GOTH Symposium 2023: Gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture – Call for Papers

CFP DEADLINE: 30 November 2022
EVENT: 3rd Annual GOTH Symposium
DATE: Thursday 18 to Saturday 20 May 2023
ORGANIZERS: The GOTH Committee
HOST: The GOTH Research Centre, OU
LOCATION: The Open University, Milton Keynes (live, on campus event)
THEME: Gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture.

The Annual GOTH Symposium welcomes scholars from within and outside The Open University for three days of productive interdisciplinary discussion and debate. The Program Committee invites proposals for 20-minute papers focusing on the following aspects of gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture:

1. Gender and/or otherness in pre-1800 images of drama and literature, with topics including but not limited to:
• images by or relating to William Hogarth, and especially to his early career and book illustrations
• the anti-hero: Don Quixote and Hudibras illustrations at Littlecote House and elsewhere
• any aspect of the Littlecote House murals
(On the Littlecote House murals, click here.)

2. Gender and/or otherness in modern performance receptions of ancient Greek drama, possibly addressing topics including (but not limited to):
• new versions of rarely staged or fragmentary texts
• innovative or non-traditional modes of performance
• productions engaging with intersecting identities

3. Race, disability and/or otherness in early modern theatre, with topics including but not limited to:
• depictions of otherness in dramatic writing and staging practices
• historical receptions of race and disability
• the significance of gender in representations of race and disability

4. “Collectible Otherness” 1500-1800, with topics including but not limited to:
• Dwarfs; conjoined twins; the abnormally hirsute
• Genre: visual culture, drama and literature
• Contextualizing agency and Intersectionality of otherness: court, theatre, fairground, curiosity cabinet (Wunderkammer)

Please submit your proposal (300 words max) and academic bio (150 words max) on or before 30 November 2022, to m.a.katritzky@open.ac.uk & FASS-GOTH-Admin@open.ac.uk. All presenters will be provided with accommodation (1 night). A limited number of travel bursaries will be awarded; if you wish to be considered please include a brief statement explaining what sum is required and why.
Inquiries on any aspect of the symposium can be emailed to FASS-GOTH-Admin@open.ac.uk.

Further information on the event and registration is being posted on the GOTH website as it becomes available: http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/centres/goth

On behalf of the Symposium organizers:
GOTH Committee:
• Dr M A Katritzky – Director, GOTH & Barbara Wilkes Research Fellow in Theatre Studies
• Dr Christine Plastow – GOTH Web and Media Manager & Lecturer in Classical Studies
• Dr Molly Ziegler – Lecturer in Drama and Performance Studies, Department of English & Creative Writing.
And Guest Co-Organizer:
• Prof. Dr. Birgit Ulrike Münch, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

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Upcoming seminar series: Classical Reception Studies Network & Queer and the Classical

GOTH members may be interested in the announcement of the annual Classical Reception Seminar Series in collaboration with the Institute of Classical Studies, London. This year the Queer and the Classical collective are convening a series entitled…

‘Back To a Time Before I Had Form’: Ancient Origin Myth(s) of Queerness.

Classics as a discipline has historically positioned itself as a search for origins, drawing tenuous and often fictional connections between ancient cultures and modern ‘Western civilisation’. Origin stories of gender and sexuality have also contributed to this narrative: the classical past has played an integral part in forming categories and images of sexual difference and desire. Scholars and activists have then often turned to Graeco-Roman antiquity in order to advocate for the legal rights and social legitimation for LGBTQ+ identities. While ancient evidence of queer desire has been an important tool for combatting queerphobia, this attempt at legitimizing contemporary queerness through ‘the classical’ has also reinforced dangerous and exclusionary ideologies, facilitating strategies of pinkwashing, homonationalism, and the erasure of intersectional identities. What does it mean to look for the origin of queerness in the ancient world? Which forms of gender expressions, sexuality, and desire become excluded in doing so? What are the dangers of supporting such origin myths.

By probing at these and more questions, this seminar series will investigate the supposed utility of a straightforward search for origins, teasing out new connections from hostile sources through a fantastic line-up of speakers.

The full programme and links to registration for individual seminars can be found on the Queer and the Classical website.

