Get thee to a Nunnery!

In William Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed to participate as actors in any Elizabethan acting companies. Why, you may ask? Women on the stage were believed to be more or less, glorified whores. It seems this perception, whether true or not, was a belief that stemmed from the religious ideologies left over from the Medieval Age. The reality is, women were viewed negatively if seen in a theatrical production.  Imagine going to Romeo and Juliet, to see a young boy in a dress play Juliet, the love interest of Romeo. As a modern audience member we might find the sexual implications distracting. However, the English Renaissance has not demonstrated any significant evidence to suggest audiences were distracted by the casting choices. As a modern audience member, I wonder how audience members responded to the spectacle. One can only theorize at this point in time. However, what is clear is the significant interest in sexual stereotyping. In Wilson and Goldfarb, they point out a clear example of this, seen in As You Like It. In this play, Rosalind disguises herself as a man. This seems pretty straight forward to modern actors and directors. However, during the English Renaissance a male actor would be cast as Rosalind (a woman), who pretends to be male. This creates a weird cycle of storytelling in which the actor is let off the hook in a way. Although fully capable in playing Rosalind the woman, the actor is allowed to be a “man” on stage throughout the unfolding of the play. Additionally, actors, aka males, had full reign on how women were to be portrayed in society. If we think of a modern day example, perhaps one can get a stronger sense of what was really occurring during this time in England. If we look at any major magazine for women at the local super market, chances are they are owned by Conde Nast. Perhaps this is a far fetched example, but one could argue that men are deciding how women should be perceived in society. Women, in turn, reading standard publications for women are influenced into conforming to the “ideal woman”. Perhaps this is too deep a debate to bring up in one blog post, but I think it is fair to say that can see how the English Renaissance still has a hold on how women are perceived in society today. Although women perform Shakespeare and other plays all the time, having more rights than previously seen on a grand global scale, it cannot go without saying that Shakespeare’s plays from the English Renaissance are still alive and well in today’s world, thus shaping how women are viewed on a small scale.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

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Hello Shakespeare

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The English Renaissance is typically what modern people instantly think of when picturing the words ‘classical theatre’. What makes this period in English theatre so fascinating is the political involvement with the theatre troupes in London. When Elizabeth took the throne as queen, she eventually made it illegal for theatre productions to contain any religious or political statements. In so doing, Elizabeth I created a less contentious environment in the theatres, and thus the general public. Elizabeth was protected from potential political statements made in the theatre realm. In addition, religious statements between the Catholics and Protestant Christian sects were avoided. Other regulation regarding theatres prohibited the building of theatres within the London city limits. The London city fathers felt plays did not promote good morals, and so advocated to keep playhouses out of London. However, Elizabeth and other wealthy patrons of the arts enjoyed the theatre and so the theatres were allowed to be built just outside the city limits. The theatres were built relatively close to each other, in close proximity to the river Thames. During 1560 to 1642, records show twelve theatres resided on the outskirts of London, with a possibility of more. It is understandable why the London city fathers felt theatre promoted immorality. Theatres were in close proximity to brothels, and prostitutes were in demand for audience members during the performance of a play. It is important to note the private theatres sponsored and owned by the wealthy during this time period in addition to the public theatres. Private theatres were open to everyone, same as public, but tended to have higher admission prices. Admission was at least sixpence at a private theatre, which is quite high considering standard public theatre admission was one penny. Boy’s theatre companies were the only theatre troupes known to have been sponsored at private theatres between 1576 to 1608. Blackfriars was the first private theatre in London. Queen Elizabeth, as stated above, was a theatre patron. Theatre patrons were necessary for acting companies to have a production budget. The patron ultimately gave the troupe permission to perform. The key roles of the theatre patron allowed a theatre company o survive. The acting companies were thus named in honor of their patron. Patrons helped fund the theatre arts, but it was not a completely selfless gesture. The theatre patrons gained prestige, and a platform on which to control much of what was being done on stage, creating a theatre market in which competition of play content, acting, and overall production presentation was stiff. In this highly competitive environment, theatre was able to flourish in new and dynamic ways. Hello Shakespeare.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

