Saturday, August 07, 2010

Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power; Political Theater in the English Renaissance

Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power; Political Theater in the English Renaissance, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1975.

In the public world of Renaissance Europe (and, indeed, for three centuries after in varying degrees) actors were traditionally considered itinerants, a step above beggars and highwaymen. In the court world, the same actors became Gentlemen, the King’s Servants, or the Queen’s Men. (1)

Spectators paid a penny to enter and stand; for another penny they had seats in the galley; for a third penny they had front row seats; for a shilling they had a gentleman’s or lord’s room, a private box. … In this respect the public theater may be seen as a democratizing institution, though to put it in those terms is a little misleading: it’s appeal was primarily to the middle class. A penny was a day’s wages for the average workman, so one had to be reasonably well off to go to the theater at all, and relatively prosperous to attend regularly and sit comfortably. Whatever aesthetic requirements Elizabethan drama fulfilled, a large part of the visual appeal of the spectacles was surely directed towards satisfying middle-class aspirations. The costumes, we have seen, were real court clothes, and their splendor, in a society whose sumptuary laws regulated even styles of dress, would have given a merchant or tradesman the richest sense he was ever likely to have of how the aristocratic life looked in action. (8-9)

For example, in 1605 King James paid a visit to Oxford, and the university undertook to entertain him with four plays. A stage was constructed in Christ Church hall, and for the first time in England drama was produced with perspective sets and moveable scenery; the designer was Inigo Jones. The location of the royal seat was determined by the laws of optics. However, according to a contemporary account, when representatives arrived form court to oversee the arrangements for the performances, they “utterly disliked the stage at Christ Church, and above all, the place appointed for the chair of Estate, because it was no higher, and the King so placed that the auditory could see but his cheek only.” The university’s vice-chancellor undertook to explain “that by the art of perspective the king should behold all better than if he sat higher.” But the courtiers remained adamant, and “in the end, the place was removed, and sett in the midst of the hall, but too far from the stage.” Ironically, the problem turned out in the end to be acoustical rather than optical, and the king complained that he could not hear the play. /
What troubles the courtiers in this account is that the king’s place in relation to the drama is, in the arrangement of the hall, unclear. The king must not merely see the play, he must be seen to see it. The fact that the latter requirement interferes with the former is of no consequence to the critics from Whitehall; in their judgment, it is the latter that takes clear precedence. (15-16)

In producing a play, we begin by extinguishing the house lights, so that the only visible part of the theater is the stage; we assume that the primary way to control an audience’s attention is through its eyes. And, a logical corollary, we always say we are going to see a play, never to hear it. But all this is much newer than the seventeenth century. Until the late nineteenth century it was usual to perform plays with uniform lighting throughout the theater; there are occasional counter-examples, but they are exceptional. The darkened house and the lighted stage are elements in a specifically modern concept of theater; its avant garde includes Wagner at Bayreuth and Sir Henry Irving. Until the end of the last century it was perfectly possible to say that one went to hear a play—Henry James, reviewing the Paris theatrical season of 1872 said he had gone “to the Theatre Francais to listen to Moliere’s Mariage Force.” This would be for us an impossible locution, … (17-18)

Whereas in a modern theatre the audience is assumed to be an unseen spectator, overhearing the dialogue, in the Elizabethan playhouse he was addressed directly and constantly. Burbage’s Hamlet did not ruminate his way through his soliloquies, he harangued, exhorted, explained. As at a debate or oration, in the audience’s judgment lay half the action. (19-20)

Here we must beware of the easy antithesis between verbal and spectacular theaters: the court theater, with its scenes and machines, did not diminish the oratorical aspects of the drama, but rather intensified them. The Shepherd’s Paradise is an extreme but not uncharacteristic case. The queen saw in plays a didactic medium, a forum in which her philosophical position might be thoroughly argued… To begin with, perspective settings require a proscenium, a frame at the front of the stage—Montagu’s audience was separated form his actors in a way that the popular dramatist’s was not. But a frame does more than separate the viewer from the scene. It also directs his attention and provides a context for the action it contains. The context, moreover, need not be related to the action within the frame. An elaborate gold frame around a painting says something quite different from a simple black band, but what it says is about its owner, not about the painting. [20] … Renaissance proscenium arches, too, did not merely enclose the action. They were designed for particular occasions, and often in very complex ways defined the world of both their patrons and their dramatic fictions. (21)

Illusionistic stages were used, on the whole, not for drama but for the masque, for reasons we shall consider in the next chapter. Plays from the popular playhouses were frequently performed at court, but never with settings. (26)

