Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Sunday Read: Dan Bray on Women in Early Modern Theatre

Codpiece Daughters: 
Women on the Early-Modern Stage
by Dan Bray 
(All photos by Dan Bray, Yuen-Ying Carpenter, and Clare Waque.) 

’Tis woman more than man, Man more than woman, and, which to none can hap,
The sun gives her two shadows to one shape! (The Roaring Girl)

Every season, Vile Passéist Theatre aims to unite the shows it stages by focusing on a theme that was relevant to both the early-modern era and our own. Last year, we explored The Jew of Malta and Edward II: their depiction of a Jewish man and a homosexual king provided our audiences with valuable insight into how Elizabethans perceived "the Other" within their society. Our 2012-13 season is similarly focused. In staging the plays The Roaring Girl (by Middleton & Dekker),The Maid’s Tragedy, and The Tamer Tamed (By Beaumont & Fletcher), we are moving our gaze onto Jacobean treatments of females and exploring how their roles transformed or were limited by their society.

Top left: Christina Turner as Anabella and Colleen MacIsaac as Putana (’Tis Pity She’s a Whore). Bottom left: Kaleigh Fleming as Moll and Claire St-Francois as Mistress Yellowhammer (A Chaste Maid in Cheapside). Right: Lesley Robertson as Cariola (The Duchess of Malfi).

Like any company putting on early modern plays, VPT has experienced the challenges of working with scripts weighted towards male actors. Naturally, many of the plays from this period have a very uneven ratio when it comes to the number of female roles versus male roles, since they were written by men for men; women were not outlawed from performing onstage (as it is often presumed), but it would have been morally unacceptable for an “actress” to exist. But while times have obviously changed, the texts have not, and VPT is constantly working to find new ways to make them relevant to female audiences and performers. The shows that comprise our 2012-13 season each explore the various ways in which women transcend and challenge the gender roles imposed upon them.

Some examples of VPT’s cross-casting. Top left: Colleen MacIsaac as Prince Edward (Edward II). Top right: Nicole O’Connor as Pilia-Borza, a pimp (The Jew of Malta). Bottom: Chloe Sullivan as Zekiel Edgworth and Emma Laishram as Nightingale, two pickpockets (with Padraigh MacDonald, Bartholomew Fair)

In the past, VPT has sought to balance the scales through cross-casting. Casting a woman in a role traditionally designated for a man is commonplace in many contemporary theatres, VPT in particular; it invites a fresh take on certain roles while giving women a chance to explore the rich, intricate worlds the British dramatists have created. Our audiences have enjoyed discussing how a female actor affects certain roles as well as the play itself, and cross-casting has made it possible for VPT shows to feature nearly as many women as men.

Some companies, in Halifax as well as other cities, do not believe in cross-casting. I personally find this outlook to be unacceptable. In an age where Seanna McKenna can play Richard III and Helen Mirren can be on the big screen as Prospera in The Tempest, there is no longer any excuse to relegate women to maids and mothers; if anything, cross-casting proves how universal and versatile these plays are. It lets us explore gender and how it continues to affect both politics and power in general.

Cross-casting in the 2012 Marlowe series. Top left: Holly Arsenault as Ferneze, the governor (Jew of Malta). Bottom left: Dana Thompson and Nicole O’Connor as murderers, Matrevis and Gurney (with Emma Laishram in Edward II). Right: Megan Kendell as the Countess of Kent (Edward II)

In a way, picking plays that focus so much on the concept of femininity is also disadvantageous. While all of the central female roles in our 2012-13 season are great parts, producing plays that explore themes like misogyny reduces the potential for cross-casting. In fact, the more central the theme of femininity is to the play, the more integral maintaining the predetermined male and female roles becomes. The Roaring Girl, The Tamer Tamed, and The Maid’s Tragedy all give us different examples of patriarchal systems, wherein it becomes necessary to oppose the central female characters with numerous male opponents, each of whom reflect the various attitudes and preconceptions of the Jacobean period (and perhaps our own).

The Roaring Girl stands alone as one of the most proto-feminist plays of the period, although neglected since (like many) it was not written by Shakespeare. However, this city comedy gives us a more accurate focal point when it comes to early-modern perceptions of women than plays such as Twelfth Night or As You Like It do, since it is set right in heart of the playwright’s London.

The play follows a meddling old man who is convinced his son, Sebastian, is going to marry the notorious “Roaring Girl” of London, Moll Cutpurse (based on the real-life Mary Frith). His fear of this brawling, smoking, cross-dressing woman is so absolute that he goes so far as to frame her for stealing (a capital offense in 17th-century England). The play revolves around not only his disgust at Moll, but also the attraction of several young men who find themselves drawn to Moll’s infamous disinterest in tradition.

