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Jan 29, 2013

Rousseau's Conception of Nature & Civilization

Rousseau uses the development of the arts and sciences as a way of describing the fall of man from a "golden age" of a "state of nature". He explains:
When there is no effect, there is no cause to seek. But here [discussing the arts and science] the effect is certain, the depravity real, and our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts toward perfection. [1]

Therefore, he has drawn a direct link between corruption and the arts and sciences. It seems to me, however, that although he talks of cause and effect, they are quite confused in this work. Powers, writing in 1962, quoted an unnamed American historian who noted:
serious students of [Rousseau's] political philosophy are in complete disagreement as to what he meant. [2]
And Hope Mason is just as blunt:
if we read the Discours without benefit of hindsight it is hard to discern any complete philosophy. [3]
Rousseau's basic point is straightforward: man is corrupt and the arts and sciences have played a role in that corruption. He states in the First Part:
So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature, and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men's breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people. [4]
This suggests that Rousseau believes arts and sciences make conformists of us all. He would go further and use the term 'slaves'. And it is the study of arts and sciences that causes us to be "mean, corrupt and miserable." [5] Therefore, he believes that arts and sciences corrupt morals and they are the direct cause of man’s downfall. In the Discourse, he specifically blames certain sciences:
Astronomy was born of superstition, eloquence of ambition, hatred, falsehood, and flattery; geometry of avarice; physics of an idle curiosity; and even moral philosophy of human pride. Thus the arts and sciences owe their birth to our vices; we should be less doubtful of their advantages, if they had sprung from our virtues. [6]
The arts also come in for criticism. Without "...useless writers and litterateurs… society would be more peaceful and morals less corrupt." [7]

Therefore, Rousseau is clearly making the point that arts and sciences have had a corrupting influence. They are explicitly the cause of corruption. But later he writes:
It is thus that the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury, brings with it in its turn the corruption of taste. [8]
Now, it appears that luxury is the cause of corruption. Earlier, he wrote:
The waste of time is certainly a great evil; but still greater evils attend upon literature and the arts. One is luxury, produced like them by indolence and vanity. Luxury is seldom unattended by the arts and sciences; and they are always attended by luxury. [9]
This is a very curious passage, in which Rousseau seems to be arguing that both the arts and sciences and luxury are the product of indolence and vanity. Therefore, indolence and vanity now appear to be the cause of corruption, and the advancement of the arts and sciences the effect. Moreover, luxury is also described as being a corrupting influence on arts and sciences. It is therefore both cause and effect.

However, as Powers points out, there is a further contradiction. Rousseau believes that everything is radically dependent on politics. [10] Thus, "the arts and sciences and their relationship to morals could only be indirect." Powers goes on:
In his Discourse on the origins of inequality, he went to the root of the matter: the original difficulty was not the arts and sciences, but was the order of inequality, which they reflect and embellish. [11]
So now it appears that inequality, which is a by-product of politics and which is merely reflected and embellished by arts and sciences, is the cause of corruption.

At the root of this seeming confusion is Rousseau's contention that pride is the real cause of man's downfall. Everything else arises from that. Campbell and Scott note:
Human pride is the source of "all" human learning, and the cause of its corruption. [12]
They continue:
However beautiful the spectacle of the advancement of the sciences may be, Rousseau asks his readers to consider their deleterious effect upon public morals. [13]
And here, as always, Rousseau comes back to his view of civilisation and his central point, that man has fallen from his ideal state and become corrupted:
We cannot reflect on the morality of mankind without contemplating with pleasure the picture of the simplicity which prevailed in the earliest times. [14]
It is important to understand that Rousseau is not talking about a return to a golden age. He is not saying that the "state of nature" is an aspiration and it would be preferable for us to renounce our civilisation and our learning and our self-awareness. That is not possible: the fall has already happened and what has happened cannot be undone.

He says that in becoming civilised we have renounced freedom. Man is innately good, but civilisation forces him into badness. He states: "Nature made man happy and good, but society depraves him and makes him miserable." [15] Powers notes:
He believed that no human faculty was bad by nature. He did believe that amour de soi "is the only force which will make men act. Self-love (amour de soi) which is good and innate, degenerates into pride (amour propre), which is evil and which is acquired." Thus he believed that man, naturally good, becomes bad. [16]
What caused this degeneration of amour de soi into amour propre? Partly, of course, it is the arts and sciences. As Campbell and Scott note:
The sciences investigate the causes of natural phenomena traditionally attributed to divine power, and they corrupt morals by undermining the faith and public-spiritedness upon which Rousseau suggests popular virtue rests. "Science spreads and faith vanishes." The paradigmatic natural science in this regard is physics, which Rousseau specifically identifies as the product of "vain curiosity." [17]
Campbell and Scott also note:
[Rousseau's] remark that such individuals [those who should be allowed to study the sciences] must "feel the strength to walk alone" suggests that it is less their genius than their independence from popular trends and opinion that enables them to pursue the sciences without corruption. [18]
Thus, certain individuals may transcend the dangers of study, but only if they can stay true to their inner beliefs and not be swayed by vanity or pride – playing to the gallery or seeking to impress and become famous. Only a very few can do this. Rousseau concludes his Discourse by saying:
As for us, ordinary men, on whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents; as we are not destined to reap such glory, let us remain in our obscurity... Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts. [19]
For most of us, we lost our chance to be free when man turned from his state of nature. This was inevitable. Shklar summarises Rousseau's position thus:
By nature men are freed, but left to their own devices they will inevitably enslave each other... the spontaneous march to inequality and oppression in which all men participate. [20]
But Rousseau still appeals to the noble savage in us all. "Let us leave to others the task of instructing mankind in their duty, and confine ourselves to the discharge of our own," he writes. [21]

There is in much of Rousseau's work this conflict between the personal and the public. He himself was fiercely independent. "First of all I want my friends to be my friends, and not my masters,"[22] he wrote. As Shklar notes, "in the end he concluded that his need for personal liberty was such that he was simply not made for civil society."[23] This is instructive, because it goes to the heart of the contradictions in Rousseau. He observed how mankind had to behave, because they had no alternative. To succeed, men conformed. They were motivated by self-interest. Essentially, man was a social animal, and social living led to inequality. Inequality led to pride, which corrupted man.

The noble citizen, however, which as Powers notes was Rousseau's ideal,[24] and not the unattainable noble savage, could live outside such pride and vanity, could withstand the pressures of society. This could only be done, however, because such people were capable of living in themselves. Powers describes Rousseau’s position thus:
The savage lives in himself, the sociable man always outside of himself, unable to live except in the opinions of others. [25]
Rousseau believed civilisation corrupted, and could only corrupt. The only way to avoid it was to seek a completely individual path, but few men were capable of this. The opportunity to create an ideal state of nature was lost and could not be regained.

1. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. p 123
2. Richard Howard Powers. Rousseau’s “useless science”: dilemma or paradox. French Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No 4. (Autumn 1962), p 450
3. John Hope Mason. Reading Rousseau’s First Discourse. Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 249, p 251
4. Discourse, p 120
5. Ibid, p 141
6. Ibid, p 130
7. Ibid, p. 131
8. Ibid, p 134
9. Ibid, p 132
10. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Confessions.
11. Powers. Op. cit., p 459
12. Sally Howard Campbell and John T. Scott. Rousseau’s politic argument in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, No 4. (Oct, 2005), p 822
13. Ibid., p824
14. Discourse. p 134
15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Dialogues. Paris; Gallimard, 1995 v 1 p 934
16. Powers. Op. cit., p 452
17. Campbell and Scott. Op. cit.., p 824
18. Ibid.
19. Discourse, p 142
20. Judith N. Shklar. Rousseau’s images of authority. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 58, No. 4 (dec 1964), p 919
21. Discourse, p 142
22. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Correspondence generale de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Paris, 1924-1932. Vol III, p 44
23. Shklar, op. cit., p 920
24. Powers. op. cit., p 467
25. Ibid, p 465

Jan 15, 2013

About Self, Poems and Poetry: Mahapatra

1. On the type and design of his poem, Mahapatra writes:

"It was apparent to me that I was not writing the kind of poems in which meaning was stated clearly and explicitly, and that this poetry did not have a sharp focus was that the critic had in mind when he commented on my work. in other words, this poetry had no flat statements . What I was perhaps trying to do was to put together images and symbols so that the reader would draw the implicit connection for himself." (Bombay Literary Review)

2. Instead of writing in Oriya, mother tongue, he prefers to compose in alien and foreign language, English because he says:

"I am in love with English. And then, my schooling was in English---and I learnt my language from British schoolmaster---mainly from English novels: so blame H. Riderhaggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ballantyne from whom I caught the first delight of words gravid with meaning. Further I feel I can express myself better in English than in Oriya."(Tenor No.1 June 1978, "Inner View: N. Raghavan talks to Jayanta Mahapatra)