When Rock Marries Opera

When you go to a rock concert you expect to see stellar special effects when the show starts. Fire! Fog! Advanced lighting techniques, trapdoors, etc. The special effects create an intense setting, creating a overwhelming experience for fans there. When did some of these special effects start showing up on stages? Fifty years ago? Or is you’re guess closer to one hundred? It’s more than that. Try about 500 years! I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty insane. These special effects were born out of a theatrical medium, but during the Italian Renaissance, opera was more closely tied to what was considered dramatic entertainment. Theatre used music as a form of expression a lot, as seen in Italian opera, which is the only dramatic art form to survive from that time period. Special effects advanced to the point that artists were looking for ways to make things feel more realistic for audiences. Bringing nature into the theatre was the beginning. Grand settings were painted with a lot of focus on perspective, making the stage look like it went further back than it actually did. I don’t think I have to tell you how a rock concert tends to hinge on creating emotional intensity that sweeps through the audience. Part of creating this intensity is the individual energy people bring. The other half is what energy is being put forth by the artists themselves. That energy can manifest itself in the special effect elements of sound, lighting, and stage construction. Some people think theatre, especially historical forms of theatre, are pretty boring when comparing plays to your average rock concert experience. However, during the Italian Renaissance, people were experiencing new innovative theatrical forms that pushed the envelope considerably. Rock music is an expression of intense emotional human experiences. Not all forms of classical Italian theatre are relatable to the tenants of rock music. But the overarching goal of transporting the audience to another plane of being through technical elements ties rock to the Italian Renaissance in a profound way. So rock music is your thing, but consider picking up some tickets to an Opera sometime. You might be surprised how many elements relate to the genres of music you’re into.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

‘The 3 Stooge’ Revolution

The majority of people don’t go to plays as often as people in earlier time periods. There are many theories why there has been a shift in what people view as accessible entertainment and how theatre fits in. Many more people watch shows and movies through the internet or on a big screen with friends at a traditional movie theatre. It helps when the film industry makes their shows for the masses with low consumer pricing in mind. Not only is this form of entertainment cheap, it is at everyone’s fingertips. You don’t have to spend time finding a dingy theatre studio, pay for parking, pay for tickets that are typically expensive, and all for not having the luxury of pausing the show to get more popcorn or run to the bathroom. So, it may be a somewhat foreign concept for some of you to want to go to the theatre all the time, like people living during the Italian Renaissance. But you probably can relate to getting hooked on a show. That show could be a YouTube Channel, or a TV-Drama you’ve been bingeing on through Netflix. And for better or worse, you probably know someone who watches those dramatic daytime soap operas. Soaps have a lot of, what the theatre community calls, stock characters. The lover, the schemer, the unsuccessful one, etc. Commedia del arte, an old Italian Renaissance style of theatre is where these stock characters began to really take shape, and have remained present in how we construct stories in theatre, as well as in film. So, go see some theatre if you have extra money or if you snag some free tickets. Really, though, a lot of commedia del arte characterization styles can easily be found in the most popular entertainment mediums today. A good example of commedia del arte comedy can be seen in “The Three Stooges”. Obviously none of us were alive when the episodes originally aired but you can stream the show here.  Check it out. Watch how the three characters use repetition. The three stooges are not very smart, so they rely on each other for everything. Of course, this usually doesn’t make the predicament they find themselves in any better. Commedia del arte is a very old art form, but it is still performed today. You probably won’t see Lady Gaga crowds lining up to get in to see a commedia del arte show, let alone have the motivation to try and locate one. But, if anything, YouTube some performances. You will get a stronger understanding of modern theatrical entertainment originates from, regarding comedic timing, rhythm, and characterization.

 

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print.

Quick! Word Association: Medieval Theatre…

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What do you think when you hear “Medieval Theatre”? Do you picture jugglers in the streets, bands of musicians playing for a king and queen in a large banquet hall? Congratulations if a specific playwright came to your mind! Really. It seems most of us are not truly familiar with the actual writers in this corner of history. If you care to read on, prepare to be impressed. Hrosvitha penned six plays in her lifetime during the last half of the tenth century. What’s cool about her? To begin with, she is the first female dramatist known in Western history!

She was a nun who pursued education. Although all her plays center around Christian themes and perceptions during her time, don’t be turned off just yet. Because she wrote in Latin, we have some stellar translations of her works if you haven’t made your way into any of the U’s Latin courses yet. I promise you, her plays are far from boring. She wrote comedies, tragedies, and frankly, all are shocking to most modern readers. Want to get a glimpse at racial or gender perceptions in Medieval Germany? Look no further. You’ll gain insight into what shaped people’s thinking if you check out one of her plays from the Marriott Library. It’s one of those things where you just have to read it to believe it. For example, in her play titled “Abraham” a harlot is convinced she needs to serve a harsh penance for her sinful life after a monk named Abraham makes her aware hell awaits her.

