinking about pageants last week, and as I work on my thesis about mid-century productions of medieval plays, I am often faced with the issue of “historical accuracy”. It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for years, because my historian academic side adamantly dislikes playing free and easy with the past. In David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, a book I highly recommend, he argues that ‘history’ is facts while ‘heritage’ is what we believe to be true of the past. From one perspective, it’s a good distinction to make; but working with historic and historical drama offers a different view.

I always say that history has the best stories. It is absolutely chock full of interesting people and events. You could spend a lifetime just reading true, well-documented historical narratives and, assuming they were well written, never get bored or feel like you were reading something obviously non-fictional. The challenge is that history is almost never simple. It’s made up of people, and their actions, and their ideas, and it’s impossible to address all of those things without complexity. Nor is history as unambiguous as we might like to imagine. It is always subject to interpretation, to the subjectivity and biases of whoever is studying or writing about it. Even if you just go back to original documents, you’re left with questions. Why did these survive? What got lost? Who wrote them, and why, and what were their biases? (For very concrete examples of these questions and how historians address them, the first chapter of Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower is great.) None of that is much of a problem if you’re a historian or writing a properly researched, well-documented historical study.

However, if your goal is to put a story on stage, you simply can’t address every nuance, every wrinkle, every difficulty. Things get “smoothed out”. And this is where, working in theatre, I part company with Lowenthal’s arguments. He suggests that the general attitude to those performing history (in film specifically, but I suspect theatre would be grouped in with it) is “getting things wrong is quicker, simpler, and usually makes a better story than getting them right”. He also suggests that in a lot of cases, the story is tailored to be the one the audience expect: thereby creating a work of heritage but not one of history.

It’s generally quicker – I’ll agree to that. Unless you want to write a play that will last for fifteen hours, you simply cannot address every complexity of a historical issue. (There are a fair number of historical books which took longer to research and write than the events they discuss took to happen.) Nor can all of them be staged effectively. So in one sense this does create a simplification – but it is not simplification for its own sake, or because we automatically assume that the audience needs things to be dumbed down. It’s literally about practicality. There are certainly situations where, by simplifying, we end up also taking a position about an issue or an aspect of the narrative that might be in dispute. For those of us to whom the historical part of theatre is important, though, it’s our job to make sure that we do our best to give the audience the chance to realise what we’ve done. Making up for those necessary excisisms is part of why we at HIDden try to use this space online to share some of the of thoughts behind our work, including a production’s ‘back story’. I also like to believe that our audiences are intelligent enough to know that no play is the gospel truth. I always hope we’re the spark that makes them ask the questions and want to find out more, rather than the end point of their relationship with a topic.

Does “getting things wrong… make a better story”, though? It’s not unilaterally true. For example, it has always amazed me that not a single major film drama about the sinking of the Titanic has felt that it would be easy able to stick completely to historical characters, because I think one of the reasons the world is so fascinated by that event is that there are so many structurally perfect stories attached to it. There is absolutely no need to play fast and loose and make things up. (Of course, film and theatre are quite different, with the latter arguably less reliant on a very strict formula.) It is worth remembering, thought, that writers exert an influence in their choice of what to use and what to ignore. Even verbatim works are subject to the curatorial interference of creators.

In other cases, the “wrong” is often a creative way of covering over parts of a story that are completely unknown, which is less an error and more a speculation. The Vital Spark will be a good example of this: we’re leaning as heavily as possible on documented history, but we know there will be places where an understanding of the characters, their lives, and their time period will have to be a springboard for filling in the holes. It’s also not necessary to limit that approach to gaps in our knowledge. “What if” is not just an interesting historical conundrum (there are entire series of books dedicated to potential alternative endings to historical events based around that question), it can be a good way of putting connected historical issues into juxtaposition to better understand them. This is very much an aspect of our A Journey with Jonson project. In either case, we will be quite clear, here and in other ways, that we are presenting a fiction grounded in history (this is one way we approach being Historically Informed) rather than full reenactments of actual events. For us, the fictional aspect is not about “improving” history or making a better story. It’s about asking different questions, and finding different ways to know the past, not about suggesting that the factual past is flawed as a narrative.


Some  thoughts on pageantry, this week, from our Artistic Director.

As I travel, I often find myself trying to define what it is that makes each place unique and individual. I suspect that my answer would have been radically different fifty, or a couple of hundred, years ago. But today, with our mobile society, our global village, and corporate culture, pinning down the differences can be tricky. Most high-streets of a town of reasonable size will have not just the same type of shops, but the exact same brands. There are relatively familiar architectural and city-layout plans. Cities have, of course, attracted different industries, and topography can distinguish one from another plainly. But what really sets places apart are their individual pasts, of place and people. Each one has evolved differently. Disparate groups of people have come and gone, particular businesses and industries have left their marks, and events have transpired which give a fixed geographic space a distinct character unlike the others.

