26 October 2011

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Welcome and Stephen Booth Keynote

Greetings to all -- The 6th Blackfriars Conference has officially begun! A team of ASC employees and MBC MLitt/MFA graduate students will be live-blogging throughout the week, so that those of you who couldn't be here to join us can still get a little taste of the scholarship and other exciting events. Our livebloggers for the week are: Christina Sayer Grey, the ASC's Marketing Associate, graduate students Charlene Smith, Julia Nelson, and Deborah Streusand, and me, Cass Morris, the ASC's Academic Resources Manager.

9:45 am - Welcome Address

The welcome opens with Ralph Alan Cohen introducing Amy Wratchford, the ASC's managing director, Paul Menzer, director of the MLitt/MFA graduate program, Dean Catharine O'Connell from Mary Baldwin College, Steven Owen, Staunton City Manager, and ASC Director of Education Sarah Enloe.

Sarah and Ralph give everyone an overview of their packet materials, both those essentials of the conference, such as maps, nametags, schedules, and directories, and the fun bits: the Truancy Award (given to the person who spends more time exploring Staunton than actually attending conference events) and the swag, including a thermos and water bottle (so that the conference can "go green" and not offer plastic or styrafoam cups for water and coffee).

Ralph comments about the special late-night shows, 11pm performances of original (but Shakespeare-related) works. Ralph then warns everyone about the bear. It's a bit infamous at our conference that, if your paper runs over time, you will have to exit, pursued by a bear. A thunder sheet gives presenters a 2-minute warning, and Sarah lets the bear out of the cage so that everyone can see what they'll be baiting if they go on for too long.

Ralph calls attention to a few changes and additions to the program. In celebration of our partnership with Washington and Lee, who are now hosting the ASC archives, we will be holding a champagne reception at 4:45pm, immediately following the last paper session.

Farah Karim-Cooper and Neil Constable from Shakespeare's Globe in London then take the stage to discuss their plans to build a new indoor theatre in London. Farah explains the history of the research behind their plans -- that the architectural designs were originally thought to be created by Inigo Jones in 1616, but that later research revealed them to be a later creation. As a result, the Globe has decided to construct an archetype of Jacobean theatres, rather than re-creating one specific building. Neil then walks the audience through a short Powerpoint presentation which conveys the visual plans for the indoor theatre. He discusses the planned timeline for project completion, estimating that by the fall of 2013, the indoor theatre will be open and in use, allowing the Globe to perform 52 weeks a year -- which will make the Globe and the American Shakespeare Center the only two Shakespeare theatres in the world who run shows continuously.

Ralph thanks everyone at the Globe for their support not only for the Blackfriars Playhouse but for their ongoing support of our goals to build Globe II, a re-creation of the 1614 Globe.

Ralph then moves into introducing Stephen Booth, Professor emeritus of English literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Booth is the author of On the Value of Hamlet; Shakespeare's Sonnets, Edited with Analytic Commentary; King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, and Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson's Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night. Ralph shares some anecdotes about working with Stephen over the years, then introduces him by saying, "Today Stephen is going to share with us some things about audience that he already knows and that we have never thought about."

10:30am - Stephen Booth Keynote: "Shakespeare vs the Audience", or, "The Audience as Lady Anne"

"You will notice, with pleasure, how briefly the previous speakers have spoken. That is all over." Stephen then absconds with two cushions from the gallant stools, to further elevate his reading podium. Booth claims that we should look at Richard III as the greatest author analog in Shakespeare, relating Shakespeare's joy in "rhetoric over circumstance" to Richard III's delight in the rhetorical power to woo Lady Anne. He then moves on to the odd abortive ending of Love's Labour's Lost and to The Tempest, "Shakespeare's greatest success in leading the audience to increasingly improbably responses". Prospero, he says, is a failure both as a character ("he bores us") and as a leader, who he characterizes as "casually unjust". Booth argues that audiences come away with an impression of Prospero that reflects his final generosity, not his moment-to-moment cruelties. Similarly, audiences at the end of Romeo and Juliet feel they have seen the play the prologue promised, when the play itself undercuts much of the outline. The Winter's Tale he categorizes as another instance of inappropriate responses to circumstances, with giant logic holes that the audience blithely ignores, and with characters such as Autolycus, "who seems to be there just to see if the play can get away with it".

Not all of Shakespeare's plays, however, achieve such a success of theatre over context, nor are they always consistent within a play. Booth relates Shakespeare's overconfidence with language again to Richard III, whose triumph in his second wooing scene is less justified than his first. He then provides a list of plays where the contextual misalignments tempt the audience to dismiss or question circumstances: Richard III ends with Henry of Richmond, Macbeth with the bloodless Malcolm. In Much Ado about Nothing, "the unnecessary detail that asks audience's minds to accommodate the presence of two people in Hero's window who have no business in Hero's bedchamber" and the subsequent request that they believe this would cause Claudio to believe Hero unfaithful, Booth says strains credulity. He moves next to the Chorus in Henry V, who asserts a confidence in the King that the play itself undercuts. In Hamlet, audiences agree with the Ghost for chastising Hamlet's delay, even though both Ghost and audience know that Polonius's corpse is right there and that the Ghost's pointed language imitates the weapon Hamlet used. In Macbeth, audiences "ignore the comic klutz that Macbeth is" when his superstitions lead him to unnecessary murders (when warned against Banquo's children, he kills Macduff's). In King Lear, the "wicked" sisters Goneril and Regan give voice to what the audience must think about a father and a king overconfident in his own omnipotence, yet forty minutes later, the audience believes them as pure and entirely sympathetic victims. "Shakespeare manipulates audiences into unlikely acquiescence." Julius Caesar makes the relation very plain through its association of the audience with the plebeian mob.

Booth warns that he may be leaving us with the impression Shakespeare felt the same contempt for audiences that Richard III felt for Lady Anne and Lady Elizabeth. He claims that he had no intention of giving us that impression when he began the paper, but now feels sure that he has, and asks us to "consider the evidence."

The address ends early enough that we can open for questions. One question asks if the audiences might be seen to derive pleasure from being insulted by Shakespeare, as Groucho Marx became famous and adored for insulting audiences. Booth responds that he thinks the critical importance is that intelligent audiences like being insulted if they know they're being insulted, whereas Shakespeare, he believes, "doesn't offer a smirk" of knowledge at them. Another question asks if Booth believes Shakespeare gets us to consent to his treatment; Booth agrees, yes, he does. Another scholar comments that "we're not really rationalists" when we're in the audience. She brings up Measure for Measure, where the Duke manipulates Isabella, claiming that he'll offer her comforts when he does nothing of the kind. She asks, "Where is the emotion?" and wonders if it's up to the actors either to connect with the audience or to make them feel the disconnect.


  1. I wish I could be there so much. Thanks for the live-blogging!!!

  2. I think it was "Lady Ann," not "Lady M."

  3. I believe you're right, J! I thought I heard "Lady M" at the beginning and did not re-process later. Thus the perils of live-blogging. ;)