The second year, director and PhD student Cristina Iovita directed a focused gestural workshop drawing upon nineteenth-century romantic gestural codes as a starting point for a more careful and systematic engagement with the elusive material. Working alongside with students and professional actors, Cristina found a convincing mode of actor training which allowed us to better engage with Baillie’s work and her own thoughts on theatre. These gestural codes of the early Romantic era, while initially seeming stiff and arcane to a modern actor and audience, were thought in the period as natural reactive or proactive movements.
Melodrama as a Critical and Tool: Years Two and Three
Our dramaturgical research in Year One, and our reconsideration of the genre of tragedy as a hybrid form led us to consider the tragic-comic and the melodrama as media, genre, and practical tools in the generation of an acting code workshop led by Cristina Iovita (Year Two) and full-length adaptation co-directed by Iovita and Leroux (Year Three). In Year Two, I was invited to participate in Dr. Marcie Frank’s SSHRC-funded working group “Melodrama at the Interface of Genre and Media” to further explore Witchcraft in its initial historical context, and through which I developed my dramaturgical schema for revising the play in Year Three.i
What the resonant responses (from Year One) brought forward for us as practitioners and researchers was the way in which melodrama (and in particular, a reading of melodrama as the broad assemblage of theatrical conventions outlined below) was informing our interpretation of Baillie’s Witchcraft, and the extent to which further research into melodrama as both genre and creative-critical tool might serve our exploration of Romantic acting methods in year two, and the full-scale production in year three. Year One’s adaptation tactics —in retrospect— were those of melodrama. Aiming to reproduce (in hyperbolic form) both the peculiar oscillations of tragic and comic mode and the characterological swings in affect in Witchcraft without telling all of its stories, I had opted for a compression, which in Buckley’s elaboration of melodrama’s affective structuring, accelerates the pendulum swings between opposite poles through suture (186).ii In both my research and creative work with Witchcraft in Years Two and Three, I began to consider melodrama as a fit apparatus for reading and staging the play: as a set of narrative expectations and generic features, as hybrid mode with melos, as an affective interface between actor-spectator, and as a kind of cultural, aesthetic, and ideological performance belonging to and performative of a particular theatre and its place. Certainly, Witchcraft has diegetic features which lead us to consider its registration (despite Baillie’s protestations) of the melodramatic: 1) its reenactment of historical (and colonial) traumas through a family romance; 2) its exploitation of intense affective situations and their compression in time; 3) its cast of degraded aristocrats, exiles, orphans, unruly servants, madwomen, and a scheming villainess; 4) its antiquarian interest in and Romantic depiction of Scotland as both “plausible geography” (in Ziter’s language) and enchanted otherworld.iii
How might thinking about the play in melodramatic affective structures and spaces make sense of and give license to its dramaturgy? To respond to these questions, I conducted research into Baillie’s biography and body of work, and looked at other projects in performance-as-research and revival, particularly Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailey’s work on illegitimate theatre and burletta as part of the Jane Scott Project (2001-2002), as mentioned above.iv Our additions to the text emerged from a concern for the dramaturgy of a theatrical event in the 19th-century — an effort to work with pantomime and storytelling through gesture that might entertain as well as distance the performance from a more realist mode of performance; our emendations and rewritings surfaced from temporal constraints, a desire to develop incidental characters and play with melodramatic conceits, a concern for the communicability of the drama for an audience unversed in Scottish (and Walter Scott-like) dialect which Baillie employs, and an effort to make the rise and complication of the action established in the first three acts pay off in the fourth and fifth.
16 Great Windmill Street, Anatomical Theatres, and the Science of Affect
In preparation for the actor workshop and full-length adaptation, I researched the dynamic relation between Witchcraft, closet dramas, and anatomical theatres. Joseph Roach has drawn the connection between the history of scientific theorization of the passions and the history of acting codes which physicalize emotion and theatricalize the body (The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting, 1993). I want to suggest an immediate intersection in Baillie’s case: that between Baillie’s dramaturgy and theory of drama and the Baillie family’s connections and contributions to medical knowledge in the fields of obstetrics, physiognomy, surgery, and anatomy.
Joanna Baillie’s uncle Dr. William Hunter bought the anatomical theatre at 16 Great Windmill Street in London in 1767. Hunter, the namesake of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, left Scotland in 1740 for the promise of a home laboratory and ready supply of anatomically incorrect specimens available in London.v Dr. John Hunter (of London’s Hunterian Museum) and a veteran surgeon after the Seven Years War, joined his brother at 16 Great Windmill Street, and assisted him in the preparation of specimens for his famed anatomical lectures, while conducting research on gunshot wounds, cranial cavities, and venereal disease, and amassing an impressive collection of lizards, which he captured himself in expeditions to tropical isles. The Hunters left 16 Great Windmill Street, its legacy and remains, to their nephew (Joanna’s brother) Matthew Baillie. In 1812, the property was sold to another Scottish anatomist and philosopher of expression, Sir Charles Bell, who used the house as a printing office, and gave anatomical lectures in the theatre.vi The last lecture on anatomy occurred in 1831.vii If we consider the anatomical theatre as a contemporary stage, as a theatre concerned with seeing, staging, and mapping the body and the physiological manifestations of terror, jealous rage, and shame, might we encounter another theatre for Witchcraft? How might a dramaturgical and spatial analysis of the anatomical lecture and its theatre lend itself to an understanding of Baillie’s dramaturgy of the passions in Witchcraft? How might a dramaturgical and spatial analysis of the anatomical lecture and its theatre lend itself to an understanding of Baillie’s dramaturgy of the passions in Witchcraft? As Cristina Iovita and I discovered, manuals on acting and physiognomy texts employed similar discourse in the representation of affective states. The results of this comparative study, and their role in the year two acting workshop can be found in Cristina Iovita’s article.
