by Sarah Dustagheer
This Autumn Globe Education, in collaboration with the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) at Staunton, Virginia, held the first of two conferences in honour of Andrew Gurr. The conference’s exploration of differences between playing at the outdoor Globe and indoor Blackfriars was a fitting way to celebrate Gurr’s work. His research in this area has been central not only to scholarship on early modern staging but also to the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe and the Blackfriars theatre at Staunton. Over four days of illuminating debate about repertories, indoor and outdoor performance and the purpose of reconstructed playhouses formed fitting tributes to Professor Gurr.
The conference considered how and why theatre companies negotiated from outside in and inside out in early modern London. Gurr delivered the 2008 Theo Crosby Fellowship lecture, a comprehensive overview of the politics and practicalities behind the decision of the Chamberlain’s Men to build the Blackfriars in 1596. He contended that indoor playing was always a priority for the company. Later in the conference, however, Roslyn L. Knutson employed an economic reading of the accounts of Lord Strange’s Men that questioned the view that companies generally had a preference for indoor playing. John Astington’s paper provided a useful context for the building of the Blackfriars in 1596 as it explored the histories of the different indoor venues used from the 1590s. These included the converted schoolrooms in St Paul’s and Blackfriars (used by early boys’ companies), and the great halls at Hampton Court and Whitehall. Astington considered the effect of these small, intimate playing spaces on performance, an important question for the conference.
Andrew Gurr’s opening lecture also touched on another conference theme: how different texts of the same play may represent alternative stagings, perhaps in different venues. He noted that a stage direction in the Folio version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream states the lovers ‘sleep all the act’. Act breaks were a feature of Blackfriars playing and so the Folio text may represent a performance at the indoor playhouse. Patricia Parker’s paper expanded on Gurr’s lecture with other examples of staging differences between the quarto and Folio versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The staging possibilities of Hamlet are particularly rich because there are three versions of the play, dated 1603, 1604/5 and 1623. Ann Thompson’s insightful paper guided the conference through the effects of different stage directions in all three versions. For example, the earliest text calls for the player king to sit in ‘an arbour’; the later texts specify that he lie down ‘upon a bank of flowers’. Thompson noted that the play’s strong images have provided the basis for a collection of visual clichés - the man in black, the skull, Ophelia’s drowning. We need to distance ourselves from these visual clichés in order to see the original visual meanings of the play. Professor Michael Hattaway’s paper scrutinised As You Like It and its earliest performance. He suggested that the ambiguous dating of this play for the Chamberlain’s Men raises the possibility that it was written for court performance – the title of the play referring to catering to the monarch’s tastes.
As well as considerations of individual plays, the conference heard papers on different aspects of the Blackfriars repertories. Lucy Munro explored the continuities and changes between the repertories of the Children of the Queen’s Revels and the King’s Men. The boys’ company occupied the Blackfriars from 1600 to 1609, before Shakespeare’s company acquired it. Munro suggested that there was continuity in the use of some actors, playwrights and genre in both repertories. She also argued that the boys’ company at Blackfriars developed the genre of tragicomedy at Blackfriars and when the King’s Men took over the indoor playhouse in 1609 their repertory increasingly included tragicomedies. Dr Farah Karim-Cooper’s paper considered cosmetics and the Blackfriars repertory. The Blackfriars stage had a specific visual aesthetic created by candlelight and the use of pearl, or pearl substitutes, in facial cosmetics. Crushed pearls were used by the nobility to achieve the facial lustre and glow associated with traditional ideals of female beauty and virtue. So shimmering faces onstage not only suited the candlelit Blackfriars but also were a shorthand for female virtue, nobility and wealth. Karim-Cooper argued that Blackfriars plays, such as Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, explore the cultural ideas of nobility and virtue that shimmering faces represented. Alongside visual effects, the conference considered the sonic potential of the indoor playhouse. David Lindley gave a paper on music, composition and instrumentation at Blackfriars. He concluded that the King’s Men’s post-1609 repertory increasingly included bespoke songs which showcased musical talent.
Alongside a consideration of Shakespearean theatre, the conference had one foot in the present. Those who have work on and in reconstructed theatres such as Shakespeare’s Globe and the Blackfriars in Virginia debated what we can learn from such venues. Ralph Cohen, co-founder of the ASC, challenged criticism that reconstructed theatres are limited because they lack a vital component of early modern performances, namely early modern audiences. By analysing anecdotes about the Blackfriars, Cohen argued that reconstructed theatres can reveal how early modern plays shape audience response and also stimulate thinking about contemporary performance. During a roundtable discussion delegates continued the reconstruction debate, Marion O’Conner considered whether reconstructed playhouses kept certain performance traditions alive. Peter McCurdy, master carpenter of Shakespeare’s Globe, asked the conference to consider the effect of authentic building. Does it matter, for instance, that the Globe roof consists of Norfolk reed and the building stands on handmade bricks? Gurr argued that authentic materials contribute significantly to knowledge about the acoustics at the Globe. The conference considered the plans to reconstruct a second Globe at Staunton and how this project could build on the lessons learnt at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
The Globe has a long history of providing opportunities for theatre practitioners and scholars to share ideas. This practice was pioneered by Andrew Gurr so it was fitting that practitioners contributed to the conference. William Lyons, the composer and Globe musician, gave a paper on his experiences of playing in Shakespeare’s Globe, Middle Temple Hall and Hampton Court. In a stimulating session, the actor Philip Bird led a practical experiment into the difference between indoor and outdoor playing. Scenes from Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet were performed on the Globe stage and then performed in a room mocked up with the Blackfriars stage dimensions, complete with delegates sitting onstage as gallants would have done at the indoor theatres. The conference debated how the move from an outdoor theatre to an indoor one significantly affected hiding, eavesdropping and asides in Much Ado About Nothing 2.3.. On the Globe stage, Benedick could hide behind the pillars to eavesdrop and deliver his witty asides directly to the audience. On the Blackfriars mock-up, the only hiding place available was behind the frons scenae and the delivery of asides was difficult. Delegates were treated to a glimpse of the rehearsal process involved in moving to a different venue. For Hamlet 5.2., the fight choreographer Kate Waters re-staged the duel between Hamlet and Laertes to accommodate the smaller stage and stool-sitters. This sparked discussion between delegates and practitioners about the possibilities and difficulties of the smaller Blackfriars stage.
Early modern theatre, inside or out, was a collaboration between playwright, actor, theatre company and audience. This conference proved that getting to the heart of the debate requires a similarly collaborative endeavour between scholars and practitioners considering a mixture of historical context, close textual analysis and practical theatrical technique. Next year, delegates will move outside in and continue the collaborative conversation at the reconstructed Blackfriars in Staunton.
Sarah Dustagheer is a PhD student at Shakespeare’s Globe and King’s College, London.
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