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

Day 2: Notes on the Day’s Discussions (24 June 2015) by Jessica Swain

Seminar 2: Performing the Impact of Foreigners (9:00-10:45 am)

Discussion led by Mathew Martin (Brock)

Seminar leader Mathew Martin, stepping in for Erin Julian, led the panel in their discussion of the import and export of foreigners and foreignness in Three Ladies. Group A’s focus was on the representation of Jews on the early modern stage, Group B’s on the foreign in England, and Group C’s on Turks and the Ottoman Empire. Martin began by asking a question of Brett Hirsch’s, which considered the 2004 Peter Bradshaw film adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Hirsch wondered how we should frame ‘touchy’ subjects. Can these ‘touchy’ subjects be framed in original context? Do these moments translate in an effective/affective manner?

As the director of the performance of Three Ladies the audience had watched the previous evening, Peter Cockett mentioned his own issues representing the antisemitic moments in his production, while trying to not change the ideology of the play. Paul White, who directed the sequel to Three Ladies, The Three Lords and the Three Ladies of London, also shared his own trouble representing Usury as a Jew. Is it possible to get away from the early modern stereotypical image of the ‘evil Jew’? Should that image be censored for a modern audience?

Building on the unease both directors expressed, the panel discussed whether or not Gerontus could be viewed as being more than a ‘Jew type’? What does it mean that Gerontus’s Jewishness is mediated through Mercadorus’s foreignness? Hirsch drew attention to Gerontus’s existence in a subplot with not enough information to make him 3-D. If Gerontus is not a person but an idea, Erin Kelly remarked, then a whole group of people become a symbol. According to Christian Billing, Gerontus inhabits a more modern position because he is given a name. However, Helen Ostovich pointed out that his name means ‘old man’. Billing qualified that his name was not ‘Jewish old man’, while Ostovich thought that ‘old’ might signify the old religion. Melinda Gough suggested that it would be interesting if Hospitality and Gerontus were doubled because both are old men, and also because Gerontus does what Hospitality cannot. Gerontus changes. While other characters degenerate, Gerontus progressively transforms. She further suggested that the way Gerontus was modernized in Cockett’s production allowed him to disrupt historical distancing. Therefore, Billing remarked, Gerontus is a ‘new old man’.

Connecting the various points made by the panel, Martin remarked that by historicizing Jewishness we are trying to deflect antisemitism, rendering it palpable. Making Gerontus or Shylock sympathetic speaks to our anxiety of enacting violence towards Jews. Billing commented on feeling frustrated as an artist with having his hands tied by political correctness. He argued that performance needs the space to articulate responses to these issues. It is our responsibility to talk about the uncomfortable topics, not to silence them. Omar Khafagy added that, in the same way, the characters in Disney’s Aladdin looked Caucasian, not Arabic. Similarly, Jennifer Roberts-Smith raised the point that the ethics of distancing is an interesting problem, and that there is a question about how much a performance represents our real beliefs.

The problem of creating an affective engagement for the audience persisted. Using the murder of Hospitality as an example, Hirsch voiced his opinion that the production had played it safe. Jessica Dell remarked that to her, the horror of Hospitality’s murder was after-the-fact. Once the audience realized what they were laughing at, once Simplicity said his lines, then that was what produced a self-reflective horror.

Suggesting that offensive productions need a critical audience, Fatima Ebrahim observed that who the audience is determines how we frame the work. Although this production was framed by the conference, Gough noted how a larger audience who has access to the film online might not always see the frame, making the reception uncontrollable.

Gough noted that the play was antisemitic and anti-Other, citing Mercadorus’s role as the ultimate dupe. That being said, the panel discussed how Mercadorus’s otherness was different than the otherness of Gerontus. Referring to Anders Ingram’s paper, Martin said that the idea of Turkishness was not filled out in the play, and Gerontus is situated in that fixed yet vague space. Mercadorus, contrastingly, has a nomadic existence. Lloyd Kermode discussed Mercadorus’s fluid space as a broker, and how his in-betweeness connected the relationships among other characters. He also argued that this play understands foreignness as being unable to find a moment where it is not despicable, because the Protestant sense of self is shown through foreigners.

National and religious identity conflates in the play, but Martin questioned, is it a critique of English self-formation? Or, perhaps, just registering the confusion? Who counts as an outsider? Andy Kesson noted that the categories of Londoner and non-Londoner are also part of this debate. The reason London suffers, according to Ebrahim, is because England was trying to compete on the world stage. At the time of the play the Ottoman Empire was the leader, and the shift from Elizabeth I to James I also changed the representation of Turkishness in early modern drama.

Keynote by Rob Conkie (LaTrobe): ‘Fain would I dwell on form’: Performance / Publication / Pedagogy (11:00-12:30 pm)

How do we write about PAR? Rob Conkie explained how his writing aimed to be 2.5-D, located somewhere between the 3-D production and the 2-D critical writing about said production, giving the example of his previous incorporation of the Sudoku puzzle into his performative writing.

In order for PAR to be a discovery space, Conkie argued, we have to be open to surprise. Like the material rather than ideal nature of theatrical production, research must also be embodied. Writing in 2.5-D involves navigating and compiling the different levels of ‘insiderness’, or access to the production, which becomes a palimpsestic endeavour to trace the iterations of performance.

