Quilted History: Emilia and Swive

Leaving Swive a few nights ago, I found myself thinking about story quilts, which I dimly remember learning about in elementary school. Some of the most famous examples are the late nineteenth century work of Harriet Powers, who used quilted squares to tell Bible narratives and records of events of her lifetime, such as a meteor shower. It’s believed, therefore, that the style originated with American slaves, though early evidence seems (understandably) scant.

I also found myself thinking about Emilia, another recent Globe new writing commission that sought to reimagine a famous early modern woman through a contemporary feminist lens.

Both Swive (which is about Queen Elizabeth from the accession of her brother King Edward to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, sort of) and Emilia (the highly fictionalized life and times of poet Emilia Lanyer) share a fragmented structure, a vision of history that is more episodic than smoothly narrative, and is concerned less with direct cause-and-effect continuity of either event or character development than in creating what comes to seem like a collage of a life–or, perhaps, like a narrative patchwork.

It’s a structure that’s partly enabled by both plays’ framing devices, which place the older version of their central character character looking back on and partially narrating her own life. The narration can fill the gaps the patches leave, or draw out implications they don’t have time to show; it also enhances the impressionistic and highly subjective feel of this structure. This is not the entirety of these women’s lives, but their recollections of the moments that really mattered, partly enacted by a second actor playing their younger selves, someone who both is and is not the person they are now.

It seems important to this structure that both of these plays are at their core not really about a woman who must discover herself, as the traditional biographic coming-of-age narrative depicts, but one who must make herself seen by others in spite of the constraints of early modern English culture. Through the patchwork recollection of their lives, both Elizabeth and Emilia are able to make the audience see and understand truths about themselves and their remarkable abilities that their contemporaries could not. The essential relationship of the play faces outward, demonstratively, not inwards. It’s sort of logical, therefore, that other characters in both plays are almost exclusively antagonists, representatives of society and its oppressive attitudes. Swive emphasizes this with its tightly doubled cast of four: Dudley, Elizabeth’s would-be lover, is the same as her stepfather Seymour, who possibly molested her. Both plays have a difficult relationship with the idea of heterosexual romantic love (while simultaneously vilifying the notion of queer female desire) that perhaps stems from this sense that the men who love and are loved by these women also represent the threat of subsumption into the patriarchal, inferior position of ‘wife.’

Like most folk crafts, quilting and story quilts are a feminized art form. Similarly, I’ve been wondering how or if Emilia and Swive’s structural similarities can been seen as reaching towards a feminized form of historical narrative. There are certainly similarities between this style and the historical works of Caryl Churchill– I think Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is probably more effective than either of these plays at creating a collage effect, a fuller expression of this impulse to undermine traditional historical narratives not only through destabilizing narrative linearity, but by rejecting the notion of ‘great man’ history that can be told through focus on the achievements of a single figure rather than the experiences of a collective.

Thus Light Shining in Buckinghamshire makes no effort to centralize around a single character and thus can use its diffuse structure to achieve scope without worrying about specificity in the same way these biographical plays have to. These plays seem to be seeking a dramaturgical middle ground between innovation and tradition, attempting to simultaneously appropriate and deconstruct the dramaturgy that has long been used to spotlight male historical figures by casting that light on women– at once skeptical of the storytelling structures that have held men up, but wanting women to get their chance to stand center-stage anyway. 