3. On the theme of his poems, Mahapatra explains:

4. On the impact of love in his poetry, Mahapatra reveals:
"My poems were born of love, of love's selfishness and of a huge self-pity, like the poems of many whom I admire. And it is only of myself I thought as words took possession of my senses, measured me and linked me with the fabled kingdom of love." (Youth Times)

5. About the books 'Close the sky, Ten by Ten' and 'Svayamvara and other poems', Mahapatra admits:

"My first two books were mainly experimental; it was the language again I wanted two exploit, because I felt I would mould it like a clay, and I suppose Adil Jussawalla was right in his own way when he said in a review that I was a "poem maker"." (Tenor No.1 June 1978, "Inner View: N. Raghavan talks to Jayanta Mahapatra)

6. The use of the word 'door' in his poems has a symbolic interpretation as in the essay “The Doors" Mahapatra writes:

“The door served as a refuge from the terrors of the outside world which mutely went on to lock me in, offering me no escape. It became both a heaven and a prison, and my mind positioned itself both inside and outside........ There is always something very final, very secretive about the doors." ("The Doors," by Mahapatra in Sunday Review of the times of India)

7. Seeking consciousness in his writing, Mahapatra utters in a lecture at Mysore:

"Governed as one is, as I am, by the unconscious---which in more ways than one acts like a power-generator, like a God---I would be satisfied if I can reveal a consciousness in my writing in agreement with today's realities."

8. Elucidating the hidden psyche behind writing the poem 'A Rain of rites', Mahapatra sums up:

"In a poem I wrote about 15 years ago, titled "A Rain of Rites", I found myself once again at the border between two separate regions of the mind; between what, perhaps, I understood and what I didn't, using rain as a symbol for that substance which makes up my life, those blurs of vague light that pulsate with the days, making me ask at the end of the poem:

What still stale air sits on the angel’s wings? What holds my rain so it’s hard to overcome?

I suppose such questionings come from somewhere deep within oneself, and that there is no reason or rationale for these things. But such questions and such searching move me and I am unable to resist them in my poetry. For poetry is voice---vaak." (“The Quality of Mystery," Postscript, The Indian Post, Bombay, Sunday 21 June 1987)

9. Further describing importance of the word 'rain' in the poem "A Rain of Rites", Mahapatra in an interview with Ravindra K. Swain says:

"There are two things which connect human beings: what is above and what is below. The sky is above you and the earth beneath you and anything that connects earth and sky is rain. it is a bond you cannot miss. It has a process itself. It is a link. Therefore, rain is a linking process, and so, the very act of your living."

10. Describing significance of the border and the boundary in his poetry, Mahapatra writes:

"That one must somehow try to reach the border between things understandable and ununderstandable in a poem, between life and death, between a straight line and a circle. Perhaps this paucity of our knowledge about death, about the nowhere which exists in the mind, about the knowledge of death and of our future and about this boundary when flesh goes and time enters, holds as unusual power that drives one to create the flow in a poem." ("The Quality of Mystery," Postscript, The Indian Post, Bombay, Sunday 21 June 1987)

11. Mahapatra delineate a sweeper girl in his poem 'Waiting', based on the real incident and thus highlighting the failure of the government machinery in curbing the child labour. In another essay titled, "An Orissa journal," he exposes the context resulting into composing of the poem:

“Round the bend of the road Lakshmi appears, walking purposefully, the wide-mouthed excreta bin resting like an infant across her slender left hip. Lakshmi, the fourteen year old outcaste sweeper girl, barefoot and smiling, cradling the faces of the upper middle class with her left arm while her right hand swings in unison with her small, tight, lotus-bud breasts."

12. Mahapatra has his own interpretation about 'Death', in a conversation with Jan. Kemp, he replies on the question of "what are you writing about now?”

"I am writing about death. Not in the way used to, the day of death being an ending, death giving movement to life, not in that sad, closing way. I want now to write about death in another way."

13 In another interview Mahapatra foretells imminent of his death and says:

"I have been working hard somehow feeling that I don't have much time left. The morbid streak you find in my poetry is also there within me. The idea of death has always been with me." Indian express 05 Sep 1987)

14. Equating poetry with death, Mahapatra writes:

"It has sometimes been said there are two main things poets can write about: love and death. For in poets dwell Man, this biological being, easily hurt, easily destroyed. And if one thinks a little on this, one will come to the conclusion that in reality there is only one subject all poets talk about---and it is death." (In "poetry: Climate for Renewal," The David H. McAlpin and Sally Sage McAlpin lecture, A Dhvanyaloka Publication, Mysore, 1985)

15 In his keynote address delivered at the annual conference of Indian association for Commonwealth literature and Language studies, held at Bhubaneswar, Mahapatra announces:

“Poetry makes me write poems with a bad heart. I don't know what that exactly means, but it is the heart that makes one turn secretly into someone--a leader or loser perhaps--pushing one to choose values, attitudes, and to do the not-so-obvious; this heart as it keeps on trying to hide the wounded walls of its house, and at the same time asking itself for a meaning to our lives." ("Silence to Poetry: piercing the Rock," Haritham, Kottayam, 08 Jan 1997)

16. Mahapatra started writing poetry at an age when people stop writing poetry. He was forty then. He himself confesses:

“My poetry came at an age when most poets would have been basking in the warm glow of success.”

(Contemporary Authors – Autobiography Series (volume9, 1989) edited by: Mark Zadrozny. Published by: Gale Research Company, Book Tower, Detroit, Michigan 48226 )

17. Mahapatra is the poet who commands respect and recognition more overseas than at home. In an interview with Sumanyu Satpathy, he expresses his predicament thus:

“I got more encouragement from academics outside my country than inside because I was not writing the type of poetry that appeared in Bombay." (Many Indias, Many Literature. Edited by Shormishtha Panja, Worldview Publication)

18. On the role and knowledge of physics in shaping and moulding his poetry, Mahapatra posits his views in an interview to ‘The Hindu’:

“Physics taught me that time held you captive, but it also made you free. I was nothing but an infinitesimal speck floating in the vast universe. This broadened my vision, but I also feel pressurized, burdened by the weight of time." (Poetry as an Anchor: Jayanta Mahapatra, Sunday, 02 Oct 05)

19. "Mahapatra establishes three plausible relations between a poem and a reader by applying 'Electrostatic Theory of Physics’. A poem is essentially an experience and this might

(a) Reach the reader almost immediately, spontaneously--in the manner of electric charge passing through a good conductor such as copper or iron;

(b) Reach the reader with difficulty, slowly, under great stress, like that of charge passing through a bad conductor like glass; or

(c) Not be able to pass or communicate at all, as though there was a break or gap between them....

The capacity or power for conducting the essential experience of the poet will primarily depend upon the poem itself---on the poem's design."

It is his knowledge of Physics that enables him to explain the relation between a poem and the reader in splendid way. And can we predict promulgation of such principle from a pure literary pundit?”

20. On the lack of humour in his poetry he has got his own reason and defence. In a conversation with Sudeep Ghosh, he reveals:

“Oh well, may be I was made that way. It is difficult for me to be humourous in the poems I write. There is so much despair in the world around me – so much hate, so much injustice, so much poverty. And religious fanaticism, for no reason. I wish I could write a humourous poem. I haven’t.”

(Muse India, Literary Journal)

Jan 9, 2013

Jayant Mahapatra

Though the feminist writer claims ‘women are one half of the sky’ but history witnesses anguish and agony of woman. They have been kept away from basic needs and fundamental rights, and their worlds have been confined to home and kitchen. They have been merely treated as an object of sensual satisfaction.

We have plenty of feminist theories postulated by various authors and critics. They aim at ensuring egalitarianism of opportunities and rights for women in all sphere of life. Elizabeth Barret Browning, a Victorian poetess who said in 1845, “England has had many learned women ………. And yet where are the poetesses? ……. And I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none”. The practical application of feminist theories can be best illustrated through George Eliot’s Middle March. Victorian morality made it difficult for Marian Evans to authenticate a fair justice for her work if she projected herself as a woman writer. So, she wrote under male pseudonym George Eliot to ensure the legitimacy and authority essential for her work. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman reiterates that the education of woman is only way to exonerate them from enslavement. Virginia Woolf’s A Room for One’s Own emphasizes economic independence and privacy for women.

Simones’s De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex criticizes subordination and alienation of women by the myth ‘Woman is Man’s Other’.1 Elaine Showalter’s Feminist Criticism In The Wilderness admonishes the muted culture of women and the dominant culture of men. Kamala Das is a ‘representative’ of contemporary Indian feminist concerns. Her demand is to sink cultural difference such as region, religion and class. Her poem, An Introduction’ is an archetypal symbol of women’s predicaments.

