Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: theater (page 1 of 1)

cosplaying Kingship

In a much-celebrated essay on King Lear, Stephen Greenblatt writes about theatrical costumes: 

During the Reformation Catholic clerical garments – the copes and albs and amices and stoles that were the glories of medieval textile crafts – were sold to the players. An actor in a history play taking the part of an English bishop could conceivably have worn the actual robes of the character he was representing. Far more than thrift is involved here. The transmigration of a single ecclesiastical cloak from the vestry to the wardrobe may stand as an emblem of the more complex and elusive institutional exchanges that are my subject: a sacred sign, designed to be displayed before a crowd of men and women, is emptied, made negotiable, traded from one institution to another. Such exchanges are rarely so tangible; they are not usually registered in inventories, not often sealed with a cash payment. Nonetheless they occur constantly, for through institutional negotiation and exchange differentiated expressive systems, distinct cultural discourses, are fashioned.

What happens when the piece of cloth is passed from the Church to the playhouse? A consecrated object is reclassified, assigned a cash value, transferred from a sacred to a profane setting, deemed suitable for the stage. The theater company is willing to pay for the object not because it contributes to naturalistic representation but because it still bears a symbolic value, however attenuated. On the bare Elizabethan stage costumes were particularly important – companies were willing to pay more for a good costume than for a good play – and that importance in turn reflected the culture’s fetishistic obsession with clothes as a mark of status and degree. 

The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was a genuinely sacral occasion; the coronation of her son will be a theatrical one. The regalia of sacred Christian kingship has been sold to the players — because they, and their international television audience, are the only ones interested. 

But perhaps, through the scrim of spectacle and costume, some observers will catch a glimpse of what the whole business once meant, a brief vision of something I’ve written about occasionally here: the deep human longing for a righteous anointed King. 

P.S. This “deep human longing for a righteous anointed King” is central to my argument for anarchism. But an explanation of that will have to wait for another day.

P.P.S. After the ceremony: Some of my English friends are telling me that I was too cynical in the above. I hereby repent. 

Faustus’s good angel

From my book Original Sin: A Cultural History:

In 1974, the famous theatrical director John Barton staged [Christopher Marlowe’s] Doctor Faustus for the Royal Shakespeare Company and chose for the leading role an unknown young actor by the name of Ian McKellan. Shrewd move, that; but he made other decisions that are equally interesting and important, though from a different point of view. The directorial problem with which Barton was faced is simple yet serious: how … could we [moderns] possibly take seriously the appearance of the Good and Evil angels? And his solution was a brilliant one: he made them into hand puppets, held by Faustus himself, their lines spoken by him.

A brilliant solution on more than one count: not only does he avoid sniggers from the audience at the appearance of the debating spirits, but he simultaneously enables an understanding of Faustus that is perfectly commensurate with twentieth-century psychology. For if it was the genius of Prudentius and his followers to reach into the divided self and pull out its voices, giving them bodily substance and individual identity, it was the genius of Freud and his followers to stuff them all back into the box. When Freud sees the Good Angels and Evil Angels of our stories as projected externalizations of our own inner conflicts — puppets made by us and able to speak only through our acts of ventriloquism — he is simply returning us to the world of Augustine, in which “the devil made me do it” is scarcely a legitimate excuse. Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we were torn from the inside out or the outside in.