Without getting too far into the vortex of where exactly community and performance meet up, or where one creates the other, this self-definition through the past was manifesting itself across both England and America in the first half of the twentieth century through a unique performance medium: the pageant. Today that word tends to bring up the rather repellent image of Miss America-type competitions, but it used to have another connotation that would have been equally resonant to those who heard it. Pageants were large-scale performances that almost invariably focused on the history of a town or organisation. Louis Napoleon Parker, who is credited with their creation in 1905, defined them thus: “A Pageant is the history of a town from its remotest origins down to a date not too near the present; expressed in dramatic form; that is to say, in spoken dialogue: in action: in song and in dance…. It is divided into episodes corresponding with periods in the town’s history. Each episode is complete in itself, and is performed by a separate and independent cast.” (Several of My Lives, L.N. Parker)

Pageants served to show off the locale’s story to any visitors, and also to reinforce its cohesion through participation by nearly the entire community – some pageants had casts in the hundreds (in rare cases, the thousands), not to mention the work that must have gone on behind the scenes to create such massive events. (In fact, I’ve often wondered who was left in town to be the audience! One suspects that on occasion there may have been more people on the stage.)

What is comical about pageants – unintentionally – is that not every village had the most exciting history to show off, and pageants end up as a hodge-podge of the truly momentous and the absurdly mundane, elevated to “important” status in lieu of any other available anecdotes. Over the past few years, I have somewhat accidentally accumulated a collection of pageant programmes, and they make charming reading. For example, to pull one off the shelf: The Guildford Pageant of 1957 (which is quite late; pageants didn’t survive much longer in popularity or production) includes the following episodes among the 19 it offered up: a ballet of the War of the Roses, “The Grammar Schoolboys play at cricket while a bear-baiting entertains their elders”, and a commemoration of the first time a train arrived in town. Royal visits – even of the most minor scions or limited duration –  are heavily represented. None of the moments included in it would be considered of national importance – some cities obviously had richer mines of history from which to plumb than others – but they were the high-watermark of the 700 years that the town was celebrating that year. And these were the moments that made their town special, different from the one down the road, cementing its civic identity as unique throughout the country. Small differences were their specialness.

And the fact that it was a performance mattered. It wasn’t just a more palatable way to teach the past than in a classroom. It made the past seem real.

The fashion for pageants came and went, and it could be argued that their last hurrah was during the Festival of Britain, when every municipality, trying to find a way to be commemorative, civic, and festive all at the same time, seems to have hit upon them as the perfect solution. Pageants are profuse throughout the Festival’s national catalogue of events, and other cities, like York, started with the idea of a pageant before moving on to other things. Even as you can look through that catalogue and see them all over the place, I have found several news articles discussing what an utter bore pageants are; pageants were starting to be looked on as a massive expenditure of both time and money, which were delighting no one. Cinema was exciting, television was right around the corner for individual homes, and the magic of seeing half the city dressed up in doublet and hose was gone. And these were changes that were coming to the entire nation, bringing places closer together, in character as well as communication.

I doubt that pageants stand any chance of making a true comeback. They’ve left a legacy, in large-scale community theatre, such as the Mystery Plays in York or a handful of other cities in England, but the days when a town celebrated its heritage by getting everyone dressed up for another century are gone. In a way it’s a shame. What better way to build the spirit of the community than through performing its own history together? Without such events, it’s easier to forget what makes our communities individual and special… even if all that’s ever happened is that the Queen slept there one night, six hundred years ago.

Why choose ‘The Devil is an Ass’?

Our new production project, A Journey With Jonson, will include two shows – a piece of new writing about Ben Jonson’s life and his own The Devil is an Ass. Below our Artistic Director explains some of her reasoning for choosing this play.

In just about any field, it’s pretty normal for there to be ideas that the academic community has largely rejected, to which the general public still clings. This is especially true if you’re in a niche field that doesn’t get a lot of press through which to reveal developments. Theatre history definitely suffers from this lag, and so the idea that there are fairly hard and fast delineations between one era of drama and another often persist. The notion that it’s an inexorably forward-moving evolution – drama in churches leading to mystery plays giving rise to more secular moralities morphing into classically informed interludes which suddenly give way to the completely public theatre and, poof, suddenly there’s Shakespeare – tends to be a narrative that sticks around. In the context of drama historians, it’s a narrative that is, at best, a vast oversimplification, but it hangs on because it’s neat and tidy.

The reference to medieval drama that most people know – without realising it – is the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, their shorthand title alone telling you how people viewed medieval plays. That stuff was de classe, old hat, only fit for bumblers by Shakespeare’s sophisticated day, right? But not all of his contemporaries had dismissed all things medieval in such a fashion.

When it came to choosing a project to follow Mankind, we knew we wanted to move out of the Middle Ages, but without such a seismic shift that it unsettled everyone. One step at a time. We’d been interested in Jonson for a while, for various reasons, and The Devil Is An Ass was practically made to order.