 

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Lovers and Wrestlers, from ancient Greece to Francis Bacon

By Christine Plastow

Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953

In 1953 and 1954, the painter Francis Bacon created two paintings of a pair of men closely entwined. Two Figures (1953) shows one nude man apparently pinning down another on   the messy white sheets of a bed, in a dark space broken by white framing lines. In Two Figures in the Grass (1954), the men embrace and tangle their legs together on the grassy floor, surrounded by dark walls and more vertical lines. The spaces in both paintings feel oppressive and enclosed, with Bacon’s characteristic frames offering depth and perspective. To the modern eye—and indeed, to the eyes of Bacon’s contemporaries—both pairs are clearly lovers, locked in the throes of (perhaps violent) passion. Bacon was an out gay man in the fifties, over a decade before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act would decriminalise private homosexual sex acts in England—this being only a first step on the long road to ending the UK’s laws against gay sex (the last law against sodomy in Scotland was only repealed in 2009, with the repeal not coming into effect until 2013). Two Figures was painted at the house of Peter Lacy, Bacon’s partner of 10 years with whom he had a sadomasochistic, deeply loving, though at times tempestuous and violent relationship.

Bacon was known for drawing shapes and compositions for his paintings from a variety of reference material, mostly photographs and magazine clippings. Thousands of such images covered the floor of his studio in a mixture he called ‘compost’. The Two Figures paintings were no different, with the poses of the men taken from a series of photographs of wrestlers taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the pioneering photographer of animals and people in motion. These photographs show nude or nearly-nude men in various stages of combat; one series shows a pair of fighters collapsing to the floor in a series of poses closely reminiscent of Bacon’s figures.

Photographs of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, c.1887

Bacon’s use of the wrestlers as reference material for his paintings of male lovers may have simply been an extension of his usual practice, or it may have been intended as a (albeit rather flimsy) defence against the potentially controversial subject matter of the paintings. In either case, in doing so Bacon became another entry in a history of artists using wrestling imagery to explore homoerotic themes that stretches back to Greek antiquity. The Greek term symplegma, meaning ‘entanglement’ and now most commonly used for artistic renderings of sexual intercourse, seems to have originally been used to describe sculptures of wrestlers. It is used in this way several times by Pliny the Elder during his lengthy discussion of marble sculpture in his Natural History, including one instance explicitly with the Latin term for wrestling:

…Pana et Olympum luctantes eodem loco Heliodorus, quod est alterum in terris symplegma nobile… [Pliny Natural History 36.4]

…in the same place the Pan and Olympus Wrestling, which is the second most famous grappling group in the world, was the work of Heliodorus… [tr. D. E. Eichholz]

The Wrestlers

The most famous surviving ancient sculpture of this type is usually known simply as The Wrestlers, a Roman marble based on a 3rd century BCE Greek original, possibly in bronze. It was discovered in 1583 and is now in the Uffizi in Florence. The sculpture depicts two nude men engaged in the sport of pankration, which combined elements of boxing and wrestling; one wrestler leans over the back of the other, holding his opponent’s arm behind him and wrapping his left leg around that of the lower wrestler. The sculpture depicts actual wrestling technique, but also offers an opportunity to display the two men’s athletic bodies in their prime, with muscles showing under the skin. This admiration of athletic nudity was a feature of both the sculpture and the sport: as Nick Fisher writes, ‘men believed that nakedness… should reveal the perfection of the trained body and that an erotic response to muscular, bronzed bodies gleaming with olive oil, like statues, was a natural part of the admiration elicited by divinely gifted beauty and skills’ (Fisher, 2014, p.250, my emphasis). Fisher’s comparison of the bodies of athletes to statues is apt here: both offered an opportunity to gaze at and celebrate beautiful male bodies in a socially acceptable, indeed appropriate, way.

Francis Bacon, Two Figures in the Grass, 1954

For Francis Bacon in 1950s England, any culture of admiration of athletic eroticised male bodies was necessarily hidden from public view, so Muybridge’s photographs both provided a crucial compositional reference and allowed Bacon to make his images of lovers visible, couched in more socially acceptable terms where necessitated by the criticisms of conservative viewers. Both Peter Lacy and Bacon’s other great love, George Dyer, would appear regularly in his paintings throughout his career, putting his sexuality at the heart of his artistic output. And while some of the original viewers of Two Figures and Two Figures in the Grass may have been scandalised when the paintings were first displayed, we may imagine that other appreciated them much as The Wrestlers and other symplegmata were appreciated in ancient Greece and Rome.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts until 17 April 2022.

References

Nick Fisher, 2014, ‘Athletics and Sexuality’ in Thomas K. Hubbard (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Oxford: Blackwell. 248-268.