That Victorian Lady, the Globe, and Authenticity

Certain corners of the internet have been fascinated by a Vox post by Sarah A. Chrisman, a woman who claims that she and her husband live their entire lives in an accurately Victorian fashion. She never explains how they came by a Victorian-era computer for blogging, but she does indeed blog and has written several books detailing how they come by and live with their period-accurate clothes and technology.
There have been a lot of really interesting pieces discussing the family, mostly negatively. Chrisman’s idolization of the Victorian era seems either cheerfully blind to, or disturbingly accepting ofthe sexist, racist, imperialist aspects of 19th century English culture. She also claims that she and her husband are historians (which they are, somehow) and that their Victorian reenactment is actually a large-scale research project, an experiment which has allowed them more authentic access to the period they study.
Questions about the place of reconstruction and reenactment are continually hovering in the air at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where I worked for the past seven months. The Globe now has two performance spaces: the Globe itself, occasional home to all-male ‘original practices’ (OP) productions; and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled after the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period, and host of the Research in Action series, curated by scholars and intended to explore the interaction between Jacobean scenes and the theatre space. 
I’ve always loved history (and dressing up!) and the Victorian couple’s thinking brought to mind my own reasons for wanting to undertake the course of study at the Globe that I’ve just finished. I wrote in my admissions essay how seeing the Globe’s OP Twelfth Night had completely transformed my understanding of the play; I was sure that this transformation was because the production was all-male, in period costume and make-up, using period music and props. I hope it’s a credit to the program itself that I am now convinced it was only the sheen of authenticity that was so seductive (though it was still a great production). The most obvious example is the fact that I didn’t even see Twelfth Night at the Globe, I saw it on Broadway. My ‘authentic’ Jacobean experience was mediated through the 19th century American architecture, designed to facilitate theatrical experiences with goals very different from those of an early modern play.
But even if I had seen it at the Globe, we’d still have to assume that the Globe is a perfectly accurate reconstruction (which we can’t know if it is), and swap out Mark Rylance and Paul Chahidi for boys or young men (and how old or young, exactly, would they be?), and assume that the play had been staged and rehearsed in keeping with early modern rehearsal and staging practices (if we knew for certain what those were).
All of these ‘we just don’t knows’ are what these ‘authentic’ spaces and reenactments tempt us to be able to answer. Chrisman insists she can discover the truth of Victorian experience by wearing a corset and typing by oil lamp. Similarly, one of the many debates about the construction of the Globe has to do with the placement of the onstage pillars. During an interview I conducted, an actor at the Globe half-jokingly noted that he was pretty sure the pillars were in the wrong place: when I pressed him, he said more seriously that they just felt wrong, they didn’t complement his impulses as an actor. In his writings about the discovery of the Rose Playhouse, Sir Ian McKellan somewhat smugly points out that many features make perfect sense to an actor, like an apparent rake in the floor, or the fact that the stage faces the sun— but what about those that don’t, like the truly atrocious sightlines from the side galleries?
But as Slate’s really nice article puts it, ‘The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.’ Wearing Victorian clothes and using Victorian furniture does not magically grant you insight into the era itself; to judge by Chrisman, it may well distract you from more critical, complex forms of intellectual engagement– including questioning how something as broad as the Victorian era (or the Jacobean, or the Elizabethan) could possibly be narrowed down to a single set of opinions and aesthetics.
Similarly, we are not an early modern audience. Thinking that we can watch a scene performed in a reconstructed space and use our opinions and impulses to recreate the way things were really done is to forget the most essential pieces of the puzzle: the culture, the society, the other plays we’d seen that week or in our lifetime, the things we’d read that morning, the gossip around town. The most conspicuous example in the case of early modern performance practice is the boy player: we will always find men playing women to be more unusual than an Elizabethan or Jacobean would have, and even then, we can’t really know how realistic or artificial they considered those performances to be.
It’s incredibly tempting to think that the right architecture or the right outfit can offer a shortcut to understanding a time period or a culture that we love. I am a huge fan of living history, and artifacts and reconstructions have immense value. But it’s dangerous (to good history, anyway) to forget that in many essential ways, we are not doing or seeing what Victorians and Elizabethans and Jacobeans did and saw.

(Also, just to be clear, however bad their historiography, nothing justifies some of the abuse and threats that Chisman reports receiving. That’s just awful.)

Review: The Broken Heart

After a point, it must have gotten difficult for Jacobean dramatists. Revenge-filled bloodbaths are in, and sooner or later, your audience isn’t going to bat an eye at your traditional stabbings, stranglings, or poison-coated objects. You need to come up with something really odd.

Luckily, John Ford was ready to deliver. 

The Sam Wanamaker’s latest revenge tragedy in a season full of them, Ford’s The Broken Heart (directed by Caroline Steinbeis) concludes with some of the most bizarre and upsetting methods of death the new theatre has seen so far. And remember they also did Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. 

Actually, The Broken Heart has occasional echoes of ‘Tis Pity: its central character (at least at first) is Orgilus, a young man whose engagement was abruptly broken off by the lady’s brother, Ithocles, who gave his sister away to someone else (someone else who, at one point, becomes convinced that his new bride, Penthea, is sleeping with her brother, among others). Orgilus has been driven frantic by his loss, and busies himself with obsessing over his own sister’s chastity and disguising himself as a monk. Ithocles, meanwhile, has returned from war and is showered with praise, titles, and rewards from the King– but finds that all this is worth nothing, because he has fallen in love. This is a source of twofold pain: he is in love with Princess Calantha, whom he can never hope to wed, and his new understanding of the pain of thwarted affection has caused him to feel unassuageable remorse for what he did to Orgilus and Penthea. 