It’s not a morality play. The majority of it is focused on real – if periodically absurd – people, who aren’t representing humanity as a group but who are decidedly individual. It’s also not divorced from the morality tradition. The first scene opens in Hell, with demons and allegorical vice characters. The actions of the demon Pug influence and affect those of the worldly people throughout the play. It’s impossible to not see the demonic scenes as a connection to the medieval morality plays.

The virtues are missing. Virtue is provided by certain human characters, in differing degree, although none of it is morally unambiguous – which is perhaps the biggest step away from the black-and-white ethics of morality plays. Additionally, the fact that Pug is completely inept – a fairly significant point – undermines reverence for the concept of embodied, allegorical evil. But it’s not the morality play tradition Jonson is mocking, because he’s still using it effectively through these scenes. His commentary is not that the plays were bad; rather, he is pointing out that a world-view which suggests that good or evil is disconnected from human agency is in error, that life is not made up of absolute virtue or inescapable viciousness. Those who start out with questionable motives can change, while those whose intentions are malicious may end up fostering decency – and those groups of people are all one and the same.

The Devil is an Ass gives us a bridge into theatre beyond the medieval period and some of its moral clichés, without kicking over the traces so hard we lose the thread of the plot. It has the extra advantages of being really enjoyable (without which we wouldn’t have considered it, despite its other utilities!), and it’s not exactly played out. Upon reading it, it was in fact quite surprising to realise just how slight its performance history has been, historically – it seems like the sort of early modern play you may expect to be more popular. I suspect that something else it might share with Mankind is a more harsh judgement historically than we might be inclined to give it today, when our minds are (I hope) a bit more open, and when we’re more willing to take a new look at old things.

A Binary Curiosity: Historic versus Modern Drama

Following discussions we have often had at some length at HIDden Theatre about what constitutes Historic/Historical or Modern Drama and what we should be focussing on as a company, we came across an article in Durham University’s student newspaper, Palatinate, entitled ‘The Battle of the Eras‘. This inspired our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, to write about some of her views on the issues raised, spurred on by specific points raised in the article. The pros and cons of working with any particular era of drama have been debated repeatedly in our company and we are certain we have not reached a definitively correct answer – we suspect both contributors to the referenced article, as well as our Laura, have some thoughts which are more true than others and hope putting them out in the open will encourage more people to consider their own views and maybe foster further dramatic creativity. We should also clarify that at HIDden we generally use the term ‘historic’ to refer to works from the past and ‘historical’ for drama about the past.

Humans like to see things in opposition. We often view the world in binary terms: black and white, male and female, old and new. We spill crayon on worksheets in grade school showing off our ability to master the concept of opposites. And then we get older, and realise that they almost never exist, that most things are somewhere between; a mixture, a muddle.

This is part of the reason we’ve spent such a long time coming to a solid definition of what we do at HIDden. What defines “historic” theatre, exactly? Surely the obvious answer is, “It’s not modern.” Well, modern is, of course, subject to change (Shakespeare was modern, once), but even if we can agree that modern is “right now”, it’s still not a cut-and-dried answer. This means that we tend to take a flexible attitude toward the plays we do, and the ways we approach them.

All of this is why I was so interested to read an article debating the merits of historic drama versus modern. George Breare, president of Durham University Classical Theatre, argues for the reasons why he finds historic drama particularly compelling; while Alex Prescot, president of Battered Soul Theatre, makes a case for modern theatre. Although their points are not directly parallel to one another, each make points that are entirely valid, as well as some I’d question. Since HIDden is trying to find a path that doesn’t hew to either extreme, I wanted to sit down and consider their arguments, and what they mean from a third perspective.

Curiously, both seem to have the perception that the other type of theatre is the predominant one. I think part of this has to do with the views in and out of academic theatre programmes. As someone attached to a theatre department myself, I will agree that in some universities there does seem to be quite a visible predominance of “the innovative and experimental” that Breare suggests. I’m not sure this same absolute dominance of the modern or ultra-modern is true outside of the academic world, however; it really seems to be a question of how wide you are casting the net: urban spaces with vibrant theatre scenes tend to have a mix, while more rural areas, with fewer theatre options, do often tend towards the “classic” (albeit often modern classic, rather than an entire diet of Shakespeare). But there are entire sections of historic drama – medieval, for example, or, say, ancient Greek – that you don’t see all that often, and there is a lot of historic drama that is still not considered “canonical”, or is just not known very well, that gets neglected.