For a play without an extensive production history, and which was literally given no theatrical space in Baillie’s lifetime, the task for performance research and revival is to imagine a “place” for Witchcraft not only in terms of dramatic space or as scenography, but in relation to its occlusion from Drury Lane and Covent Garden. While it was not produced on the popular or national stages with which Baillie longed to be affiliated, and upon which several of her other plays were staged, can we locate a contemporary theatre in which Witchcraft might be staged? It is neither the “melodramatic” nor gothic features of Baillie’s Witchcraft which kept it off the patent stages— both Covent Garden and Drury Lane produced popular gothic and German melodramas, complete with musical and pantomime entractes, in part to compete with the expansion of the popular illegitimate and suburban theatres and their folk forms.viii And if, as we must, lay aside claims of the play’s unsuitability for the stage, we might situate Baillie’s weird Witchcraft in a developing dramaturgy and science of affect, perhaps as a proto-feminist textix, but also as an interstitial / transitional moment, partially rooted in classical acting theories and rhetorical traditions of Diderot, Engels, and Henry Siddons, but also iterative of newly emergent discourses of affect, neuroscience, and psychology. Perhaps, rather, Baillie’s critical dramaturgy and theorization of the passions were “unstageable” at Covent Garden and Drury Lane, themselves raucous sites of politicized oratory, wherein spectators and actors competed for attention. The ever-expanding theatrical space itself posed problems for Baillie’s subtle prescriptions for dramatic acting. At the end of the 18th century, competition from the minor theatres forced the patents to expand their houses, eliminate private boxes, and incorporate new stage technologies, such as the moving panorama, flats, flies, and other kinds of machinery required for staging the now popular gothic dramas. As Richard Cumberland notes, Covent Garden and Drury Lane had become “theatres for spectators, rather than playhouses for hearers”x. Perhaps the politics of Baillie’s play, and the passions, linked to larger socio-geographic structures of power between Scottish and English, female and male, wealthy and poor, troubled the usual ways of acting and watching the drama. If women are accused of witchcraft, Baillie argues through her play, it is the accusers who “craft” the witches, succumb to hysterical passions, and refuse the sound reason of Scottish Enlightenment principles.
The Revival of a Closet Dramatist
Audience Responses as Re-writings of Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft
Can theatre exist without an audience? At least one spectator is needed to make it a performance.
My primary role in the FQRSC-funded research-creation project on Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft has been to serve as Professor Fiona Ritchie’s research assistant. Professor Ritchie and I have focused on producing pedagogical material in order to teach this play to undergraduates. I was given the chance to give some guest lectures and lead some discussions on Romantic drama, Baillie, and Witchcraft, which allowed me to gather a variety of student responses to the play and a recent production of Witchcraft at Concordia University in Montreal. I also served as a dramaturge for the same production, working more closely with the creative team on the sound design. My work as both research assistant and dramaturge gave me a double perspective, which has been very helpful in evaluating these audience responses to the play.
I will begin my assessment of Witchcraft’s reception history with a seemingly straightforward question: what role does the audience play in Joanna Baillie’s theatre? Considering the fact that Baillie has been labeled a closet dramatist, whose work was rarely performed and fell into neglect soon after her death, the answer is rather surprising. One of the reasons as to why Baillie’s Witchcraft has not received significant posthumous critical attention arguably lies in the fact that audience responses were almost non-existent, because the play was not performed during Baillie’s lifetime. Moreover, there were no revivals of her plays in the nineteenth- or twentieth- centuries. Within the past two decades, however, critics have not only started to realize the complexity of Joanna Baillie’s literary works, recognizing her influence on contemporary writers such as Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, but also the importance of staging her plays, as evidenced by the two recent productions of Witchcraft at the Finborough Theatre in London and Concordia University in Montreal. Audience responses to these productions suggest that the spectator takes on the role of a “self-conscious co-creator” (Bennett 22), as theatre scholar Susan Bennett would call it, with regard to both the performances of the plays and the dramatic text. These productions, and thus, by extension, their audience responses and reviews, increase scholarly interest in the original dramatic text. They also have the potential to contribute to and alter the production of meaning(s) inherent in the literary text, as various audience members have pointed out in discussions and in a survey conducted among undergraduate university students at McGill University who attended the Concordia production of Witchcraft.
In the following, I will draw on Susan Bennett’s work Theatre Audiences, in which she argues that “drama depends on its audience” (19) for its production of meaning(s), because “the audience affects not only the performance but the dramatic text too” (20). In other words, Baillie’s play will continue to be re-written through its various performances. However, since “no two theatrical performances can ever be the same precisely because of this audience involvement” (22), and only two productions of Witchcraft exist as of yet, the process of the production of meanings inherent in Witchcraft is a rather unstable and inconclusive one, which remains as yet in its early stages.
Although Baillie did not receive significant posthumous critical attention, it is important to point out that she was very well respected during her lifetime. In fact, Walter Scott and Lord Byron saw her as the best writer of English tragedy since the Renaissance. Scott, for example, often mentioned her in the same breath as Shakespeare. Similarly, Byron wrote in a letter from 1817:
When Voltaire was asked why no woman has ever written even a tolerable tragedy? ‘Ah (said the Patriarch) the composition of a tragedy requires testicles.’ If this be true Lord knows what Joanna Baillie does – I suppose she borrows them.
(qtd. Murray 45)
The collection of dramas from 1836, which includes Witchcraft, was praised in an 1836 review from The Anathaeum: “The coming of a new comet which no one had forseen, or an eclipse of the sun which no one had predicted, would not puzzle astronomers more than the appearance of these Dramas by Joanna Baillie has amazed critics” (4). Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine continues along the same lines: “we felt that Scott was justified in linking her name with that of Shakespeare” (265-80). Finally, George Moir praised Baillie’s “well-ordered and well-concentrated mind” (Edinburgh Review 79), stating that “there are none of the dramas contained in these volumes which do not, to some extent, awaken curiosity and interest” (74).
Despite such rave reviews of her plays, Baillie had enormous difficulty getting them staged. Witchcraft, in fact, was never performed during her lifetime. One of the reasons for this may lie in the fact that her perception and conception of theatre did not match the ones found on the bigger, official stages of Drury Lane and Covent Garden. She was labeled a closet dramatist (Catherine Burroughs) and some critics found her plays simply unstageable or, at the very least, rather impractical for the stage.
However, Baillie clearly defended her plays as acting plays, as evidenced in this excerpt from the following letter
A play certainly is more perfect for being fitted for the stage as well as the closet... Don't you therefore find fault with me, or encrease the number of those who are for quietly setting me aside as a closet writer. I will still go on, having my drums & my trumpets, & my striking situations, & my side scenes & my back scenes, & all the rest of it in my mind, whilst I write, notwithstanding all that you can say to the contrary.
(12 December 1804, letter to William Sotheby)
Indeed, as Slagle points out, she “quickly understood that the key to drama lay in performance” (297). The two recent productions, their audience responses and reviews, which I will discuss in more detail presently, demonstrate that Witchcraft is not only stageable, but also capable of rewriting its original dramatic text through its performances.
Before looking at Baillie’s theatre in practice by giving an overview of audience responses to the productions, I would like to explain in more detail how exactly Baillie may have conceived of a staging of Witchcraft. First of all, it is worth mentioning that, as McMillan points out, Joanna Baillie herself expressed her preference for Witchcraft arguing that “perhaps [it] goes deeper into human nature than any of the rest” (86). Indeed, in one of her letters to Sir Walter Scott from 1827, Baillie writes: “I have nothing left to say but that I finished my prose Tragedy on Witchcraft...I am inclined [to] think favourably of it” (418).
In the “Introductory Discourse” (1798) to her first volume of the Plays on the Passions, Baillie makes clear that she intends to reform the stage. She had a profound interest in portraying the often complex underlying psychological motives and desires of her tragic characters and wanted her plays to unveil “the human mind under the dominion of those strong and fixed passions (30).
