Performance Problems.

Reviewing my archive, it’s been some time since I’ve written something about, well, Ben Jonson, or any of the other dramatists about whom I’ve been busily reading, and writing (and reading and writing). I suppose I can forgive myself the omission: I am, after all, spending most of my waking hours trying to finish this MA thesis (hopefully with a week or so to recover before starting the Ph.D. in September). And after sometimes 10 or more hours reading, writing and editing Jonson (and co.)-related material, writing about the process here is, well, too exhausting to contemplate.

All those pictures make me feel a bit guilty, however; there should be more words in this archive. Shall make a vague attempt at it now.

I finished revising my first chapter (after the introduction: the first chapter proper) to my liking today. It was originally the third chapter, but my supervisor pointed out it had the most content on boy actors and most clearly stated a number of the problems I’m looking at in the other two chapters (for example, the way that the city works as a chaotic/carnival/epicene space that provides ideal grounds for the boy actor’s own disruptive qualities to operate; or the idea — borrowed from Will Fisher — that the boy actor’s ability to disrupt lies in his representation of a “third gender,” distinct from “man” or “woman”).

The chapter may have provided a lot of structural set-up, but it had some serious limitations (outright problems of interpretation, really). I was providing a reading of Ursula and the fair in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, and my supervisor, who’s made a habit of incorporating practical performance into her research (including attending plays, but also working with university performance groups), pointed out that my reading just didn’t work. I had been fairly stern — even condeming — of Ursula, and the fair in general. And while my reading was not entirely original (a number of other critics have read Ursula in this way), my supervisor pointed out that it just wasn’t an interpretation that ever worked out on stage.

Thinking more critically on the reading, she’s right. Ursula may be a complexly gendered figure — she may be a Puritan/anti-theatricalist’s worst nightmare — and she may not be the most flattering representation of femaleness ever written, but there’s no mistaking she’s a formidable woman. And generally, she generates a good part of the laughter around the tricksters and fools at the fair. Reading Ursula as an entirely condemned figure works in conjunction with early modern misogynist discourse concerning transvestites and whores, but it does so only if one ignores that laughter.

I was initially frustrated with the criticism — or, more particularly, frustrated with my own lack of performance-viewing experience that has meant (throughout this project) that I’m always missing some aspect of the text. (And of course, I immediately resolved to make a point of attending more performances). Then again, no one performance is ever definitive. Individual performances are themselves interpretations, and cannot reveal the “meaning” of the text any more than my writing can. Performance is useful because it allows one to practically play out ideas — to see what kind of interpretations (emphasis on the plural) work — and what doesn’t. But I do have the ability to theoretically play out ideas — to contemplate how a company might perform a scene in a certain way, what kind of space would be necessary, how the various themes might represent themselves visually on stage, &c. I do, after all, ask my students to consider these things as they read through plays.

Strangely, I seem to have forgotten some basic reading and interpretive practices while writing this chapter. Like taking the time to thoroughly consider the play. Or carefully re-reading and re-thinking every part of an argument to make sure it’s not wildly inconsistent with the rest of one’s writing. Performance experience or not, I needed to think about the chapter in context of the rest of the thesis. My earlier chapter on Amends for Ladies and Epicoene celebrates city as a fluid space where men and women can freely express any kind of desire, while my chapter on The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Eastward Ho! reads the city as a space that resists and subverts patriarchal norms which organise early modern domestic and political life. Both chapters celebrate the productivity of the city’s chaos. Had I reflected on this fact, I would have realised that an argument condemning the chaotic fair — and Ursula as the heart of the fair — makes no sense at all.

6 August 2010 ~ Hamilton

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