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”

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

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

Continued from previous post.
In January 1669 Lady Castlemaine bribed Elizabeth Corey, an actress in the King’s Company, to play the part of Sempronia in Jonson’s Catiline in imitation of an enemy at court, Lady Elizabeth Harvey; it is said that when the line was uttered, ‘But what’ll you doe with Sempronia?’, Lady Castlemaine, wishing on her enemy the fate of her ambassador husband, Sir Daniel, cried out, ‘Send her to Constantinople!’ The actress was duly imprisoned, then released at Lady Castlemaine’s bidding; when the play was given again she repeated the performance only to have oranges flung at her by men hired by Lady Harvey. (Roberts 97)  
Observation turns to participation.  Castlemaine and Harvey enter the field from the boxes and tilt in public with the audience as their arbiters; or perhaps we could say, more conventionally, that the ladies select and observe their champions.  But one champion remains spatially in the audience, while the other is herself female.  As the lady assigns a knight her colours, Castlemaine blurs the line between herself and Corey when she hires the actress to play her part (as it were); but more so when she herself enters the lists, while remaining in the audience, by throwing her own voice into the fray. 

At the same time, the effectiveness of the insult involves eliding Corey/Sempronia’s identity with Harvey’s, metaphorically drawing her onto the stage herself – perhaps with an implicit slur on her virtue, given the reputation of theatrical women.  And while Harvey does retain her own physical distance from the stage, she nonetheless is drawn into it, to strike against Castlemaine as embodied in the actor/champion – who paradoxically bears Harvey’s own ‘colours’, and, incidentally, her Christian name. Like Lancelot, Corey allows herself to appear to disadvantage and suffer the consequences, day after day – and like Lancelot, she is rescued from shame and receives due reward from that lady. Like Guenevere, however, she languishes in captivity until rescued by her gallant. 

The movement in this case between the roles of knight and lady, performer and spectator, has a fluidity that makes such conventional divisions very problematic – at least as they relate to gender. And yet the savour of the tournament field remains: the determination of all three women to maintain their dominance of that socially central space insists on it as an essential site of ongoing social jockeying and proof.  Yvain could relate.
I said “gender” in the post title, but have said very little specific to masculinity.  I mentioned earlier the idea of masculinity as the true trophy of a tournament, embodied in a woman; but despite the jostling of literary shoulders for social acclaim, despite the ongoing ‘duels’ between various figures in which the pen stood in for the sword, despite the occasional eruption of stage competition into physical violence (as Kinaston and Dryden’s battered sides could attest), I think it would be driving the analogy too far to suggest that proving masculinity was the central concern of the Restoration stage.

But why wasn’t it? Perhaps, in part, because the gender roles it offered for assertion were more ambiguous.  As a masked woman could be a noble lady, a prostitute or an actress (who might herself be the mistress of a duke, or a king), a man in the theatre might be anything from a poet, to a discerning (or foolish) cit, to a lord and rake – or a poor actor who mimics one and is (in his own person or his assumed one) cuckolded to the laughter of the public.  Cross-dressing (in both genders) and the effeminisation of fops further blurred gender lines, as Marsden points out (188).

Certainly, as a spectacular public space, the theatre was potentially as perfect a vehicle for assertion of a public-centric identity as the tournament field. Is that it, perhaps? that identity was becoming less invested in the public? In qualities of the mind rather than the body?  Or more in the everyday reputation than the spectacular proof?

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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