Elizabeth E. Tavares, director of research
Each season of the Alabama Shakespeare Project is an experiment. This season, we are focusing on a specific research question across the academic year: what does it mean to play a part?
We mean this in a figurative sense, seeking out those moments of synecdoche in early modern English drama where a part stands in for the whole. We speak in synecdoche all the time: “nice wheels” to complement a car, “boots on the ground” indicating active military engagement, and the dismissiveness of “suits.” Today, playgoers can’t help of think of the plays associated with William Shakespeare and the Globe playhouse when they see a ruff, the fabric collar all the fashion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
It was a favorite rhetorical tactic of Renaissance playwrights, more often employing parts of the body instead of objects to anchor the association. In Hamlet, “the whole eare of Denmarke” is abused by ill news. With “take thy face hence,” Macbeth leverages the strategy to especial insult. The crown was so densely thematized across Shakespeare’s history plays — suggesting the conflict between the personal desires of the wearer and the heft of the responsibility of representing a sovereign state — that a 2012 television adaptation was called simply The Hollow Crown. Uneasy lies the head.
To play a part was also a literal task in Renaissance theatre-making. Scholars suggest that players received just their individual part when working up a potential new play, rolled up in a scroll including just their lines and a couple metrical feet worth of preceding text to cue their entrance. There is ample evidence of this within the plays themselves. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Peter Quince scolds Flute while he practices the woman’s part, Thisbe. He has memorized not only his text, but also all his cue lines, not realizing this is dialogue to be said by another actor: “you speake all your part at once, cues and all.” He has quite literally memorized the entire block without any idea of where to stop and start. Likewise, in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is so dumbstruck by the chance to marry Hero he does not respond at the good news of their betrothal. The text implies a pause giving way to Beatrice’s prompting, “Speake Count, tis your Qu.”
There is fortunate archival attestation as well, however unlikely that would be given physical parts as documents were likely given to rough use. The eponymous part of Orlando in Robert Greene’s The Historie of Orlando Furioso, supposedly belonging to the celebrity player Edward Alleyn, survives at Dulwich College. (Beyond Shakespeare has done a first and second look at this play in just the past year.) One can clearly see lines drawn horizontally across the page from left to right five times, each ending in a few syllables of a cue. While the cues run along the right-hand side of the page, the text to be spoken by Orlando runs along the left-hand side.
This season we are asking both players and playgoers about what a play performed with parts in hand affords. What does it make possible in a performance? How does it change the way one thinks about private practice and group rehearsal? Being a member of an ensemble or community? Falling out of one? While we are not the first company to dedicate time to playing with parts in hand, we are trying to take this practice beyond the plays of Shakespeare to see how well it does or does not work with plays likewise thematizing part-ness. This emphasis on practice rather than recovery, performance of the present rather than re-enactment, is partly in response to Stephen Purcell’s call to employ performance-as-research questions that are “no longer “how did . . . ?,’ but ‘how can . . . ?.’” For each production we are conducting interviews of and surveying actors about the process of using parts in performance, as well as surveying playgoers at our shows. We want to know what parts do for on both sides of the tiring house wall.
We begin with Much Ado About Nothing, a play about two communities coming together and in doing so reconfiguring the gendered co-dependencies they once shared. The characters of Beatrice and Benedict stand apart as highly individual wits, and yet are also the cornerstones of their respective units. The circulation of a pair of shoes draws out questions of disability and objectification in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which also includes Simon Eyre, a character based on a real previous Mayor and center of the play’s solar system of Londoners. The Fair Maid of the West takes the tavern society of Eyre’s England on tour in an adventure to the nearby Portuguese archipelago of the Azores, led by the barmaid Bess Bridges. We close with La Reina di Scotia (The Queen of Scots), a 1590s Italian play by Federico Della Valle newly translated by Fabio Battista. Dramatizing the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots, this closet drama both formally challenges the ability to cut parts from a whole while also extending into dramatic traditions beyond that of England.
Each production is developed by a dramaturg drawn from the graduate students at the University of Alabama’s Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, and supported by a research assistant affiliated with the season. Much Ado has been made possible by Strode students Candace Lilford and Riley Stewart, who have been guiding the collective, collaborative rehearsal process this week with three general principles in mind. First, players are invited to make their own choices about interpretation and delivery in private practice of their parts, making choices based on warrants in the text rather than drawn from an outside concept. Second, the company has been asked to consider what it makes to play a part literally and figuratively to inform their choices including developing their own costumes from contemporary dress as was likely done in the period.
Finally, given the coronavirus global pandemic and the social distancing protocols in play for both rehearsal and performance, the company has been asked to explore the homonym of mask and masque. Messina, like us, is a community negotiating a pandemic for the concerns of this production. This context adds a new tenor of serious when the Aragon soldiers arrive at the door of Messina’s Governor. Does he let them in or turn them away for fear of contagion? Masks not only enable the courtship of Hero in disguise as the play intends, but also provide additional occasion to the insularity of this small group of people, the intimate wedding ceremony shared only between immediate family members, and the missing mothers.
Oscar Wilde observed, “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” We hope you’ll bring your best mask, and tell us what you really think about playing with parts this Thursday, 7 October, in the grand gallery of the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Come be a part. This is your cue.