Then courts of kings were held in high renown, Ere made the common brothels of the town. There, virgins honourable vows received, But chaste as maids in monasteries lived. The king himself, to nuptial ties a slave, No bad example to his poets gave: And they, not bad, but in a vicious age, Had not, to please the prince, debauch’d the stage.
John Dryden, “The Wife of Bath her Tale”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Theatre as tournament: Dryden’s bullfight

NB: This is a series of posts that I drafted some months ago, then got too busy to complete.  I just found them again and decided to patch together and posts what’s there, as I’m too interested in other things right now to complete them but they do contain thoughts I’ll probably want to return to at some point.  Incomplete sections are italicised and summarised in note form.
To the theatre, and there saw, “Argalus and Parthenia”, where a woman acted Parthenia, and came afterwards on the stage in men’s clothes, and had the best legs that ever I saw, and I was very well pleased with it. (Pepys’ diary, October 28 1661)
There is an account, in the very opening scene of Dryden’s Conquest of Granada, of a bullfight on a grand scale.  Local colour for a trendy Spanish setting, sure – but as I very much doubt Dryden had ever been Granadawards or seen an actual bullfight, it is essentially vibrant foreign colour painted onto an English imaginative concept, the tournament.
[talk through description of bullfight, including features like ladies’ gaze,equestrian skills, focus on individual heroic combatants and arbitration that remind of romance tournament descriptions, and the combination of war (background and present against bulls)/danger with game, as well as the political jostling/favour/power implied by that]
We do not actually see this tournament – rather, it is described to us in retrospect by the characters.  It is therefore mediated through their perception, and our reaction to a certain extent controlled by it – appropriately, as these men are the leaders of the land, busily engaged in projecting a show of absolute control that is about to fall to pieces in the disruption of civil war.  controlled by men, male arbiters, just as men decide and control the rules and world of tournament even if women are important in other ways. Literary antecedents more obviously recognisable by presenting it in a literary manner rather than representing it.
Now, bear with me, because I want to extend this beyond a solitary example in a solitary play.  There are correlations between romance’s tournament and the reported bullfight, between the theatricality of the fight and the theatricality of the Moors’ presentation of it, between the power structures evidenced in the fight and in the world of the play as a whole. And I would argue that all the points noted in common between the tournament and the bullfight are also held in common with the Restoration theatre itself.  This may not be deliberate on Dryden’s part, though I wouldn’t put it past him, but as corresponding vehicles for public spectacle, in which power dynamics are given the name of entertainment (or game), I think there are grounds for valuable comparison. 
I intend (but probably won’t manage) to primarily keep to note/question form, because there are some very large issues here that would require a major research project to do them justice.  Similarly, work may have been done on this already – I haven’t looked at either primary or secondary sources beyond notes I already have, as this is just a series of thoughts of my own, which I may develop at a later date.  And if I started, I wouldn’t stop – and a new semester is beginning. [NB: this is exactly what happened.]
Nevertheless, this has already grown into three posts to follow, grouped loosely around the following ideas:
- Play and war – making earnest of game.
- Gender dynamics – gaze and arbitration.
- Idealisation of the observed body.
Analogy can be a problematic critical tactic, as humanities researcher mentioned in a recent article; but this is not a paper, nor do I have a line of argument to present.  I will therefore move with little notice from considering the relationship only an externally imposed analogy from the present day; to considering both theatre and tournament as individual cultural phenomena that fulfil similar societal needs in their own times; to considering (aspects of) Restoration theatre as formulated more or less consciously around seventeenth-century reception and development of the idea of the tournament. Let us see which model of anachronism is most fruitful!

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