Embodied History: Reflections on the Jane Scott Project

By Newey, Katherine | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Embodied History: Reflections on the Jane Scott Project


Newey, Katherine, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


As I watched the patriotic song which opened The Inscription, the first part of the showing of work from the Jane Scott Project in July 2002,I found myself wondering about the appropriate performance of an audience member during such an event. One of the actors was singing a rousing patriotic number about routing the French, and I knew that the play had been first performed in 1816 - just a year after Wellington's victory at Waterloo. As Jacky Bratton comments in her discussion of the Jane Scott Project, the songs in the piece were unabashed claptraps at the Sans Pareil in 1816, and so they were for us in the Boilerhouse at Royal Holloway College. We listened and appreciated the skill of this twenty-first century actor, singing the ornamented music and filling the stage with his presence. But I wondered: maybe a 'real' audience for this song would drown out the singer with patriotic cheers? Should I?

My anxiety about giving an appropriate performance as an audience member is, I think, of a piece with more general scholarly anxieties around the reconstruction of past performances. It is a truism of this kind of work to point out that while the costumes, acting styles, music, scripts, settings, and theatrical spaces of the past can be reproduced with more or less accuracy (indeed, a substantial segment of the British film and television industry makes a good living from doing this), an historical audience can never be recreated, locked as we are into historically and culturally specific ways of seeing. The Jane Scott Project, with its particular theoretical approach to past performance styles, suggests that a direct confrontation and exploration of this and other anxieties can have fruitful results for theatre historiography. Rather than gloss over the differences between then and now, the Jane Scott Project seemed to take the gap between 1816 and 2002 as a central focus of its investigation, self-consciously framing the training, rehearsals, and performance as a 'revival' which actively engaged contemporary practitioners' skills, rather than a 'reconstruction' which required performers to 'pretend' they were not subjects of the twenty first century and products of its discourses and practices.

Other projects of theatrical reconstruction have been documented in nineteenthcentury theatre studies, together with some rare commercial performances which are also part of the theatrical mainstream (leaving aside productions of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde). Paul Wadleigh's account of his summer stock seasons suggests successful commercial productions (although connected with a university company) and John Caird's production of Bulwer's Money was a perhaps surprising success of the 1999 summer season for the Royal National Theatre company (UK).1 Revivals of Dion Boucicault's plays (usually The Shaughran or London Assurance) are more frequent, although still comparatively rare. Joel Kaplan has written about his students' explorations of Lady Audley's Secret,2 and the Performance Studies Unit, Department of English and Faculty of Architecture at Sydney University undertook a series of investigations into nineteenth century stages and performance practices in the late 1980s, some of which I have written about elsewhere.3 However, neither I nor my colleagues at the University of Sydney have documented the full extent of the projects we did, largely because of doubts about the validity and usefulness of such work when taken out of its immediate processual and pedagogical contexts. And, for me, this has always been one of the anxieties of practice-based research into past performance styles. Such work is vulnerable to scepticism about its qualities as performance. Is it not just 'theatre as archaeology' or 'deadly theatre' in Peter Brook's terms?4 Or, to put it more positively, how can 'reconstruction' offer new knowledges and embody knowledge in an active, rather than 'archaeological' way?

This is where it is useful to turn to another way of looking at the kind of work that was undertaken in the Jane Scott Project.

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