I woke up early this morning (after going to sleep somewhat earlier in the morning) with the intention of getting some revisions done. I did fairly well until the Marchioness arrived. Since then, I’ve been dividing my hours between consoling a rather irate Lady Cynthia, and keeping company with the somewhat bewildered (and needy, as all young kittens are) Lady Jane (for half the day this meant shifting from one room to another, as the two were adamently not getting along). I predict a sleepless night as the cats continue to negotiate their living space.
Last night, however, I thought up a way to bring some much needed-unity to my thesis. I’ve been writing about the ways that female communities form in London in Jacobean city comedies (Jonson’s Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair, Jonson-Chapman-Marston’s Eastward Ho!, Lording’s Ram Alley, Fields’s Amends for Ladies, and Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle are the central texts), and the ways that boy actors alternatively support and challenge these representations of female community in the city. While the intersections between these three problems (female bodies, city environment, and boy actor) intersect in coherent and definite ways, I’ve been having difficulties linking them in a focussed and concise way. It’s felt like a sprawling project.
The chapter I finished writing about a week and a half ago argues that generic structures like prodigal narratives, chivalric romances, pastoral poetry, and tragedy often defend patriarchal structures justified by “divine” and “essential” male authority. Transposed to the city, however, where fathers often abandon their families out of laziness, or in pursuit of unrealistic money-making ventures, and where mothers and wives are often required both to labour, and come up with schemes to enable their children to survive in the wake of the men’s failure to protect their families, these narratives appear anachronistic (or pure fiction), while families show themselves capable of being arranged in other than patriarchal structures. Eastward Ho! and The Knight of the Burning Pestle satirise these genres mercilessly. Boy actors heighten the satire against men (showing them to be little more than boys still), and, by extension, the genres which are supposed to consolidate the men’s authority. Women, though, are not nearly as threatened by the satire — partly because their position within the family is already unfixed and non-authoritative, but also partly because boys and women already occupy the same subordinate position in relation to men (both are bodies that the early moderns read as imperfect or not fully formed men’s bodies).
But boys’ bodies, I’ve decided, are more dangerous than women’s on stage (or anywhere) — because a boy is somewhere between a man and a woman. The boy actor in a boy’s company is either an effeminate male or a masculine woman. He can be desired simultaneously, by men and women. He can play a boy playing a girl much more easily than an adult male actor can. Indeed, he can play any type of role easily, and this is his value as an actor. The popularity of boy company productions suggests the boy actor was desired for his ability to be a fluid and unfixed self. But the possibility of a fluid and unfixed self also terrifies adult males and leads to the production of anti-theatricalist pamphlets that protest the stage is quite literally unfixing men, turning them back into women, or into creating sartorial laws that attempt to fix status by demanding that clothes act as sure and immediately visible signifiers of one’s position in society. The boy’s body on stage, terrifying and desired, is a fetishised object, one that represents the same fears that the everyday life of the city is unfixing gender, social status, and family structures, by allowing anyone with enough money to fashion their lives and their bodies however they want (a good opportunity for female communities, but a bit of a threat for male ones).
Two years ago, at my honours defense, my then-supervisor asked me if I was reading boy actors as something akin to tofu: a substance that can take on any flavour. I couldn’t think of an unproblematic answer then, but now I can respond, unequivocally, yes. That’s the whole terrifying point.
18 June 2010 ~ Hamilton
(Also, in case anyone was worried, no, I didn’t forget Ben’s birthday last week. Indeed, I threw him a party, with early modern-style food, allegorical costumes and the delightful party game which A. made.)