Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"[H]urt in That Service": The Norwich Affray and Early Modern Reactions to Injuries during Dramatic Performances

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"[H]urt in That Service": The Norwich Affray and Early Modern Reactions to Injuries during Dramatic Performances

Article excerpt

In defining "theatrical ecologies," Mary Floyd-Wilson and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. invite scholars to distinguish "the playhouse as a 'special environment' or its own 'ecosystem,' where performances have material, formative effects on the bodies of actors and audience members" (viii). Ian Shapiro has characterized this theatrical "environment" as having particularly violent "effects," citing the accidental shootings of three spectators by the Lord Admiral's Men in 1587 when an actor's real gun swerved. (1) Processional civic drama had the same kinds of potentially dangerous weapons and crowds as plays in the theatres. This paper defines pageant processions as those, such as Lord Mayors' Shows and royal entries, that incorporated obviously dramatic elements, including the speeches and skits written by amateur and professional dramatists and sponsored by the livery companies, as well as those lacking these elements because, as R. W. Ingram has reasoned, processions "without such accompaniment ... were themselves pageants in which the procession was, as it were, one body of actors watched by an audience in the streets" (lii). Compared to violence in the theaters, the violence in processional performances derived additionally from the size and movement of the entire theatrical scene or audience through the streets. The forces generated by these physical qualities of processional drama emerge in spectators' descriptions and the civic records for towns with frequently planned processions (Chester, Coventry, London, Norwich, and York), revealing a much more destructive environment for drama than we may usually assume, which might include smashed street pavements, shattered shops, cracked staves, torn banners, ripped sleeves, and ultimately, broken bodies.

This violent "'ecosystem'" of processional drama had economic and political consequences. First, for the day of a show, city officials and livery companies employed not only performers to act in skits and sideshows, but also poor men to walk in the procession or serve as porters. If a poor laborer suffered an accidental injury caused by the movement of a pageant during performance, he sometimes received compensation. The companies did not enact workers' compensation in the modern sense, but they did put a price on bodies. The companies archived the injury and its criterion for compensation: that the worker's body could be located in relation to specific dramatic sites or set pieces, which established that the injury occurred while the worker was in the legitimate service of the drama. Second, concentrating on what scholars and contemporaries have called the Norwich affray, this paper makes the case that experience with processions shaped audience expectations for intentional and unintentional violence and conditioned the audience to respond actively, as fellow actors. In the midst of a 1583 performance at Norwich, Queen's Men players and a spectator, Henry Brown, chased two gatecrashers through the streets and stabbed one of them to death. Critics have misunderstood the affray by failing to recognize the Norwich dramatic context fully; in particular, they have either ignored the audience or presumed a passive, immobile, or theatrically naive audience. The language of witnesses' depositions shows that the drama did not end once the actors left the stage. In fact, the affray became a procession. In "E/loco/com/motion," Bruce R. Smith urges us to acknowledge that early modern actors' "elaborate choreography" on stage went beyond "blocking," to admit sound waves, eye beams, and spectators' emotions (147). Audience movement had meaning also. This essay focuses on the complex agency of injured workers and audience-actors in processions, especially examining Brown at the affray, arguing that violent movement had competing interpretations by contemporaries during and after the procession--meanings that, depending on how they defined acceptable violence, they rewarded or misinterpreted and punished. …

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