We, also, should not see “the innovative and experimental” as incompatible with the historic. Breare and I would completely agree that one of the joys of historic drama is, as he says, “unpick[ing] the conditions of a different period” – but you can also look at what isn’t different from that era to today. As he suggests, there is lots of room to be innovative with classic drama – look at the legions of different ways people have approached Shakespeare. Nobody ever said that every historic drama must be set in its own time, staged in a traditional manner (and we could debate what that even means – the early twentieth-century experiments into recreating Elizabethan staging conditions were incredibly innovative after centuries of being trapped in a proscenium). If anything, I think that historic plays invite the challenge of finding new ways to see them, to use what can be found in their times and in ours to create something new and challenging. By the same token, I would agree that there is much to be said for the Prescot’s enthusiasm for innovative staging and alternative venue use, for site-specific theatre, but I don’t think that’s incompatible with historical plays, either. Drama – all drama, any drama – should be an invitation for creative thinking. (As an interesting side note to this, whilst I was writing this, I stumbled upon an interesting piece on a new staging for A Chorus Line, a play which has been somewhat preserved in amber. Needless to say, I’m glad it’s getting some new life infused into it. For the curious, click here)

Where I do disagree is about the financial aspects. It’s true that rights are cheaper (i.e. non-existent) for plays whose authors have been dead for centuries, but if you’re staging them in their original period, you’ll more than make up the cost of performance rights through costume and set expenditures – not, as stated previously, that there the automatic need to stage them thus. There’s really no reason that many historic plays can’t work just as well in the kind of spare (affordable) staging that Prescot advocates as an advantage to modern drama. Conversely, there are a lot of modern productions (I’m thinking particularly of musical theatre, which is modern, and yes, I do count it as “drama”) which require incredibly complex, and expensive, staging. Age is not an indicator of fiscal viability, and I’d very much like to hope that a company’s choice to focus on historic versus modern would be artistic, and not driven by finance. (Let’s face it: theatre is generally not wealth, no matter what kind you do!)

Play for play, Prescot is probably correct that modern plays don’t get as many revivals as some deserve, but I suspect that’s less for financial reasons and more because, well, there are so many. The more finite number of historic plays that have survived means that each one stands out more, and that they get more repetitions because of familiarity, or because there are simply fewer to choose from. The catalogue of modern plays is dismayingly enormous; one hardly knows where to begin, and by sheer statistics, if we assume an even distribution of revivals (which obviously won’t happen, all plays not being equal) there is still much more territory to cover.

Ultimately, I feel about plays the way I do about people: you have to take each one on its own merits, and the categories aren’t the driving fact about why I might want to consider working on one. I’ve specialised in drama connected with history not because there is no merit in other types, but because it happens to combine two of my personal passions. But we keep the door as wide as possible, because, artistically, one needs different challenges, and everyone, especially audiences, can benefit from variety. Historic and modern drama don’t need to be in opposition. Finding connections between them keeps everyone on their toes, and surely the theatre created can only benefit from that.

Playwrights & Poets

Following recent discussions surrounding figures such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, our Artistic Director (Laura Elizabeth Rice) began thinking about the crafts and terminology of ‘poets’ and ‘playwrights’. Here are some of her thoughts.

“[T]he script of a play is intended primarily for the use of professional performers. Unlike the novelist and the poet, the playwright has been counting on other people to mediate between his words and his public.” (Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play).

The distinction between poet and playwright is particularly interesting in a historical context. Today, we see them as quite discrete things, and if you asked most people if and how they were different, they would likely have a clear answer. In the early modern period, the people who wrote plays saw themselves as poets. Many of them wrote things other than dramas – verse, treatises, musings, etc. – and made their living by the pen in varied contexts; and of course plays were generally written in verse at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary credits the invention of the term “playwright” to Ben Jonson, who used it in his “Epigram 49”… as an insult. Wrights were craftsmen – ploughwrights made ploughs, cartwrights wagons, etc. Their trades may have been highly specialised, but they worked with their hands, and were therefore seen in the time as a cut or two below poets, who, if they were to make a living out of their work, generally had associations with the upper class and nobility through the system of patronage. (This was, after all, an era when the middle class was just beginning to solidify as a level of social stratigraphy.)

While Jonson’s term might have been intended as a snub, it was also percipient. A playwright is a skill of putting things together quite specifically. Beneath the exterior words, there are particular ways plays get built to achieve their desired effect; it doesn’t just happen by accident. There are entire books (such as the one quoted above) dedicated to teaching readers how to understand what’s going on under the skin of a play script, to be conscious of the deliberate decisions the writer has made. (There are even more books dedicated to teaching people how to write plays.) By today’s standards, being a “playwright” indicates the many subtleties and abilities involved, rather than “playwrite”, which would imply merely someone who wrote plays, as if that was quite a simple thing to do. This is not to suggest that poetry is any less deliberate or consciously planned, but that plays do not operate in the same entirely free creative space that poetry does. There are inherent restrictions, in very functional dramatic terms, which don’t usually need to be considered when creating poems.

