Classroom Performance of Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of
London
: A Case Study

Jessica Dell

Near the end of the 2008-9 school year, a group of four English students at McMaster University performed two scenes from Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London before their peers and instructors. Although the students were initially leery of viewing the characters of Three Ladies as being more than personified embodiments of abstract principles, the process of humanizing them in performance offered a new appreciation of the complex psychological rhythms and moral ambiguities that exist within the play. By watching the scene unfold, students in the audience gradually came to view themselves as an extension of the performance, as occupying the role of London society. Through performance choices, the student performers created a tightly collaborative and reflective piece that challenged many of the group’s initial critical misgivings about the play.

Near the end of the 2008-9 academic year, a group of four English students at McMaster University performed two correlating scenes from Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London before their peers and instructors. Although none of the students possessed any previous acting experience, the course syllabus, designed and created by Dr Helen Ostovich, required that all students engage in a group performance project, one carefully mapped out for them through a series of detailed instructions.1 They were required to choose a play from the class syllabus, select a key scene to perform, conduct research, memorize their lines, rehearse blocking techniques, and create their costumes and props before staging their scene in front of the class at the end of the semester. Each step was designed to help them navigate the performance process and to help them make smart interpretative decisions. For this particular group of intrepid performers, the theatrical process resulted in a startling production as they zoomed in on the power struggle between Conscience and Lucre mid-way through the play. Beginning with the murder of Hospitality, the performers chose to focus on Conscience’s subsequent grief and vulnerability in the wake of the loss of her greatest ally, a moment that the lascivious Lucre takes immediate advantage of. Although students were initially leery of viewing the characters of Three Ladies as being more than personified embodiments of abstract principles, the process of performing them as particular human beings gave the class a new appreciation of the complex psychological rhythms and moral ambiguities that exist within the play. Although Three Ladies combines medieval allegory with the didacticism of a morality tale, the play nonetheless revolves around a story consumed with penetrating the intrinsic pitfalls and nuances of the three ladies’ choices in the face of temptation and sin. By watching the scene unfold, students in the audience gradually came to view themselves as an extension of the performance, as the theatrical choices encouraged them to view themselves as early modern Londoners. Through these performance choices, the performers created a tightly collaborative and reflective piece that challenged many of the group’s initial critical misgivings, while further enhancing their own and their classmates’ collective understanding of the play as a whole.

The actors elected to begin their production in the midst of an action sequence, with Hospitality in flight, hobbling onto the stage. The actor performing Hospitality was bearded, decrepit, and covered in a thick coating of baby powder, one that created a ghostly halo about him as he moved, jerkily, about the stage. The audience’s first impression of him was as a ghost – someone who was already dead and just didn’t know it yet. He was, quite literally, a dust-covered, fragile relic from a bygone age. His movements were frantic, but through the actor’s hunched posture and use of a cane, his attempt at speed became a grotesque struggle against the obvious limitations of his weakened and infirm body. The reason for his attempted haste, however, quickly became apparent as Usury burst onto the stage in hot pursuit. The scene was well cast. In comparison to the small and frail body of the actor portraying Hospitality, Usury (who was performed by a female actor and thus gendered feminine in this particular production) looked like a brute: muscular, tall, and intimidating. She was dressed like a buccaneering pirate – a lawless brigand – with her arms bare, as the group took full advantage of the actor’s natural athleticism to emphasize Usury’s physical intimidation. To highlight Usury’s raw power, the actor repeatedly flexed her muscles and cracked her knuckles as she advanced upon the weakened Hospitality. As insidious as the scene was, it also projected a certain comic levity. The inequality between the two figures created such a comical contrast that, when combined with Usury’s preening and strutting as she advanced menacingly upon Hospitality, raised more than a few uneasy chuckles from the student audience. As the dialogue began, however, the laughter ceased. The group discovered earlier in the term that the actor who played Hospitality had problems memorizing his lines, and so they decided to work around his limitations rather than be stymied by them. As Hospitality pleaded with Usury, his lines became increasingly muddled and confused, as his obvious panic in the face of Usury’s aggression grew. The group’s emphasis on Hospitality’s mental confusion, in addition to his physical infirmity, gave the scene an even more sinister feel, as Usury mocked his attempts at speech while knocking him about. Usury was both physically stronger and mentally sharper than the wizened Hospitality.

