Staging the Henrician Court : Performance and allusions

This page last changed on Dec 04, 2009 by Eleanor Rycroft.

To pick up more broadly something Greg raised in the first topic here: do the sexual/political implications need to be brought to the surface for the speech to be funny? What struck me very much during the performance was how differently 'subtexts' and allusions work in performance from the way they operate in reading.  When reading the play I'd always tended to feel that the political/sexual subtexts were too inarticulated to be strikingly effective; and (paradoxically!) that they were rather obvious.  In watching the performance, the allusions seemed both very much more powerful, and more subtle. 

I suppose this is connected to the fact that so much communication in performance is anyway non-verbal that as a spectator you are far more alert and responsive to what is 'not said' than you are as a reader.  It may also be partly because of the communal and public nature of performance - knowing that you are sharing with others the inexplicit allusion to, say, Anne Boleyn makes it more striking and more acknowledged (therefore both more funny and more dangerous).  Perhaps it also allows for my feeling of greater complexity: when watching the performance it is not just a case of whether you cleverly recognise an allusion to the King's 'Great Matter', or sexual activities, as you might when reading.  The presence of the other spectators sharpens our awareness of the immediate and varied significances of and possible responses to these things.  The speech here doesn't give a particular view or tell you what to think about what it alludes to; but the fact that it's brought up in a public forum makes you aware that these are matters about which views and thoughts are important.

I think it is right to focus on the differences between reading a text and watching it performed. There is a sense, particularly if one is reading as a scholar, in which one feels the need to fully understand a text, to pull out all of its meanings. This in turn can have the effect of making allusions or hidden meanings feel more important. But watching the New Moon speech is a more capricious less controlled experience which makes the allusions, as Sarah suggests, at once more tentative and more dangerous.

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Sep 30, 2009 13:23

This point, I think, raises questions about the audience as community or, indeed, as factions. Far from the solitary experience of the reader, spectators could be especially attuned, or could perhaps utterly miss, various allusions in the play depending on their allegiances, statuses, interests, etc.  There is the potential for comment within the audience - "did you hear THAT?!" - and also for audience members to be watched at particular moments in the drama for their reactions, and not just the King.  I'm thinking perhaps of the danger inherent in the dialogue about the Gentleman's head being chopped off.  There would have been spectators for whom that moment would have felt sickeningly immediate, either because they are currently out of favour, or perhaps because one of their kin is currently in peril, or has been in the past.  How would relatives of Edward Stafford, for instance, have felt during and reacted to the scene if they were present?

Eleanor Rycroft at Oct 01, 2009 16:30

Sarah hints at it, but nobody really grapples with the question about who we the audience were meant to be.  Were we ourselves (fairly well clued up specialists, who could be trusted to take most of the allusions), were we 'a modern audience' (whom, it seems, cannot be trusted to understand anything without a lot of fairly heavy nudging and winking — 'early Tudor word for tart'), or were we them (the contemporary court audience whom Eleanor is empathising with)?  This is the basic problem behind all recreations which hope to discover something about the original actor/audience relations.

Posted by Meg Twycross at Feb 08, 2010 20:40

Absolutely.  It's impossible to recreate the potentially volatile and, I imagine, rumour-riddled atmosphere of court during the Christmas of 1533 - Anne's first as Henry's consort.  Add to that the pressure of providing entertainment suitable for both a commercial and invited academic audience, as was the case in August 2009, and you get two very different forms of laughter from each audience - neither of which probably bore much relation to the laughter of the original audience.  I suppose it would have been expedient to laugh heartily at the replacement of an old, leaky moon in 1533, but we (the academics) might have found the joke distasteful and cruel, and they (the paying punters) may have simply been baffled by the allusion, or unaware that one had been made.

This is indeed the methodological issue with recreations.  Does the value lie in the fact that they bring such matters to the fore and, as Tom says, make us see the plays from a new (and collective) angle than that produced by simply reading?

Eleanor Rycroft at Feb 09, 2010 14:04

The key issue, it seems to me, is to separate out the question of who the audience were from a historical perspective from what one is doing with a recreation. I would argue that the issues of anachronism and miss-reading are at least as potentially great when one reads a text like Play of the Weather as they are when one watches it. A performance is nothing more or less then an embodied reading - in an ideal world doing it in front of an audience should mean that one gets a sense of a collective response of the kind that exists in a more nebulous way in relation to books or articles.

I have to admit that I am increasingly convinced that the Play of the Weather is a play for the court but not necessarily for the king - this is a problem since there has been a historical assumption that the court only 'exists' around the king - would there have been a court at Hampton Court when Henry was not there? However, I think we may been to revise this assumption. It seems to me possible that the Play of the Weather could be dated quite precisely to the hiatus casued by the amount of time it tookk Henry and Anne, after leaving Calais, to travle through Kent back to London at the end of 1532. Is Play of the Weather ( and after all weather had been an issue on the King's trip to France ) a kind of news-flash from the royal party back to the court?

Posted by Tom Betteridge at Feb 17, 2010 23:56

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