Of the Globe Ensemble’s production of Henry VI, which was performed just above us in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a friend tweeted, “usually don’t like stripping out the supernatural stuff”—which is to say, the ghosts, the dreams, the prophecies, and all the other bits that make the Henry VI plays so strange.
“I honestly don’t disagree,” I said to one of the production’s co-directors, because rest assured everything you tweet about a show probably makes it back to the creative team.
“Neither do I,” she said.
Which is maybe a strange conversation to imagine two of the people responsible for the decision to cut out the supernatural stuff having.
“I do wish we could have kept the conjuring scene somehow,” she said.
As a performance scholar, stepping back to reimagine this conversation sort of makes my hair stand on end. If even the people who made the thing don’t—can’t—take full responsibility for what they’ve made, then what am I even writing about when I write about theatre?
I’ve never liked to rely heavily on artist statements anyway: I’ve worked in theatre long enough to see the frequent vast gulf that exists between what an artist intends and what they actually do, and while there’s plenty for a scholar to investigate in that gap, I’m equally interested in exploring what has happened onstage without necessarily knowing whether it was what the director and creative team intended.
However. It’s hard to know what to do with knowing that so many things—the decision, say, to cut the scene in Henry VI Part 2 where the Duchess of Gloucester pays a witch to conjure prophetic spirits for her—are not a gap between intent and result, or a well-considered choice that I happen to disagree with but still reflects something about how the artists understand the play or what they want it to say.
What if all it reflects is the fact that we ran out of time to resolve an important question because we asked it too late?
THE TIME: TOO LATE
THE PLACE: A REHEARSAL STUDIO]
Henry VI, Part Two, Act I, scene iii:
[Queen Margaret drops her fan. To the Duchess of Gloucester:] Give me my fan. What, minion, can you not?
[She gives the Duchess a box on the ear.]
I cry you mercy madam, was it you?
This is a weird moment. I wanted to find a clip to show instead of just reading it, and the moment as filmed in The Hollow Crown is up on YouTube, but it’s absolutely preposterous: these lines and the Duchess Eleanor’s response take about five minutes because the camera can’t stop cutting to everyone spending fifteen seconds each making shocked reaction faces, I guess to underline that this is A Very Big Deal.
I don’t really know why the Queen of England staging a weird, degrading excuse to slap an aristocrat needs to be clarified as being a big deal in the first place. But that was one problem our production inadvertently solved through casting: Margaret was white and Eleanor was black.
A white queen pretending to mistake a black aristocrat for a servant is, simply put, racist, as the actor playing Eleanor pointed out. Either Margaret somehow actually mistakes Eleanor for a servant, raising the racist suggestion that all black people look alike and, as she noted, reflecting real world incidents where famous and important people of color, especially women, have been taken for staff at events they are in fact attending as guests. Or, if Margaret is staging the scene intentionally (the likelier textual interpretation), she is still evoking and playing upon these associations. It creates a world where all of Eleanor’s wealth and power—both, according to the play, considerable—cannot protect her from racism. It reframes her ambition for status, and more importantly the fact that the play itself positions this desire as inappropriate, never more than in her resort to witchcraft to get revenge on her enemies. Whether we wanted it or not, the real-world legacy of such gestures would be present onstage, so we had to decide what we wanted to do with and about that.
Eleanor exits this scene vowing revenge, and like I said, she attempts to get it using witchcraft. Working together to cut three plays down into one, the co-director and I talked about this scene a lot—the conjuring scene, the one we ended up getting rid of, ‘stripping out the supernatural stuff.’ But to begin with, we left it in.
Both she and I—both, it’s worth noting, white women—found the witchcraft scene perversely empowering. While on one hand it’s clearly a standard form of slander for a too-powerful woman in the period—a way to undermine her both within the world of the play and in the eyes of the audience—on the other hand it felt like a character reaching beyond the bounds of realism, beyond the bounds of history, to access a new and different kind of power; one capable of disrupting the frame of genre itself, of shifting the type of play we are watching.
But our Eleanor saw a different heritage in this moment, one tied to stereotypes about black women and vengeful magic. “Tituba-like,” she said.
We’d toyed with the idea of replacing the witchcraft with something more legibly political, and after the conversation about the slap bled into a conversation about the witchcraft, that was what happened. We cut together the existing lines to imply that Eleanor was perhaps trying to have King Henry and Queen Margaret killed, and left it at that.
