Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Moving the Audience: Shakespeare, the Mob, and the Promenade

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Moving the Audience: Shakespeare, the Mob, and the Promenade

Article excerpt

We talk with great familiarity about Shakespeare's "mob scenes," but in fact Shakespeare himself never uses the word "mob." The slang term "mob" was only abbreviated from the Latin mobile vulgus much later in the seventeenth century, after the demonstrations of the Exclusion Crisis and the Glorious Revolution had established the London crowd as a real force in English politics. In the Shakespeare canon an undisciplined assembly of citizens, as far as some characters are concerned, may be a many-headed monster, but though it may be mobile in the sense of excitable or fickle, it is not defined primarily by its physical mobility. Given the analogy which so many critics have wanted to draw between Shakespeare's depictions of crowds and his experience of Elizabethan theatre audiences--and given a long history of usually misguided attempts by actors and directors to identify his plays' offstage spectators as honorary members of their onstage crowds--this minor detail of linguistic history opens up a range of immediate questions. How far were members of Shakespeare's first audiences able to move during performances? Were they not just emotionally moved but physically in motion? If so, should this be a precedent for our own contemporary theatre practice? These questions have come up afresh in recent years, partly since so many spectators in the yard at the replica Globe on Bankside have been surprised and professedly liberated to find themselves at theatrical performances during which one can at will change position relative to the stage and to other spectators. (I know I'm not the only person regularly to find myself deeply comforted, watching yet another Globe show from the yard, to know how easy it is to get inconspicuously to the nearest exit). But these questions have arisen too because of the independent evolution, particularly since the 1970s, of what are known as 'promenade' performances--productions in which actors and audience share the same space, within which both move around and through one another for much of the time. This kind of production, as I'll show, was specifically developed to celebrate the collective agency of the audience and of the community, so its interaction with the recent stage history of Elizabethan drama ought to be of particular interest when it comes to the question of Shakespeare's mobs (or non-mobs). I'll be looking in particular at three recent promenade productions of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays: the Pericles staged by Cardboard Citizens in a warehouse complex in Southwark in 2003, directed by Adrian Jackson; Out of Joint's Macbeth, directed by Max Stafford-Clark, which toured nationally in 2004, enjoyed a successful run at the Arcola and finally closed at another Islington venue, Wilton's Music Hall, in early 2005; and the Dr Faustus staged at the Chichester Festival in 2004, directed by Stephen Pimlott and Edward Kemp.

Let's deal with the historical evidence first, and quickly, since the average reader of Shakespeare Bulletin knows it at least as well as I do: although Elizabethan and Jacobean spectators clearly hissed, shouted, and occasionally stood up, if they had been seated, for a better view, surviving comments on the experience of attending the public theatres are more likely to remark on the immobility of the groundlings, thanks to the sheer pressure of numbers, than to suggest they were in constant movement. Satirists mention youths forcing their way through the crowd to get nearer to attractive women and pickpurses managing to sidle away from their victims, but the crowd as a whole is depicted as an inert compacted mass: Dekker, for example, speaks of "Stinkards ... so glewed together in crowdes with the Steames of strong breath, that when they came foorth, their faces lookt as if they had beene per boylde." (1) If we look in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama for an anticipation of the procedures of promenade performance, we are going to find it elsewhere, away from the Rose, the Globe and the rest: in civic pageants or aristocratic entries or the court masque. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.