Summaries of Performance as Research in Early English Theatre Studies: The Three Ladies of London in Context

Day 1: Notes on the Day’s Discussions (23 June 2015) by Jessica Swain

Keynote by Christian Billing (Hull): Historiography, Rehearsal Processes, and Performance as Translation; or, How to Stage Early Modern English Drama Today? (10:00-11:30 am)

In his keynote speech, Christian Billing discussed how PAR helps ‘decode’ historically distant drama. Specifically focusing on the act of translation, he spoke to how PAR has become a way to fill in or explore the gaps in meaning that exist in any kind of translation. In this way, PAR is an exploration of how meaning is passed on to a new generation or community. It makes the past speak, and gives the present a chance to listen.

Drawing on Kwame Appriah’s concept of ‘thick translation’, of attempting to locate the text in rich context, Billing’s talk suggested that we revel in the moments of cognitive dissonance that occur when attempting to translate early modern English drama into our contemporary time. These are not ‘problems’ to overcome but generative questions to play with during the rehearsal process. If the rehearsal is conceptualized as an open system rather than a closed one, then the duration of that time is full of possibility. Utilizing metaphorical ways of thinking, historically distant knowledges merge, become visible, and can be made sense of through embodied acting.

Workshop 1: Minding the Gaps: Towards Project-Specific PAR Methodologies in Early English Theatre (1:00-3:00 pm)

Discussion led by Jennifer Roberts-Smith (Waterloo)

Following Billing’s emphasis on the importance of translation in PAR projects, Jennifer Roberts-Smith broke down this translation process in her workshop, leading the group through an exercise that involved generating a pitch for a PAR project.

As Roberts-Smith explained the interaction between research, performance, and history in creating a PAR project, it became clear that this undertaking was not a single translation. Instead, a PAR project seeks to enter into and synthesize an already existing discourse of distinct voices and renditions of information. Having us participate in groups made up of members with various scholarly investments, this workshop produced, in miniature, the difficult yet valuable lesson of translating different fragments into a coherent whole. Choice after choice, each of the groups were eventually able to give an outline of their proposal to the general assembly, demonstrating the importance of selection in a PAR project – even a hypothetical one.

Seminar 1: The ‘Character’ of London in Print and on the Stage (3:30-5:15 pm)

Discussion led by Janelle Jenstad (Victoria)

Seminar Leader Janelle Jenstad divided the panel up into three sections: Group A concentrated on the survivability of London, Group B focused on the effect of changing institutions, and Group C addressed the extent Three Ladies of London could be considered a city play.

Beginning with Group A, Jenstad connected the question of survivability to circulation, exploitation, and infection. In the play, London is prison-like, but also a place of opportunity. Its borders are porous. Examining such topics as the fall of Conscience, Roger Ward’s financial interest in and selling of the copy right to Wilson’s play, and poverty as plague, Group A questioned if the porousness of London was a kind of trap. For example, can we view prostitution an adaptive strategy in the play? Sarah Johnson noted the arbitrariness of the play, and whether there was much choice in Conscience’s decision.

The tension between moral allegory and social realism in Three Ladies indicates the need to create affective change, and through Group A’s discussion it became apparent how important performance choices would be in making certain points of the play resonate with a modern audience. For instance, Kirk Melnikoff raised the point that an early modern English audience would view the plague imagery of Conscience’s spotting as a just punishment, and hypothesized that stressing the ‘spotting’ on a verbal and visual level for a modern production could help link the two categories of prostitution and plague together.

Group B switched the focus of the conversation to changing urban relationships. Karen Cunningham began by talking about the shared patterns of moral and legal language in the trial scenes. Since divine law and common law were two ways of making social order, she argued that the play was troubling both systems in order to make a social commentary and incite change. Speaking for Daryl Palmer’s work on Hospitality and the state of London life, Helen Ostovich discussed how there is no respect for Hospitality’s rights. Morality and justice both fail him. However, she also noted that if Hospitality’s house is not actually that hospitable, perhaps Conscience’s house becomes a bawd of hospitality in this ‘new’ corrupted and commodified London. Jenstad brought up the question of charity, a virtue we later see in Nine Worthies of London, as a possible way to address the breach in hospitality. Yet the move from hospitality to charity showed a troubling transformation of national character happening from the 1580s to 1590s.

Attempting to place the play and play with the place of genre, Group C discussed how locating, or narrowing in on, the genre of Three Ladies involved using the information we have access to, exploration, and realizing that there are some things we are unable to know. The big question: is Three Ladies a city comedy? In her analysis of Conscience’s song, Katrine Wong demonstrated the importance of types in the play. Conscience, according to Wong, inhabits the role of a common person. She embodies the soundscapes of the city. Yet, as Jenstad had previously mentioned during the panel, there are only two specific places in the national imagination of London that are referred in the text. As for whether Three Ladies was a comedy, Rory McKeown linked Three Ladies to the social situations of later city comedies. Speaking for David McInnis, Melnikoff recommended we try to picture the full career of Wilson, rather than just the plays we have. Since Wilson wrote a lot of non-comedic plays, how might this change our view of the plays we do have? Andy Kesson was not convinced that comedy, the way we now think of comedy, existed in the 1580s. It did not carry the same semantic weight. Ostovich remarked that there was enough clown work to make it a comedy. Following this, Peter Cockett said ‘comedy’ means ‘play’, and ‘play’ can mean many things. Cunningham reflected that if there is hope, even a shred, then in Northrop Frye’s terms that would be a sign of the comic. Although the four knaves escape, showing a darker reality lurking in the play, the temporal deferment of Conscience’s punishment is a glimmer of hope.