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 23, 2010

Theatre as tournament: Making earnest of game

Show dichotomy between real and not real, serious and not serious, leisure and occupation in both theatre and tournament.

Of course, the crucial difference between theatre and tournament as regards actual wars, themes of national import, is that those on the tournament field will usually or potentially be players in the field of war; but the majority of those in the theatre have little chance of even influencing the political aspects of the conflict, and are unlikely to be physically present in war themselves, let alone in a position of command.  However, the theatre can sway and express public opinion (for a given value of ‘public’), and by this time that must be allowed rather more weight than it ever had in the High or Late Middle Ages.  While the middle and lower classes gathered in the theatre may not have any prospect of affecting the war directly, yet they are present, as they would not have been (or not have been acknowledged to be) four hundred years before; and their opinions are allowed or sought about the action and words on the stage.  They may even mount the stage themselves.

Politics as intersection of game and war? Serious effects of tournament – for Erec and Yvain of not participating, of injury or death in mock-combat.  Cf. the trouble Kynaston and Dryden got into, both the subject of physical assaults as a result of powerful people taking offence to their activities onstage; or the effects of Buckingham’s satire on Dryden’s reputation. Dryden becomes Bayes – unable to reappropriate his colours/arms?

Blurring of actual identity through the ‘play’ publically observed – eg, tournament knight with his lady’s colours, identified only by his own colours or the colours of his team; potential for disguise,  or usurpation of another’s identity (to whatever end).  Actor assuming character, playing recognisably in the manner of some public figure, wearing clothes donated by / borrowed from lord/lady, etc.  Even cross-dressing: effeminate fops, breeches-clad actresses, boys/men in women’s roles, etc.

The Restoration also seems to foster a deliberate cultivation of the mystique of the actor, until Colley Cibber could not only acknowledge but reasonably expect the fascination of the audience with who an actor is “when in no body’s Shape but his own”,
and whether he, who by his Profession had so long been ridiculing his Benefactors, might not, when the Coat of his Profession was off, deserve to be laugh’d at himself; or from his being so often seen in, the most flagrant, and immoral Characters; whether he might not see as great a Rogue, when he look’d into the Glass himself, as when he held it to others. (Cibber 3-4) 
There is an irony here – intentional or unintentional, though Cibber seems unable to ever quite refrain from (defensive?) irony. The introduction to his autobiography is far too self-conscious in its construction of the ‘real’ Cibber to be anything but another performance.  Which begs the question – does any real interior self remain to the actor after years on the stage? Is he or she only to be found in the mirror? If the knight is so easily effaced – if Lancelot kills his beloved Gareth, unmakes the knight he made, because he does not recognise him out of armour - is he, in fact, anything but his colours?

Cibber, Colley. An Apology for the life of Mr Colley Cibber, Comedian, and Late Patentee of the Theatre-Royal.  With an Historical View of the Stage during his Own Time. Written by Himself. 2nd ed. London: John Watts, 1740.

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