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Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

Clare Taylor on the exhibition of Laura Knight‘s work at MK Gallery, showing until 20th February 2022.

Circus, 1935 – ceramic dinner service

This show at the MK Gallery injects bold colours and equally bold subjects into the urban landscape of Milton Keynes. It brings together an astonishing range of Laura Knight’s work in oils, watercolour, charcoal and pencil as well as her designs for ceramics, costume and the poster to explore what the exhibition catalogue calls ‘the gaze that she cast over her surroundings and the assorted characters that entered her orbit’. Visitors might recognise her subjects drawn from the circus, but the wartime subjects and her portraits of the disenfranchised are much less well known. The show also illustrates her long and varied career, from early drawings made when she was still studying at Nottingham Art School in the 1890s, to her election as Royal Academician and author of two autobiographies, the second published to coincide with her retrospective exhibition at the R.A. in 1965. The fact that this is the first major show since makes this re-examination long overdue, also charting the fall from favour of Knight’s form of modernism to the present-day revival of interest in twentieth-century British portraiture and its subjects.

Lamorna Birch and His Daughters, 1916-1934

The show also reveals wider issues around the place of women (and a few men) in twentieth-century Britain. Knight overcame restrictions on women students painting from the nude when she was still in her teens by hiring her own model, and her ethereal portrait of the model Lily Poyser (‘The Yellow Lady’) hangs in the opening room. This is counterpointed by images of women at work, a theme she was to return to throughout her career and one where Knight often inverts viewpoints. An oil of the fishing fleet leaving Staithes in Northumberland focuses not on the ships themselves, or the men who sailed them, but on the single figure of a woman walking towards the viewer, away from the sea and the group watching the ships’ departure. The same room contains a very different kind of portrait, heroic in scale. Here, however, the focus is not on classical imagery or the female nude but rather on domestic life, taking as its subject her fellow artist Lamorna Birch and his two daughters who are depicted in a brilliantly impressionistic setting of dappled shade. Significantly, motherhood is often absent from these canvases: the next room includes more plein-air Cornish works where Knight reclaims the right of women artists to paint the female nude, posing bodies against turquoise-blue waters, while modern women with bobbed hair and loose clothing in saturated colours poised on cliff tops. Here, the panoramic viewpoints into water are often unsettling and the models’ faces again turned away from the viewer.

The Rehearsal, 1948

The central room displays Knight’s love of spectacle to great effect, rooted in both populist and more established art forms. Straightforward portraits of performers, particularly women, are less frequent than glimpses of moments of transformation. Dancers tie shoes, circus performers are seen just off stage and actors wait around in rehearsal, their identities in turn hidden and revealed by costume and make-up. This interest in performance continued throughout Knight’s career. The show also includes examples of her post-war works painted at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London theatres. Here, she not only portrayed the actors, such as Paul Scofield, but also members of the wardrobe and dressers. A portrait of Gwen Ffangcon-Davies preparing for the role of Juliet contrasts the actor’s auburn wig and gold gown against a white wardrobe and the black and white uniform of the dresser handing her hair pins.

Depictions of female members of historically marginalised groups also throw up a disjunct between Knight’s portrayals and the privileges of the successful artist. Portraits of women from Traveller and Roma communities with titles such as ‘Gypsies at Epsom’ are one example of this. Knight’s studio was in a converted Rolls Royce, the payments she made to sitters an alternative to prosecution for practicing their main source of work at the races, telling fortunes. These works concentrate on colour, pattern and line, often pairing women of different generations in double portraits out of doors- there is little hint of hardship here, rather clothing and setting contribute to what Sophie Hatchwell (in her thought-provoking catalogue essay) identifies as stereotypes of Roma and Traveller appearance and culture. The same room is hung with a series of portraits of African-American communities painted on segregated wards in Baltimore, a commission obtained through her husband and fellow painter Harold Harvey. Here, further contradictions are clear; Knight might avoid caricatures in her portraits but the words she used to describe her sitters (‘fine types’) were deeply racist.

Take Off, 1943

Knight was, however, ahead of her time in securing not only full election to the R.A, but also a retrospective in her own lifetime, the first woman to do so. She was also active in promoting both herself and her profession. Interestingly, it was her wartime works that she singled out as her greatest achievement and, for me, these were the most powerful. The deeply-lined faces of the all-male crew of the Stirling bomber convey concentration and tiredness are captured in ‘Take off’, hung next to another wartime portrait, of an all-female team raising a barrage balloon. This told its own story of female empowerment: although it was thought double the number of women would be needed to replace a male team, in fact it was less than half.