Whether they see themselves as poets or craftsmen, people who write plays have an extra burden not put on those who write words that are intended to remain on the page. They also have to be collaborators, in temperament if not in actuality. They know from the beginning that their work, putting words to the page, is actually only the beginning of an entire process; they intend for their words to be read, analysed, dissected, internalised, embodied, and performed. In some cases, of course, the writer is the performer (let’s remember that Shakespeare was also an actor), and in a one-person show, it’s possible to skip the extra layer of input. In most cases, though, and certainly in all historic dramas that I can think of, at the very least there are other actors taking on some of the text. Generally, today, there is also a director, and a whole host of people of various creative disciplines at work in translating the page to the stage. A writer knows that once he’s done putting words to the page, someone else takes over. The play requires him to begin, but it requires others to come to completion. It takes a village to raise a play, and the writer may or may not have any input once he writes a figurative ‘the end’ on the last page.

But, of course, this is all a question of whether a play is only complete when in performance, and it draws a line of distinction between an audience of non-theatre professionals, and that interior to the profession: the first “audience” for a play are the directors and actors who are considering/staging it. No matter how many interpretive layers eventually lie between the playwright and the eventual performance, it begins on paper. Some plays seem to be written with this as the focal aspect (I’m thinking, for example, of the profusion of complicated staging directions in The Glass Menagerie, which are usually summarily ignored by directors, and therefore seem more of use to someone who intends only to read the play and may need help ‘picturing it’), while others may be seen as hard going on the page yet come to life beautifully on stage (an assertion that has been levelled at Jonson’s plays). A playwright, in a sense, is therefore tasked with creating a work for multiple audiences, in different media, with a single work.

Given all of these complexities, it’s ironic that Jonson intended “playwright” to be a demeaning term in comparison to that of “poet”. The multifaceted expectations with which a writer of plays must cope, within the limitations of language and dramatic necessity, make it a craft indeed, in the modern sense: a highly specialised, artisanal skill which requires hard work and learning, of creating something from nothing in a creative manner within a general framework. He got it right, after all.

Report from the Field: ‘Dare To Tell: Silence and Saying in Ben Jonson’ Conference in St. Andrews

Just before we went into production for our ‘Mankind’ revival run a few of us attended a conference on Ben Jonson with a view to expanding our historic drama horizons. The following is what our Artistic Director took away from the event.

Right now, you can hardly turn around in theatrical England without being reminded that it’s the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also the four hundred anniversary of the publication of the folio of Ben Jonson’s works, an anniversary that has had much less attention. This is just variation on a longstanding theme: Jonson exists so much in his contemporary’s shadow. Trying to bring him out of this relative obscurity is one of the hopes of Jonson scholars. Since my own specialism suffers a similar fate, I sympathise with them – and, in fact, medieval drama and Jonson do in many ways dovetail together nicely (something I hope to explore further in the future).

The ‘Dare to Tell’ conference in St Andrews was organised in celebration of this Jonsonian anniversary. Like all academic conferences, the papers ranged over quite a lot of territory, from literature to performance to cultural reception. And, like all specialist conferences, it was a reminder that being “reasonably familiar” with Jonson’s works and career is not the faintest patch on the knowledge of true experts, and there is a lot to be learned. Here, then, are some of the ideas introduced at the conference – it is only a skimming of the surface of the depth of study out there!

The meaning of space was the subject of a paper by Laura Swift, particularly with respect to the play The Devil is an Ass. In the play, she argued that the interior of houses was connected with tradition, reliability, inherited wealth, and female chastity (the importance of which was tied to concerns for legitimate inheritance), while the street/exterior was symbolic of change, transgression, and wealth that comes through commerce, at a time when early modern (particularly urban) culture was struggling to adjust to the idea of social and economic mobility. Although the discussion was considering the play from a literary angle, it occurred to me these ideas would also be useful to consider in actually staging a production.

Isabel Karremann discussed the issue of memory with respect to Jonson’s many masques. This dramatic form is probably the least accessible of Jonson’s works, because they were intentionally extravagant, expensive performances, usually one-off, created for events such as a royal visit to a noble house; as conspicuous consumption, they weren’t intended for repeat performance. Jonson’s choice to include them in his folio therefore seems to undermine that intention ephemerality, as he must have had some reason for committing them to paper and therefore posterity. Had he not done so, they would exist only as a series of design sketches, and we would know far less about them. It strikes me that this is not just a historical but very modern question: that of whether performance can/should be pinned down on paper. We’re still trying to make sense of that; but what does it tell us, that in this particular case, Jonson thought it worth trying?

Rachel Horrocks discussed the dual role of audience – particularly royal audiences – as spectator and performer at masques, not in their capacity as dramatic participants, but because, as royalty, they were on display when being seen in public. This ‘reciprocal spectatorship’, she argued, had an effect on the performance and its success or failure: other audience members were likely to follow a monarch’s lead, and if the monarch was seen to be enjoying a performance, others would do the same, but if a bored monarch decided to leave the performance, so did everyone else. One can only imagine how challenging this situation must have been to those trying to put together a performance, and some of Jonson’s masques, she suggested, were created in such a way as to try to find ways that subverted this ‘mutual performance’ phenomenon.