Due to this emphasis on the psychological, she believes that her plays require small, well-lit theatres, in which the audience clearly perceives the spectacle audibly and visually. In her address “To the Reader” (1812), Baillie states that “the size of our theatres [is] unfavourable for the production of these Plays” (Baillie xviii). Burroughs aptly points out that
a smaller stage […] permit[s] the subtler dramatization of both public and private realms; a more emotionally expressive, less exaggerated acting style […] counter[s] the stasis of neoclassicism; and a lighting design that […] allow[s] audiences to read the psychological shifts being performed by actors. (87)
Moreover, Baillie believed that tragedy should primarily convey character development while highlighting the powers of the imagination as opposed to concrete plot details. Essentially, she sees her tragedies as moral cautionary tales. With regard to Witchcraft more specifically, Baillie emphasizes the importance of the Scottish elements, particularly with regard to language.
The 2008 production at the Finborough Theatre in London, directed by Bronwen Carr, demonstrates that the play “comes alive” through its staging. Carr pointed out in an interview from 2008 that the “audience seemed to genuinely enjoy and be gripped by the piece,” noting the play’s “strong female characters.” In a review for The Guardian, Michael Billington called the play “robustly enjoyable, Walter Scott-style stuff,” stating that the production brings out Baillie’s “unquenchable vitality.” Although he admitted that it “would be easy to mock the play’s absurdities,” he praised the play’s energy and vivacity. Sam Marlow, on the other hand, who attended the same production and wrote his review for The Times, was not convinced, attacking both the play and the production. Quite unlike Billington, he calls the play “tedious” and sees it as “an overcooked stew of contrivance […] too busy revealing in Gothic cliché.” He also attacks its “insufficient psychological complexity,” a statement which is particularly surprising as it goes against Baillie’s intention to convey psychological depth. Although he admits that Grizeld Bane is “occasionally witty,” he states that the “clumsy, patchily acted production does nothing to elevate a story that seems lurid and silly.” Howard Loxton, who published a review in the British Theatre Guide, was less extreme in his views. Although he “wouldn’t go along with Sir Walter Scott who thought her the greatest writer of English tragedy since Shakespeare,” he found the play suited to the stage, pointing out the “naturalness” of the production, which the Scottish accents conveyed.
Since Billington, Marlow, and Loxton refrain from distinguishing clearly between dramatic text and performance, the lines between the original play and its rewriting (the performance) become blurred. Reading this in context of Bennett’s view on audience responses, it seems that Billington, Marlow, and Loxton, as audience members, become active participants in the productions by neglecting to distinguish between text and performance. The dramatic text rewrites the performance and the performance rewrites the underlying text. This is particularly evident in Billington’s review, because he points out the play’s vitality, which stands in contrast to the traditional conception of Baillie as a closet dramatist. Considering that the term “closet drama” usually refers to a play that was never meant to be brought to life on the stage and is sometimes even used in a belittling way, the fact that Billington notes the production’s energy and vivacity is certainly striking.
The 2011 Montreal production, directed by Cristina Iovita and Patrick Leroux, which was part of the project Hypertext & Performance: A Resonant Response to Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft by Concordia’s Matralab and Hexagram Institute, generated similar responses among a group of undergraduate students from McGill University. These students studied the play in context of Professor Fiona Ritchie’s undergraduate course ENGL 370 Theatre History: The Long 18th Century, and had the chance to see the play in performance at the end of the semester. Half the class came to see the show and decided to write about it in their take-home final exams. In my assessment of the student responses to the show, I draw on these exams as well as on responses generated by class discussions. I also draw on a questionnaire, which I distributed among the students after they saw the show.
One of the elements of the production, which the students noted repeatedly, was the length of the play and the production. Despite the fact that the directors edited the play down from four hours to two hours and forty minutes, it remained a lengthy production, which, although dynamic and engaging, demands a high and sustained level of concentration from its audience. In an article, which appeared in the Concordia newspaper The Link, director Patrick Leroux explained his decision to cut the play extensively:
We’ve edited narrative bits, added visuals to help us navigate through this, but it remains a really good example of early 19th-century theatre – with crazy things happening, too many people on stage, coups de théâtre – just all the exciting things you find in theatre. (Nov 29, 2011)
This certainly explains why some critics have found the play to be a challenge to stage, and yet, perhaps it is exactly its length that lends itself to the portrayals of psychological depth, which Baillie intended to convey.
This “everything play,” as Professor Leroux called it (Montreal Gazette Dec 2, 2011), arguably reveals the play’s complexity and difficulty through its performance. The “constant rebounding of the action, melodrama, lover’s quarrels, murders, pirates” (Montreal Gazette Dec 2, 2011) generates a busy and intense atmosphere on stage, which the Concordia production conveyed through elaborate lighting and multimedia techniques. The student questionnaires often pointed towards the opening scene, which is particularly complex due to its number of characters and demands a lot of visual and auditory attention from its spectators. Several students noted that they understood the play’s intensity more after having seen the show. For example, some students realized that the play in performance demands a lot of concentration and a very active audience. Moreover, a few students felt a little overwhelmed by the large number of characters and the length of the play.
Baillie envisioned her drama to be performed on a small stage, and compared to the large Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatre, the D.B. Clark theatre at Concordia, which seats about four hundred people, can be considered a rather intimate venue. However, as some students noted, to a modern audience in Montreal, the theatre might seem rather large, which renders it difficult for the actors to generate a close, intimate connection with the spectators. However, considering the large number of actors and the emphasis on spectacle inherent in the play, one wonders if it would be realistic and possible to stage the play in a more intimate setting.
Students responded positively to the subtle and dark lighting techniques and sound design of the production. With regard to these specific elements of the show, there is no doubt that Baillie “practices what she preaches.” The lights and the concise Gothic musical motifs underlined the subtle emotional strength of the play, emphasizing the somber mood shifts. In To The Reader, Baillie discusses how subtle lighting techniques, such as “contrasts of light and shadow” (xvi), can emphasize emotional shifts. Overall, students found that the production proved this superbly, revealing that the play can stand the test of a live audience while remaining historically accurate. For example, one of the students wrote in his response to the production:
In the play’s darker scenes, including the opening prelude and several encounters with the Grizzled Bane, subsequent darker lighting echoed the mood. Fittingly, during the play’s lighter moments, such as the romantic courtship scenes involving Dungarren and Violet, the stage lit up. The reputed witches were also commonly accompanied by red lighting that accentuating their violent passions, such as when the three are eerily chanting for the “prince of power” as well as when Grizzled Bane takes Annabella’s life…With regards to shadow, this show creatively incorporated a scrim, highlighting the entrances and exits of some characters as well as heightening the chilling mystery of the production.