We possess detailed information about the stagings of only one such play, an anonymous French pastoral called Florimene, produced in 1635, and performed by Queen Henrietta Maria’s French maids of honor. What has survived of this work is not a text, but something much more valuable for our purposes: an English summary of the action, Inigo Jones’s plans and elevations of the stage and the arrangement of the hall, and a complete set of scene designs. … The royal box is exactly halfway between the front of the stage and the back wall of the hall—the king and queen sit in the precise center of the audience. The area in front of the royal box is clear; no one has his back to the monarchs, no one sits in front of them. (27)

To an audience raised on romances, the only surprises in this elaborate French charade would have been those provided by Inigo Jones’s machinery. / Jones’s surprises were real enough. Interestingly, however, they bore very little relation to the action of the drama, taking place, for the most part, only in the intervals between the acts. The text calls these “intermedii”—interludes, the Italian intermezzi. In fact, throughout the sixteenth century in Italy, this had been the primary function of scenic machinery: not to form a context for dramatic action, but to provide spectacular intermezzi. As in Florimene, these were normally [34] unrelated to the main play. Purists scorned the practice, but many Renaissance theorists defended it, pointing out that Aristotle himself recommended the use of spectacle to produce the wonder that is required in drama. And other critics praised the intermezzi on the grounds that they served to mitigate the overwhelming effects of tragedy. No doubt this argument sounds perverse to modern readers—we tend to want our tragedies intensified, not mitigated; but perhaps that is because we start by taking tragedy so much less seriously than the Renaissance spectator did. … Even for plays that did not include formal intermezzi, he tended to employ his scenic machines in the same way, to provide brief interludes of wonder. (34-35)

Critics from Puritan times onward have treated them as mere extravagances, self-indulgent ephemera. But in the culture of the Medici grand dukes, the courts of Navarre, Anjou, Valois, and Bourbon, the Venetian republic, the Austrian archdukes, Henry VIII, extravagance in rulers was not a vice but a virtue, an expression of magnanimity, and the idealization of art had power and meaning. This was the context in which James I, and above all Charles I, saw their courts. (38)

In England the form had roots in a strong native tradition of mummings and disguisings. It came into its own artistically with the accession of the first British Renaissance monarch, Henry VIII, who loved playing the central role in any enterprise… (38-39)

The climactic moment of the masque was nearly always the same: the fiction opened outward to include the whole court, as masquers descended form pageant car or stage and took partners from the audience. (39)

“Woman Actors,” said William Prynne in 1633, with a large body of British opinion behind him, were “notorius whores.” For speaking roles, therefore, professionals had to be used, and this meant that the form, composite by nature, was in addition divided between players and masquers, actors and dancers. In the hands of Ben Jonosn and Inigo Jones, this practical consideration became a metaphysical conceit, and the form as they developed it for James I and his queen, Anne of Denmark, rapidly separated into two sections. The first, called the antimasque, was performed by professionals, and presented a world of disorder and vice, everything that the ideal world of the second, the courtly main masque, was to overcome and supersede. /
The masque presents the triumph of an aristocratic community; at its center is a belief in the hierarchy and a faith in the power of idealization. Philosophically, it is both Platonic and Machiavellian; Platonic because it presents images of the good to which the participants aspire and may ascend; Machiavellian because its idealizations are designed to justify the power they celebrate. As a genre, it is the opposite of satire; it educates by praising, by creating heroic roles for the leaders of society to fill. The democratic imagination sees only flattery in this sort of thing, but the charge is misguided, and blinds us to much that is crucial in the power of art—to persuade, transform, preserve—and masques can no more be dismissed as flattery than portraits can. We do not consider portraits less “serious” than historical or religious or mythological paintings; nor do we assume that they have meaning only to their sitters; nor do we believe them to be beneath the dignity of a Titian or a Rubens. (40-41)

…all that money for only two performances! In fact, this was a standard Puritan objection to the masque, though with an important difference: the Puritan objection did not distinguish the masque from any other kind of art. … We, however, do distinguish the arts; we assume that the ephemeral nature of the masque calls into question not only its potential as an investment, but even its seriousness. (41)

Court masques were always topical; under Charles I they argued the royal case in current political and legal disputes with an energy and ingenuity that suggests that the king must have been actively involved in their composition. Charles was not merely being entertained by his masques; the form was an extension of the royal mind, and—despite the universal British prejudice against actors—to take the stage was a royal prerogative. (43)