The question of the slap itself slipped into the cracks where so many things fall during rehearsals, somewhere between decision and default, discussed by the actors on the sidelines and never openly revisited—or maybe it just fell into the cracks of my own experience, a moment I didn’t see, a decision I didn’t hear.
So I asked our Margaret, a few weeks later, what the two of them had decided. “It’s a racist gesture,” was the only possible conclusion, Margaret said. “Margaret’s being racist.” And bolstered this decision in performance with an exaggerated display of white lady tears, fake shock and horror at Eleanor’s angry reaction to the public insult. I know the directors recognized the choice for what it was, but did Margaret ever actually discuss it with them—was it ever decided, or was it just a useful patch for a dynamic there was no time to excavate? If it was discussed and I didn’t see it, didn’t hear it, was that a failure of observation, of research?
The rehearsal room is supposed to be the place where we inquire, where we ask questions of the play. Treat it like a new play—people love to say that about Shakespeare. Assume nothing. Discover. Negotiate. But what if by the time we’re in the rehearsal room, the moment for negotiation has passed? The premise of the Globe Ensemble, the umbrella of experiment which brought a handful of actors together to spend a year putting on seven of Shakespeare’s English history plays, is a blank slate: all you need to do these plays is a group of people who know how to work together and tell a story. Every answer you need about that story is there, in the text.
DON’T ASK ME IF I THINK THAT’S ENTIRELY TRUE]
As the actor playing, fittingly, Michael Williams in Henry V said to me as they prepared to open that play in the Globe over the summer, “I think we’re afraid to ask questions about this play because the answer might be that we shouldn’t be doing it.”
The slate is never blank. One impossibly important question has already been answered: that these plays are worth doing. And a second question: these are the people who will be doing them. The identities and stories they carry with them are the stories we will either ignore or tell. But ignoring things is obviously a choice, too.
Am I allowed to tell you about this?
THE TIME: LAST OCTOBER
THE PLACE: A WEIRD CIVIC BUILDING IN STAUNTON, VIRGINIA]
At the Blackfriars Conference in Virginia I go to a seminar about collaborative performance research in hopes that someone will tell me what to do. They do not. The conversation is dominated by directors wishing they could collaborate with an academic who would sit quietly in the corner and write obedient praise about how their work reveals deep truths about Shakespeare. There’s one piece of concrete advice: always be disclosing (get it). As a scholar in an artistic room, say who you are, why you’re there, what you’re doing, what the output will be.
But it turns out disclosing is hard, too. People forget. I have a long conversation with an actor about my thesis and we have a really interesting discussion about how it relates to the work in the rehearsal room. I tell him I’d love for him to read what I write about this process when it’s done, and he says he’d love to read it. Months later, he notes that it’s a shame no one will be writing about all this.
I’m not making fun of him. Even I didn’t really know what I was doing or what I would be making out of it, because things kept changing. I thought I’d be observing, and then I wasn’t—but sometimes I was, and I certainly wasn’t in control of decisions that were made. So when does this stop being a process I need permission to document and become an experience of my own that I’m allowed to share as partly mine?
And once it is, is it not scholarship anymore?
THE TIME: TOO LATE
THE PLACE: HERE]
This is already bad history. I’ve used ‘I’ too much, I’ve confused matters by leaving out people’s names, using character’s names and titles when I don’t really need to. Then again, nothing I’ve said here is impossible to decode: you can go look and find out everyone’s names if you want, who they played. I’m not trying to keep secrets, but I still can’t tell which stories are mine to share. I tried to disclose, but I’m not sure who was really paying attention, or if they understood what I meant, or if I understood what I meant. Things fall through the cracks, after all: we intend one thing and the audience understands another.
“usually don’t like stripping out the supernatural stuff,” my friend tweeted, which is to say, the stuff that forces us to look twice at what we expect out of a history play. If I had to choose the single most gratifying thing about my year of Globe histories, it would be how many of the actors came to truly love the weirdest and least-loved of the plays: Henry IV Part 2, the Henry VI plays, the ones that don’t look or act the way they should. The ones that get distracted with people who aren’t the king, that can’t stick to a linear storyline, that have witches and ghosts and chaos.