Abovementioned are female authors and their raising of voice for women is natural and birthdom. But the role of Mahapatra in highlighting pathetic conditions of women cannot be ignored. The plight of women is part and parcel of his poetry and it captures chunk of his theme. He delineates them in all shapes and figures. In terms of Madhusadan Prasad:

“Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetic world is doubtless scattered singularly with various images of wives, beloveds, whores, seductresses, village women, city women and adolescent girls, having deeply significant metaphoric evocations and spotlighting his tragic vision of life to which he is essentially committed. …………….Demonstrating his vital poetic strategy and dimensionalising his deep humanism as well as his overriding thematic obsessions, Mahapatra’s images of women indubitably form a tonal chord central to the mood of his poems”.

Mahapatra has a great reverence and veneration for women who are primordial symbol of suffering and sacrifice. He also confides in mythical saying, “Wherever Women are revered Gods dwell there.” He views:

Our minds were tied to the myth
That womanhood was pure, one
With the repose of the gods.

But, at the same time, he is profoundly perplexed at perpetual and perennial problem pertaining to women. He discloses his disappointment and disgruntlement in this way:

“Perhaps, the status of the Indian Women in our society today has gone down. It is pathetic indeed to read accounts of the degradation our women subjected to in the daily newspapers. Cases of rape, murder, mutilation continue to fill the pages, and one sits helplessly, feeling this pain one is not able to do anything about…..I can see the pain in the eyes of women as they pass by the road every day; their seems to say: we are the beast of the burden, like cattle. It is about this pain I would like to write because I can’t do anything else”.

Though we may be a devout devotees of women divinities but when it comes to assisting the damsels in distress and desolation we deter ourselves from our deeds. What to speak of common women, we did not spare even the Goddess Sita from passing through ordeal and severe trial where she is asked by husband the God Rama to pass the “Agni Pariksha” to prove her chastity after she is released from abduction by the great monster Ravana. Draupdi, the wife of five Pandavas, is disrobed by Dushysana in the presence of all courtiers and stalwarts. We have copious example of such extent in our history and myth. And same is the plight of ordinary women in their conventional and customary lives. Mahapatra presents pen portrait position of Indian women:
Surrounded by the rough noose
of ownership, to feel
A sort of dutifulness
in the quiet bait of blood;
frightened, frail of paper
like an origami crane in the wind.
While the man says:
it’s the same story. The same one
we’ve heard a thousand times.

Women are acute sufferer of gender biasing. They are neglected and marginalized at both cultural and biological levels. At the one hand their life is restricted to house and kitchen; to look after the children husband and others. On the other hand they are only meant to quench the carnal crave of men. Mahapatra succinctly sums up deploring and muted state of Indian women in the poem “Dawn”:

There is a dawn which travels alone,
Without the effort of creation, without puzzle.
It stands simply, framed in the door, white in the air:
An Indian woman, piled up to her silences
Waiting for what the world will only let her do.

The news of most secret is made open secret. There is no privacy and secrecy for women. The state of attaining puberty and adolescence is celebrated with fabulous festivities and fanfares. We let the whole world know that a girl of sweet-sixteen is ripened in her sexuality and sensuality. Mahapatra’s astonishment appears in this way:
Two aunts, a distant cousin
like a ghost of her disapproving mother,
their genial grins as though redeemed
by unchanging village ways,
mouths scarlet with paan juice,
they recite tales
to the glowing limbs of Chelammal.

Mahapatra presents pulchritudinous portrait of women struggling for their identity. They lead a meaningless and futile life. There is nothing but darkness all around them. The life is a living hell for them and they are bound to survive amidst sorrows and difficulties. They are mired in the mud of this mundane mayhem:

In the darkened room
a woman
cannot find her reflection in the mirror
waiting as usual
at the edge of sleep
In her hands she holds
the oil lamp
whose drunken yellow flames
know where her lonely body hides.

Above listed lines are possibly maiden of Mahapatra poetic career and he gave them title of ‘A Missing Person’. It is autographical in tone and temperament. To his own confession:

“And the picture of my mother, swathed in sari, holding on to the oil lamp in the shadows, the sooty flame swaying in the breeze, seemed to establish itself firmly in my mind.

Strangely, these evenings stayed as though carved of black and polished bone. An inexplicable loneliness linked itself with the sad-eyed oil lamp of my mother. They came to mean the same thing to me. Coupled with this was the frustrating, numbing pity felt for my cousin who was battered by frequent beatings from her drunken husband”.

The intention and context of writing this poem is further corroborated by his conversation with authoress Neeru Tandon. The poet clarifies:

“Married woman doesn’t see her image in the mirror, when she looks she cannot find her features. Yes, it is loss of identity. A man was used to come drunk and; here of course I have taken it from a real incident, he used to beat his wife in front of me; I mean it happened in my house. I had a cousin who used to come late in the evenings and I would open the door because I was there; he would come and beat his wife; I saw it as a mere spectator, so these things affected me”.

The word ‘women’ is considered as a metaphor of sacrifice and suffering. There desire and fate is destined by men. They are compelled to surrender against willful and stubborn desire of men. Mahapatra observes:

And the women
not answering to their names any more
and usually lying like unexpected lakes
deep within the wooded hills
break their calm surfaces
like wild water snakes
let loose from the yearly floods

We have another example of woman being treated as a device of sex. In this regard comment of Madhusudan Prasad is plausible: “women who is helpless and, therefore, eternally, ‘Each night” exploited as a sex object by man to bury his ‘hurt’ inside her”1. In the poem “Idyll” Mahapatra writes:

And something in a woman’s eyes tempts confessions
From her husband as they stretch out to sleep.
A time never lost, rising as a mist, that floats upon

Women feel insecure and unsafe away from home. Wherever they go, evil and vulgar eyes of men stare at their sensuous limbs. They confront indecent and indecorous truant of men at public and non-public places. Mahapatra illustrates an instance of a shopkeeper staring in a lecherous way at woman who goes to shop to purchase four kilo of rice:
Two big-arsed
Srikakulam women
nude hunger in eyes
fans himself in the lethargy of his dream.

Mahapatra soul is seriously shattered at the misery of women. They make their presence felt even in their absence and they remain to resonate and reverberate in his rhythmic rhyme. He aptly recapitulates:

When she is
When she is not
But about above lines different critics have different opinions as S. K. Desai comments: “Nothing clearly emerges for the two clauses without complements, one positive and the other negative. It is the parallelism of the clauses, along with the semantic linking of woman. ‘She’ and ‘she’ that create some teasing ripples of floating feelings without substance.”

The following lines of the poem “The Stranger My Daughter” deserve avid reading and multiple interpretations:
My precious golden daughter
looks out through the glass
I nail two damp eyes to the door
and the while
the waiting draws me down
Drums beating under the earth
tremble her taut skin
there is a sun we know of
there are
the secret spasms to reason
Juices from my daughter’s body
are filling the noisy hives

To start with, the poem is an another example of encroachment on the freedom of women as father keeps close tabs on the activities of the juvenile and prepubescent daughters or it also signifies safety concerns of the parents for their growing daughters against the evil eyes of frivolous and wanton boys. This is possibly one of the reason, the parents of today don’t desire a daughter as a child. Or parents may be right in his way by not allowing adequate freedom to daughters who have broken the heart of numerous parents by indulging themselves in pre- nuptial and extra-marital activities or daughter remain unnecessary burden on their parents till they get married. So, the parents breath a sigh of relief by transferring their burdens to their husbands.

The Indian culture and tradition is based on forbidding myth and superstition. The men have been demonical dominance over women. The former have formulated fictitious and filthy rules and rituals keeping in mind their own comfort, convenience and decadent life style at the cost of torment and exploitation of the latter. It is a sheer injustice that a widower can remarry but a widow can’t, a widower can put on all kind of clothes and garments but a widow will robe only in white, a widower can relish omnivorous status but a widow will be a pure vegetarian and so on. Widower keeps on executing and fulfilling his all wishes and desires unabatedly but on widow a shackle of culture and convention is unleashed to bear bleak and barren life. Mahapatra writes widows woes thus:
Silent white walls of forbearance sit up
And begin to climb the stairs
Of her long inauspicious loneliness

The poet further delineates how a sex hungry man adds a woe to the worries of a widow:

Like jackals, malicious women around her,
sniffing the smell of the left over death,
feed on her scandalous intestines
through rain and summer, the spectacle or order,
through unreality and beguiling concern.