Conscience’s arrival, therefore, held extra significance. Standing bare-foot on stage, dressed in only a simple shift, the actor who performed Conscience radiated strength and defiance as she surveyed the scene. Although the performer’s costume highlighted Conscience’s impoverished state, her arrival nonetheless provoked a palpable reaction in Hospitality. Upon seeing Conscience, Hospitality immediately crossed the stage to collapse in front of her, clutching at her meagre garments, pleading and pitiful. Looking up at her, he delivered some of his first coherent words of the performance – a resounding cry for help. The dramatic pause that followed this moment was both poignant and pitiful, as both Usury and the audience watched Hospitality cling, weeping, to Conscience, as she embraced him, murmuring words of comfort.

The performers, however, only allowed this fleeting respite to last for the briefest of moments. Seizing control of the scene once more, Usury violently intruded upon the pair, breaking up their intimacy. Yanking Hospitality away, Usury positioned herself between Hospitality and Conscience for the remainder of the scene, blocking their attempts to reunite. Although physically outmatched, Conscience still demonstrated her superior strength of character. When studying the play earlier in the semester, students had been quite critical of Conscience during this scene – accusing her of being too passive and ineffective. Seeing the scene performed, however, changed the prevailing class opinion quite drastically. In performance, Conscience was passionate, invigorated, and fully committed to her cause. She verbally trounced Usury, who had to retreat on several occasions despite her superior size and stature. While Conscience and Usury faced off against each other on one side of the stage, Hospitality occupied the other half. He punctuated their standoff with the occasional plaintive cry, as he directly addressed the audience and begged us to intervene on his behalf. The contrast between Conscience’s fury and self-righteousness on the one hand and the audience’s silent passivity on the other made more than a few people squirm in their seats.

Ultimately powerless to stop Usury, who possessed no morality to which Conscience could appeal, the first half of the scene came to its inevitable tragic conclusion. As Usury yanked Hospitality to the back of the stage, a strobe light effect, accompanied by sounds of thunder, highlighted the wickedness of the deed that followed. In between pulses of light, the audience watched in horror as Usury cut Hospitality’s throat, bits of red confetti sprinkling out for the briefest of moments, the chaos punctuated only by Conscience’s screams, before darkness consumed the stage. As the lights came back on, only Conscience was left, collapsed on the floor, surrounded by the residual ‘blood splatter’ of confetti. She began the second half of the scene from this fallen position, one that communicated a great deal about her personal state of mind at this point. Like Shakespeare’s Richard II, Conscience’s loss of power exacts a physical toll upon her, one that (in this performance at least) weighed her down until she collapsed on the stage. Even as she rose back up, after a moment’s weary pause, and began to sell her brooms, there was an emptiness to the actor’s actions. The fiery woman who had existed on stage just moments previously was gone, just as Hospitality himself had vanished. Clothed only in her shift, alone on stage, Conscience’s vulnerability was palpable as she mechanically went through the motions of selling her wares. Mirroring Hospitality’s earlier actions, Conscience spoke directly to the audience as she tried to sell her brooms to us, desperate for some small measure of relief from her poverty. In the audience’s subsequent silence was the uncomfortable reminder that, just as we did not help Hospitality in his distress, we would not help Conscience in hers. In creating this effect, the performance forced us to acknowledge our own complicity in the ensuing tragedy that befalls Conscience.