What’s most fascinating about the play overall is its gestures towards a very modern-feeling psychological complexity. Ithocles, for example, has undergone a genuine change of heart that Orgilus refuses to acknowledge. Luke Thompson’s dynamic and compelling Ithocles, by turns glowing with youthful arrogance and staggered by the weight of his own guilt, could almost be the hero of a play written 300 years later. Unfortunately for him, in Brian Ferguson’s manic Orgilus, he’s matched with an old-style revenger, and their clash seems almost to be as much stylistic as moral: Orgilus cannot believe that Ithocles can possibly have truly changed. It seems at the last that Ithocles can’t wholly believe it, either. 

Equally well-drawn by Ford and well-performed are the ladies, Amy Morgan dominating the first half as Penthea and Sarah MacRae’s Calantha bursting center stage in the second. The play flits from perspective to perspective, allowing many characters– the women included– to take control of the story at different moments. It’s not until late in the second act that the familiar steps of the revenge tragedy are set into motion, and by then it’s abundantly clear that these characters will not conform quietly to their traditional roles– though there still are, as mentioned above, plenty of deaths carried out in spectacularly bizarre manners. 

Steinbeis’s production joins Jacobean and steampunk-Spartan in costuming combinations that don’t always make complete sense, but are unquestionably striking. She wisely allows the tone to be frequently comical, especially in scenes with Pentha’s husband Bassanes (Owen Teale), the King of Argos (Joe Jameson), and even Orgilus and Ithocles. A favorite gesture is letting all the courtiers awkwardly laugh at the king’s bad jokes. However, everyone is treated fairly– which seems like a strange thing to say. But the complexities of Ford’s characterizations could easily be smoothed over by an inattentive director; similarly, the blurring of comic and tragic could allow the ending to descend into violent farce, as was somewhat the case with ‘Tis Pity earlier this season. Steinbeis and the actors, however, allow all the characters the dignity of their complications.

The Broken Heart is the only extant early modern play set in Sparta, and fittingly, the dominant note for most of its characters is stoicism: excessive displays of emotion are roundly mocked, impeccable self control the highest form of honor. I’m still not entirely convinced as to how a revenge tragedy was meant to make one feel– not genuinely sorrowful, surely? The admirable resolve with which every character faces their demise makes it difficult to feel sad, exactly. Or have we just lost the ability to connect to such stylized emotions? But this production comes closer than most– not that its characters would want you to admit it. 

Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

You know that one couple at the theatre? They keep rustling their candy wrappers during serious moments, and the wife keeps asking what’s going on and the husband has a lot of opinions about the subject matter and relative merits of the characters? Sometimes they kiss and you wonder where, exactly, they think they are? Well then, you’ve already met the heroes of Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. 

‘Heroes’ might be a strong word. The Citizen and his Wife recognize that they themselves are not exactly the stuff of heroic drama. But that’s why they have to interrupt the new play being put on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to insist that their apprentice, Rafe, play a present-day (present-day being roughly 1600) knight errant who will bring glory to the Grocer’s Guild of London. The play is ostensibly about a company trying to put on a production of a supposed new play called The London Merchant, a fairly cliché story about the forbidden love between a merchant’s daughter and the merchant’s apprentice. But at George and Nell’s insistence, and to the frustration of the cast, this becomes interspersed with the tale of Rafe, the Don Quixote-like knight errant who is sent on increasingly disjointed errands to please the tastes of his excitable and, we are meant to understand, profoundly middle-class master and mistress.

But the real story is about George and Nell. Those are their names, by the way. We all laughed when a professor rather indignantly pointed out that we ought to call them by their given names, but I’ve come to agree. ‘Citizen’ and ‘Citizen’s Wife’ are such cold and dehumanizing titles, but George and Nell are the warm, beautiful heart of the play. Sure, they can barely sit still for more than the length of a scene, but the strange, comic character sketch of the grocer and his wife is much more interesting than what they players are actually trying to offer.

