DOES THE ELIZABETHAN UNDERSTANDING OF THE ACTOR AS PUPPET UNLOCK THE MEANING OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS?
by Sammy Condusta
The occasion of The Dark Lady Players' performance of "Shakespeare's Anti-Christian satires: The Virgin Mary Parodies" gave us the opportunity to investigate how Elizabethan Meta-Theater could be enacted with contemporary puppet theater.
So we interviewed John Hudson, the
theorist and dramaturg of The Dark Lady Players, to illuminate the possibilities.
We learned, in short, that all puppetry is metatheatrical but not all
metatheater is puppetry.
NYPUPPETS: Why do you think that the Elizabethan concept of the actor as a puppet is relevant today?
JOHN HUDSON: Most of Shakespeare’s plays were written for the Elizabethan theater. That means they were written for a theater that was allegorical and highly meta-theatrical. Theater was produced on an open stage, you could see from one side to the other like the mystery plays. It was not a slice of life. Actors were clearly not real people, they spoke in verse, they may have held cue scripts, they were highly oratorical and used stylized gestures. The women characters were very evidently boys. And the actors were evidently actors, constantly reminding the audience that this was an illusion—for instance one actor who came on stage with only half his beard stuck on, or another who stabbed himself with a scabbard rather than a sword. These actors were known in the Elizabethan theater as puppets because the audience had to see beyond the actor to the underlying allegory that the actor was representing. The smarter members of the audiences “those with stronger stomachs” would see through the surface presentation to discern and solve the underlying allegories in the play. The plays were a sort of enacted puzzle to be solved, and the actors were just the presenters.
So when we watch Shakespeare today, mostly we are seeing it performed with a wholly different set of conventions— TV and film influenced realism--that prevent us from seeing through the honeyed sweetness of the verse to what lies below. That is why the Dark Lady Players are bringing back some of the Elizabethan conventions, because we are trying to create a kind of Shakespeare that allows intelligent audiences to see through into the inner meanings of the play—as the playwright intended. To understand Shakespeare you have to understand the actor as a puppet, and see beyond the actor and the surface into the allegories underneath.
JOHN HUDSON: All puppetry is meta-theatrical but not all meta-theater is puppetry. However the audiences today that are most used to non-realism are puppetry audiences. The audience is skilled in understanding that the surface of the play is an illusion. They know that the actors are not real people, they are merely puppets, and have to be seen as performing objects who are there to make the playwright’s point. So I think that audiences for puppet theater, who are used to meta-theater, may be nearer in their way of thinking to the audiences in Elizabethan London, and have a better chance of understanding Shakespeare.
NYPUPPETS: How do Dark Lady Players use the actors as puppets to show these allegories?
JOHN HUDSON: Let me start with a simple example where we actually used
a physical puppet. In our productions of As You Like It in 2008, the Dark
Lady Players presented the figure of the clown William as a larger than
life cardboard cut-out of the First Folio engraving of William Shakespeare.
Similarly, Sir Oliver Martex was another cardboard puppet, of the portrait
of Christopher Marlowe, with a large bloody knife stuck into his eye.
In these cases a physical puppet could be simply used to convey the simple
contemporary allegories for the characters that had been identified by
scholars. In these cases we simply let go of the surface identities of
William and Martex and overwhelmed them with the visual presentation of
the underlying contemporary allegory.
JOHN HUDSON: The characters on the two stages mirror each other, and
wear similar costumes, so that the Jealous Joseph of the mystery plays
becomes very clearly comparable to the jealous Othello. Similarly, Desdemona—who
is addressed initially in terms appropriate to Mary and then appropriate
to Jesus—is clearly identified with the pregnant Mary who Joseph
complains about in the mystery plays.
NYPUPPETS: There is a whole controversy about who wrote Shakespeare’s
plays and why they are so complex. Does your work, and this new style
of performance, help explain why these plays were written?