Besides noting the authenticity of the Scottish accents, many student responses to the acting style of the production pointed out its historical elements, comparing them to major texts on acting of the period, such as Henry Siddons’s Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1822). The directors worked with this manual, which enabled them to develop a historically accurate portrayal of the passions Baillie intended to depict. The students, who were studying Witchcraft as representative of the Romantic/19th-century theatre, noted the Romantic elements of the show, such as feelings of sublimity. More specifically, the sublime was conveyed during Annabella’s final interaction with Grizeld Bane. One of the students wrote in her response: “When the audience witnessed her in the chamber center stage, thrown over the bench, possessed by passion, she became sublime. The overwhelmed sensation Annabella embodied transposed itself onto the audience.” The dark and overwhelming elements inherent in the concept of the Romantic sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke, were particularly apparent. Students stated that they understood the larger meaning of the sublime through the visceral experience of this production. Hence, when Susan Bennett points out that the performances rewrite the text and vice versa, it follows that this production rewrites the text by bringing out the Romantic aesthetic elements inherent in the text while conveying a greater, and arguably darker understanding of the Romantic concept of the sublime.
In addition to the Romantic elements of the production, the student discussions, questionnaires, and exams often focused on the show’s melodramatic aspects and its relationship to humor. Students realized the melodramatic and humoristic elements inherent in the play primarily through the performance. Indeed, I, for one, found that the play was surprisingly much more enjoyable in performance. The intensified, raw emotions portrayed on the stage occasionally generated a somewhat uncomfortable, but certainly comic effect to which the audience frequently responded with laughter. Susan Bennett argues that “audience laughter can, and does come from the realization of defective interpretation” (50), and indeed, it seems that the audience became a “self-conscious co-creator” (22) with regard to genre at this specific theatrical event, which took place in the D.B. Clarke theatre that day. One could even go so far as to argue that the play depends on performance for its productions of meaning(s). However, it needs to be noted that there seems to be a slight tension between the productions rewriting the play while being historically accurate. The performances bridge the gap between the 19th -century and the present, whilst also somehow keeping the peculiarity of the historical period in which Baillie was writing alive. Thus, the production at Concordia – as a theatrical event – helped to actualize Baillie’s wish for her drama to be staged in a smaller theatre space, and helped to rewrite this Romantic play as a melodramatic comedy while portraying a rather dark conception of sublimity.
Carlson, Julie A. “The Theatre.” In Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. Ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 642-52.
Cox, Jeffrey N. “Staging Baillie.” In Joanna Baillie. Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays ed. Thomas Crochunis. London, England: Routledge, 2004. 146-67.
---, and Michael Gamer. Introduction. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox and Michael Gamer. Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 2003. vii-xxiv.
Crochunis, Thomas C. ed. Joanna Baillie: Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. London, England: Routledge, 2004.
---. “Romantic Theatre”. In Teaching Romanticism. Ed. Sharon Ruston and David Higgins. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 24-37.
Gilbert, Deirdre. “Joanna Baillie‘s Witchcraft at the Finborough Theatre.” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research 23.1 (2008). 91-103.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Lamb, Charles. “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare. Considered with Reference to the Fitness for Stage Representation.” The Collected Essays of Charles Lamb. Introduction by Robert Lynd, and notes by William MacDonald. New York: Dutton, 1929. 163-96.
McMillan, Dorothy. “Unromantic Caledon: Representing Scotland in The Family Legend, Metrical Legends, and Witchcraft.” In Joanna Baillie: Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays, ed. Thomas C. Crochunis. London, England: Routledge, 2004. 69-86.
Murray, Christopher John. Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era: 1760-1850. London: Routledge, 2003.
Norton, M. “The Plays of Joanna Baillie.” Review of English Studies: A Quarterly Journal of English Literature and the English Language 23.9 (April 1947): 131-43.
Slagle, Judith Bailey. Joanna Baillie: A Literary Life. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2002.
Reviews and Other Materials
Reviews of Baillie’s Dramas published in 1836 (containing Witchcraft) from the Edinburgh Review, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and The Anathaeum
Reviews of the 2008 London production of Witchcraft from the British Theatre Guide, the Finborough Theatre
Review, the Guardian, Time Out, the Times and the Times Literary Supplement
Reviews of the 2011 Montreal production of Witchcraft from the Montreal Gazette and The Link
Take-home final exam student responses to the play Witchcraft in the context of Professor Fiona Ritchie’s course ENGL 370 Theatre History: The Long 18th Century, which was offered at McGill in fall 2011. Questionnaires distributed among the students after the play.
A Dramatic Essay in Three Acts
Note from Joanna:
I worked with director Cristina Iovita first as a playwright (The Finger Play of Katharine Nipsy, or Bundles) in Year One, and later as a dramaturg throughout her Rhetoric of the Passions workshop and full-length production in Concordia’s Theatre Department. The following text is a collagiste document primarily composed and adapted from excerpts of Cristina’s scholarly paper “Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft: A Site for the Recovery of the Gestural Codes of Early Romantic Drama” (2011), and in dialogue with Cristina’s directing process, and approach to Baillie’s Introductory Discourse. I have attempted in this dialogic version to preserve the depth and nuance of Cristina’s understanding and writing style, while interjecting with the occasional explanatory or interlocutory remark where it might guide the reader-practitioner.
I. Directing and Researching for / with Theatre
Text by Cristina Iovita,
with comments by Joanna Donehower
In 2009 I started to work as a co-director (with Dr. Louis Patrick Leroux, Concordia University, and actress-director Alison Darcy) on the FQRSC funded research-creation project entitled Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft-Hypertext and Performance, which proposed a revitalisation of the Romantic repertory through the integration of modern technological means of expression: video, electronic soundtrack and computer effects (animation) to the original playscript. The first year’s workshop (2009-2010) conducted by artistic director Patrick Leroux centered on the exploration of Joanna Baillie’s theory of theatre and its possibilities for generating text with, as a second goal, a multimedia performance based on the dialogical relationship between the original play Witchcraft, and the new dramaturgical material inspired by it, which would facilitate the modern students’ understanding of Romantic drama.
The first phase of the project (September-December 2009) was dedicated to creating new dramaturgical pieces which elaborated on the major themes in Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft and, at the same time, contextualized the modern technological discourse as part of the playscript. Three excerpts from Witchcraft : Women on the Moor, Fishing for Information and The Reach of the Law constituted the pool of inspiration for new pieces written by Patrick Leroux (Children at Play, Blood, Age) Lindsay Wilson (Blind) and Joanna Donehower (The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy, or Bundles). The final playscript alternated Joanna Baillie’s Women on the Moor, Fishing for Information and The Reach of the Law with, respectively, Children at Play, Blood, Age, by Patrick Leroux, Blind by Lindsay Wilson and The Fingerplay of Katharine Nipsy (or Bundles) by Joanna Donehower, each new text a resonant response (Leroux’s term) to one of the Baillie excerpts.