The poet is very much upset about the uncultured behaviour and moral depravity of Indian women. We hardly learn good things from western culture but don’t demur to discriminately imitate grey aspects of them. School, college and office going girls and women feel shame and inferiority in wearing traditional garments and clothes but they feel elated and elevated in making themselves naked and stripped to the extreme and, perhaps, this is one of the reasons of burgeoning incidents of eve teasing as such robes stir the stagnant and volcanic lust and passion of men. So, in sheer frustration, Mahapatra asks rhetorical question ‘what is wrong with my country?’ in the poem “The Twentyfifth Anniversary of a Republic”:

What is wrong with my country?
the jungles have become gentle, the woman restless.
and history reposes between the college girl’s breasts :
the exploits of warrior-queens, the pride pieced together
from a god’s tainted armours ………….
Mina, my pretty neighbour, flashes round and
round the gilded stage
hiding jungles in her purse, holding on to her divorce,
and a lonely Ph.D.

The poem, “Hunger” is one of the best examples of the circumstances which compel women to adopt the profession of prostitution. A fisherman who is poor and penniless, doesn’t hesitate to bargain the flesh of fifteen years old daughter. The poet wants to emphasize that numerous such incidents take place in our society where innocent and adolescent girls are dumped into this trade. It exposes stark reality of our contemporary society and independent India:

I heard him say: my daughter, she’s just turned fifteen………
feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
the sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.
long and lean: her years were cold as rubber.
she opened her wormy legs wide. Felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside.

With the onset of evening, the common people finish their jobs but it is the time when whores come into activity. Having dressed beautifully, they flaunt on the road to woo the customers. In the poem “Slum” Mahapatra depicts:
The familiar old whore on the road
splits open in the sugary dusk,
her tired breasts trailing me everywhere :
where jackals find the rotting carcass

In his book “Dispossessed Nest” Mahapatra transcends from Oriyanness to Indianness. He crucially condemns raping and killing of innocent and na├»ve women by the terrorists in Punjab. In the long poem, “Bewildered Wheatfields” he writes:
Now a man knows only two ways
for dealing with a stray woman
he rapes her
and he kills her.

Even sanctum sanctorum is not devoid of heinous and atrocious activities. Every now and then the news of eve teasing flashes. We have another example of fourteen-year fisher girl, not for prostitution this time, but now being raped by petulant and perverted son of careless priest. Nevertheless, instead of bringing to book the rapist and helping to the victim, the latter is repeatedly raped by four policemen in the police station. On the one hand Mahapatra questions the viability and sanctity of temple and on the other hand condemns corrupt and promiscuous posture of police administration. In the poem “The Lost Children of America” he exposes:
In the Hanuman Temple last night
the priest’s pomaded jean-clad son
raped squint-eyed fourteen-year fishergirl
on the cracked stone platform behind the shrine
and this morning
her father found her at the police station
assaulted over and over again by four policemen
dripping of darkness and of scarlet death.

Mahapatra has made an ironical comment on the functioning of the government machinery and police administration. One and only cause of prostitution is poverty and this profession can be uprooted by eliminating poverty, by implementing rehabilitation programs, by providing free food and education to their children and by employing them on some jobs. In spite of taking such measures and initiatives, the government issues license to the women indulging in the flesh-trading and that further aggravates their wounds. Police nabs and persecute those prostitutes who are not in the possession of license and to get rid of police they envisage different lame excuses as a young boy does to escape evil acts from his parents. Moreover, the only source of income and livelihood for prostitutes are their flesh and skin, and with the rolling of the days, weeks, months and years, their charms and appearance gets faded and they keep on loosing customers. So, to hide their age and looks they go in the shelter of cosmetic illusion. Mahapatra writes in “The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic: 1975”:
The prostitutes are younger this year:
At the police station they’re careless to give reasons
For being what they are
And the older women careful enough not to show their years.

Mahapatra has depicted both the prostitute and client in professional and commercial way. On the one hand the prostitute is in the hot haste to attend another customer because, firstly, this is only means of her sustenance. Whatever amount she gets, only a small part of that remains with her and a great chunk is devoured and extorted by the touts and the pimps. Secondly, she might have fed up with monotonous and wearisome sex, so she doesn’t show curiosity and involvement with the clients. On the other hand, the client, tired and fatigued with the jobs of the day or not in good terms with his wife or miles away from home, family, wife and children to earn bread and butter, visits and pays the whore to have a kind of enlightenment and refreshment; a play and foreplay before the final play. In the poem “The Whorehouse in a Calcutta Street”, the poet describes:
You fall back against her in the dumb light,
trying to learn something more about women---
while she does what she thinks proper to please you,
the sweet, the little things, the imagined;
until the statute of the man within
you’ve believed in throughout the years
comes back to you, a disobeying toy---
and the walls you wanted to pull down
mirror only of things mortal, and passing by;
like a girl holding on to your wide wilderness;
as though it were real, as though the renewing voice
tore the membrane of your half-woken mind
when, like a door, her words close behind:
“Hurry, will you? Let me go.”
and her lonely breath thrashed against your kind.

In the poem “Absence”, We have another instance of communication but indirect one between the client and the whore where the former though with guilty conscience, pledge to exploit and consummate the flesh of the latter by optimal degree:
When the windows shut down on your thighs
my hands quiver with the glances of my thousand eyes
as your long eyes touch my paid-out pain
and i revenge the presence from your presence.

Mahapatra poetry deftly demonstrates the weal and woes of women. It incorporates various vice and virtues associated with them. He comes out with a solution for the pain and predicament they are confronted with. He makes use of the legend of ogress Putna for this very purpose. Afraid of prophecy of being killed by the God Krishna, the mammoth monster Kansa sends the ogress Putna to assassinate the incarnated child Krishna. As illusive she was, she metamorphosed herself into a beautiful and motherly figure. She smeared venom on her breasts and offered milk to the child. The children Krishana sucked and soaked her up to death. If we go by the myth and the scripture, ogress Putna registered ‘Moksha’ or salvation by receiving the death at the hands of the god Krishna because she offers two things simultaneously: evil and good; hemlock and nectar; venom and milk; for the former she is penalized death and for playing the role of mother, she is awarded ‘Moksha’. The poet writes:
And now the ogress
transformed into a lovely woman
her poisoned nipples
the moksha-centre of her own martyrdom………….

The poet want to substantiate that as Putna achieved salvation by virtue of her own acts, the women can also keep their sufferings at bay only by their own deeds i.e. their redemption solely subsists on their womanhood. Otherwise they were, they are and they will be bearing the burnt of man made manacle.

Jan 1, 2013

History of Theatre

A Lecture on
Elizabethan Theatre

By Thomas Larque.

(A lecture originally given to BTEC in Performing Arts students
as part of their course in 2001)

This lecture is intended as a rapid introduction to Elizabethan Theatre, and the way that it was written and performed in the Elizabethan period itself.  This lecture was written for a BTEC in Performing Arts course, which I was invited to address as a specialist guest lecturer, and the lecture was a formal part of the students' course.  Since this lecture was originally intended to be spoken and not read it does not contain any detailed footnotes or references, and much of the information contained in the lecture is drawn from various books and authors (most of which are listed in the "Further Reading" section) as well as containing comments and opinions of my own.

1. Drama Before Theatres
When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 there were no specially designed theatre buildings in England. Companies of actors toured the country and performed in a wide variety of temporary acting spaces, sometimes building stages and scenery for a particular series of performances, and sometimes simply using an unaltered hall or open space. There are records of actors performing in churches, in the great halls of Royal Palaces and other great houses, in Inn Yards, in Town Halls, in Town Squares and anywhere else that a large crowd could be gathered to view a performance. Acting companies were usually small and mobile. Records suggest that an average touring company consisted of five to eight players, often consisting of four adult men and a single boy to play all the female parts. Although we are mostly concerned with the larger companies that inhabited the large theatre buildings that were built later in Elizabeth’s reign, touring companies of this kind (using temporary acting spaces throughout the country) continued to perform throughout Elizabeth’s reign, and even the major companies could be forced to tour to the Provinces when Plague shut the London theatres or money was low.

Soon after Elizabeth came to the throne laws began to be passed to control wandering beggars and vagrants. These made criminals of any actors who toured and performed without the support of a member of the highest ranks of the nobility. Many actors were driven out of the profession or criminalised, while those who continued were forced to become officially servants to Lords and Ladies of the realm. Touring was increasingly discouraged and many of the remaining companies were encouraged to settle down with permanent bases in London. The first permanent theatres in England were old inns which had been used as temporary acting areas when the companies had been touring - the Cross Keys, the Bull, the Bel Savage and the Bell were all originally built as inns. Some of the Inns that became theatres had substantial alterations made to their structure to allow them to be used as playhouses. The Red Lion in Stepney, in particular, had a rough auditorium with scaffolding galleries built around the stage area - a design that may have influenced the building of later purpose built theatres such as the Theatre and the Globe.