An interesting episode in Jonson’s life, his “foot journey” or very, very long walk from London to Edinburgh, fairly recently discovered, was discussed by Anna Groundwater, who has worked on the project studying the journey. A travelling companion kept something of a diary of the event, but there is still a lot about it which is unknown, including why it happened. Groundwater suggested that Jonson was hoping to get idea material from it for future writing projects, and that he may have strategised his route to curry favour with possible patrons along the way, but that there might have been a diplomatic aspect to it as well, with the King hoping that Jonson would bring back news and information acquired along the way, particularly from Scotland and the ongoing politics within its church.

Martin Butler’s discussion of the many ways in which Jonson has appeared in twentieth and twenty-first century culture was especially interesting to me, because when you’re creating a production, you’re not doing so in a vacuum, but within the context of that play’s own past and baggage. The older the play, the more permutations this may have gone through – how the Georgians or Victorians felt about, or performed, Jonson’s works has influenced opinion of his work down to today. Although Jonson was reasonably prolific, almost all of his visibility in the past century came down to two plays, Volpone and The Alchemist. Butler commented that most reviews of Jonson’s plays, when they are performed, boil down to the ‘surprising’ revelation that his plays aren’t dull and are actually very entertaining – which is promptly forgotten thereafter, until the next review says exactly the same thing. This was particularly interesting because it’s one more way that Jonson seems to be an early-modern parallel to my experiences with medieval drama.

We went to the conference as a chance to spread out drama-historical wings a bit, and it definitely did. Maybe you wouldn’t normally dive into the expert end of the pool as a starting point, but it was nice to get an idea for what’s going on in at least one corner of early modern drama studies, to get a sense of the richness lying within. And it was very much a reminder that the early modern period is not a seismic shift from the medieval but rather a bridge, neither the same thing nor entirely dissimilar either. The same could be said about Renaissance and modern drama, too: theatre history is not so much a direct evolution as a spectrum. I hope we will have the chance to put some of what we learned and have thought about since into practice, and that we will revisit Jonson and his contemporaries in the future.

Report From The Field: Performances at the 2016 METh Conference

During the past weekend, our Artistic Director took some leave from working on our revival of ‘Mankind’ to attend the Early English Drama & Performance Network and Medieval English Theatre conferences. Her personal thoughts from the events follow and we will be back with more on ‘Mankind’ next week.

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that I was at a conference this weekend. (Technically, this year, a pair of one-day conferences.) I tend to think of METh (Medieval English Theatre) as the “annual pilgrimage”, when Britain’s medieval drama scholars – and some aficionados from outside formal academia – make their way to a gathering spot, to spend some time sharing new research and discoveries, exchanging ideas, seeing performances, making new contacts, and generally checking in with the current state of the field.

I’ve been going to METh for about eight years now. It has a wonderful way of both changing and staying the same. On the latter front, there is much of the “old home week” about it: most of us only see one another once or twice a year, and it’s a much-appreciated opportunity to catch up with people you not only respect as colleagues, but also consider friends. The papers are always fascinating – and remarkably diverse. You might think that in such a small, specific field, there’d be a limit to the directions study could take, but there seemingly isn’t. Every year you can learn something new. And, in the ‘new’ column is the fact that this was the first year where METh met as an official society. For the most part that doesn’t change the way things function, but it does mean that there is now an organisation that you can join to formally be part of this community and keep up with what’s going on, if you’re interested in medieval drama. The other change I’ve noticed is that, where a few years ago I was the “baby” of the group, there is now a decent percentage of postgraduate scholars and early-career researchers in the field, which is a healthy sign for the future.

As I realise that most of you aren’t medieval academics, I won’t try to give you a précis of every paper given; if you’re curious, do check us out on Twitter for some highlights as they happened. Instead, I want to mention the part of the conference that is probably of most interest to you as theatre fans – the performance. Actually, there were two this year: a one-act play on Friday night, ‘Marge & Jules’, about medieval writers and mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, and on Saturday afternoon, ‘John of Beverley’, a Dutch interlude about a British saint.

‘Marge & Jules’ is a wonderful example of what you can do when creating drama from historical records. Both Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich left their stories to us: Margery’s is considered the first autobiography in English (1430s), and Julian’s is the first book in English by a woman (c. 1395). They’re both interesting as figures, and the obvious parallels and differences in their stories make them a good pairing for study. They did actually meet, and most of the script was taken from their actual writings. It’s less a plot-driven story and more a pair of character studies, but it’s a fantastic example of the way that history almost tells its own stories at times – and the play does a good job of exploiting the gentle humour that we might find in the quirks of these two women, as well as their virtues.