JKD: As we’re framing the resonant response as performance-based research, a way of knowing that diverges from more conventional literary and academic models, I’m curious about your experience in working with the responses. Having now directed the full show, do you have a sense of what, if anything, you gained from first directing the responses? In other words, what did these responses know about Witchcraft that were not necessarily evident in reading the original text?
CRISTINA: We began to discover the mode of characterization we would eventually use in Years Two and Three in the resonant response I directed — The Finger Play of Katharine Nipsy. Since the strongly typed characters— Spinster, Mummy, Katharine Nipsy, Landlord, and the Big Feller— required formulaic acting, we found we could not exclude non-verbal expression from the rendering of Baillie’s characters, which meant that we had to see to which category Baillie’s characters could be ascribed. Were they types? Archetypes? Comic or tragic? Naturalistic, maybe. Inspired from real life? Or both? A new kind of blend, ‘realistic’ and stylized? How do we do both? In what dosage? Which tradition should we draw on for the stylized part?
From this debate came the partial solution to the problem: to use formulaic acting, inspired from the commedia dell’ arte character system, to deliver the servants’ and masters’ parts in Witchcrafti and thus meet the stylized delivery required for the resonant. But, most importantly, the debate over stylization proved that the cast, and myself as a director, did not fully understand the play we wanted to revive. Relying on the commedia dell’ arte tradition for the configuration of the roles was a shot in the dark, a practical solution born from necessity, loosely based on the premises that the play had a comic streak, and that my own knowledge of the commedia dell’ arte character system would supply the means of characterization for any comic figure. The fact was that, beyond the language barrier—Witchcraft is written in a mixture of eighteenth century Scottish idioms which the actors appropriated under coaching by expert dialectician Julia Lenardon—the play remained cryptic, and this defeated the educational purpose of the project, possibly undermining the theoretical foundation of the entire research process. For, if Witchcraft was a palimpsest, which was the approach we took for the first part of the project, it was necessary that the acting text would be revealed along with the literary and stagecraft texts in order to redeem the meaning of the script.
JKD: I imagine we were both influenced by Jacky Bratton and Gilli Bush-Bailley’s Jane Scott Project, which used this particular concept of thinking the text as palimpsest as a creative and critical strategy to revive an entire season at the Adelphi.ii The text as palimpsest is a critical strategy for performance-based research, especially with Witchcraft, which is not a particularly easy text to read. Where did you, as a director, begin?
CRISTINA: I began with Baillie’s own theory of the theatre. Soon after reading the play, and working with the actors, I realized that we were in need of a new acting vocabulary if we were going to stage the play in a convincing way. The actors and I discovered that, despite the ample historical and critical material we had consulted during the preparation phase, we still knew very little about the acting practices of Joanna Baillie’s time and thus had no real ground for drawing parallels between the Romantic and the modern acting codes embedded in the playscript.
JKD: We both read Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse to the Plays on the Passions” (1793) before beginning the workshop, and in our subsequent discussions, you mentioned having used your performance research to understand her dramatic theory. What do you know now about Baillie’s dramaturgy that you did not, or could not have known in that preliminary reading?
CRISTINA: The text begins with Baillie’s announcing her ‘extensive design’ to create a dramaturgy that:
as far as (her) my information goes, has nothing exactly similar in any language;…which a whole lifetime will be limited enough to accomplish; and which has, therefore, a considerable chance of being cut short by that hand which nothing can resist.iii
The foundation of this design is Baillie’s belief in the educational goal of the theatrical performance which the contemporary British stage ignores in its rush to acquire facile commercial success. This educational goal can be attained by representing on stage the ‘human nature’ in the throes of passion, without any exaggeration of behaviour, but true to ‘nature’ in every detail, so as to impress upon the public the ‘perils of unleashing the demons’ inside one’s soul.
Perhaps what one can find in a preliminary reading [of the Introductory Discourse] is the dramaturgical structure for Witchcraft. In it, Baillie stresses the fact that comedy caricatures, and therefore abases life, while tragedy aggrandizes, or solemnizes it out of proportion. But Baillie turns away from both genres and proposes a new dramaturgical structure, a drama that presents the ‘ordinary circumstances’ in which men and women display those ‘stronger passions’ that are common to every soul, but which in daily life are carefully concealed from public sight. In this type of drama the plot articulates itself on one passioniv in progress throughout the private space, which Baillie calls “the closet”.v The characters portray these ‘passions of the mind’ whose manifestations are modulated by differences in gender, social status, cultural and historical environment; the fantastic figures are built in the same manner as they represent the “imaginings,” or projections of the passions experienced by the ‘real’ characters. Elements of spectacle such as lighting effects and elaborate sets can be included to the drama on condition that they portray the “natural surroundings” in which the characters evolve.
The player should therefore express: “the smallest indications of an unquiet mind, the restless eye, the muttering lip, the half checked exclamation, and the hasty start which will set our attention as anxiously upon the watch, as the first distant flashes of a storm”.vi And, since “there is, perhaps, no employment which the human mind will with so much avidity pursue as the discovery of concealed passion, as the tracing (of) the varieties and progress of a perturbed soul,” the “sympathetick [sic] curiosity” of the public will be satisfied with ‘natural acting’ and will not need the lavish costumes, complicated plots and ‘witty dialogue’ some authorsvii use to create ‘sensation’ and so make the public empathize with the characters portrayed on stage.
Seen by modern critics as a major theoretical work, part synthesis, part reformist vision of the late 18th and early 19th century British theatre, The Introductory Discourse does not build, in my opinion, a coherent acting theory that would correspond to Baillie’s dramaturgy. What we learn from the Discourse is that the acting style required for Baillie’s plays should be ‘natural’, meaning with no exaggerated expression as to ‘voice, gesture and face’, but should express the emotional struggle, the ‘passion’ of the character through ‘muttered, imperfect articulation which grows by degrees into words’; ‘that heavy suppressed voice [… and] those sudden, untuned exclamations…with all the corresponding variety of countenance that belongs to it [...]”.viii In Jeffrey N. Cox’s study “Staging Baillie,” he severs Baillie’s authorial discourse from her performance theory and applies it to Witchcraft. I will quote extensively from this study for it proved most inspirational for my own project. Says Cox:
Witchcraft demonstrates how Baillie would like spectacle to function in her plays. There is no doubt the play is driven by spectacle. In addition to various scenes around the impressive Tower of Dungarren and striking natural settings —such as Act III, scene I, where we are presented with a ‘half-formed cave’ with a brook running in front of it and ‘precipitous rocks’ functional enough for Dungarren to climb down them—there is the execution scene (…) and the scene on the ‘wild moor’ where, to the sounds and sights of thunder and lightning, we witness the gathering of the women who believe they are witches. This spectacular storm coupled with the appearance of the mysterious Murrey, is seen by Grizeld Bane as proof that Satan has appeared to them, and we might also be swept away by the force of the scene to believe that the supernatural has appeared (.…) Baillie works against such a reaction, however, as we know that Murrey is forced by circumstance to play the part of Satan.ix
And further on, after describing the series of ‘misunderstandings’ stemming from this situation Cox remarks:
This moment (Annabel’s attending Violet’s execution from a window) provides a metatheatrical commentary on our experience of spectacle: when we are swept away by what we see but do not hear or understand [Cox’s emphasis], we can fall into error; what it seems so real may be only an illusion or play-acting.x
What Cox does is to use the performance vocabulary scattered all over Baillie’s authorial address to the public that the Introductory Discourse represents. He reconstructs Baillie’s theory of theatrical perception and sets it as a basis for discussing the ‘practical solutions’, dramaturgical and acting styles included, that Baillie offers for the ‘renewal of the English stage’.