2. The First Theatre
The first purpose built Theatre building in England - originally and solely intended for performance - was called “The Theatre”, eventually giving its name to all such buildings. It was built in 1576 by the Earl of Leicester’s Players who were led by James Burbage - a carpenter turned actor. The design of the Theatre was based on that of bull baiting and bear baiting yards (where crowds of spectators watched animals torn to pieces for sport) which had sometimes been used by actors as convenient performance venues in the past. Not much is known about the design of the Theatre, but it appears to have been wooden and polygonal (with many straight sides making up a rough circle of walls) and may have had three galleries full of seating stacked one above another. The main area of the theatre was open to the sky, with a large yard for spectators to stand and watch the action if they could not afford a seat. In 1599 Burbage’s sons became involved in a dispute over the land on which the Theatre stood and solved their problems by secretly and suddenly tearing down the Theatre building and carrying away the timbers to build a new playhouse on the Bankside, which they named The Globe. By this time the Burbages had become members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, along with William Shakespeare, and the Globe is famously remembered as the theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.

Although the Globe is the most famous Elizabethan Theatre, and the building which we will concentrate upon, there were many other theatres built during this period - each one different from the others in the way in which it was designed and built. The theatres fell into two main types, however, the “public” amphitheatre buildings (such as the Theatre, the Globe, the Curtain and the Swan) which were open to the air, and the smaller and more expensive “private” theatres (such as Blackfriars and the Cockpit) which were built to a hall design in enclosed and usually rectangular buildings more like the theatres we know today. The private theatres had a more exclusive audience since they charged considerably more - the cheapest seat in a private theatre cost sixpence, while public theatres like the Globe charged twopence for a seat in the galleries or a single penny to stand in the yard. The adult companies did not start to use the private hall theatres until after Elizabeth’s death - which technically puts them beyond our consideration of Elizabethan Theatre - but they were used by the boy companies (made up entirely of child and teenage actors) in Elizabeth’s reign and were used by Shakespeare’s Company - by this time the King’s Men - and other adult companies in the Jacobean period, so we will consider them in passing.

3. The Globe
The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 with a thatched roof above the galleries (covering the seats: the yard - where poorer spectators stood - was still open to the air). This roof caught fire in 1613 when cannon fired off during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII sent sparks into the thatch and the whole theatre burned to the ground. A second Globe was built with a tiled roof, and this was finally demolished in 1644 when all plays had been banned by the Roundhead Parliament during the Civil War. In modern times several replica Globe Theatres have been built around the world, including the new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, which was completed in 1997. Although the modern Globe Theatre is an inexact imitation of the real Globe - with many of its characteristics based on guesswork, and others altered to pass modern fire regulations and accommodate a modern audience (taller, fatter and expecting more luxurious surroundings than their Elizabethan ancestors) - the design, building and use of the new Globe has given much useful information about how an Elizabethan Theatre works and how it affects the performances of actors who use such a stage.

The size and exact shape of the original Globe can only really be guessed at, but surviving records about the Globe and other Elizabethan theatres (including some very rough drawings of the outside of the Globe in drawings of the city) together with archaeological examination of parts of the Globe’s remains (most of which are unfortunately buried under modern London buildings and cannot be examined) have allowed the people who built the modern Globe Theatre reconstruction to make what they hope is a faithful reproduction of the original theatre. The modern Globe is a hundred feet (30 metres) in diameter. Instead of being circular, as some early scholars believed it to be, the building is a polygon with 20 straight walls. There are three layers of seating in galleries on all sides of the stage except directly behind it. Directly in front of the stage is a large yard nearly 80 feet (24 metres) in diameter for the groundlings (standing spectators who pay a cheaper entry price than those who have seats). The stage itself is unusually wide by modern standards - 44 feet (13.2 metres) wide, 25 feet (7.5 metres) deep, and 5 feet (1.5 metres) high. There is roofing over the gallery seating and over the stage itself, the stage roof being held up by two huge pillars that stand on the stage - obstructing the view of audience members from various angles - but the yard is open to the air. Behind the stage there is a curtained “discovery space” - a small room behind a curtain - which allows characters to be suddenly revealed by opening the curtain (as Ferdinand and Miranda are suddenly revealed in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, playing chess). There are two other entrances in the upstage wall, on the left and right. Behind the entrances is the tiring house, for actors to dress, prepare and wait offstage. There is a balcony above the stage which was sometimes used in the performance (it was probably Juliet’s balcony in Romeo and Juliet), sometimes housed the theatre musicians and was sometimes used for more audience seating. There is a trapdoor in the centre of the stage and the Elizabethans had simple machinery to allow ghosts, devils and similar characters to be raised up through the trapdoor and gods and spirits to be lowered from the “heavens” in the stage roof.

Visiting the reconstructed Globe is a magical experience, but it is important to remember that it does not exactly resemble the conditions of the original theatre. The modern Globe can hold 1500 spectators: the original Globe (which had smaller and less comfortable visitors) packed twice as many people into the same space. Modern fire regulations force the modern Globe to have four six foot wide entrances. The original Globe had only two narrow doorways. Similarly the modern Directors did not like the original positioning of the two obstructive stage pillars and insisted that they should be further back on the stage and closer together than the architects, builders and historians thought they really should have been. The modern reconstructed stage is designed to allow two columns of soldiers to march abreast in front of the stage pillars. The pillars in the original theatre were probably further apart and much closer to the front of the stage, restricting the number of actors passing in front of the pillars and causing more frequent obstructions to audience sightlines.

4. The Players
The number and type of actor involved in Elizabethan Theatre varied from one performance to the next, but there were invariably many more parts than actors. The London companies with their fixed theatres tended to use many more actors than the touring companies we considered earlier. In a performance of Shakespeare’sJulius Caesar, for example, a spectator remembered that he had seen “about fifteen” actors perform the play. There are 40 named roles in Julius Caesar along with an unspecified number of extra “Plebeians” and “Senators, Guards, Attendants etc.” all played by members of the fifteen strong cast. Elizabethan Theatre, therefore, demanded that an actor be able to play numerous roles and make it obvious to the audience by changes in his acting style and costume that he was a new person each time. When the same character came on disguised (as, for example, many of Shakespeare’s female characters disguise themselves as boys) speeches had to be included making it very clear that this was the same character in a new costume, and not a completely new character.

All of the actors in an Elizabethan Theatre company were male. There were laws in England against women acting onstage and English travellers abroad were amused and amazed by the strange customs of Continental European countries that allowed women to play female roles - at least one Englishman recorded his surprise at finding that the female actors were as good at playing female parts as the male actors back home. One woman - Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse - was arrested in the Jacobean period for singing and playing instruments onstage during a performance of a play about her life (Middleton and Dekker’sThe Roaring Girl) and some suggest that she may actually have been illegally playing herself in the performance, and women sometimes took part in Court Masques (a very stylised and spectacular sort of performance for the Court, usually dominated by singing and dancing), but otherwise English women had no part in the performance of Elizabethan plays. The male actors who played female parts have traditionally been described as “Boy Actors”, but there is now an academic controversy about exactly how old these actors would have been. Some academics are convinced that very young actors could not possibly have played such important, complex and emotionally difficult parts as Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights wrote for women, and argue that references to “men” playing women’s parts prove that these actors were in fact fully grown adults. My friend Dave Kathman, however, has researched this issue and points out that whenever we know or can guess the age of an actor who was known to be playing a female part in a particular performance, that actor was a teenager - most between the ages of roughly fourteen to nineteen. Because of differences in diet and upbringing, boys’ voices broke much later in the Elizabethan period than they do now, which made it possible for boys to play women’s parts convincingly for much longer than some modern scholars assume possible.

The rehearsal and performance schedule that Elizabethan Players followed was intense and demanding. Unlike modern theatres, where a successful play can run for years at a time, Elizabethan theatres normally performed six different plays in their six day week, and a particularly successful play might only be repeated once a month or so. There were exceptions to this rule, such as Middleton’s immensely successful Jacobean play A Game At Chess which played for nine days in a row before being banned for political reasons, but runs of this kind were reserved for plays which were an immense success and were viewed as extremely unusual. In a typical season Henslowe’s Company performed thirty-eight different plays, twenty-one of which were entirely new and seventeen of which had been performed in previous years. The Elizabethan actor did not have much time, therefore, to prepare for each new play, and must have had to learn lines and prepare his blocking largely on his own and in his spare time - probably helped by the tendency of writers to have particular actors in mind for each part, and to write roles which were suited to the particular strengths and habits of individual actors. There were few formal rehearsals for each play and no equivalent of the modern Director (although presumably the writer, theatre managers, and the most important actors - who owned shares in the theatre company - would have given some direction to other actors). Instead of being given full scripts, each actor had a written “part”, a long scroll with nothing more than his own lines and minimal cue lines (the lines spoken by another actor just before his own) to tell him when to speak - this saved on the labourious task of copying out the full play repeatedly by hand. There was a bookholder or prompter who held a complete script and who helped actors who had forgotten their lines. The bookholder usually also had a “plot” or a brief summary of the play, scene by scene, listing the various entrances and exits and telling which characters and properties were required upon the stage at any one time. Surviving plots have a square hole to allow them to be hung upon a peg in the playhouse.

