Blackfriars Diary: Day 1

I’m in Staunton, Virginia for the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Conference! Terrifyingly, I’ll be giving a paper on Saturday morning, but before that there’s three days of panels, papers, and performances that I’m going to try to write about.

So, day one…

The Panels 

Blackfriars strictly enforces a quite short paper limit of ten minutes, and perhaps because of this brevity, the most compelling papers for me were ones that took a specific, concrete, and sometimes extremely narrow (like, one word level narrow) focus. Lena Cowen Orwin’s keynote address, while obviously longer than the other panel papers, set the tone in this respect with her investigation of the origins of Shakespeare’s monument in Stratford, and suggesting evidence that Shakespeare himself had likely designed it. She also made the brief but fascinating point that the evidence suggests that, unlike, say, Edward Alleyn who seems to have been colloquially known as Ned, Shakespeare was known to his friends and colleagues (and maybe even his family) as Shakespeare.

Other highlights for me:

  • Tiffany Stern’s exploration of the use of the word “playhouse.” Cuthbert Burbage’s court testimony of the 1630s describes both the Theatre and the Globe as being known as “the House,” and while we have taken that word to be a general term– and it has become one– she queries whether it may not have been specific to those buildings.
  • Paul Menzer’s reflection on his loathing of the word “nuncle” and how Shakespeare has become a lens through which we refract our concepts of good and poor taste.
  • Tim Fitzpatrick’s excellent explanation of the methods by which they derived the measurements for New Zealand’s Pop-Up Globe. His comparisons between Wenceslas Hollar’s sketches for his famous engraving and a very well-explained theory of ex quadrata geometry make a very compelling argument for a second Globe that was distinctly smaller than the dimensions chosen for the Globe reconstruction in London (which was based off its own well-founded theories).
  • James Marino’s study of the effects of revision on cues in the two editions of Doctor Faustus. His originating question was to ask how much revision to cues were actors willing to tolerate. And the answer seems to be “a fair amount.”
  • Claire Bourne’s illumination of the use of  “printer’s lace” divisions as more than just a way to take up space/make up for half of Q1 Romeo and Juliet being printed in the wrong text size, and not just simple scenic divisions (which really didn’t exist as such at that point) but as indicators of thematic divisions.

The necessity of matching form to content– the form in this case mostly being defined by time constraint, but also by the fact hearing a paper is much less kind to wandering or vague connections than reading one is– has been a useful reminder that while conferences are often framed as a “state of the field” check-in, they’re really kindest to very specific kinds of work.

The Play: The Fall of King Henry (3 Henry VI

I’ve never seen any Henry VI play live before, and diving into part three, arguably the strongest one, seemed like a fair enough way to begin. The ASC has been putting together the first tetralogy, retitling the Henry VI plays as The Tragedy of Joan of Arc, The Rise of Queen Margaret, and now The Fall of King Henry. Like my beloved Oregon Shakespeare Festival, such multi-year cycles are enabled by their resident acting company, many of whom (as their bios attest) have been working for the ASC for years.

This was my first show in the Blackfriars, a replica of the indoor playhouse used by the King’s Men. I’ve been in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s version of an indoor, 17th century playhouse, but it’s much smaller than the Blackfriars. I had some hopes that this would ameliorate the major sightline issues that one encounters in the SWP when sitting anywhere along the sides… but it didn’t. The sight-lines are just as bad (and the seats are just as uncomfortable). In the SWP, I happened to see a series of Jacobean tragedies, so I ran into a new problem seeing a sprawling history play:  3 Henry VI introduces a bunch of new characters in the second half, who are naturally doubled by actors whose characters died in the first half. But because I frequently couldn’t see new characters’ faces when their names were first mentioned, for most of the second half, I had no idea who any of the secondary characters were. Unless we assume that the average playgoer was extremely well-versed in heraldry and every character just wore their coat of arms– which I strongly doubt– this seems like a problematic staging issue that must have had a better solution in the 17th century than the directors managed to find here.

There was a detour at one point earlier today into the classic question of whether early modern audiences went to “hear” a play rather than “see” a play, and thus didn’t care about the apparently crappy sight-lines in these indoors spaces. I am unconvinced by this, particularly because we know for certain that companies spent most of their money on costumes. That would certainly be a waste of money if audiences didn’t care about seeing– or couldn’t see.

But the sight-lines aside, this production was a great reminder that the Henry VIs are really much more engaging and performable than they get credit for being. The early (probably collaborative) verse, while sometimes a bit clunky, is also simple and easy to follow. The extremely heightened action is actually really compelling, even if, in this instance, the production couldn’t resist making jokes out of some of the more ridiculous moments. Then again, maybe they were meant to be jokes in the first place.

The Blackfriars’ irreverent spirit is definitely well suited to a messy, extreme show like 3 Henry VI. I’m looking forward to seeing how some straightforward comedies play… and maybe if I’ll be able to get a better view.

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