The Three Ladies of London

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Some thoughts on the workshop

August 9, 2015

As stated at the outset of the workshop I came to the production process with the belief that actors trained in contemporary clowning techniques are better placed to perform 1580s touring plays than actors trained in modern classical theatre. I pointed out that the performance you saw the previous night deliberately mixed a clowning style with psychological realism (naturalistic acting). Specifically in the Gerontus scenes, Gerontus was performed within the style of psychological realism while the other two characters were "clowned." In rehearsal I felt that the stereotypical, clowned performance of the Jew was offensive and I was unwilling to present this to the public, but I wanted to explore this option during the private workshop.

As research directed towards issues of theatre history, performing Gerontus naturalistically made little sense to me. So, in the workshop, I first presented a version of the scenes that was consistent in performance style. Gerontus was clowned as well as the other characters: meaning the actor created a physicalization of the character that referenced common stereotypes associated with "Jewishness." I felt that this clowned version better supported the allegorical arguments of the play. In the trial scene for this version, Gerontus fell to his knees at the moment he forgave the debt, in a deliberate reference to Christian religious practice in order to serve the moral point of the scene: "Jews seek to excel in Christianity, and Christians in Jewishness." My intention was that this image would create a theatrical emblem that supported the allegorical argument of the Gerontus storyline. I also thought the audience would recognize how this version maintained the playful, clowning energy applied to the rest of the text in our production – creating a more compelling stylistic consistency. I expected that clowning the Jew would meet with resistance from members of the conference but I didn't expect what happened next.

As way of further illustration/experiment I had the actors perform a version of the trial scene entirely in the style of psychological realism. The scene started to resemble a trial scene from a movie or TV show. My expectation was that it would be clear that this approach was entirely inappropriate to the play. The surprise was that the performance was enthusiastically embraced. The positive responses were immediate and powerful. Rather than resisting them, I let them play out, letting the audience direct this version as they wished. The turbans were removed, the Italian's accent was removed, and there was a suggestion that any reference to Turkishness should be removed. I was puzzled by all this at the time but also fascinated. This was PAR in action but why was it unfolding in this way?

On reflection, I think we witnessed a powerful cultural force at play. We are habituated to reading performances through the genre of psychological realism, the style is embedded in the ways we process dramatic action, and on a very deep level we saw this enculturation take hold of many in the audience. Workshop participants were sucked in by its power in the same way that Lucre seduces all in the play. I am inclined to reference "green-headed wantons" here.

So what did people like about the realist version of the scene? Why was it so appealing? What does this tell us about the ways we process theatre? Are there lessons here for future PAR researchers? Participants voiced their preference for this version because each character was given equal weight and that the scene then revealed that all of the characters fail to get what they want (this is actually only true if we include the future attack on Mercadorus mentioned later in the play – he wins in this scene). What was driving all this redirection? What ideologies were at play? My interpretation of the redirection of the scene is that the turbans and the accent were removed because this allowed the audience to take each character seriously (the turbans looked quite silly) and helped them engage with the characters' arguments with greater sincerity, but it was also a means to treat all characters equally, to humanize them. This is a commendable objective but for me it is also an anachronistic way to approach this play.

Psychological realism is a product of our times. It is intrinsically linked to communism and liberal democracies (especially post their cultural revolutions). It is a genre for our times and for our dominant local cultures that profess belief that all men (and women) are created equal. The great cultural value of our contemporary approach to acting is that it encourages the actor and the audience to identify and empathize with every character. This can lead to a deeper understanding of others and appreciation for the perspectives of different peoples. However, it can also lead to the eradication of cultural difference, as in the case of the workshop participants' redirection of the scene. Historical distance collapsed and cultural difference was erased. Since the cultural differences marked in the play are the result of social stereotyping, that was also, from a certain perspective, a good thing (this is why I had Gerontus played in this style in the production after all), but applying a general sympathetic humanism to the performance also runs the risk of whitewashing the racial politics of the play. The actors turned the play's stereotypes into complex psychological characters and watching such a performance, one might be tempted to conclude: "this play isn't racist. Look, it features fully rounded representations of human beings." But is it not the actors working with the techniques of psychological realism that produces this response, rather than the characterizations in the text? In terms of PAR in theatre history, what are we to make of the impact of performing a play within the framework of our own dominant performance style and the ideologies it carries? How can we as scholars of theatre history show ourselves aware of the impact of our own cultural training as contemporary audience members? Is performance a useful tool for history, when it is so fraught with interpretive complexity?

