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”

Friday, April 30, 2010

Theatre as tournament: Idealisation of the observed body

Apology of Colley Cibber, 1740: curiosity (natural and permissible) of audience into lives of actors, blurring of real/ideal as he constructs an identity for public perusal.

I avoided mentioning courtly romance in the last post, though it’s something of an elephant in the room when it comes to gender roles in depictions of mediaeval tournaments.  But I had decided that I’d rather look at that as an element of the idealisation of the observed object, common to both the Restoration stage and depictions of tournaments.

The image of women looking down on the action of competing men, of men competing for the approval of women, necessarily involves a tension of desire.  Elaborate social construction goes into increasing the tension on both sides: increasing the desire through idealisation and conditioning, while increasing the obstacles to attaining the ostensible object of desire. Desire then becomes its own end: satisfied, it dies.

The tension between the construction and gratification of desire is a central paradox of courtly romance.  A knight may long for, serenade, adore Eleanor of Aquitaine, but his lust must be abstracted so far as to become quasi-religious: if he ever actually gained access to her bed and body the illusion would be shattered, the idealised body worthless. Dante finds Beatrice easier to adore after her death.

The audience, therefore, must be set at a certain distance from the performers, and vice versa – detachment becomes necessary for desire, distance enough for wrinkles and fine gradations of expression to merge into flawless skin and a conventional “smile or frown”.

Stage makeup and conventions would help, no? And of course, not only is almost every play’s plot built around the development, obstruction and gratification of desire, but the experience of theatre itself is constructed around a desirable idealisation of life, in which the irregular wrinkles smooth out into a gratifyingly regular pattern.

The audience is necessarily detached from the action, as the women at a tournament – if either descended to the stage, not only would it look rather more messy than it does from above, but the action would come to a stuttering, appalled halt.  which assumes consturction of female audience. but how is it complicated by the female performers? or more, playwrights? how is desire constructed/perpetuated between viewer and viewed if gender roles do not permit?

Of course, the trouble with the term ‘idealisation’ is that virtually every depiction (literal or literary) we have of mediaeval tournaments is filtered through an idealising glass.  I can’t think of any first-hand accounts of tournaments - nor, for that matter, of genuine battles, but the convergence in description between them in the writings of Froissarts and Malorys is indicative of the the extent to which what is described is the idea in the head, not the event in question.   

and the actor is not performing in his own self, but presenting simultaneously himself, the character and the author

Duality/consciousness of performance.  Idea vs. fact of tournament/character/performance. Less to control in limited medium (writing, illustration) vs action of tournament, theatre – does that make that limited medium more of a performance – more perfect in its conscious duality?

Collier’s problem with mirrored gaze in restoration theatre. squeaking cleopatra – losing control of self-representation. Caviness 20.

“The ladies”, a homogenous construction without recourse to individual opinions or differences, within which individuals who happened to be female fit often uneasily, or sometimes not at all.
The question must also arise of how far we can know what actually happened in tournaments, and how far the record we have is simply the idea of the tournament.  Certainly literary descriptions and manuscript images are highly idealised, and information about actual events must inevitably be scanty.  On the other hand, real tournaments were designed around the idea of the tournament, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries – I seem to recall Henry VIII designing several around Arthurian themes, complete with costuming.  And of course, if we are comparing Restoration theatre with Restoration conceptions of mediaeval tournaments, all that remains to them is that idea.

Still, in either case, if I were to take this further I’d want to look in much greater detail into both mediaeval literary and pictorial depictions of tournaments and how they compared to what facts we can glean, and sixteenth-century reincarnations and and reinventions and reminiscences of the idea.  Many of which would, inevitably, bring me back to that centre of community visual spectacle, the stage.

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