Frequently criticised by contemporaries for her ‘strong, masculine style’, the exhibition might have gained from showing just how her work stands up to that of her male (and female) contemporaries as portraitists. However, it brings to the fore an artist who fought for equality in pay as well as status and engaged with curating her own reputation decades before the term became fashionable. It also allows the visitor to engage with a very British version of social realism, and with how artists such as Knight sought to capture men and women at work in both urban and rural settings across the early twentieth-century.

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1943

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Upcoming symposium: Trans/Queer Gender and Narrative Form

GOTH is pleased to share details of an upcoming online conference that may be of interest to members. More information, including abstracts for all papers, can be found at the conference website.

TRANS/QUEER GENDER AND NARRATIVE FORM
15TH, 22ND AND 29TH APRIL 2021

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS:
SUSAN LANSER, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY, US
TRISH SALAH, QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY, CAN

Since the first interventions in feminist narratology in the 1980s, the importance of gender as a contextual aspect of cultural productions has been firmly established in the study of narrative form. The interpretation of formal features such as narrative voice, poetic structure, temporality, genre and medium is inevitably influenced by the gender of those who produce, experience or are represented by texts. At the same time, queer and trans studies have established methodologies for approaching embodiment, ethics, social structures and cultural politics. This symposium brings together scholars working at the intersection of form and queer/trans gender in order to foster new approaches to the relationship between embodied identities and texts.

@fqtnarratives | www.fqtnarrative.wixsite.com/tqgendernarrative
Conference Organiser: Chiara Pellegrini
@chiarapg4 | c.pellegrini2@newcastle.ac.uk

PROGRAMME

Thursday, 15th April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Writing/Reading/Playing Narratives of Trans Embodiment
Cody Mejeur, University at Buffalo

Tristessa de St Ange: A Character Study in TERF Light
Nemo Gorecki, Université de Lille SHS

Mad about the “Boys”? Passing and (Mis)recognition in Varro’s Eumenides
Chris Mowat, Sheffield University/Newcastle University

‘The Monopoliser of Her Own Sex’: Queering Methodism in The Female Husband
Grainne O’Hare, Newcastle University

Keynote:
Narrating Trans Genres: Ordinary Time Travel and Autobiographical Science Fictions
Trish Salah, Queen’s University (CA)

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Trans Touches Across Time and Text: Confessions of the Fox
Gil Mozer, Mesa Community College

Trans Forms: Gender-variant Subjectivity and First-person Narration
Chiara Pellegrini, Newcastle University

From Male Impersonator to Drag King Performer: A Palimpsestuous Reading of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet
Elsa Adán Hernández, University of Zaragoza

Asking Queer Questions about Narrative Coherence and Identity: How to Read ‘What She Knew’?
Joonas Säntti, University of Jyväskylä

Keynote:
Trans-forming Narratology
Susan Lanser, Brandeis University

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Narrating Queer Subjectivity in 1830s Russia: Nadezhda Durova’s A Year in St Petersburg (1838)
Margarita Vaysman, University of St Andrews

Duchess Achilles: Trans Narratives in James Thornhill’s Achilles on Scyros
Aimee Hinds, University of Roehampton

When Literary Studies meet Trans/Gender Studies: Working with German Autobiographies Written by Trans People using Queer Theory and Narratology
Sandy Kathy Artuso, LEQGF – Laboratoire d’Études Queer, sur le Genre et les Féminismes

Untimely Subjectivities: Queer/Diasporic Temporality in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other
Carolina Sánchez-Palencia, University of Seville (Spain)

‘My Male Skin’: (Self-)Narratives of Transmasculinities in Fanfiction
Jonathan A. Rose, University of Passau

Conclusion of Symposium:
Breakout Rooms Discussion

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The (No Longer) Forgotten Women of Art and Literature

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

From left to right: Saffron Coomber, Clare Perkins and Adelle Leonce in the Vaudeville Theatre production of the play in 2019.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how reading helped to get me through the first national lockdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK and around the world. Since then, I have started my PhD in English Literature at the Open University (OU), generously funded by the Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH) research centre. It’s been a strange time to embark on a research project in a new city: The pandemic has necessitated that all my interactions with OU staff and students have so far been conducted remotely over Microsoft Teams which, although convenient for a late riser such as myself, is not quite the same as the real thing. (The absence of the free drinks and snacks that are usually the staple of academic conferences is particularly lamentable!)