For me, applying psychological realism to early, early modern texts inclines the audience to presentist readings of those texts: to speculation about characters' motivations, to the creation of imagined personal histories, or the application of contextual social evidence to establish a motivating back-story. We do not know how these plays were performed but we can be certain that it was NOT in the style of psychological realism. This style of performance did not emerge until the 20th century. The fact that actors have always been praised for verisimilitude and affective power should not lead anyone to assume that performances have always been naturalistic. Audiences have always praised actors who they feel are most life-like and most moving. A look at any portrait of David Garrick, famed for the natural qualities he brought to the stage, will tell you that he was not performing in the style of movie naturalism we are familiar with today.

Eyewitness commentary on the natural quality of a performance can only be considered in relation to such pictorial evidence of performance. Ultimately, good actors make something artificial appear natural, repeated action is made to appear spontaneous, artificial representations of humanity are given a living quality. If an eyewitness praises a performance for naturalness then they are not saying that it looked like everyday behaviour, like life, they are saying it looked alive, in contrast to the stilted performance of less gifted performers working in the same style. The experience of the conference has left me convinced that Three Ladies is designed as a living allegory and that the performers would have worked to give the abstract representations a 'liveness' that made them engaging for their audience. The process may have involved them imagining real-life correlatives for their abstractions, engaging identification and empathy similar to the techniques of psychological realism - our discussions across the conference made it clear that allegory and realism are not mutually exclusive - however, the dominant theatrical norms of the 1580s would have more likely inclined them to accept the characters as part of a moral argument and not led them to worry overmuch about social circumstances and psychological motivations. They would have been more concerned to ensure that each of the scenes and storylines were entertaining and made their moral point effectively. I remain convinced that a clowning style that relies on clear physical delineation of character and a distinction between the character's actions and everyday human behaviours would have best served the moral and political intentions of this play. I remain convinced that, if an understanding of theatre history is our object, then it is important we challenge ourselves to imagine early modern theatre unfolding under the influence of a dominant theatrical form that is not our own, even if we cannot be sure what it was.

I would like to put a concluding word of defence in here for "original practices" research. OP was criticised at the conference for its focus on the materiality of theatre as opposed, I presume, to its significance. I am very curious about the materiality of the early modern stage so I don't have resistance to OP on these grounds. My reservations with OP arise from the cultish mentality that often informs the practice – the blind faith that the first folio puts us in touch with Shakespeare's intentions in spite of printing house evidence to the contrary is the obvious example. Inspired by my experience of this workshop, however, I want to argue for the importance of considering the material aspects of production if we are to use performance as a means to understand the theatrical past. If we want to try to learn what a play signified, don't we first need to consider how it signified? The evidence of material practice is inevitably lacking and all arguments will be inconclusive, but arguments about the past are always inconclusive anyway. I have reservations about PAR in theatre history that completely ignores evidence of historical practice. Modern theatrical production can open up potentialities in old plays in all sorts of ways but does this stands as historical research or only contribute to more presentist analyses? Or if it does, how should our debate be framed in order to productively connect such a-historical productions with the historical past (presuming that is the objective)? Here, I think we also need to consider not just what our PAR productions signify but how they signify. Has our experience at this conference brought us any closer to research methodologies that can serve the varied interests of our community of scholars of early modern theatre? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Peter Cockett

The Irony of Gerontus

June 14, 2015

In Much Ado About Gerontus, Brett Hirsch approaches the character of Gerontus in Three Ladies of London with the aim of challenging a common interpretation of the character as an anomaly in early English theatrical representations of Jewishness. Gerontus is typically presented as proof that Jews were not always portrayed in a negative light, and therefore he does not belong alongside other Elizabethan stage Jews.

To counter this idea, Hirsch points to the stereotypical presentation of Gerontus as a usurer and makes the argument that the play relies on derogatory representations of Jewishness. He also points to Gerontus’s invocation of Mohammed as antisemitic, and then positions the rest of his argument on two ideas: the first being that the case against antisemitism in The Three Ladies of London depends upon interpreting Gerontus as a virtuous character and the second – building on the first – being that this interpretation fails to take into account Gerontus’s selfish motivation. It is not good business for Gerontus to be known as the usurer who causes his debtors to lose their faith.

I think that this is too cynical an interpretation of Gerontus’s character, which I interpret to be pious. He is a man who values faith, and each of his three scenes reveals a little bit of this concern to the audience. In his first scene, Gerontus refuses to wait any longer for Mercadorus to pay him until the latter proclaims, ‘by my faith and troth, I’ll pay you all every penny’. Rather than stress the amount owed to him, Gerontus replies, ‘I’ll take your faith’.

