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”

Monday, April 26, 2010

Theatre as tournament: Gendered gaze – arbitration or participation? (1/2)

The poet now the ladies help does crave,
That with a smile or frown can damn or save.
The actor speaking the epilogue to Thomas d’Urfey’s Trick for Trick (1696) turns to that homogenous, genteel mass known as the fair sex, begging their (its?) intercession for a humble stage-bound suppliant. Lifting his hands, possibly, in the direction of the boxes, addressing the best exemplars of that type, he recalls in  attitude the erring knight before a court of women, a suitor gazing up hopefully at a face in a tower – or, of course, a knight in a tournament awaiting the arbitration or favour of one or more women up in the stands. While a woman’s judgement is permitted – indeed requested – in most of these cases it is to be conveyed by the gaze and the expression that surrounds it, rather than through speech or action.  She responds with the grace of her eyes to the action of a man’s body on the tournament field, or the action and speech of a man on the stage, without initiating any independent speech or action of her own.  She observes – she does not participate. 

Now, there are a few immediate and obvious flaws with that, as this constructed “she” in the Restoration audience would not be responding to the actions and speech of a man only, but to a mixed-gender cast.  “She” is also not a “she” but a “they”, and “they” are by no means guaranteed not to intervene in the action of the stage, either by verbal interjection during the performance or by influence out of it (patronage, donations, authorship). In addition, in the case of d’Urfey’s epilogue, the actor does not plead for himself: rather, the playwright pleads through the actor. Just as the action of Lancelot’s body can prove the fact of Guenevere’s guilt or innocence[1], the actors become ‘champions’ of the author, their identity eliding with his as they speak the words prepared by him.  But potentially, either playwright or actor (or both) might now be a “her”.

The conventional gender roles a tournament assigns are familiar. Women are inactive and elevated above the action, but their downwards gaze validates the action as chivalric and romantic – the latter potentially in the modern sense, given the emphasis on winning female favour (“a smile or frown”). By this logic, they are also in their own body both judge and reward, and, theoretically at least, justification.  They do not, however, set the terms of the game: it is a game of war, defined and enacted by men, with masculinity the true trophy (even if embodied in a woman – hence Yvain’s confusion).

Yet even here, there is some ambiguity as to the extent of female participation.  The gaze cannot have a single direction: the woman’s gaze must inevitably meet its reverse, if it is to have effect. If a knight wears a woman’s sleeve into battle, to what extent is she imagined as existing on the field herself? or altering, by instruction or inspiration, the outcome of events?  Certainly Guenevere’s command to Lancelot to lose in the tournament compromises the field as a sphere of purely masculine endeavour. 

While gaze in the theatre is theoretically as monodirectional as it is (theoretically) in a tournament, the limits of this theory are the subject of ironic play in themselves. Those treading the board feign not to see the audience, feign to exist in a world removed from trappings and scene and “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire”, but regularly turn this very pretence to effect, engaging their audience actively through irony, acknowledgement in direct address, contemporary references and arbitration.

However, the audience constructed in the address of prologues and epilogues can be as artificial as any costumed character. Roberts observes that the audience addressed was male by default, and that when women – or rather, “the ladies” – were addressed, it was not as individuals with differing opinions and tastes but as an undifferentiated single party who approved or rejected en masse (28-29, together with most of that chapter).  Marsden points out (195) the paradox and difficulty for female members of an audience when the action and dialogue onstage is designed to invite titillation at the sexual regard, or even the rape, of female characters onstage.  The assumption of a male audience is essential for the success of the common stage devices and plots that Marsden describes, in contrast to the conventionally feminised audience of a tournament. May the difference be derived (in part) from the other aspect of the stage, the literary and poetic? The interlocutors in literary debates had long been assumed to be male, although change was grinding slowly into motion here as well. 

The increasing popularity of masks among women, literally effacing individual identity, attracting the gaze while seeming to deflect it, can only have assisted a group characterisation. As such a fashion acknowledges, the ladies in a Restoration audience were themselves theatrical objects of view.  The gaze was not only reversed from stage to audience, but turned by the audience on itself.  It is a rare theatre-visit for Pepys when he does not leave in his diary an impression that the audience around him were as interested in each other as the stage. 

And sometimes they did more than look…

Continued in next post.

[1] Despite the fact that the action of Lancelot’s body has already effected Guenevere’s guilt.

Marsden, Jean. “Rape, voyeurism and the Restoration stage.” Broken boundaries: Women and feminism in Restoration Drama. Ed. Katherine M. Quinsey. Kentucky: UP of Kentucky, 1996. 185-199.
Roberts, David. The Ladies: Female patronage of Restoration Drama 1660-1700. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

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