The real novelty about Baillie’s vision is the way she understands the stage-spectator relationship and how she proposes to manipulate this relationship so as to provide the public with the voyeuristic experience they expect from attending the theatrical performance.
In this light, expressions such as “the trembling lip”; “that heavy, suppressed voice”; “that rapid burst of sounds which often succeeds the slow languid tones of distress’; or ‘these tossings of thy arms”; “these gestures of distraction”xi appearing in the “Introductory Discourse” and, respectively, in Witchcraft may be construed as an acting idiom Baillie deems adequate for expressing passion. Used in the atmosphere of intimacy of the small theatre spaces Baillie requires for her performances, this idiom heightens the imagination of the spectator, concentrates his/her attention on the “simple fact of the actor’s countenance as a major site of drama,” and, ideally, cancels the distance between the stage and the acting space.xii The theatrical performance becomes an act of sympathetic magic, similar to the shamanic acts Baillie may have known of from her forays into anthropologyxiii, in which the actor’s passion arouses, and satisfies, the passion of the public in order to bring about purification, or the “moral understanding” she claims as the ultimate aim of her dramaturgy.
This vision of the theatrical performance explains the inconsistencies of the “Introductory Discourse”—the dramatic categories are the invention of Greek civilization, of those ‘Bacchus’ priests’ whose interference with the Homeric model Baillie deplores—but, above all, permits us to connect Baillie’s theory of acting, such as it can be identified in the “Introductory Discourse,” with the acting theories developed by the contemporary European authors and theatre practitioners belonging to the ‘theatre of the passions’ tradition. This is important for many of the acting treatises of the time are shaped in accordance with the ‘profound paradigm shift... under way in physiology, particularly in the explanation of the relationship between the nervous system and the emotional responses which marked the beginning of the 19th century in Europe and, certainly, would have influenced the contemporary British thought.xiv
Acting Manuals and Recovery of Acting Codes
Part II of "A Dramatic Essay in Three Acts"
Note from Joanna: In what follows, Cristina analyzes late 18th-century acting manuals and their integration of contemporary scientific discourse on affect, and also recovers a relationship between these treatises, earlier works by Quintilian and Aristotle, and Baillie’s own theory of the theatre. Cristina describes how the manuals influenced her interpretation of the “Introductory Discourse,” and how these two texts together formed the basis of her Rhetoric of the Passions workshop in Year Two.
CRISTINA: In the second year, I conducted the five-month workshop (November 2010-March 2011) The Rhetoric of Passion under the supervision of Assistant Professor Ursula Neuerburg-Denzer. It was dedicated to the recovery of the acting discourse of the early Romantic theatre encrypted in Joanna Baillie’s Witchcraft. A cast of eight actorsi and one musicianii were to reconstruct—under my direction—the acting vocabulary contained in Women on the Moor, Fishing for Information, and the murder-at-an-execution scene from The Reach of the Law (directed by Patrick Leroux in the year 1 version), with special focus on the non-verbal, gestural codes embedded in the dialogue.
The acting manuals we consulted could be imagined as a source of inspiration for Baillie’s Introductory Discourse. The primary among these was Henry Siddons’ illustrated translation and adaptation of Johann Jakob Engel’s treatise Ideen zu einer Mimik, published in Germany in 1785, and republished in London in 1806 as Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gestures and Action Adapted to the English Drama. Even though Baillie’s work, published in 1798, precedes Siddons’ version by all of eight years, the close, ongoing connection between Baillie and the Siddons family amply explains the similarities between the two works.iii
For example, Baillie’s treatment of the passions as mental processes expressible by the actor through an infinite variety of physical changes, such as “the restless eye, the muttering lip, the half-checked exclamation, the hasty start,” recalls Engel’s concept of the gradual accumulation of picturesque / physiological and purposeful gestures/ movements responding to an affective stateiv through which the actor expresses the progress of the passions within the human soul. To draw a complete picture of these similarities, I will describe Siddons’ treatise using Dr. Ursula Neuerburg-Denzer’s comparative analysis of the English and German versions of Ideen zu einer Mimik:
The Mimik is written in the form of forty-four letters. As if addressing the reader directly, Engel slowly unfolds his acting philosophy which is not based on a precise movement code like Lang’s, but on a movement grammar. He moves from larger defining principles such as the typification of gestures and emotional states to the minute differences in the actor’s physical language depending on each of the paradigms defined earlier.v He recognizes the actor’s behaviour on stage as a sign language that, like other languages, can be analyzed through its grammar. The elements of this grammar can then be added and combined like any other language. The more intricate the understanding of character not as type but as an individual is becoming, the more intricate the gestural language has to become.vi
Even at first sight, this description reveals the rhetorical and structural parallels between the two works: ‘addressing the reader directly’ is Baillie’s preferred formula. Her request for a minute differentiation in the actor’s physical language derives from the intricate understanding of character she puts at the basis of her dramaturgy of the passions, and the same dynamics between text and body- as text governs her acting philosophy.vii As Neuerburg-Denzer remarks, Engel’s division of gesture into the gestures of ‘painting’—including physiological gestures such as crying, turning red, growing pale— and the gestures of ‘expression’—which respond to an affective state— operates within the context of nationality, social status, age, gender, and personality of the character. This recalls Baillie’s contextualization of corporeal expression (though not the division itself) within the sphere of social behaviour. Baillie’s concept of the ‘closet,’ or solitary behaviour, recalls Engel’s concept of gestural modification according to the ‘personality of the character’ freely expressed when isolated from the social context.viii Like Engel, Baillie seems preoccupied with ‘the careful crafting and gradation of the emotional states’ of the character, notwithstanding the cultural circumstances. Her preference is for portraying ‘every shade of the passions as they gather in one’s soul’ under the most ‘ordinary circumstances of daily existence.’ix
These parallels helped me clarify Baillie’s notions of character and plot.x As the Engel / Siddons’s treatise uses examples from the visual arts to substantiate the theory — Le Brun’s studies of facial and body expressions are frequently mentioned throughout the textxi — it inspired me to look for illustrations of the ‘theatre of the passions’ actual practices in the paintings of the period.