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She is taken to a nunnery where a small room without doors are built around her. Only a small slot for food to be pushed in connects her with the outside world. She lives is confinement for five years in her own piss, shit, and blood. Once she has served her time, Abraham visits her and has to convince her she is actually worthy to be released from her prison. She dies shortly after. Hrosvitha portrays the penance as a just and necessary action in order for the harlot to be worthy of God’s saving grace. Yeah. Might seem extreme, as an modern educated person, religiously inclined or not. Whether you’re a social justice major or not, just be glad you don’t have to deal with this type of intense thinking on a grand scale!

Works Cited

Hrotsvitha. The Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim. Trans. Larissa Bonfante. New York: New York UP, 1979. Print.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Medieval Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. Print.

Roman Theatre Origins: “One Species, Living Worldwide”

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The Ludi Romani was the first large Roman theatre festival. It was dedicated to Jupiter, the god of the sky and thunder. Although the plays were based off of Greek theatre, Romans chose to use them with only slight revisions to accommodate their own Gods. As scientists, and people of the modern age, we understand more about how the cosmos and universe develops and changes in relationship to our planet. However, it would be unjust to assume the Roman society didn’t strive for knowledge. As portrayed in their theatre productions, their world was strongly determined by forces outside of themselves. The Roman religious belief in the gods who glittered in the sky above as celestial orbs were not separate from their fate.

This is seen in Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s dramas. One of Seneca’s plays titled Oedipus deals with the fate of a man named Oedipus who was predicted to marry his mother and kill his father. Hoping to prevent such a terrible fate, his parents gave him away to a rural farmer to raise him as his own son. When Oedipus realizes, through a turn of events, he killed his real father on the road and married the queen, his mother, he blinds himself onstage.

What, do you say, has any of this to do with the scientific influence on the development of Roman theatre? The Romans saw thunder, lightening, and other elements in and outside the world as interconnected with one individuals fate. This was not as far fetched from the truth as we tend to perceive ancient beliefs. The interconnectedness to each other and the world around us has been demonstrated in scientific experiments. The study of DNA has shown modern scientists just how closely and interconnected homo sapiens really are with elements outside themselves.

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It is natural for us to be curious about where we come from, and how we fit into this evolving universe. The Roman dramatists were no different. They saw the Gods of the elements as an explanation for the “inexplainable”, and chose to show their involvement in human lives . It was like an preschool child hoping to discover why the sky is blue. The child doesn’t hasn’t yet discovered the concepts of visible light, wave lengths or light prisms.

“Genetics.” Human Evolution by The Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program. The Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics&gt;.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Roman Theatre.”Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. Print.

“Why Is the Sky Blue?” NASA’s The Space Place. NASA, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/&gt;.

Thrills of Ancient Rome vs. Charlton Heston’s performance in Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston gave an unreal performance in the 1959 film Ben-Hur, of which the epic climax of the movie takes place at the Roman Circus for chariot racing! Although it will only be a reconstruction of what could have happened in history during the Roman Empire, the movie emulates the Roman Circus well. It was entertaining and thrilling for Roman spectators in an arena to cheer as their player’s opponent is trampled on the ground by oncoming chariots, or charging horses. Roman chariot races, in particular, became prominent around the 7th century B.C.E (79). Image

Arenas were constructed to hold chariot races, with enough seating to accommodate over 60,000 people, as seen in the Circus Maximus (constructed 600 B.C.E) (79). Although to race in the Roman chariot races was not for the faint of heart, other popular entertainments were far more dangerous.

One extreme form of Roman entertainment was Naumachiae, or staged sea battles. In a lot of cases, they were battles to react Roman military achievements. Although staged, they often were battles to the death for the pre-determined loosing side.  

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Other deadly forms of Roman entertainment were the use of animals, which were trained to fight unarmed people. This became a prominent form of entertainment when Christianity was on the rise. They often threw Christians to wild beasts when the Roman Empire deemed them to be criminals for refusing to sacrifice or give homage to Roman Gods. 

Modern people look at the Rome’s entertainment history, and cringe at the thought of watching a woman or man get eaten alive by wild beasts. The thought of watching a live battle take place seems disturbing to many. Even the thought of watching chariot races in which there are few rules protecting a rider or the horses safety seems too raw to stomach. 

Why, then,  can we not turn away when watching the chariot race scene in Ben-Hur. Admittedly, we understand it’s just a film and possibility of death is not there. But there is something captivating about violence. Romans did not have the luxury of making a movie. So they found the next best thing: Theatre. And like most things, the Romans wanted to do it better than anyone else; even if that meant people had to die for “art” in the process. 

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. “Roman Theatre/Popular Entertainment in Rome.” Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. Print.