The introduction of a second English lockdown in November meant that the bookshops, museums and theatres that cultureholics like me depend on were closed. Still, this being the 21st century, I was able to enjoy a virtual trip to the West End – from the comfort of my home – to see the Olivier Award-winning play Emilia, written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles. The production inverts the male-only tradition of early modern English theatre by employing an all-female cast to tell the life story of Emilia Lanyer (née Bassano), who is portrayed by three actresses: Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins, each depicting the ground-breaking English poet at a different point in her life.

Some believe that Lanyer (whose first name was alternately spelled as ‘Aemilia’) was the lover of William Shakespeare, and the play supports this theory, but really what matters is not the men in her life, but rather the fact that Lanyer succeeded in publishing a volume of poetry at a time when the sexist gatekeepers of culture thought that ‘female poet’ was an oxymoron. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum – meaning ‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’ – was first published in 1611 and there is no doubt that, had Lanyer been a man, her work would not have fallen into its current state of obscurity. The purpose of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play is to shine a spotlight on the achievements of this incredible woman and indirectly celebrate all the (hitherto) forgotten women of history. Although its online run has now come to an end, it is to be hoped that Emilia will one day grace the stage again, so that more people can learn about this trailblazer of English literature.

‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654 or later).

In that brief, blissful interlude between the end of the second lockdown and the imposition of tier 4 restrictions on much of the south-east of England, I was able to sneak a trip to London’s National Gallery to see its exhibition of paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi (pictured). It is the first time that a solo exhibition of the Italian artist has been put on in the UK and it almost didn’t happen, thanks to the first lockdown. Postponed until October, the exhibition has now tragically had its run cut short again. But don’t despair if you missed it: A virtual tour of the highlights is available for a couple more weeks on BBC iPlayer, so do check it out whilst you can!

Like Emilia Lanyer, Artemisia Gentileschi suffered many hardships in her life; as just a teenager, she was raped by an older male artist and in the ensuing trial had to endure torture to prove the validity of her evidence. Nevertheless, Gentileschi persisted with her artistic career, soon outshining her father Orazio with her intense, beautiful and sometimes furious paintings, such as Susanna and the Elders and Judith Beheading Holofernes. The exhibition includes some of Gentileschi’s letters to her lover, providing an intimate insight into the passion that characterised her life.

The National Gallery, by its own admission, contains a paucity of works by female artists. Hopefully this exhibition will be the first of many to redress this imbalance. In the meantime, let me know what you’ve been doing to cope with life in the pandemic. If you’re a postgraduate researcher and would like to know more about GOTH’s monthly postgraduate forums, you can email me at christopher.dobson@open.ac.uk.

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Roundup of recent blog posts by GOTH members

Here is a selection of blog posts written in the last few months by GOTH members for other blogs, which may be of interest to readers of the GOTH blog.

From the English and Creative Writing blog:

Gender and Otherness in the Humanities by Peg Katritzky

From the Arts & Humanities in the time of COVID-19 blog:

Doomscrolling: COVID-19 and Crisis Reading during lockdown by Edmund King

Bibliotherapy Lessons from Lockdown by Sally Blackburn-Daniels

Reading and Wellbeing revisited: surviving the pandemic by Shaf Towheed

Social Analysis and the COVID-19 Crisis by Suman Gupta

Italian Literature and Pandemics part 1 and part 2 by Francesca Benatti

Pevsner and Lockdown by Clare Taylor

Greek Tragedy in Lockdown by Christine Plastow

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Reading in the Age of Coronavirus: A Personal Account

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

2020 started well for me. In January, I travelled down to Milton Keynes for an interview, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD studentship at the Open University, which I eagerly accepted. Then, in February, I was offered a summer job at my local independent cinema in Edinburgh, where I was then living. I was so happy, I danced a little down Lothian Road – and I never dance.

At the same time, I started hearing more and more about a virus in China, but China felt so far away, so it didn’t trouble me much. Then the problem came closer to home, and I was horrified as the situation in Italy worsened. But, up until March, coronavirus still felt distant. Then, in the days following my 24th birthday, everything changed and the UK went into lockdown. With my summer job out of the window, I left Edinburgh and moved back home. There were still many months to go until the start of my doctoral research, so the big question was: How can I keep my mind occupied over the course of the long months ahead? The seemingly endless televised press conferences were driving me to despair, so I turned to literature for solace. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; I am, after all, a literature student.