The plays, in short, that fill in the gaps. That’s what art’s supposed to do that history can’t, right? Fill in the space between the points on a timeline, take a documented ‘what’ and fill in the unknown ‘why.’
And the plays leave space, too. No casting instructions, few stage directions, and the big, empty space behind the lines for an actor to fill: the ‘how’ behind the ‘why,’ to keep up this pattern. The space that an actor has to be allowed to fully inhabit, with all of themselves. But by the time we asked the question about what it meant for the play, world, and character that Eleanor was black and Margaret was white and the king was white and her husband was white, none of those things could be changed. What if we’d pushed harder and found that the answer was that Margaret should have been a woman of color, too? That the entire role should be reconsidered? That we shouldn’t be doing this play at all?
The gaps in gaps in gaps of a history play, a genre that already demands fixation on the known and unknown, told and untold, truth and untruth, feel like the best space for feeling out how to sit between scholar and participant, too aware of how the pressures of time and money and practicalities force a performance into its final shape, sometimes against everyone’s will, to read the production without that knowledge. There were things I didn’t see, gaps in my record, assumptions I can’t make. I can’t read this performance I usually do, discussing effects careless of intent. The effect is a Henry VI that lacks its persistent supernatural incursions, its digressions from semi-realistic cause and effect. The intent was to make room for a different story, to attempt to contain a different kind of digression from the assumed and expected path of history plays that we hadn’t really left space for. Rather than trying to read the gap between the two, I’m trying to read the experience of traveling from one to the other. But it’s not someone else’s experience I’m analyzing from a distance, it’s partly my own. Then again, on some level, isn’t that what we’re doing any time we read a text as scholars: trying to explain, to pin down and theorize, our experience of it?
I can’t write this the way I usually do, either: “The decision to cut Eleanor’s conjuring scene reflects a discomfort with the less conventional elements of a history play”—but in fact it reflects a completely different kind of discomfort. The first draft of the conflation cut Eleanor entirely, and I found a way to put her back. “The decision to include the subplot about Eleanor of Gloucester—sometimes, as with many female characters, cut for time in conflated versions of the plays—suggests a recognition of the importance of the less-conventional avenues Shakespeare explores for telling and making history.” I know that’s why because it’s why I fought for it. You could say that it says something that I had to fight, but then again maybe it didn’t. It’s rehearsals, we’re meant to try things. You could say it says something that we could think of no other answer for Eleanor’s concerns than to just remove the source of them, and it probably does.
Maybe I’ve once again come to the question too late to really answer it. I wish this had all been a clever rhetorical performance of anxiety culminating in a surprise resolution, but I promise that it’s not.
There’s an impatience, sometimes, with the things that don’t fit in history, in history plays: I research female characters and have read very recent critics call them distracting, hysterical, inessential, unnecessary, boring. And there’s a counterpressure to seek out the individual, the history from below and beside and beyond the seats of power—one that we mostly see reflected through casting. Let a woman play Hotspur! Let a black actor play Henry V! Embrace the exciting emptiness of the gaps the plays leave and fill them with something we used to assume the plays didn’t and couldn’t contain. But what if it’s that the plays can be made to contain these things, but the way the theatre industry makes them can’t?
So I’m trying to find the space for the individuals in the process of making Shakespeare: for my own perspective and those of others, to ask what goes into what we put onstage not as behind-the-scenes trivia or a gap to excavate, but as work in itself that should? can? somehow be read on its own terms, an element of the cultural monolith that is Shakespeare, a piece of his history and histories. I tried to explain all this to a friend and he told me to go read Lukacs and Benjamin.
And it’s not just my fear of Marxist theory that makes me wonder if the question I’m really asking is something beyond theory—that in trying to force the answer into a form I can have peer reviewed and submit to the REF, I’m repeating the process that I’m trying to describe. I’m squeezing the life out of what is in fact an experience that willfully defies formal structure, one that must be personal but in being personal can still be a kind of history anyway.
It’s hard to do concealed fight choreography in the Wanamaker, with the audience on three sides: it’s hard to do concealed anything. So instead of a slap to the face, Margaret slaps Eleanor on the arm, where she can actually hit her without hurting her. Eleanor, tottering in high heeled boots, stumbles to the side, staring at Margaret in shock. Margaret instantly gasps, hands flying to her mouth, the image of surprise and dismay. During the first performance, the audience gasps, too.