As the audience comes to know Moll, however, we realize that she is not the dangerous prostitute most men in the city believe her to be, but rather an introspective and intelligent woman who helps the central lovers sneak into a happy marriage (but not without teaching her lecherous suitors a few life lessons along the way):

MOLL (Drawing her sword upon her suitor) Draw or I'll serve an execution on thee Shall lay thee up till doomsday!
Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?

To teach thy base thoughts manners [...]
Am I thought meat for you [...] 'cause, you'll say,
I'm given to sport, I'm often merry, jest.
Had mirth no kindred in the world but lust? [...] But howe'er Thou and the baser world censure my life,
I'll send 'em word by thee:
Tell them 'twere base to yield where I have conquered.
I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.

It is not until the conclusion draws near that Moll’s independence is truly celebrated. When it is revealed that many were afraid she would marry Sebastian, she brilliantly replies, “He was in fear his son would marry me, / But never dreamt that I would ne'er agree.” This neatly demonstrates the overarching themes of the play: the arrogance of male presumption, and the incorrigible will of its female characters.

Of all of Shakespeare's plays, The Taming of the Shrew has paradoxically endured as one of his most entertaining and troubling comedies. After a series of "sessions" wherein Petruchio alternately beats, humiliates, and starves his notoriously shrewish wife, she becomes the ideal bride and the two go off to live happily ever after. While one might presume that Petruchio's blatant misogyny is simply typical of the period, John Fletcher's play, The Tamer Tamed, hints that the turn of the 17th century was a turning point in early-modern attitudes, when the term "weaker sex” was already beginning to lose its lustre.

Fletcher, approximately 15 years Shakespeare's junior, must have sensed that Shakespeare’s dated comedy was testing contemporary audiences' sensitivities if it propelled him to create his own sequel. His comedy follows Petruchio and his second wife, Maria: unlike his first wife, however, his violent past does not daunt Maria, and she sets out to teach him a thing or two about a husband's duty:

You have been famous for a woman tamer, and bear the fear’d name of a brave wife-breaker. A woman now shall take those honours off,
And tame you.

Through a series of exercises which include (but are not limited to) feigning madness and dumping a chamber pot on her husband, Shakespeare's famous “macho man” comes to re- evaluate the roles and expectations put upon husbands and wives. Although critics posit that The Tamer Tamed could have very well been Fletcher’s first play, it contains some of the most strikingly, unequivocally feminist speeches of his age or any other, at once rejecting Shakespeare’s antiquated practice and celebrating a new way to go forward:

Maria A weaker subject
Would shame the end I aim at. Disobedience!
You talk to tamely: by the faith I have
In mine own noble will, that childish woman,
That lives a prisoner to her husband’s pleasure,
Hs lost her making and becomes a beast
Created for his use, not fellowship.
Livia His first wife said as much.
Maria She was a fool
And took a scurvy course: let her be named
‘Mongst those that wish for things, but dare not do ’em. I have a new dance for him.

The Maid’s Tragedy was written roughly ten years after The Tamer Tamed with the help of Fletcher’s frequent collaborator, Francis Beaumont. This play also gives us a fascinating look at the choices available to early-modern women in a way otherwise unseen by other plays of the period. The ways in which the two central women handle their suffering is unique and pertains to the age in which it was written. Aspatia’s passive suffering is similar to the neglected maidens of Literature Past, while Evadne’s overactive revenge relates to Fletcher’s own progressive take on the options available to women.

The drama starts with the King depriving Aspatia of her longtime sweetheart, Amintor, and forcing him to marry Evadne; it is later revealed that this match was arranged so that the King may continue his nocturnal trysts with Evadne. While Aspatia pines and decays, Evadne ultimately confronts her manipulation, rejecting the expectations traditionally forced on women and avenging the wrongs done to her through violence:

Evadne Repent: this steel
Comes to redeem the honour that you stole,
King, my fair name, which nothing but thy death
Can answer to the world.
King. How's this, Evadne?
Evadne. I am not she, nor bear I in this breast
So much cold spirit to be called a woman:
I am a Tiger: I am anything
That knows not pity. [...]
King. Thou art too sweet and gentle.
Evadne. No, I am not [...] Once I was lovely, not a blowing Rose
More chastely sweet, till thou, thou, thou, foul canker, [...] didst poison me [...] for which, King,
I am come to kill thee. [...]
King. Hear Evadne,
Thou soul of sweetness, hear! I am thy King. Evadne. Thou art my shame!

The tragedy concludes, like many, steeped in blood, Amintor himself expiring between the two women he and his community were unable to love or understand.

VPT believes that producing The Maid’s Tragedy, The Tamer Tamed, and The Roaring Girl will positively affect the way modern audiences perceive women on and off stage. These bold female characters continue to challenge the period in which their plays were written, and they give rare gifts to the actors and companies who bring them to life.

Vile Passéist Theatre presents A Yorkshire Tragedy from June 19-24

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