We know little more about most Elizabethan actors than their name, when this has happened to survive on theatrical records, in cast lists, or elsewhere - but there were a few star actors who have left a more detailed reputation behind them. The two most famous Elizabethan actors normally played tragic and romantic heroes. They were Edward Alleyn, lead actor of the Admiral’s Men, and Richard Burbage who was the lead actor in Shakespeare’s Company (belonging at various times to Leicester, Lord Strange, the Lord Chamberlain and finally becoming - in the Jacobean period - the King’s Men). Alleyn was probably the most famous Elizabethan actor, who was best known for his performances in Christopher Marlowe’s plays - playing Tamburlaine a shepherd who became a mighty military leader and conquered vast swathes of territory, Doctor Faustus who made a pact with the devil, and Barabas the villainous Jew in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Alleyn made so much money from his acting and his share in the theatre company to which he belonged that he was able to buy the Manor of Dulwich on his retirement (costing £10,000 - an unbelievably huge sum of money at the time) and established Dulwich College, where the papers of his father-in-law, the famous theatre manager Philip Henslowe, were stored - the most important cache of theatrical documents to have survived the Elizabethan period. Richard Burbage is now probably better known than Edward Alleyn because of his connection with Shakespeare and he originated most of Shakespeare’s famous lead roles including Romeo, Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Henry V, King Lear and others. It is suggested that the contradictions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the lead character is apparently a young student at the beginning of the play but is referred to as “fat” and aged thirty towards the end of the play, were particularly added to suit the middle-aged and portly figure of Burbage himself. Burbage also became wealthy on the profits of his profession, although not nearly so well off as Alleyn. Both were admired and remembered by numerous Elizabethan writers. The other actors to become household names were the Clowns or Fools, and we will consider them later.

The income of actors varied enormously according to their position in the Company, and the type of Company to which they belonged. The least well paid actors were the boys, who were apprenticed to adult actors and whose small wage (the Admiral’s Men paid one boy player three shillings a week) was paid to their masters. In return they were given board and lodging and a very meagre allowance to spend on themselves. Next lowest in the acting hierarchy were the hired men, adult actors who were paid a fixed wage for each working day. Actors in Henslowe’s London Company received ten shillings a week, but those performing in smaller companies or touring outside London could receive half that. The most important actors in a theatre company, however, were taken on as sharers - owning a particular portion of the theatre company or its theatre building and subsequently earning a proportion of the Company’s profits from every performance. Shakespeare earned enough from his share in the Globe Theatre to buy the second most expensive house in his home village of Stratford and to invest in lands and property, and he was also able to buy himself a coat of arms and the right to refer to himself as a Gentleman (an important step up the social ladder in class conscious Elizabethan times).

5. The Playwrights
During the Middle Ages nobody is known who could be referred to as a professional English playwright. Pageants and Church plays were often written by members of the Clergy and the writers of plays for touring companies were largely anonymous and few of their works have survived. In the Tudor period, and a little before it, men who earned their living as writers and poets began to be recognisably connected with plays. The earliest professional playwright of whom we know may have been Henry Medwall who wrote a Morality Play and an Interlude, that survive, for performance in the house of his master, John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. John Heywood, during the reign of Henry VIII, wrote a large number of Interludes for performance at the Court, but when Elizabeth’s reign began most plays were still written by people we would regard as amateurs or occasional playwrights. The increasing professionalism of the acting companies, however, meant that they increasingly needed to employ professional dramatists to provide them with the large and continually changing repertory that they required. The first wave of professional playwrights were mostly University educated men who earned a living from their pens. These men were incredulous and envious when subsequently confronted by less well educated playwrights - such as Shakespeare, the son of a glover, who seems to have learned his skills as a member of the acting profession and became a writer without being educated in the great Universities, who became rich through his connection with the theatre while many of the better qualified University playwrights lived and died in poverty, given only a few pounds for each of their plays. Shakespeare earned money as a Sharer in the Theatre Company (given a proportion of the Theatre’s profits for every production rather than just a wage), a position that he probably gained largely because of his acting background.

The form which Elizabethan plays took was still developing at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabethan Universities studied Greek and Roman plays in the original language, and the students sometimes performed them within the University. During Elizabeth’s reign translations of these Greek and Roman plays became widely available and began to have a heavy influence upon English playwrights. Greek and Roman Plays were largely divided into two genres, Comedy and Tragedy. The first full length English Comedy, written in about 1553, was Ralph Roister Doister - written by Nicholas Udall, former headmaster of Eton - in which Ralph, a character based on the Roman Dramatist Plautus’ stereotypical Braggart, pursues a widow who is betrothed to an absent sea captain, until the widow finally drives him off with the help of her maids armed with mops and pails. The first full length English Tragedy was Gorboduc - written in 1561 by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville - which tells the story of a mythical English King in a style in imitation of the Roman Dramatist Seneca, complete with choruses and long rhetorical speeches.Gorboduc also influenced the later creation of a peculiarly English dramatic genre, not based on Classical examples, the Chronicle or History play which was neither Comedy nor Tragedy, but told the story of a genuine Historical period - usually the reign of a particular English Monarch. It is not known which was the first English History play, but early examples included Shakespeare’s Henry VI (eventually a trilogy of plays) and Marlowe’s Edward II. Originally English Tragedies and Comedies tended to be written in close imitation of Greek and Roman models and much was made of the Classical rules of writing plays - rules which Renaissance writers took from Aristotle’s Poetics and expanded upon. These rules included the assumption that Tragedy and Comedy should never mix and that a play should take place according to the Unities of Time and Place - meaning that the stage should represent a single place and all of the play’s action should take place within a single fictional day at most. Fortunately English playwrights increasingly rejected the restrictions of slavishly following Classical models and began to write Tragedies and Comedies in a much looser and more relaxed style. Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, for example, a bloodthirsty tale of murder and revenge, generally ignored the Classical rules and strongly influenced many subsequent Elizabethan plays including Shakespeare’s early Titus Andronicus and his later Hamlet (it is even suspected that Thomas Kyd may have been the author of an early Hamlet play that existed before Shakespeare’s). It also became traditional for comic characters to appear in even the most serious of Tragedies, like the comic gravedigger in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

At the same time that the genres of English plays were becoming fixed and accepted, a particular form of dramatic poetry was discovered to be ideal for dramatic composition. This was blank verse - first used in Gorboduc. Blank verse was usually unrhymed (except for occasional couplets in significant places) and used ten syllables a line divided into five iambic feet of alternately unstressed and stressed syllables. The main advantage of blank verse was that despite being regular and poetical it could be made to sound very much like natural English speech. Early blank verse was very regular, with all sentences end-stopped (finishing exactly at the end of the blank verse line) and with very little variation in the stresses and pauses in the lines. As time passed Marlowe, Shakespeare and other dramatists began to use blank verse in a much more flexible and inventive manner - allowing sentences to run from one line into the next and finish wherever in the line was necessary, breaking the blank verse rules when it suited them to allow extra syllables in the line or irregular stresses and pauses. Generally speaking the later a blank verse play was written the more natural its language sounds. Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists often used a mixture of blank verse and prose, usually giving the unstructured prose (following no poetical rules and without line endings) to their comical or rustic characters or those who for some other reason were considered more casual in their speech than the significant or serious characters who routinely spoke verse. The majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were written in blank verse after Gorboduc, but some were written in other forms, such as prose or rhyming couplets.

6. Politics and Religion
Elizabeth began her reign in a fast changing and dangerous period for the English nation. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken off from the Catholic Church and established the Protestant Church of England. After the death of Henry and his sickly son Edward the throne had passed on to Elizabeth’s older sister Mary, a Catholic - who had brought England back into the Church of Rome, and had married the firmly Catholic King of Spain. When Mary died without children the Protestant Elizabeth inherited the throne and England became a Protestant Nation once more. Each stage in this process involved bloody trials and executions of those following the wrong religion - and Elizabeth had to consider the fact that a large proportion of her population had been or still was Catholic. While some Catholics continued their religion secretly and otherwise supported Elizabeth, others were openly rebellious. Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope who encouraged all Catholic Kings and subjects to work to assassinate Elizabeth and overthrow her regime. Elizabeth managed to resist the Northern Rebellion - where Catholic Lords and subjects in the North rose up against her - and escaped a number of planned assassination attempts. She also fought off the Spanish Armada, an invasion force blessed by the Pope.