Many of the gestures that composed my ‘grammar of movement’ for Witchcraft were inspired by Siddons’s Illustrations of the ‘purposeful’ gestures described in Engel’s manual, as well as by paintings representing famous actors and performances of Baillie’s time.
Baillie’s concept of action was the most difficult to grasp. In the rhetorical tradition, to which the ‘theatre of the passions’ belongs, actio is a component of pronuntiatio or the act of delivery,xii “a physical act performed by the body as a whole, of which the articulate speaking voice was an important part, but by no means the only important part.”xiii In the theatrical tradition, action is the generic principle, the beginning of a process/drama that “begins with his (the actor’s) body and quickly extends beyond it”.xiv The actor’s delivery—his articulate speech, body language, movements—differs from the orator’s delivery in that it is part of a process: the drama does not end with his own delivery but interacts with the other parts. As Joseph Roach remarks, both types of delivery use highly codified gestural expressions, but while the rhetorical gestures ‘evoke’ a reality, the acting gestures ‘build’ a new, fictitious one in which other actors partake.xv In the Aristotelian dramatic system, this fictitious reality is regulated by the plot, a compositional tool that organizes the actions of the characters according to their goals; the acting theories based on the Aristotelian model attribute a particular action to each character in a play. That is to say, the theories tend to organize the components of the delivery around a specific goal— the Lover pursues his object of desire, the Miser defends his money, and so on. This also happens in the theatre of the passions: the characters’ actions are taken into account in the construction of the actor’s delivery, but the accent is put on expressing emotion so that the compositional means are rhetorical rather than dramatic. Though Baillie places her dramaturgy outside the Aristotelian system and under the umbrella of the ‘passions’ system, many of her characters, particularly the comic ones, do not seem to belong to either of these categories. The servants in Witchcraft, for example, with the exception of Bawldy, appear without substance. They are clearly not articulated on any passion, their speech is expository, and, in the case of the aspirant witch Elspy Low (technically, not a servant, but circumscribable to the category), their contribution to the plot proves rather insignificant.
I am not sure to this day whether Baillie’s concept of action can be interpreted as the rhetorical actio, or as dramatic action; for the purpose of the workshop I attributed to each of the characters one precise action. The actors playing the parts of Anderson (the gamekeeper) and Elspy Lowxvi (peasant woman) chose the passion they thought the character could live and the ‘purposeful gesture’ from Siddons’s Illustrations that codified that passion.
Workshop: a Blueprint for the Recovery of Romantic Acting Codes
Part III of "A Dramatic Essay in Three Acts"
Note from Joanna: In this section, Cristina riffs a bit on practice, and provides a detailed description of her three-part process of recovery of the acting codes in the Rhetoric of Passion workshop (Year Two). Cristina offers a document of her workshop process and rehearsals, which incorporated contemporary figural paintings, as well as images from these treatises and contemporary medical texts.
CRISTINA: The workshop was divided in three parts:
Part One: dedicated to the recovery of the rhetorical action through dramatic action
Part Two: dedicated to stylization of movement in “natural” acting
Part Three: dedicated to the creation of a “grammar of movement” for Witchcraft and the insertion of gestural sentences into the spoken delivery.
In Part One, the actors performed a series of directed improvisationsi meant to familiarize them with the gestural enactments of mental images (visiones),ii and developed on the following themes: The Human Body Reflects the Cosmos, Man is a Machine, Man is a Living Statue, The Animal Spirit in Man, Mythical Heroes Possessed by Passions (Anger). Each theme reflects the ideas of ‘human nature’, ‘nature’ and the human body in relation to the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘art’ at the basis of the rhetorical acting system specific to the ‘theatre of the passions’.iii The sensual stimuli used to create those images were visual, auditory, and oral (spoken language).
My method of reconstruction was to maintain the archetypal references, but borrow the archetypal figures on which the Witchcraft character system would be built from among the mythological representations specific to the Romantic cultural landscape.
The visual included the works of Charles Le Brun, Eugene Delacroix, Antonio Canova, James Draper, and Henri Serrur, representing human and animal figures, among them Ajax, Medea, Eros and Psyche, horses, and eagles. Other animal figures embodied, including cats, doves, crows (for women), dogs, bulls, and roosters (for men), were shaped according to personal memory (Watch the Romantic Acting Codes video on Part II).
The auditory was composed of acoustic guitar improvisations, synchronic (following the respiratory rhythms), and diachronic (musical phrases shaping the respiratory rhythms).
For speech stimuli, I provided live storytelling based on the Greek mythology (The Trojan War) and Central European fairy tales (Andersen, The Little Mermaid) in synchronicity with the movement exercises.
In order to avoid stylization by any other means than natural gesture in response to naturaliv impulse, all forms of mimetic expression such as travesty, pantomime and onomatopoeia were a priori excluded from these exercises. The actors were asked to identify themselves, strictly, with the representations corresponding to their own physical and physiological configuration. In the case of animal representations, metaphorical expressions were allowed so as to enhance characterization; a ‘weak’ man, for instance, was attributed sheep behaviour (gesture and onomatopoeia included), while a ‘vain’ woman exhibited the behaviour of a peacock, and so on.
The second goal of these exercises was to create stylized action by monitoring the effects of impersonation—or the act of embodying one soul, its passions and its actions— by another means common to both rhetoric and acting.v This involved controlling the respiratory cycle to physically render the transmigration of the ‘spirit’ from character to actor, and organizing the dramatic action so as to follow these natural breath cycles.
This process was conducted at two levels:
Interior: the actors were asked to match their movements with their natural breathing cycle. No standards of length, volume, or intensity were applied so as to allow for unhindered individual control of the body. Upward gestures were performed on the intake of breath, downward gestures on exhalation, and hypercapnia (the retention of breath between inhalation and exhalation) was used to suspend movement/shape and maintain a certain gesture.
Exterior: the actors were asked to tune their respiratory cycles and corresponding individual movements to the musical phrases played by the guitarist so as to create a flow of ‘enargeia’/ supreme animation in language, the effect of ‘vivid metaphors’ Aristotle compared to ‘kinesis’ (here meaning movement) and let this flow circulate freely among the group.
Each improvisation session followed a scenario that illustrated the actions of one character (or group of characters) that preceded the action represented in the painting chosen as a source of inspiration for the exercise. The actors were directed to illustrate each action with their entire body; the final image was to reproduce the gesture of the character(s) in the painting (or sculpture) and terminate the scenario (Watch the Gestural Exploration Video).
The improvisations which emerged from these preliminary exercises, and which were based on the theme of ‘mythical characters possessed by passions,’ provided the blueprint for the gestural sentences in Women on the Moor and Fishing for Information (the first and second part of the condensed script), and set the frame for the entire process of reconstruction in the workshop.