When Lucre emerged on stage, her success was already a guaranteed certainty. Confident, dressed extravagantly, and decorated with all manner of finery (including a tiara), her presence highlighted just how diminished a figure Conscience had become. Lucre was beautiful, charming, and utterly captivating from the moment she walked on stage, prompting one member of the audience to write that ‘Lucre made evil look cool’ in a subsequent performance review. In contrast to the forlorn figure of Conscience, shoeless and meanly dressed, Lucre presented the epitome of wealth and luxury. As the two squared off, the contest (like that between Hospitality and Usury in the first half of the scene) was far from being a fair one. The actors blocked the scene superbly to highlight the subtly shifting power dynamic between the two women. As Conscience traded insults with Lucre, her movement on stage grew increasingly static until, by the end of the scene, she was rooted to a single spot. Lucre’s movements, alternatively, remained fluid and dynamic as she commanded Usury to fetch her money, and then shook a bag of coins in Conscience’s face so that they jingled hypnotically. As the scene progressed, Lucre’s movements also became increasingly invasive as she encroached upon what little remained of Conscience’s personal space – stroking an arm here, playing with Conscience’s hair there. Conscience became a stationary puppet, a piece of merchandise that Lucre evaluated and appraised in an increasingly sexualized manner. When combined with Conscience’s relative nakedness, this sexualisation seemed to leave her all the move vulnerable and powerless in the face of Lucre’s overwhelming presence. To help emphasize the narrowing of Conscience’s world, the lights gradually dimmed throughout this portion of the scene, until just a single over-head light illuminated Conscience and Lucre, with Usury’s large but featureless outline standing menacingly behind them.

By the time Usury fetches the box of all abominations, Lucre has already sealed Conscience’s fate. Although their production was minimalist in terms of set design, the students invested a lot of time in creating the box of all abominations. Bejewelled and gaudy, the box was outwardly glamorous, while corruption lurked within its interior (much like Lucre herself). As Lucre opened the box and dipped her finger inside it, faint music, eerie and insidious, began to play. Lucre became a witch of sorts, casting her spell upon the powerless and broken Conscience. Throughout the scene, Conscience stood rooted to her spot, staring at us in the audience, never taking her deadened and accusatory eyes off us, as Lucre began to transform her. With Lucre’s smears of dark, inky blots on Conscience’s face, the darkening of the scene became absolute. From the fading light to the spotting of Conscience, the actors forced us to watch the all that was initially good in the play (represented by Hospitality and Conscience) suffer systematic destruction.

Modern students who study early modern drama generally do so in a vacuum. They read plays and discuss the themes of the text. We have probably all had students who, at one point or another, referred to the works we study as novels rather than plays. By incorporating a performance component into the course curriculum, students were able to appreciate whole new nuances of the text, ones that were originally lost to them when viewed statically on the page. In addition, because Shakespeare’s works hold such a prevalent position in our culture, most university students enter higher education with some degree of familiarity and appreciation of his work. His plays, inevitably, are always the first to be chosen for scene performances. Students often struggle when studying other early modern playwrights. Educators face the additional challenge, when teaching non-Shakespearean works, of helping students overcome this prejudice. When first confronted with a play like Three Ladies, students often express frustration with what they perceive to be the one-dimensional characters and the awkward verse form (see Jeremy Lopez’s essay on fourteeners in this website). When forced to dissect the scene through performance, however, this intrepid group of students gained a whole new appreciation of the play and the complexity of its characters – one that they successfully communicated to their audience. Conscience, in particular, stood vindicated as the scene portrayed her intrinsic worth and power. Through their performance, the actors communicated the true tragedy of Conscience’s struggle and ultimate failure, a failure in which the watching audience (as London society) felt complicit.


Notes

[1] For a detailed description of Ostovich’s performance project, please consult ‘Teaching Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay in a second-year History of Early Drama course’, in the Annex section on pedagogy, Queen’s Men Editions: http://qme.internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Annex/pedagogy-fbfb/introduction-syllabus-pedagogy.html, a report that tracks the process of ‘Teaching through Performance: Shakespeare and Integrated Learning’, a paper delivered at the University of Western Australia, Perth; sponsored by the Centre for Advanced Teaching and Learning, in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Studies and the Network for Early European Research (July 4, 2007); ‘“Our sport shall be to take what they mistake”: Classroom Performance and Learning’, Karen Bamford and Alexander Leggatt (eds), Approaches to Teaching English Renaissance Drama (New York, 2002), 87-94; or ‘Staging the Jew: Playing with the text of The Merchant of Venice’, Karen Bamford and Ric Knowles (eds), Shakespeare’s Comedies of Love: Essays in Honour of Alexander Leggatt (Toronto, 2008), 262-72.