“Women-Actors, notorious whores” appears as an entry in the index; the king’s attorney general took it to be an aspersion of the queen’s participation in court theatricals. Prynne denied the allegation, but the evidence was considered ample, … Prynne was guilty not merely of an attack on the queen. there were many such that went unnoticed; against her Catholicism, her associates, her growing influence over the king. It was the attack on the queen as actress, on the royal theatricals, that was treasonable. The loss of Prynne’s ears, freedom, and livelihood did not seem to the court too severe a penalty, nor did it seem to Prynne’s Puritan supporters a punishment suffered in a trivial case. Both sides rightly saw The Scourge of Players as a call to revolution, and Prynne became a popular hero. (44)

The most important Renaissance commentary on the subject is itself a theatrical one, Prospero’s masque in The Tempest. It is, of course, not a real masque, but a dramatic representation of one, and it is unique in that its creator is also the monarch at its center. This is Shakespeare’s essay on the power and art of the royal imagination. By 1611, when The Tempest was produced at Whitehall before the king, the playwright’s knowledge of the work of Jones and Jonson must have been intimate. (45)

Again and again, the masques draw the same analogy. Pastoral, that traditionally contemplative mode, becomes an assertion of royal power; and the use of pastoral in masques is a remarkable index to the age’s changing attitudes towards the monarchy. We may trace in this a significant development. in the early years of James I, when a pastoral scene appears as part of a sequence, contrasted with cities or palaces, it invariably comes at the beginning and embodies the wildness of nature or the untutored innocence that we pass [49] beyond to clear visions of sophistication and order, usually represented by complex machines and Palladian architecture. But after about a decade, form 1616 onward, this sequence is reversed. When pastoral settings appear they come at the end, and embody the ultimate ideal that the masque asserts. For the earlier sequence we might take as the normative masque Jonson’s Oberon, which opens with “a dark rock with trees beyond it and all wildness that could be presented,” then moves to a rusticated castle, and concludes with a Palladian interior. For the latter sequence, a good example is Jonson’s Vision of Delight, which opens with a perspective of fair buildings, changes to mist and cloud, and concludes with the Bower of Spring. There are of course any number of other instances, but the important point is that the sequences are invariable: in a Stuart court masque with this sort of structure, when a pastoral scene appears before 1616 it always comes at the beginning, after 1616 it always comes at the end. … In the early productions they conceive the masque as starting somewhere else, very far form the realities of Whitehall: a landscape, a great red cliff, an ugly hell. But the work concludes with the realities of the court: the queen on a throne surrounded by her ladies, or in a classical House of Fame; the Prince of Wales emerging from a Palladian tempietto. … But the later productions tend to start with the realities of Whitehall—in the cellars, in the court buttery hatch, or most often simply in the masquing hall itself, and the masque begins by claiming that what is taking place is not fiction but reality. Indeed, in the most extraordinary example, Jones, ignoring Jonson’s text (which demands an indoor scene) opens Time Vindicated (1623) with a perspective setting of the façade of his own uncompleted Banqueting House. Even this, London’s new Palladian masterpiece, is rejected in favor of a final pastoral vision of Diana and Hippolytus in a wood. The Caroline productions go even further, and tend to resolve all action through pastoral transformations. The apotheoses of nature becomes immensely complex and inclusive visual statements about the commonwealth, accommodating within their vistas even traditionally anti-pastoral elements—distant vies of London, the fleet in full sail, the fortified castle at Windsor. /
What is recorded in these production is the growth of a political ideology. The masques of James I and Charles I express the developing movement towards autocracy—it is not accidental that Jones’s pastoral visions become most elaborate during the 1630s, the decade of prerogative rule. Monarchs like Charles and his queen are doubtless attracted to the vision of themselves as pastoral deities because the metaphor expresses only the most benign aspects of absolute monarchy. (49-52)

Thus the ruler gradually redefines himself through the illusionist’s art, from a hero, the center of a court and a culture, to the god of power, the center of a universe. Annually he transforms winter to spring, renders the savage wilderness benign, makes earth fruitful, restores the golden age. We tend to see in such productions only elegant compliments offered to the monarch. In fact they are offered not to him but by him, and they are direct political assertions. (52)

Hostile critics saw in the royal histrionics only frivolity or hypocrisy, and even sympathetic observers regularly referred to the masques as “vanities.” This, indeed, is Prospero’s term for his own masque, “some vanity of mine art.” The description if exact and the charge irrefutable: these works are totally self-regarding. (59)

Roles in plays, to Puritan observers, were impostures and lies. The very act of imitation, in drama as in art, usurped a divine prerogative, and theatrical productions were therefore often seen to be at the heart of the court’s degeneracy and impiety. But from another point of view the parts we choose to play are not impersonations but ideals. They are what we wish to be, and they reveal not so much the way we want others to see us as the way we want to see ourselves. (60)


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