This Jew is a character who sees faith as something serious. The idea that someone might make such a vow disingenuously does not even cross his mind, as is borne out in his second scene, where he initially dismisses Mercadorus’s threat to ‘become a Turk’ as being mere words. ‘I cannot think you would forsake your faith so lightly’, he says.

In his final scene, Gerontus is willing to throw away all that is owed for the sake of another man’s faith. At first blush, this choice would seem to be a very philosemitic interpretation of his character; however there are at least a couple of complications that have given me some difficulty as an actor.

The first is that this play is an allegorical satire. It uses absurdities and sharp contrasts to leave the audience with clear moral messages. It is not a subtle play; characters are named after the traits they are meant to embody, and which they exaggerate or undermine in very direct ways. Even the written style of the playbook suggests the importance of absurdity: Mercadorus’s lines are all written in his particular accent, leaving little room for the actor to interpret what an‘Italian’ accent might be. With all this considered, it seems obvious that Gerontus requires a similarly absurd portrayal and yet the text provides few details. We do not know how he is dressed or with what accent he speaks. We only know that he is a Jew who fails to behave the way the audience expects. I believe that this means the character is outwardly Jewish in dress and in physicality, and that the comedy of the scene comes from subversion of the audience’s expectations.

This interpretation is incompatible with Hirsch’s take on Gerontus as self-interested. If he were played that way, then the audience’s expectations are met. The Judge’s line, ‘Jews seek to excel in Christianity and Christians in Jewishness’ would seem like a lie, and Gerontus’s storyline loses the satirical reversal required to give moral weight to Gerontus’s final lines: ‘Seek to pay, and keep day with men, so a good name on you will go’.

What I am left with is the conviction that this play is not antisemitic. The audience is antisemitic, and the play is using their prejudices for irony, comedic effect, and to underscore the ‘moral’ of the scene. Gerontus, like many of the characters in this play, is not fully developed. He is a tool being used for a particular effect and while this might offend our own sensibilities, it is worth noting that the playwright Robert Wilson is hardly targeting Jews in particular. Turks and Italians are both used to highlight the immorality of the non-English and the risk that foreignness presents. Indeed, even the vices of the play are imported – they are not homegrown.

In this context, Gerontus is neither a terrible Jewish stereotype who is redeemed by his ‘Christian’ character, nor is he a cynical moneylender looking out for his own future interests. Instead, he is a deliberate refutation of the audience’s preconceived notions of Jewishness. Such a denial might seem a philosemitic interpretation, except for the fact that none of this argument redeems Jews. The audience is English, and so the purpose of ironic Gerontus is to underscore the moral: ‘seek to pay, and keep day with men, so a good name on you will go’. This line does not, as Hirsch suggests, reveal Gerontus’s motives but instead blatantly states a takeaway for the English audience in as ironic a vessel as possible.

What is particularly interesting about this interpretation is that it becomes more likely when you consider the possibility that the actor playing Gerontus could have also played another role in the first half of the play: Usury. I have not yet had the chance to explore this possibility further, but it seems a reasonable interpretation. Usury disappears after the first half of the play and then Gerontus the usurer appears. Early modern Londoners would have made little distinction between usurers and Jews; they had little experience with followers of Judaism, and their ignorance is obvious even within this script, which has a Jew swearing an oath to the prophet of Islam. To have the same actor play both Usury and Gerontus, but only have the latter be explicitly Jewish while behaving, ‘like a Christian’ would have heightened the irony and made the reversal much more powerful in the final scene. This also looks forward to the character of Usury the Jew in the play’s sequel Three Lords and Three Ladies of London.

Omar Khafagy (Gerontus)

Wet Feet

June 7, 2015

As a play with many an aside, The Three Ladies of London feeds off audience response. The Festival of Early Drama, presented by the PLS in Toronto this weekend (www.plsfest.ca), was the perfect opportunity for the cast to perform for a live audience. In particular, Simplicity’s lines took on a new, vital energy as he bounced off the crowd’s reactions. From sympathetic moans at hearing his nickname “Dusty Poll,” the burst of laughter at his surprising reaction to the news of Hospitality’s death, to chuckling at being his debtor because we ate up his song, the clown held us all in the palm of his hand.

