An early modern treasure trove

Michael Willis is a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. He reflects on his internship at Shakespeare’s Globe

globe-theatre_michael-willis-blogEvery Tuesday began with a wintery riverside walk from Embankment to Bankside to work with an early modern treasure trove of books and archival material at Shakespeare’s Globe. The vast spectrum of material that I was exposed to fed my intellectual curiosity as an early modern theatre enthusiast!

Each week would be completely different. One week I’d analyse stage movements in Outside In performances, where a production originally performed on outdoor stage at the Globe was performed inside at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Another week, I’d be researching costume designs, and in another I’d research early modern lighting. Working on the winter season, Wonder Noir, at the Sam Wannamaker I worked quite heavily on Webster’s challenging The White Devil. When it was originally performed in 1612, it was not received well and Webster blamed the ignorance of the audience and the wintery lighting for its poor reception.

Analysing the idea of voyeurism in the play, I traced the sordid and blackened world of a distorted Jacobean reality and wrote press tweets and researched for synopses of the play. One of my projects was to produce a Christmas blog. Working to a set deadline and with a range of archival material, I focused upon the cancellation of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century. The blog proved to be popular through its many re-tweets and re-posts upon social media most likely because it presented a world that is quite the antithesis to modern day Christmas time. I mean, can you imagine being thrown into prison for having a festive tipple whilst putting Christmas decorations up?

The internship allowed – and demanded, in a way – an investigation of very different materials. Whether that would be stage production documents or prop illustrations, each week required that I work to a tight deadline: a challenge but a motivation. I have developed a range of skills that will only serve to steer and inspire my research in my current MA, and as I embark upon a PhD later this year.

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“Lightes lightes now ginnes our play”: Illuminating the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This article was contributed by Rebecca Clossick, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance StudiesAll Posts

This season research at the Globe focused primarily on the experimental platform that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; the indoor Jacobean theatre archetype.  The first few years of productions have provided enormous research potential for the study of early modern indoor theatre practices and audience reception, and the Education department is now collating and analysing the findings.  As a research intern at this exciting time, many tasks related to gathering evidence for the Indoor Performance Practice project, coordinated by Dr Will Tosh, for the forthcoming publication Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare).

Identifying the strategic way in which the Globe promoted the four major tragedies of the opening season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – drawing on ideas of Jacobean sensationalism and how extensively candlelight was central to sensual appeal – provided insight into how a modern theatre venue specialises in observing historic practice and attempts to imaginatively recreate experiences of past audiences.  Indeed, the candlelit interior is celebrated as its most appealing feature.

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by ... Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library, [accessed 05 March 2017]

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by … Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library [accessed 05 March 2017]

An indoor Jacobean theatre would have glittered by candlelight, although since critics rarely commented on lighting, there is little contemporary evidence on which to base interpretations of the early modern experience.  Seeking to emulate early modern indoor playing conditions, the Sam Wanamaker productions incorporate live flame emitted from handheld candlesticks, chandeliers suspended from above the stage, and wall brackets housing individual candles.  Investigating the significance of lighting changes on the indoor playhouse experience proved fascinating.  Concentrating focus on one tiny aspect of performance illuminated the potential for new research into the text and reception, as well as the space.

 George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The various forms of artificial lighting used at the Sam Wanamaker – such as lanterns, candelabras, torches, window shutters controlling exterior light, under seat electric house lights – and their choreography was gathered from DVD recordings of performances, and from directors’ prompt books and stage management notes held in the Globe’s archive – some of which contained their own chandelier and candle plot, indicative perhaps of the pivotal efficacy of varied light.  The unanticipated discovery that each director has a vastly different management style, as evidenced in the highly-detailed prompt books for each production, also emphasises the continued creative attempts to interpret and re-enact the practical aspects of early modern theatre, while simultaneously crafting a unique and unforgettable experience for modern audiences.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The Sam Wanamaker production of John Webster’s macabre tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was the opening show in the space and the first to experiment extensively with lighting changes.  Contrary to what may be perceived as merely ostentatious means of illuminating performance, the nuanced use of candlelight contributed to intricacies within the plot relating to elements such as suspense and character development.  Scenes were shaped by changes in lighting ranging from actors blocking the only source of onstage candlelight, casting shadows about, to the raising and lowering of candelabra, and at one point total darkness descended upon the entire theatre as all light was extinguished.  As research progressed, the function of candlelight proved increasingly to be one of the most significant elements contributing to the psychological intimacy of the play.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Indeed, R. B. Graves suggests that indoor artificial stage lights were in fact used ‘to indicate darkness, not to increase the sense of brightness in the play or the theater’.[6]  Modern practitioners have often interpreted this with actors entering holding up lanterns on an otherwise unlit stage, signifying attempts to light their way through the black of night.  Certainly, for Jacobean tragedy, the stark contrast between small, flickering flame and the blackness beyond heighten the sense of isolation, vulnerability, and physical and psychological torment.