But where to start? My home is crammed with books I’ve been meaning to read but never had time for. Well, now I had all the time in the world. Perhaps inevitably, I was drawn towards Shakespeare. I had studied several of his plays and seen many more of them performed. Yet his poetry – in its raw, non-theatrical form – remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I was familiar with his most famous sonnets, but I’d never before dared tackle all 154 of them. It was now or never, I decided. But because I had all the time in the world, I would take it slowly: One poem a day, every day, until I’d read them all.

Why is it important to read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a whole, not just as individual works of literature? In my eyes, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle: Sure, each piece might tell a beautiful story, but it’s only once you put them all together that you see the full picture. These poems are significant because they provide a possible glimpse into the Bard’s own love life – with both men and women, it seems. The first 126 are addressed to the ‘fair youth’, whose beauty, according to Sonnet 101, ‘needs no praise’. The remaining 28 are dedicated to the mysterious ‘dark lady’ whose ‘eyes are nothing like the sun’, as Shakespeare famously put it in Sonnet 130. My favourite poem in the collection is an early one, Sonnet 29, in which Shakespeare declares that he would rather be poor and in love than ‘change my state with kings.’ Given Will’s own relatively humble origins, it’s a wonderful challenge to the snobbery of his more elitist contemporary writers, who in the case of Robert Greene looked down on the ‘upstart crow’ who would go on to become the greatest poet in the English language.

Much as I love English literature, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Shakespeare, for instance, drew on the works of many European writers for inspiration. You will have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, no doubt, but what about Giovanni Boccaccio, who influenced both Shakespeare and Chaucer? Born in the Republic of Florence in 1313, Boccaccio is best known for his Decameron, a collection of 100 short stories with ten narrators: Seven women and three men. They have fled their native Florence because of the plague and, in the absence of Netflix, must recount their own stories to entertain themselves over the course of ten days. I studied a handful of these tales during my undergraduate degree and I’d always meant to read the whole thing, but at nearly nine hundred pages, it felt dauntingly long. During lockdown, I took the same approach as I had with the sonnets: One story a day, every day, until I finished.

Unsurprisingly, given that they were written in the 14th century, a good number of these tales are problematic, particularly in their representation of gender and race. But Boccaccio also feels ahead of his time, with several strong female characters who, like in the plays of Shakespeare, cross-dress when necessary. There is Day 2 Story 3, for example, which features an abbot who is really the daughter of the king of England. Some tales are outrightly farcical (the opening and closing stories of Day 3, in particular), whilst others – especially those of Day 4 – are tragic in tone. All of the stories are standalone, with the exception of five (from the eighth and ninth days) which depict the exploits of Bruno and Buffalmacco, who enjoy playing pranks on their unwitting friends Calandrino and Master Simone.

Since all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and most of Boccaccio’s tales are quite short, they weren’t enough to keep me occupied during the long months of lockdown. I wanted to read something big, but with the pandemic still raging, it was hard to concentrate on a conventional novel. As a result, I ended up turning to The Walking Dead, the comic book (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) series that inspired the TV show of the same name. I’d watched the first few series of the show and enjoyed them, but I’d grown bored as the characters wandered aimlessly from episode to episode. I had known for a while about the comic series, but with over thirty volumes (consisting of nearly 200 issues in total!), I’d been wary of starting, in part because I knew it would be very expensive to buy them all in print. This summer, however, I was able to buy digital versions of the whole set relatively cheaply, and I quickly found myself addicted.

The Walking Dead centres on Rick Grimes, an American police officer who wakes up from a coma to discover that a zombie apocalypse has turned the world he knew upside down. Miraculously, he succeeds in finding his wife Lori and their son Carl in a camp outside Atlanta. Whilst at the beginning, the undead are the main threat to Rick and co’s survival, as the series (which ran from 2003 to 2019) develops, the focus shifts from the ‘walkers’ (that’s zombies to you and me) to the surviving humans in this part of the world. A zombie apocalypse might sound outlandish, and yet, reading this series in the time of COVID-19, I could empathise with the survivors’ attempts to adapt to a radically altered world. It was comforting, in a way, to tell myself: Well, at least things aren’t this bad in the real world. (Yet?)