Workshop 2: Different approaches to the ‘Turkey scenes’ in Three Ladies of London (1:30-3:30 pm)

Led by Peter Cockett (McMaster)

Describing his conviction that the Queen’s Men performed in a clowning style, Peter Cockett suggested that the actors would have worked with their physicality in order to externalize their emotional state. Since the actors for his production were used to imagining themselves into a role through psychological realism rather than through physicalization, Cockett wanted the audience members to better appreciate the actors’ work by leading the group through a biomechanical exercise where groups of two had to sculpt each other into affective, emotional states. After the exercise, people shared how the shapes they were sculpted into affected their interactions with others, feelings, and movement.

Having a better grasp of how the production had been a medley of acting styles, Cockett had a few of the actors demonstrate the different acting choices in front of the group. Responding to Cockett’s direction, Omar Khafagy (Gerontus), Jesse Horvath (Mercadorus and Serviceable Diligence), and Taha Arshad (Sincerity and Judge of Turkey) generously performed multiple versions of the Turkey scenes.

The fully clowned version, with Gerontus in a hunched posture, his voice distorted into a high pitch, rubbing his hands, and wearing a false nose and purple turban gained a wide spectrum of responses from the audience. From suggesting he looked like Golem wearing a lampshade to remarking that the prosthetic drew attention to the falseness of the representation, the audience began proposing alternative acting choices for Omar, Jesse, and Taha: making Mercadorus not as Italian or clown-like, switching the playing levels of the actors, wanting to see Gerontus in a bigger and bigger nose as the play went on, and having Mercadorus throw his ‘Turkish weeds’ to the ground as soon as he decides not to be a Turk.

The different versions of Jesse and Omar’s physicality in the conversion scene had many responses. Karen Cunningham said that the more exaggerated Gerontus was then the less repulsive Mercadorus seemed, although Jacqueline Jenkins thought the violence of Mercadorus was more threatening through restraint. Gough said that Jesse’s accent as Mercadorus was like a prosthetic that marked him, making it hard to believe that he was sincere. While Christian Billing saw Gerontus’s concern stemming from self-preservation and Cockett explained that he thought it was an issue of breaking faith, Gough noted that we did not have to choose between economic and religious sincerity because Gerontus could have a mixture of both. The different responses, Billing observed, highlighted how the audience was attempting to understand Gerontus’s anxiety through his body and gestures.

Seminar 3: Performance as Research and/as Pedagogy (3:45-5:30 pm)

Discussion led by Helen Ostovich (McMaster)

How can live performance be applied to English literature classrooms? Redirecting the conversation about PAR back to teaching English students, seminar leader Helen Ostovich began by asking what was the visceral impact of an evil action on a person with good values, and what difference does genre make to research?

The panel started off speaking about genre. David Bevington stated that Three Ladies is a play about religious conversion, a satire with no comic ending. While the conversion of Mercadorus is bogus, he argued, the metaphorical conversion of Gerontus links Three Ladies to a late-medieval conversion reading. In her experience with teaching Three Ladies, Jessica Dell said her students did not play for laughs. Their experience with morality plays made them inclined to read Three Ladies as a tragedy. As they explored the realism in the loss, they forced the violence on stage. Dell remarked that her students’ work showed how violence continues in Conscience’s story. As what might be considered to be a proto-city comedy, Rory McKeown remarked that thinking of the conventions of genre Three Ladies draws on is useful, and that misrecognition in morality plays leads into city comedies. Paul White also noted that Three Ladies’s multiple play lines are similar to city comedies. As Erin Kelly pointed out, plays with allegorical characters are not just in the sixteenth-century. Middle-moral comedy exists until the 1620s at least.

A reoccurring question during the conference concerned Conscience’s fall, since her sudden switch can be difficult for students to understand. Lloyd Kermode and Ostovich called it an ‘anti-epiphany’, and Peter Cockett said that the quickness of her epiphany is not psychological but religious. That being said, Elizabeth Hanson observed that Conscience’s change is not so surprising, since we see her eroded. Her friends leave her, and Hospitality is killed. She is abandoned.

Since a play can be ten things at once, Ostovich asked, it is important to remember that a play is a genre to play with. How, she questioned, do we teach drama without an acting component? McKeown rephrased, asking how do we have the benefit of performance without performance? Hanson stated that she saw the play as a new comedy with latent allegorical characters and logic of the city space. In this place, Conscience has being, and Lucre is the organizing principle that controls society. The panel suggested that a way to modernize the play would be by putting the text next to other texts with similar theoretical problems. Kelly wondered how much context is too much for students? How much theology do you unpack for students, all while making the play enjoyable to learn?

Alan Dessen shared his new term ‘conditional allegory’ to help the discussion, noting that allegorical names are attached to social types. Allegory is attached to something recognizable. Furthering this point, Hanson thought that making the play make sense to students was not just about finding one to one translations, but about finding a deeper sense of the text’s meaning. She mentioned developing place-markers, or access points, in order to better understand where the play is locating itself. Karen Cunningham raised an important issue in her own teaching: how do we teach a text like this to people from different cultural backgrounds? Which access point do we choose to teach them a play like Three Ladies? Billing observed that Cockett’s performance would give an access point, and that we needed to break down the barriers between the theatre and English departments. A live performance is different from showing clips or films, since the audience is communicative.