In times such as these, plays, which gathered huge crowds and exposed them to a particular view of the world - which could be an excellent form of propaganda - were viewed with a great deal of concern. This is hardly surprising since a single performance at a playhouse could attract 3000 spectators when the population of London was only 200,000. This meant that one and a half percent of the London population were gathered in one place and exposed to the same influence at every performance - enough people to begin a riot or even a rebellion. To protect against these threats, the Elizabethan authorities imposed a range of laws and systems to ensure that they could control just about every word that was spoken onstage. The official in charge of this control was the Lord Chamberlain, but most of the real work was carried out by his subordinate, the Master of the Revels. Before the performance of any play, the script had to be submitted to the Revels Office for checking and the Master of the Revels made any alterations in the script that he felt necessary - making sure that the play remained morally and politically safe and did not trespass into religious matters or use inappropriate blasphemies. The punishments for writers whose works were felt to be seditious or offensive could be extreme, including imprisonment, torture and mutilation - but in fact the Elizabethan Censors were more lenient than is sometimes suggested and did not come down heavily on many actors or dramatists during this period.

One of the major incidents of suppression during the Elizabethan period was prompted by the production of Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson’s The Isle of Dogs. The exact content of this play is not known, as it was ruthlessly suppressed and never printed, but it has been suggested that it may have been a satirical attack on Elizabeth’s courtiers. After the play had been performed in 1597, the players - Pembroke’s Men - and the playwright Ben Jonson were arrested and imprisoned while Thomas Nashe fled to Yarmouth. Nashe’s house was searched for papers and Jonson was questioned and then secretly imprisoned with two informers who encouraged him to betray himself to them. The Privy Council was so outraged by the performance that it went as far as to ban all plays in London and its surroundings for much of the rest of the year. After having failed to incriminate himself, however, Jonson was released and his imprisonment did not damage his future reputation or prospects in any significant way.

Another major scandal involved Shakespeare’s Richard II, a performance of which was specially commissioned by followers of the Earl of Essex, who - unknown to the Players - were planning to stir up support in London for a rebellion against Elizabeth the following day. The Earl, who had lost the Queen’s favour and been discredited, led a small band of armed followers through London with the intention of capturing the Queen, but they were not supported by the London populace and the rebellion failed. The reason for choosing the play was that it showed the decline and fall of Richard II, a weak King closely connected to corrupt favourites, who was overthrown by a rebellion led by the Earl of Bolingbroke who had the King murdered and took his crown. Elizabeth was vastly upset by the rebellion and particularly commented upon the attempts to compare her to the corrupt and successfully overthrown Richard II of the play. “I am Richard II, know you not that?” she told Francis Bacon and complained “This tragedy has been played forty times in open streets and houses”. Augustine Phillips, one of the leading actors of Shakespeare’s Company, was called in and interrogated about the actors’ role in the affair, but he maintained that they had known nothing about any seditious intent and that they had simply been encouraged to reprise an old play - so old that they didn’t expect much of an audience - and had been paid ten shillings over the ordinary to perform it. The authorities treated the actors leniently and no punishment seems to have been forthcoming. On the day before Essex was executed Shakespeare’s Company, perhaps as a sign of forgiveness, was invited to perform before the Queen.

More typical of the censorship of Elizabethan plays was the suppression of Sir Thomas More - a play which was written and then amended by a large group of different playwrights, possibly including Shakespeare - who may have written scenes in his own handwriting in the manuscript. It was an odd choice of a subject for a play, since Thomas More was a Catholic Martyr who had been executed by Elizabeth’s father for opposing his divorce and establishment of the Church of England. The Master of the Revels disliked many of the scenes within the play and sent it back repeatedly for alterations - particularly to a scene in which More talked with poor rioters, which was seen as particularly dangerous in its presentation of More himself and its dangerous sympathy with rebellious poor people who opposed the Tudor regime. Despite many such alterations the play was never considered acceptable and so was never granted a licence to be performed or published. We know the play only because the original manuscript survives.

7. Costume, Scenery and Effects
Some modern companies consider the Elizabethan performance style to have been very close to what we now call Minimalism. Companies like the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express claim to be closer to the original Elizabethan performance style because they perform in modern dress, with no scenery and few props, and without using modern lighting, sound or stage effects. Although Minimalist performances of this kind may be closer to the Elizabethan originals than, for example, the spectacular Victorian performances of Shakespeare’s plays (with detailed painted backdrops and archaeologically correct costumes and stage designs, and sometimes even real horses, real boats and real canals) they are still very far from Elizabethan performances. In reality the Elizabethans used far more sophisticated props, costumes and stage effects than is sometimes assumed.

Elizabethan costuming seems to have been a strange combination of what was (for the Elizabethans) modern dress, and costumes which - while not being genuinely historically or culturally accurate - had a historical or foreign flavour. A famous picture of a performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (one of the few pictures of Elizabethan actors at work) shows Titus in a breastplate and a supposedly historical garment, very loosely based on the Roman toga, while one of his guards (in a play set in Roman times) wears the familiar armour of an Elizabethan soldier and another wears a foreign looking, possibly Turkish influenced, suit of armour. Many of the authentic Elizabethan garments owned by a Theatre Company had been passed onto them, secondhand, by members of the nobility. Strict laws were in force about what materials and types of clothes could be worn by members of each social class - laws which the actors were allowed to break onstage - so it would be immediately obvious to the Elizabethan audience that actors wearing particular types of clothes were playing people of particular backgrounds and types. Extensive make-up was almost certainly used, particularly for the boys playing female parts and with dark make-up on the face and hands for actors playing “blackamoors” or “Turks”. There were also conventions for playing a number of roles - some of which we know from printed play scripts. Mad women, like Ophelia, wore their hair loose and mad people of both sexes had disordered clothing. Night scenes were often signalled by characters wearing nightdresses (even the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears in his nightgown, when Hamlet is talking with his Mother in her chamber).

The Elizabethans did not use fixed scenery or painted backdrops of the sort that became popular in the Victorian period, but those who claim that the Elizabethans performed on a completely bare stage are wrong. A wide variety of furniture and props were brought onstage to set the scene as necessary - ranging from simple beds, tables, chairs and thrones to whole trees, grassy banks, prop dragons, an unpleasant looking cave to represent the mouth of hell, and so forth. Such props often played a major part in the play, as in The Spanish Tragedy where a man is spectacularly hanged by the neck from an arbour, apparently a complex wooden frame with a bench and leaves - a scene illustrated in a published copy of the play. 

Death brought out a particular ingenuity in Elizabethan actors and they apparently used copious quantities of animal blood, fake heads and tables with holes in to stage decapitations (an illustration of an Elizabethan conjuring trick shows a table with two holes in it, one boy sitting hidden under the table with only his - apparently decapitated - head above it another lying on the top of the table with his - apparently missing - head hidden below it: tricks of this kind were almost certainly used on the Elizabethan stage). Heads, hands, eyes, tongues and limbs were dramatically cut off onstage, and probably involved some sort of blood-drenched stage trick.

A number of other simple special effects were used. Real cannons and pistols (loaded with powder but no bullet) were fired off when ceremonial salutes or battles were required. Thunder was imitated by rolling large metal cannon balls backstage or by drumming, while lightning was imitated by fireworks set off in the “heavens” above the stage. Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale calls for a man to be pursued across the stage by a bear and there is much academic argument about whether a real (tame) bear would have been used or whether it would have been a man in a bear costume (probably a real bear skin). Some plays bring dogs onstage, although it has been suggested that Shakespeare only once used a dog in his plays because the animal proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

One thing that Elizabethan theatres almost completely lacked was lighting effects. In the outdoor theatres, like the Globe, plays were performed from two o’clock until about four or four thirty in the afternoon (these were the times fixed by law, but plays may sometimes have run for longer) in order to take advantage of the best daylight (earlier or later performances would have cast distracting shadows onto the stage). Evening performances, without daylight, were impossible. In the hall theatres, on the other hand, the stages were lit by candlelight - which forced them to hold occasional, probably musical, breaks while the candles were trimmed and tended or replaced as they burned down. Elizabethan actors carried flaming torches to indicate that a scene was taking place at night, but this would have made little difference to the actual lighting of the stage, and spectators simply had to use their imagination. The nearest that the Elizabethans came to lighting effects were fireworks, used to imitate lightening or magical effects - the devils in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus apparently cavorted around the stage with squibs, small exploding fireworks, held in their mouths.