‘John of Beverley’ is less straightforward: an actual English saint who died in the early 8th century, the play is actually early 16th century Dutch, and the METh performance was translated into English. How John made that journey isn’t clear, nor is the way in which his story was transformed into that of the play. And it is a truly bizarre and comic thing. The plot hinges on the pious hermit John being duped by the devil into making the choice to either drink until drunk, or commit more heinous acts, including murder. He decides to get drunk, at which point he commits the other sins anyway, and then repents by becoming a hairy wild man creeping about the forest like an animal, until he is finally given a sign that God forgives him. This description doesn’t even begin to cover what a strange tale it is, and one of the major discussion points after the performance was whether it was intended to be as hilarious as we all found it, or whether it was meant to be taken with a certain degree of genuine piety.

It’s (to me) hard to imagine that any audience could fail to snicker at John’s uncertainty as to whether or not drunkenness was on the same moral par as homicide. I think it’s also worthwhile to consider that, even if the play was, by some chance, meant to be more serious than this production, or our response to it, might suggest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we, today, have to maintain a serious approach. It was also a good example of the fact that a text which might look merely confusing on paper can be elevated through performance and direction. Little details – the amazing costume for John as the wild man, or the narrator cooing at a baby made from a shawl – made the play utterly hilarious. We don’t often credit medieval or early-modern drama as having a sense of the absurd, but I think that says more about our assumptions about the past and its people than what the evidence shows.

There aren’t all that many opportunities to see medieval plays in action, and METh is one of the rare occasions where I get to do so. It’s also a chance to talk to other people who spend part of their time working on historically informed drama, an equally rare thing. Inevitably there are some interesting debates about approaches: to adapt or translate? To emphasise the medieval or to emphasise the continuity? And there is almost always a point where we acknowledge that, despite all of our efforts in both academic and performative terms, attitudes about ‘medieval drama’ outside of our own specialist enclave seem incredibly hard to shift. These are matters that apply to both medieval drama studies and production. HIDden, in its earliest inception, was our answer: maybe by continuing to force a permeability between those two facets, more people can appreciate and enjoy plays like these, and maybe someday medieval drama can move out of the shadows. Even as HIDden begins to move away itself into a more diverse theatrical path, I still hope we can play a part in that.

For more information on Medieval English Theatre, the organisation and the publication, as well as future events, please visit:

Mankind’s Latin: A Conundrum

This week our Artistic Director contemplates Mankind’s ability to read and write in Latin.

In the modern (and western) world, we take it more or less as read- pun intended- that people are literate. While I’m sure it’s exciting for parents, to watch their child take first, tentative steps into reading, it’s a normalised step in our learning process. Whether it comes easily or not, there is a presumption that we will acquire literacy at some point in our young lives. Of course, there is still illiteracy in the world, especially if we take a widely global perspective, but for you, reading this, it’s probably something that’s been taken pretty much for granted.

This is a relatively recent development. In the Middle Ages, an ability to read and write was nowhere near as commonplace as it is today. Most people didn’t need to read, and didn’t really have the time to learn. Class status mattered: the more wealth you had, the more powerful you were, the greater the odds you would have at least some degree of literacy. While there is a substantial argument that “literacy” can be auditory as well as actually accessing words off a page, it is the traditional meaning of literacy that matters for this discussion, and agreement seems to remain that most medieval peasants were not, in the usual sense of the term, “literate”.

And yet, Mankind, our eponymous peasant, who is clearly shown to be poor, overworked, and largely powerless in his society, is capable of writing. And not just writing, but writing in Latin, and understanding what he writes. We see him print onto a badge which he wears. These aren’t words we’ve heard him given by Mercy; it’s something he clearly understands on his own. What’s up with that?

There is no indication that Mankind has ever been of a higher station than he is at present- he’s not a down-on-his luck nobleman who might have learned as a child and just happens to find himself in poor circumstances. There was more social mobility by the late fifteenth century than previously: post-plague economic circumstances were to the advantage of the working class, as this labour force had diminished and was therefore more valuable, and a distinct merchant and middle class was rapidly developing. But even so, Mankind’s poverty is one of the central issues of the play, and why the Vices can tempt him away so easily- he is desperate for a life that is not all drudgery for little reward. Even in the late 1400’s, a peasant farmer would not have the resources of either time or money to be learning to read. (The printing press, invented around 1440, predates the play by a few decades, but was still a way from the mass-market-cheap-paperback phase, by a few centuries.)

A casual discussion with a colleague recently ended up with the question of whether he could be a monastic lay-brother. These were members of a monastic community who were not educated, or ordained, as clergy, but who performed the manual labour functions of the community, such as farming, cooking, etc. Although I have never found any academic suggestion of this possibility, I find it a rather intriguing idea. Titivillus suggests that Mankind should take a woman, “and your own wife betray”, which certainly argues against it. But this is the only real hint that Mankind has a spouse, and earlier Nought has offered to find Mankind a wife, which would suggest he might not be married. Of course, marital status is only one potential clue, but it would certainly make the Vices’ temptations more scandalous if the “spouse” they were encouraging Mankind to betray was the church to which he had committed himself. Mankind’s spiritual ignorance and weakness are perhaps the strongest arguments against his having any formal association with a religious order, but the idea, none the less, would be interesting to explore more fully.

