SAA 2016

The Shakespeare Association of America conference is usually a useful but punishing experience: useful to meet people, to share ideas, and to be exposed to new ways of thinking; punishing because physically and mentally exhausting. It can be a frustrating and isolating experience: it is very easy to feel alone in a crowd. This year the experience was different for me because, for the first time, I co-organized a seminar. This was my fourth SAA and I’ve had some frustrating experiences in previous conferences – just trying to get a word in can be a challenge when you are a PhD student in a big seminar alongside numerous loquacious high-profile academics. Running a seminar is different. It was scarier than I thought it’d be – I didn’t feel nervous until the morning when I suddenly realized we were in charge of the bloody thing – but it was also a great experience. It’s much easier to meet people (at some seminars I’ve been in I’ve left without properly speaking to everyone) and you get a great perspective on your chosen subject. We were lucky to receive excellent papers that challenged us to think about our topic – reprints, revivals and other renewals of Renaissance plays – in new and surprising ways. We were grateful, as early career academics, to have the opportunity to run a seminar and it’s great to see the SAA supporting early career academics in other ways: Next Gen Plen was again a success and the conference offered contingent faculty grants for the first time. But I can’t help thinking that what was, for me, a profitable conference experience (this time) may have been a frustration or disappointment to someone else. We probably don’t admit to these difficulties as much as we might do. Certainly, I haven’t always done this in the past. I feel a lot more confident and secure in conferences now, but it’s still scary. Twitter has been helpful in giving me more confidence to talk to people (even if it was a shame not to have internet access during the conference itself) but it’s not a substitute for the actual conference experience.

Anyway, there have been some useful reflections written on SAA 2016 already. Steve Mentz has written about communities; Joseph Wallace has written about specialisms. I think it’s useful to look at Shakespeare (and Shakespeare conferences) with a critical eye, so I appreciate these responses. My own response would be somewhat narrower, partly because, unlike previous years, I didn’t put myself under pressure to go to everything. SAA can be a great intellectual experience but it often feels like you’re being beaten over the head with all of the stuff you don’t know. I stuck more to my own subject this year which was better for my well-being, if not my critical development! I was pleasantly surprised to find so many panels and seminars placing Shakespeare in direct dialogue with other Renaissance authors. This wasn’t a major surprise – SAA has always been open to that kind of study – but given the peculiar force Shakespeare is exerting in 2016 it was still pleasing to see that Shakespeare was not utterly eclipsing everything else (giant Shakespeare head aside). For example, in the excellent ‘Race and… seminar Shakespeare sat next to The Spanish Gypsy, The Masque of Blackness, The Jew of Malta, The Fair Maid of the West, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Battle of Alcazar and The English Moor. It was fascinating to see these plays being brought into a variety of conversations with such an important topic. Elsewhere, the wonderful ‘Before Shakespeare: The Drama of the 1580s‘ seminar kept Shakespeare in the picture without making him central. Robert Wilson, John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Porter, and ‘Anon’ all featured. And in our seminar topics ranged from the Elizabethan period to the Restoration (including the understudied period between 1642 and 1660) and discussion centred a range of authors and stationers. The final day also featured an excellent panel on Theatre History which opened up valuable discussions about attribution studies and lost plays.

Later this year the International Shakespeare Association’s World Shakespeare Congress will open in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to London. Later still, the British Shakespeare Association Conference will open in Hull. Shakespeare will be celebrated (and why not?) but I’ll be interested to see how not-Shakespearean Renaissance drama features. SAA struck a useful balance, I think, but it remains to be seen how these UK-based conferences handle the topic.

Shax
The face that launched a thousand tweets. Oh, wait, that was the other guy

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (My Masters)

Mad World

I managed to miss A Mad World My Masters when it played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2013 but was grateful to get to see it in London, at the Barbican, where it enjoyed a short run. I’m pretty pleased to have seen it and the more I think about it, the more I like it. At first, I found it hard to get past the often ineffective modernizations – of these, the most irritating is the substitution of ‘Littledick’ for the funnier ‘Shortrod’, but there are other annoying examples too. But while it seems to me that, on the whole, the production struggled with the verbal intricacies of Middleton’s text, it scored highly for visual inventiveness. The visual jokes often had depth and richness with the cruder verbal puns did not (and by crude, I mean unsophisticated, not salacious – there were plenty of salacious visual jokes). The production’s distrust of Middleton’s language was flagged up by Penitent Brothel’s interpolated admission that his pun isn’t very good. ‘I cannot be patient and physician too’ he says, before turning to the audience to add ‘Thomas Middleton, 1605’. The RSC have, of course, placed faith in Middleton by staging his play, but still, this isn’t the worst pun in the production – plenty of the newer additions are equally groansome. As Emma Smith noted in the TLS, the production betrays a ‘surprising lack of confidence in the play’s original language’.

To Smith’s list of examples of unsuccessful modernizations I’d add the unfortunate decision to excise the potentially knockout line ‘I am the constable i’th’ common wealth’ and replace it with ‘I am the constable in the very tragedy’. I’ve heard the ‘common wealth’ line work wonderfully in play readings and it works better rhythmically, to my ear at least. Furthermore, it makes more sense: the Constable is trying to point out what we know and the onstage ‘audience’ do not – that they are not watching a play – but it includes a further metatheatrical joke as we also know he’s not actually in a common wealth but is, in fact, in a play. But while these updates usually seem botched, the visual updates do not. The fake play-within-a-play involves Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Sir Bounteous Progress in Middleton) hosting a Jacobean fancy dress party, so we get a gesture towards original staging arriving, with wonderful incongruity, in the middle of a consciously updated production.  

What to make of the gap between the way the production treats the visual and the verbal? I’m cautious about claiming that theatre producers should ‘trust the text’ and it may be that the irreverence shown to the language allowed for a more playful approach to be taken, but it’s not a bad thing to use the words either – many of them are pretty good.