8. Performance Techniques
We know very little, unfortunately, about how Elizabethan actors actually played their roles. Performances probably ran continuously without any sort of interval or Act Breaks. Occasionally music may have been played between Acts or certain scenes, but scholars think this was quite unusual except in the hall playhouses, where candles had to be trimmed and replaced between Acts. We do not even know how long Elizabethan plays usually ran. The law (mentioned above) expected plays to last between two and two and a half hours, and Shakespeare talks about “the two hours traffic of our stage” in Romeo and Juliet, but some plays - such as Hamlet, which in modern times runs for more than four hours - seem much too long to have been performed in such a short time. It is possible that the scripts which have been passed down to us are the playwright’s first draft and that they would have been cut considerably for performance. It is also possible that Elizabethan actors performed at a much faster speed than modern actors without so many pauses and without speaking slowly for emphasis. What props and scenery there were in the Elizabethan Theatre were probably carried on and off while the scenes continued, which means that there would have been no need to wait for scene changes - something which could double the length of a spectacular Victorian performance.

Some idea of the sort of hand gestures that an Elizabethan actor may have used may have been preserved in a peculiar book called Chirologia or the Naturall Language of the Hand. This was supposed to explain hand gestures used to show emotions or give emphasis in normal conversation rather than in stage performance, but if gestures of this kind were used offstage then they were almost certainly used on it as well. Some of the gestures seem very odd and extravagant to modern eyes, but may well have seemed perfectly natural to an Elizabethan.

Another aspect of Elizabethan performance that we know a little about was the use of clowns or fools. Shakespeare complains in Hamlet about the fact that the fool often spoke a great deal that was not included in his script, and in the early Elizabethan period especially it seems to have been normal for the fool to include a great deal of improvised repartee and jokes in his performance, especially responding to hecklers in the audience. At the end of the play the Elizabethan actors often danced, and sometimes the fool and other comic actors would perform a jig - which could be anything from a simple ballad to a quite complicated musical play, normally a farce involving adultery and other bawdy topics. Some time was apparently put aside for the fool to respond to challenges from the audience - with spectators inventing rhymes and challenging the fool to complete them, asking riddles and questions and demanding witty answers, or simply arguing and criticising the fool so that he could respond. One of the famous clown Tarlton’s jokes, for example, was given in response to a woman in the audience threatening to cuff him. She should only reverse the spelling of the word, he told her, and she could have her will immediately. It has been suggested that the first fool in Shakespeare’s company - William Kempe - was famous for improvisational humour of this kind and for rejecting Shakespeare’s scripts in order to make his own jests, and that his replacement Robert Armin may have been more of an actor and less of an improvisational comedian, respecting the words that Shakespeare had set down for him.

Performances by modern actors at the reconstructed Globe have given us some insight into aspects of performance on a stage of this kind which may help us to reconstruct the behaviour of Elizabethan actors, but may sometimes be misleading - since the modern Globe actors are a 21st Century company performing for 21st Century audiences. Modern Globe actors have found the Globe to be an excellent performing space which actors find very appealing, but it is also very different from the modern stages that they are used to and requires a very different style of performance to make use of the theatres strengths and alleviate its weaknesses.

Companies performing on the Globe stage have to take into account the strange positioning of the audience. The Globe seating almost completely surrounds the stage, with audience members at the extreme ends of the circle almost behind the upstage corners of the stage and looking at the action from the back forwards - and with the views of all parts of the audience occasionally blocked by the obtrusive stage pillars. The modern Globe Directors have found that, as a result, they need to keep their actors in constant motion. They also need to have actors facing in as many different directions as possible during a scene. When I went to see King Learthis Summer I was surprised to find that despite sitting in the worst position, at the most extreme upstage left corner of the stage, behind the actors, I was always able to see at least one actor’s face throughout the performance and was therefore included in the play’s action and not frustrated by seeing only backs. The actors also found that even when conversing privately the Globe stage encouraged them to stand at a distance from one another, in a long diagonal, rather than standing close together as they would on a more intimate modern stage. Similarly while modern stages encourage actors giving soliloquies to step to downstage centre and address the audience, the more powerful positions on the Globe stage turned out to be in the front corners of the stage rather than downstage centre, or best of all upstage centre - which turned out to be the most powerful position on the stage. Before performing on the stage it had been assumed that the actors would need to use big voices and broad gestures, but they found that clarity of speech and movement was more important than volume or size, and much more subtle acting was possible. The acoustics of the stage (once all of the genuine oak had been installed) turned out to be excellent, although actors tended to misjudge the effect of their own voices at first and were tricked into shouting when they didn’t need to. 

Oddly, when casting male actors to play the female role of Princess Katherine in Henry V, the Globe casting directors felt that teenage actors’ voices didn’t carry well in the Globe space and selected an actor in his early twenties. The historical records seem to show that the same view was not held in Shakespeare’s day since Dave Kathman’s research suggests that teenage boy actors were the norm. The modern Globe staff were very satisfied by audience reactions to the cross-dressing boy actor, however. Some failed to realise that the actor was male and apart from knowing laughs at lines about being a woman, the audience seemed able to suspend its disbelief and view the character as a normal and convincing female even when the actor was not.

Naturally, the set up of the Globe encourages intimacy with the audience and it has been found that Globe audiences are enthusiastic to take part in the production in ways that the actors sometimes find distracting. This may in part be explained by the atmosphere of the Globe itself - the Globe’s Artistic Director actively encouraged audiences to shout back at the actors before the first performance was given - but it is also probably explained by the great visibility of the Globe audience. With no modern stage lighting to enhance the actors and put the audience into darkness, Globe audience members can see each other exactly as well as they can see the performers and the Groundlings in particular are near enough to the stage to be able to touch the actors if they wanted to and the front row of the Groundlings routinely lean their arms and heads onto the front of the stage itself. The Groundlings are also forced to stand for two or three hours without much movement, which encourages short attention spans and a desire to take action rather than remain completely immobile. This means that the Groundlings frequently shout up at the actors or hiss the villains and cheer the goodies. During King Lear the audience were quick to offer their advice when Edmund (Gloucester’s bastard son) asked himself which of Lear’s competing daughters he should accept as his lover. Elizabethan audiences seem to have been very responsive in this way - as their interactions with the Fool suggests - and were particularly well known for hurling nut shells and fruit when they disliked an actor or a performance. The Elizabethan audience was still more distracted, however, since beer and food were being sold and consumed throughout the performance, prostitutes were actively soliciting for trade, and pickpockets were busy stealing goods as the play progressed.

It is important to remember, however, that the opinions of modern actors may bear little relationship to the way in which Elizabethan actors viewed their stage and gave their performances. One hint that Elizabethan audiences may have viewed plays very differently gave us the origin of the word “audience” itself. The Elizabethans did not speak of going to see a play, they went to hear one - and it is possible that in the densely crowded theatre - obstructed by the pillars and the extravagant headgear that richer members of the audience were wearing - the Elizabethan audience was more concerned to hear the words spoken than to be able to see the action. This idea is given extra weight by the fact that in the public outdoor theatres, like the Globe, the most expensive seats were not the ones with the best views (in fact the best view is to be had by the Groundlings, standing directly in front of the stage), but those which were most easily seen by other audience members. The most expensive seating was in the Lord’s box or balcony behind the stage - looking at the action from behind - and otherwise the higher the seats the more an audience member had to pay (a seat in the Lord’s Room cost one shilling or twelve pence, a seat in a Gentleman’s Room cost sixpence, a seat in the galleries cost twopence and it cost only a penny to stand in the pit) . Some Elizabethan documents suggest that the reason for this range of prices was the richer patron’s desire to be as far from the stink of the Groundlings as possible.

9. Further Reading
The one book suggested by the BTEC syllabus is The Shakespearean Stage by Andrew Gurr, and this gives a very detailed description of Elizabethan theatre and performance. I would also suggest that you look at Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan if you want to find out a bit more about the reconstructed Globe and the way in which the modern actors and directors responded to it. 
Some of the other books that I used to write this lecture were:

The Development of the English Playhouse by Richard Leacroft.
Shakespeare’s Stage by A.M. Nagler.
Shakespeare’s England edited by Sidney Lee (Vol. 2 has chapters on Actors and Playhouses)
The Design of the Globe by the Bankside Globe Project.
This Wooden ‘O’ by Barry Day.
Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Gurr.

If you want to read some Elizabethan plays then some of the more interesting scripts include the following (unfortunately many of the best Renaissance plays were Jacobean, so do not appear here):

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.
Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.
Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.
Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Richard III by William Shakespeare.
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe.
Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.
Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe.
The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd.
Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson - the version set in Italy, the other was Jacobean.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker.
A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood.
King Leir (Anonymous) - the play on which Shakespeare based his own Jacobean King Lear.
Arden of Faversham (Anonymous).

It is best when you are first reading Renaissance plays to try and find editions with plenty of notes and glossaries to explain what you are reading. The Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays have particularly detailed and interesting notes and introductions.
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