I’m not a big fan of horror and occasionally the writer Robert Kirkman and the artists overdo the gore and violence for shock value, but the fact that the series is in black and white (in contrast to its TV show adaptation) helped to create a degree of distance, reminding me that it is just fiction. Like The Decameron, The Walking Dead is at times problematic, particularly in its early volumes: Most of the men take charge in defending the passive female characters, and non-white characters are few and far between. But over the course of the series, we get more diverse characters, including numerous gay or bisexual individuals. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the series could be. Unlike the action-centred TV version, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead explores complex sociological and philosophical questions about society and human nature: Given the opportunity to completely remake society, where would we begin? And is there a limit to how much one person can endure?

It might not qualify as ‘high literature’, but I have no doubt that Kirkman’s magnum opus, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and Boccaccio’s Decameron, will be read for many years to come, especially in times of adversity like now.

Let me know what you’ve been reading or watching in the comments below, or tweet me @EngLitScholar.

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Two new online productions from By Jove Theatre Company

By Christine Plastow

Theatre, an art form and industry that has traditionally relied on the gathering of a (sometimes large) group of people in close quarters, has naturally been hit hard by the global coronavirus crisis. Not only productions but rehearsals and development sessions have had to be cancelled or postponed, and many theatre professionals are still out of work. There have been some benefits for audiences: for example, the National Theatre has been freely broadcasting a number of recordings from its back catalogue on YouTube. These recordings have opened up major productions to viewers who may otherwise never have seen them. But what about smaller theatres and companies, new work, and the ‘liveness’ that is, in many ways, intrinsic to the medium of theatre?

I’ve been a member of feminist theatre collective By Jove Theatre Company since 2011; in that time, we’ve developed several innovative productions that rework old stories (myths, legends, stories from the cultural canon) for modern audiences. When we realised that our audience was likely to be unable to attend in-person performances for a while, we decided to begin working with the possibilities that performing in the digital space offers. As is so often the case, we were drawn to Greek tragedy for our content. The narrative form of Greek tragedy deals with the moments of crisis in longer mythic narratives: each play tells a story almost in real-time, with characters forced to confront their own actions or those of others that have, almost always, led to death. This form seemed particularly apt for the moment of a global pandemic; indeed, Theatre of War’s digital Oedipus Project has already touched on that play’s backdrop of plague and pestilence as the most obvious touchstone for recent events.

In June and July we produced two digital performances, one live and one pre-recorded. Both dealt with powerful women from Greek mythology who commit acts of violence against their children; both evoke themes of community and isolation, the struggle for liberation and the consequences of women’s repression. The first was MEDEA LIVE, a new digital staging of playwright Wendy Haines’ retelling of Euripides’ Medea first performed by the company in 2017. Our digital staging saw the original performers reprise their roles—three actors performing three aspects of Medea—but perform live to webcam in their own homes in the middle of lockdown. This was more than a rehearsed reading, however: director David Bullen used the capabilities of the streaming platform Streamyard to move the Medeas around the screen, with blank screens appearing for the voices of Jason and other characters that are not embodied; the Medeas seemed to be circling, trapped in an inescapable situation and closing in on acts of terrible violence. Meanwhile, performers SJ Brady, Sinead Costelloe, and Rosa Whicker moved around their performance spaces, sometimes closer to the camera and sometimes further away, offering a tantalising glimpse into the private space of Medea’s unhappy home. The performance was followed by a post-show discussion with theatre and classics academics and practitioners; both are still available to view on YouTube (with closed captions available for both performance and discussion).

Brady, Whicker, and Costelloe performing Medea Live.

Our second production was HERE SHE COMES, a epic spoken word retelling of Euripides’ Bacchae from the perspective of Agave, written and performed by SJ Brady with music by Vivienne Youel. This production was generously funded by the Institute of Classical Studies Public Engagement Grant. The production was audio only, and so we opted to present a pre-prepared recording to ensure the best audio quality for listeners. The recording was premiered on YouTube, alongside a slideshow prepared by SJ Brady that complemented the poem and evoked its themes and settings. Although Bacchae is another work of Greek tragedy, Brady’s work is designed more closely to evoke the ancient oral poets who performed long tales such as the Iliad and Odyssey; Brady performs the text solo, from memory, focusing on Agave but giving voice to a range of characters and utilising repeated linguistic motifs that intertwine with Vivenne Youel’s hypnotic music. The show is available to listen to on YouTube and Soundcloud, with a recording of the live post-show discussion also available on YouTube; David Bullen (By Jove Co-artistic Director; Theatre Studies, Royal Holloway) and I also produced an educational podcast to accompany the production that is available on YouTube and Soundcloud. All YouTube versions have closed captions available.