ete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

Copyright: Pete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

 

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an ongoing project that attempts to recreate the early modern indoor playhouse, such as the Blackfriars model, developing theatre practices around it.  Watching a production at the indoor theatre is a thrilling experience, not only due to the early modern design features and elaborate interior around which it was conceived, but also to the splendid artistic effects employed within performance.  As a supporter of the endeavour since its inception, and observing the marvellous production runs rouse many a curious onlooker, it was an honour and a pleasure to be afforded the opportunity to work in the treasure trove that is the Globe’s library and archive, researching the appeal of indoor playing both today and four hundred years ago.  The research internship concluded as the playhouse prepared to run its first indoor production of one of the most complex and sophisticated of revenge dramas, Webster’s The White Devil, a tale of corruption and hypocrisy, where the lighting configuration will undoubtedly complement the sinister plot.

 

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All the World’s a Stage: Musings of a Globe Theatre intern

This post was contributed by Eva-Maria Lauenstein graduate MA Renaissance Studies student at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. As part of her programme, Eva-Maria carried out an internship with the education team at The Globe Theatre on London’s south bank. Here she describes the experience

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London - Copy

Peter Maes after Heinrich Aldegrever, The Labours of Hercules, 1577, engraving, 94 × 67 mm, British Museum, London – Copy

The ‘Theatre of the World’, writes Frances Yates, ‘is the “Idea” of the Globe Theatre.’[i] Epitomised in its emblem of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders, to this day the Globe typifies this view of the multivalence of theatre according to its motto, totus mundus agit histrionem; ‘All the world’s a stage’. This maxim doesn’t merely encapsulate the side of the theatre that visitors experience on a daily basis, but equally the vibrant atmosphere of the world behind the stage.

Working for five months with the education team at the Globe as a research intern has been illuminating, not least because of the moments of wonder passing the boxes and racks of props, and observing the electrifying enthusiasm of the actors as they pour in and out of rehearsals and performances. From writing synopses for almost forgotten plays for the Globe’s Read not Dead performances, to the challenge of unearthing how, precisely, a shepherd of the early modern period passed his day, the internship was a journey of fascinating discoveries that was a pleasure for a theatre lover, but also entailed many opportunities to gain a plethora of new research skills and methods.

 

Henry Singleton - Ariel on a Bat's Back - Google Art Project

Ariel on a Bat’s Back, c. 1819, oil on canvas, 1003 x 1257 mm, Tate Collection, Henry Singleton

Tackling Shakespeare’s more divisive plays

With artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s final season coming to an end, the winter season’s performances equally mirrored the end of an era by taking on some of Shakespeare’s last plays. The internship allowed me to be part of the encounter with plays that have often baffled and divided critics, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Tracing the romantic air of the pastoral elements of The Winter’s Tale, I particularly enjoyed discovering the role of women in rural communities and how the utopian and romanticised image of the country maid of the stage compared to the harsh and difficult life of poorly regulated wage labour. Equally fascinating was the compilation of a research document on the way in which The Tempest’s Ariel was understood by contemporary viewers as a larger part of a community of the spirit world, delving deeply into the magic, the occult and the otherworldly.

A great way to hone research skills, the internship allows for experimentation with different sources, especially through its invaluable on-site archive and library. The variety of tasks meant that every week posed new challenges and the working to often tight deadlines a good way to pace and structure the work.

John Massey Wright's painting of The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

John Massey Wright, The Winter’s Tale, c. 1810-1866, watercolour on paper, 19 x 16 cm, Shakespeare Centre, Stratford-upon-Avon

While research into the nature of the plays dominated most of the work, there was equally ample opportunity to build on research skill sets by compiling press reviews and contributing to the collation of material for the website. While some tasks may have seemed daunting at first, the team was always friendly and helpful and fostered an environment of teamwork.

Finally, some of the most fun moments came with a much-needed refresher on the invigorating oddity that was part and parcel of early modern theatre. Assisting in the writing of a blog entry on The Winter’s Tale’s now notorious Exit Pursued by a Bear stage direction, I rediscovered the way in which Shakespeare, to this day, contains unexpected twists and turns that still manage to baffle, frighten and allow audiences to guffaw in an explosion of slapstick-induced comedy. Just so, this research internship has given me unexpected and insightful moments that will continue to inspire my research

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[i] As quoted in Kent T. Van den Berg, Playhouse and Cosmos: Shakespearean Theatre as Metaphor (London: Associated University Presses, 1985), p. 45.

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