Because of this structure, Burning Pestle could easily suffer from what I think of as the “Pippin problem”: in order for the interruptions to the very traditional form to work, you have to spend so much time establishing it that ultimately, you mostly end up watching a pretty cliche play that is only interspersed (or concluded) with moments of interesting frame-breaking. But here, director Adele Thomas has recognized that the heavily formulaic plot means that the scenes can stand a great deal of interruption and distraction without making the story completely incomprehensible. So, the ‘real’ actors are just as ridiculous as George and Nell, and just as much time is spent making fun of the pretensions of actors as of the citizens’ complete ignorance of audience etiquette.

This is a leveling which the text does not necessarily demand, but which works tremendously. One of the most notable examples is the character Jasper, the handsome romantic lead of the comedy the players are attempting to perform, and who sticks most doggedly to trying to present the play as written. Nell takes an instant dislike to him, a funny and strangely contemporary-feeling metatheatrical comment on the fact that, were she a character in such a comedy, she would certainly be the disapproving wealthy mother sneering at a character just like Jasper, the poor suitor of her daughter. In the text of the play as I read it, there is irony in her distaste, and comedy in the audience’s recognition that Nell (though she does not know it herself) has picked the “wrong” side. But instead, in this production, Jolyon Coy’s Jasper is a pitch-perfect depiction of a self-centered diva, furiously indignant when anyone dares step on his big moments and fantastically greedy for applause. We are allied with Nell in our distaste for him (hilarious though he is), especially when he gleefully seizes the opportunity, under the guise of a fight scene, to ‘actually’ beat Rafe up.

This scene is almost the last straw for George and Nell as well.  For what pulls them through the play is partly their enthusiasm at shouting out suggestions for new scenes, and partly the comedy of their bad manners, but mostly their effusive love for Rafe. This mostly takes a comic form, of course, but Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn so skillfully root it in something genuine that it never loses its humanity. Both George and Nell have one speech each in which they brush ever so gently against tragedy, and the acting and directing of both of these moments are some of the deftest transitions from funny to moving and back again that I have ever seen.

Matthew Needham’s Rafe is the perfect object for these affections. Needham perfectly executes the very difficult task of portraying Rafe’s utter guilelessness and surprise revelation of a credible talent for acting without any hint of artifice or commentary. Towering over most of the cast yet hesitant to take up space, undeterred from his performance by rest of the cast’s frustration yet always obediently answering to his master and mistress’s summons, Rafe is entirely and irresistibly charming, and the audience’s ability to entirely share George and Nell’s love for him is yet another way in which their interjections are rendered not laughable, but a game in which we are eager to join them.

I was encouraged by the woman at the box office to splurge on a ticket in the pit– which is obviously her job, but also sound advice. The sense of community participation were palpable where I was sitting, but I have a feeling the infectious joyfulness would not have spread quite the same way in the upper galleries, where you’re not near enough for Nell to pass you a grape, or George to wander over during one of the short musical interludes and strike up a chat (both of which happened to me). By the end, the pit and lower galleries at least had become remarkably vocal, with gasps and cheers to match what I’ve sometimes experienced in the yard of the Globe– but with the increased feeling of unity as a single audience that comes from a very intimate space.

The costumes (gorgeous, as always, and designed by Hannah Clark) are basically of the period, but the use of the Wanamaker’s lighting is not: lights from the voms and from under the seats are used in most instances to supplement the candlelight, and occasionally to provide colored lighting effects. This works well– however bright the chandeliers would have seemed to a Jacobean audience, the candlelight is just too dim to seem fitting for a comedy today. Plus, candles alone would not sufficiently light George and Nell, who are seated in the pit, rather than on stools on the stage as they are in the text.

In its time, The Knight of the Burning Pestle was a pretty massive flop– possibly because audiences just didn’t know what to make of its fourth-wall-shattering metatheatricality. Or possibly because the audience was a little too full of exactly the kind of middle-class theatergoers that the script was designed to mock. But this production insists that there is pride in being allied with George and Nell, in laughing at stupid slapstick comedy and cheering for impassioned pre-battle speeches (no matter how completely detached from the narrative) and just wanting them to skip all the boring bits and bring your favorite character back onstage. There’s something quite cheerfully subversive, in fact, about what the play ultimately offers: permission to engage sincerely– loudly, quietly, however you please, but without etiquette or pretension or artifice– with the theatre.