Jessica Swain

Desiring Females

June 4, 2015

Having Claire Jowitt and Andrea Stevens’s articles on the mind while watching the box of abomination scene, I see time slow down. Absorbed in counting money, Conscience is statue-like, with only hands and eyes flitting over the bribe. Strutting around her newest convert, Lucre playfully marks Conscience’s face with black ink. Lucre’s dangerous sexuality seems to emanate from her body, enveloping Conscience. The audience engages with the malice hidden behind Lucre’s movement, as our eyes are drawn to each spot she places on Conscience. By blazoning the face and body of this fallen virtue, Lucre’s words and behaviour switch the focus to the physical rather than the spiritual. As the audience’s eyes travel to each part of Conscience’s face that is named and touched, we participate in the physicalization of Conscience. We focus on Conscience’s body over her soul. The desire for lucre/Lucre turns women into a spectacle for us to consume, implicating us in the spotting through the act of witnessing.

Jessica Swain

Taking Action

May 28, 2015

While rehearsing Scene 5, Conscience strikes a balance between individual emotion and her allegorical nature. Her words and her movement demonstrate her resistance to the world, even as she submits to the reality of her situation. The importance of Hospitality is stressed before his death, as the emphasis on and repetition of his name draws our attention to her dependence on his generosity. Conscience’s language becomes an outlet – a deed – producing the final traces of Hospitality’s opposition before his final entrance and exit.

Jessica Swain

An Airy Thing

May 21, 2015

Sir Nicholas Nemo’s performance – wonderfully full of emptiness – mirrors Simplicity’s intense focus on the nothing he thinks is something. Whether it is food or the placement of cousin, this parallel is quite –

Jessica Swain

Desperate Times

May 19, 2015

Wilson’s play is nothing if not desperate – but not just one meaning of the word. The ‘invasion’ of the Other, the corruptive and unchristian nature of usury in an economy that needs lending, and the ‘death’ of hospitality all point to the moral degradation and socio-political issues in Wilson’s contemporary England. Encapsulating the hopeless, the wretched, the violent, and the eager, rehearsals are now increasing in emotional output as the actors emphasize what is at stake for their characters as they tap into this desperate landscape. Experimenting with physical timing and motivation, the actors play with ways to endure the heaviness of Wilson’s world while embracing the lightness comedy requires.

Jessica Swain

It Seduces Me

May 12, 2015

Improvised blocking. Sounds like an oxymoron. While trying to keep the openness of improv, the actors are also mindful of the fact that the performance will be on a small stage, usually with many people in that space at once. Simple entrances and exits will help, but Peter made a point of discussing diagonal crossing and how to utilize the audience. Elizabethan theatre, unlike the naturalism the actors are use to, pulls the audience in by speaking to them directly. Lines become a seduction, persuasion a dance. Body and words unfold in a captivating rhetoric.

Jessica Swain

In the Belly

May 6, 2015

Progressing from the self-motivated discipline needed to learn their parts, the cast now assembles to develop the physicalization of their characters. Each actor took on a Frankensteinesque role, working out what was necessary to sustain a character – to make it come to life. As they moved about the room, responding to one another in character, Peter’s voice chimed, “Let the words live in your belly, not in your head!” Breathe tethered embodiment. And what was witnessed? The seductive pull of Lucre: heads snapped towards her, bodies follow. A story told in physical exchange.

Jessica Swain

Enter the Strange

May 1, 2015

The actors were given their parts and asked to paraphrase their lines. It was great to see that they were making use of the Hard Words list and the indispensable OED search engine. In the following rehearsals, the actors were discovering more and more about their characters. From interpreting Simplicity’s behaviour as stemming from his hangriness to the way Gerontus is reminiscent of a disappointed dad (“I’m not angry, I just expected more from you”), recognizing the familiar in a text so strange produced excellent, focused questions. For example, is Hospitality’s funeral arranged by Simony, or just observed? Why does a Jewish character invoke Mahomet? As the actors attempt to gain a more nuanced understanding of their characters, relating moments in the play to their own experiences and language energizes the text with a productive newness.

Jessica Swain

“Words make the world”

April 29, 2015

The first rehearsal: group bonding, breathing, and vocal exercises, the handing out of parts, and a read-through. Today was jam-packed. Focusing on the actor’s voice, director Peter Cockett drew attention to the power of words, pointing out that clear and decisive articulation is key to making verse impact the audience. When the question about scanning came up, a few of the actors more familiar with Shakespeare’s plays laughed, saying that they had tried but it was definitely not iambic pentameter. Peter explained that The Three Ladies of London’s verse is in fourteeners, creating a jaunty rhythm to the play as the pace accelerates and the extra two beats add a punch to every line. This is no Shakespeare.

Jessica Swain