The truth is that there is no immediately obvious, logical explanation for why Mankind is able to write, in Latin. And this is one of the challenges of medieval plays, which we have to keep in mind. Today’s theatre is so much the product of years of “reality” being the goal, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that fifteenth-century playwrights weren’t really interested in writing “characters”, not the sort we think of today, who are fully realised and realistic. Their goals were the ideas of the piece as a whole, the moral lesson, not the individuals inhabiting the drama. As a rather amusing article argues, you certainly can use modern acting methods, including “The Method” itself, to approach medieval drama. (1) But you have to accept that everything won’t weave together with perfect smoothness, and there may be aspects that don’t entirely make sense to logic, either historically or internally to the character. Mankind should not, logically, be able to read and write, and yet he can, and does. These are the moments where medieval drama becomes challenging, and we have to accept that it is a slightly different species than twentieth-century drama. While I’m sure some actors would have a hard time working with the “you just have to accept” attitude that medieval drama occasionally requires of them, the vast majority of people seem to be able to get to the emotional core of the character, regardless of these inconsistencies. And that is exactly what the drama demands, and what it was intended to give its audience.

Our Mankind, of course, is set in the twenty-first century, when it’s entirely probably that Mankind can read and write (though Latin is still beyond the pale for most of us). That discrepancy had nothing to do with our decision to move the play’s setting forward, but it is rather nice that it can help with the difficulty.


(1) Tydeman, Bill, ‘Stanislavski in the Garden of Gethsemane’, Medieval English Theatre 5.1, 1983, p. 53-57.

Mind the Gap: Research Between the Lines

This week our Artistic Director, Laura Elizabeth Rice, has been considering gaps in historical evidence and how this can affect both academia and theatre.

In my “other” life, I spend a lot of time working on my PhD thesis, which focuses on performances of medieval plays during the 1951 Festival of Britain. At first that must seem completely removed from HIDden. Actually, some days – many days – there isn’t that much difference between the two. I’ve written previously about some of the places I go to for theatrical inspiration, and it probably goes without saying that the first source of inspiration is, of course, the text itself: the play is the first place to look for ideas, suggestions, and what aspects catch your eye. I mention this because, while the text is the play, quite literally, it is also an artefact itself, a document which exists from some earlier point in time, and that’s where I start looking next for ideas: the past, the records, of what we know about that play from its previous incarnations. Research for my thesis or research for HIDden: in both cases, the documentation is similar, with frequently identical gaps in the record.

In both cases, a lot of the records that I have to work with are detached from the productions almost entirely: they’re actually civic records, minutes and accounts of city government which had some hand in organising and/or financing the plays. It’s more true for the medieval than more modern events, but in both cases, records from the people who actually worked on the plays are pretty limited. (This is especially true of the small towns which put on medieval plays in 1951. In many of those cases, the medieval records actually offer more information than is available for events just sixty years ago!) These records offer oblique information at best: for example, X amount of money was spent on the repair of an angel’s wings. That tells us that a) the angels had wings, and b) they were made of a material with a certain cost, which might hint at what that material was, but… that’s it. Put enough of these pieces together, where you can, and you can start to get a vague idea of what a play might have been like. (And to those who are really curious, I would direct you to the extraordinary Records of Early English Drama, a massive and ongoing compilation of these information nuggets.) You’ll never find a document that says, “This is what our play was like.” You always have to imagine it from the bits and pieces.

While the Middle Ages has been my area of speciality, the same concerns exist across most other eras as well. The need to create a documentary record of performances was never foremost in anyone’s mind, so what has been saved is haphazard rather than deliberate. “The play’s the thing”, not the archive. At some point, I hope to sit down and write about the issues, ideas, and debates around documenting performances deliberately (and whether we even should, or can), but for the present, suffice to say that for academic work, the random survival of records makes it very challenging to write accurately about what a play or performance might have been like. I confess that I was surprised by this: I had assumed that the 1950’s would be much better documented than the fifteenth century; just like that earlier period, it all depends on whether a performance happened in an area that was urban or rural, wealthy or impoverished, and whether the city government, rather than ad hoc groups of citizens, was the driving force behind a performance. In the latter case, even today, you can be pretty sure that it won’t leave much of a documentary trail.

For HIDden, unlike my thesis, in many ways I’m grateful for the gaps. I don’t want to re-create someone else’s production of a play, and if you know too much about the way things have been done before, you run that risk. I’ve been involved in productions that became, effectively, a staged version of a film, down to the way actors delivered lines; so even if there is a filmed or taped production available, I make a point of not watching it from the moment I contemplate working on a play to the day it closes. Where I’m reliant on limited documentation to understand a previous, historic performance, the gaps become the space where I have to make decisions and imagine, where the production becomes our own. The truth is that, in both my theatrical and academic work, it’s the missing pieces that intrigue. They can be utterly maddening at times, but those gaps are what keep us questioning, wondering, and dreaming.