              

You can keep up to date with By Jove on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. The company receives no regular public funding, and so relies on supporters to help them make art, especially in these difficult times for the theatre industry. If you’re interested in supporting the company, you can become a regular patron on our Patreon, or if you enjoy the shows, please consider making a donation – we recommend £5, the price of a cheap theatre ticket.

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Gender, Race, and Empire in Early Modern Theatre

By Peg Katritzky

Among all our other reasons for remembering 2020 as The Lost Year, those of us who enjoy presenting at conferences are enduring unprecedented upheaval. Finally, academic meetings are re-appearing. However, much like metropolitan buses, they seem awkwardly bunched, easily missed and virtually inaccessible to those lacking the latest tech skills, hardware and IT support. This blog shares some thoughts arising from two excellent meetings I attended this week.

The international research collaborative TWB (Theater Without Borders) rescheduled its 2020 Annual Workshop from a week of live presentations and performances in May (Madrid) to a Zoom Virtual conference (12 June): “Race and Empire in Early Modern Theater”. A day earlier, on 11 June, “Race Before Race” made an announcement, shared here with the permission of TWB member and GOTH Advisory Board Member Noémie Ndiaye.

Regarding the statement, Noémie writes:

“[In] this (short) Letter from the Executive Board of “Race Before Race” which was published this morning […] we call on our colleagues to rethink the editorial practices that have long kept race scholars, especially BIPOC scholars, from getting published in the journals we all read. Please read it […] share it, and join the conversation. Thinking race and racially-articulated power relations starts in our own (academic) backyard.”

Before joining the TWB meeting, I attended the two-day conference Renaissance Academic Drama and the Popular Stage (11-12 June 2020). Unlike myself, most presenters adapted to rescheduling to MS Teams. OK, so we could no longer enjoy the great pleasure of watching The Edward’s Boys perform live at the University of St Andrews (or of sneaking off to beaches or bars). But the switch to online, attracting 90+ delegates, was achieved in brilliant style by the organizers, St Andrews doctoral students Elena Spinelli and Jon Gardner. Through their individual quality and strong sense of coherence, the keynotes, presentations and performances made for an exceptional event. Highlights of particular interest to GOTH members include talks by St Andrews doctoral students Orlagh Davies (on boarding school girls on the seventeenth-century stage) and Isabel Dollar (on changeable bodies in Bellamy’s Iphis & Lyly’s Gallathea) and by Jillian Luke (University of Edinburgh) on Roman masculinity on the English stage, Elisabeth Dutton (Université de Fribourg) introducing her Oxford student screening of Narcissus (you can access this delightfully engaging romp on her EDOX website) and performance clips illuminatingly presented by The Edward’s Boys’ director, Perry Mills, including Elisabeth Dutton’s production of John Redford’s Wit and Science, the whole of which I and other 2019 SiTM Conference delegates immensely enjoyed live in the Sala del Minor Consiglio of Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale (happy days!).

At the TWB Zoom meeting, working together and in small break-out groups, 47 core TWB members and guests, from 5 continents, spent 3pm-10pm GMT intensively exchanging ideas on teaching and researching early modern race and empire, with reference to pre-circulated writings including Urvashi Chakravarty’s landmark article “The renaissance of race and the future of early modern race studies” (English Literary Renaissance, 2019) and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, on Blackness and Being (2016). After officially concluding with a celebration of new TWB publications, including the group’s third collaborative essay collection (M A Katritzky & Pavel Drábek (eds), Transnational Connections in Early Modern Theatre, Manchester University Press, 2020) several of us continued informal discussions over a glass of wine. Not quite the Madrid tapas bar we had hoped for, but still an appreciated opportunity to renew longstanding friendships and to congratulate TWB member Janie Cole on getting Africana Studies accepted as a formal Renaissance Society of America discipline. On 13 June, Janie wrote:

“as founding Discipline Representative for the newly-established Africana Studies, I am soliciting proposals for panels, roundtables or individual papers in any discipline that explore Africa-related themes centering on the histories, politics, representations, and cultures of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora, and their contributions to the cultural, political, historical, economic, or social spheres of the early modern period.”

Proposals for individual papers for the next RSA Annual Meeting (2021 Dublin or online, see RSA website) should be sent to Dr. Janie Cole by no later than Monday 5 August 2020, with the following materials: Individual paper titles (max 15 words); A 150-word maximum paper abstract; A 300-word max 1 page CV in paragraph form; Keywords (general, not specific); AV requirements.

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