JKD: Cristina describes the above improvisation process and its results for two scenes: Women on the Moor and Fishing for Information.
Medea. Wife of Jason, the conqueror of the Golden Fleece, who, being abandoned by her husband after she had sacrificed her father and brother to his (her husband’s) ambition, kills her own children to quench her thirst for revenge.
The painting represents Medea in the act of sacrificing her adolescent brother to the fury of the sea which threatens to engulf the ship carrying Jason’s booty. She, herself, is part of that booty, as suggested by her reclining on a bed made of the Golden Fleece. The two central figures of the tableau, Medea and her brother, are captured by the painter in a half-broken embrace that can go either way: towards the separation, or toward the reunification of the bodies. The half-broken embrace concentrates all the gesturesvi that Medea performs throughout the Golden Fleece epic, which makes it, dramaturgically, a prologue to Medea’s gestural story. Yet the image represents the mythic action of life–giving and life-taking by the sea and by Medea in one gesture: the half-broken embrace. Therefore, instead of building the act of impersonation on the gestures performed by the character before this moment of suspension, I chose the act of childbirth as the central metaphor, and directed the actors to rebuild the tableau on the gestures of child delivery: the woman pushing rhythmically, the child responding rhythmically, to the push until the bodies came apart. When I wanted to stop the movement so as to maintain the half-broken embrace they had reached, I realized that the two actors involved in the exercise not only continued to breathe in the same rhythm as before, but that their bodies went back to the embrace without heeding my exhortation to remain still. The guitar player, who had stopped accompanying the movement, started to play again and went on playing till the embrace was reconstituted. Afterwards, the actors explained that they had ‘frozen’ when I asked them, but only for a ‘moment’ as it felt ‘natural’ and ‘good’ to keep on moving after they had released their breath. We repeated the exercise, keeping the breathing patterns under the control of the musical phrases, and continued several times until we reached a perfect match between the musical and the gestural enactments. The players assured me that their emotional progress was never hindered by the necessity to control the delivery and said that it would be ‘easy’ for them to obtain the same results with every performance.
Another result of the Medea improvisation was that we began to understand how to read the ‘gestures of passion’ illustrated in works of art and acting manuals, and how to use those gestures to create ‘natural behaviour’ (in Baillie’s terms).
Ajax. A hero of the Trojan War, second in courage and military skills only to Achilles. After Achilles’ death he disputes the possession of Achilles’s armour with Ulysses and, losing the dispute, wants to avenge his honour by killing the judges who deprived him of the dead hero’s spoils. His murderous rage is deflected by Athena, Ulysses’ protector, goddess of Reason, who makes him take a flock of sheep for his enemies and butcher the beasts to the last one before realizing his mistake. Ashamed of his exploit, Ajax commits suicide blaming the gods for his act of destruction.
Henri Serrur’s painting The Death of Ajax represents the hero in a last act of defiance, half fallen to the ground, half standing, threatening the skies with his right fist while the left hand grips the rock beside him. There is no sign of a weapon, nor of a wound that would justify his collapse—according to the legend Ajax killed himself by falling on his sword—but the stormy sky and the rocky peak beneath his collapsing body suggest death by jumping from the promontory into the sea below. The image was much easier to read than that of Medea: the character’s passion is concealed in the ‘mind’ and drives the body towards the precipice, spasmodically, like a puppet on a torn string. The symbolism of colour is also directly readable: red for Anger (in the cape), white for Innocence (in the naked body), green for Ambition (in the stormy sky), and, interestingly, a glint of yellow, for Joy, (in the aura around the hero’s head).vii The scenario for this improvisation was therefore based on the hero’s climbing the mountain to defy the gods. The gestures of the character were articulated on the duality of defiance-defeat—upward movements alternated with downward movements, and the actors’ observation of the spasmodic breathing of agony produced the ‘torn puppet’ effect. The most important result of this exercise was that it proved the efficacy of the breathing patterns in constructing meaningful movement. Another important result that we obtained, at the gestural level, was an expression of passion that was both ‘naturalistic’ and ‘stylized,’ achieved through the alternating upwards and downwards movements regulated by a breathing cycle composed of short inhalations for ascension (upward movement) and long exhalations (downward movement, complete voiding of the lungs) that gave the impression of exhaustion. This helped with constructing the gestural sentence for Dungarren (as I will describe in Part Two), but also created a serious problem, as the comic effects of the ascension-collapse pattern were near impossible to control.
The alternating upward and downward movements, combined with the short breath of agony, however ‘faithful’ to the natural patterns of behaviour of a moribund, always stirred laughter in the audience (the actors attending the performance of their colleague). The recurrent explanation for this unwanted reaction was that ‘the guy looks like a beheaded hen flapping madly about somebody’s backyard.’ This reminded me of Garrick’s mechanical wig that had the same backfiring effect on the audience,viii except that, in our case, the flaw was intrinsic to the acting. Repetition was, of course, one of the sources of trouble—in the commedia system repetitive gestures are an important tool for caricature—but as stylized action depends on recurrent patterns of behaviour,ix repetition had to be part of our system. That it was not a matter of modern sensitivity clashing with Romantic ‘sensibility’ was proven by the fact that the same patterns applied to Medea did not have the same effect. The problem remained unsolved until the group went through a Rasabox intensive session under the direction of Ursula Neuerburg-Denzer,x in which it appeared that quick switches from one emotional state to another and, subsequently, from one physical expression to the other, tended to provoke laughter. In other words, quick changes in the rhythm of the action, however true to the changes in the emotional state of the performer, often give the performer’s gestures a mechanical aspect that seems incongruous, and are therefore likely to provoke snickering among the spectators. Going back to the Death of Ajax, the ‘beheaded hen’ effect could be avoided by slowing down the rhythm of the transitions—from one state to the other, and from one type of movement to the next.xi
Through this exercise, we found a method to stylize the expression of sensual passion in the most ‘realistically’ portrayed characters of Baillie’s play. We used this method further on in constructing the highly stylized expression of the comic characters of Bawldy and Anderson, whose rivalry was performed as a fight between a lapdog (Bawldy) and a mastiff (Anderson).
In Part Two the actors performed a series of improvisations based on Siddons’ Illustrations, each of them choosing one gesture of passion and building his/her own sequence of gestures leading to that particular expression. The purpose of the exercise was to identify the patterns of behaviour specific to ‘ordinary’ men and women (un-heroic characters) and use them to create a gestural language that would reveal the ‘inner’ turmoils of the people we meet in everyday life.
To this purpose, we treated the chosen images as illustrations of everyday activities which passion would disturb, interrupt or change. For example, the illustration of Despair featuring a young woman running with her arms dangling palms turned down and fingertips raised slightly as if to reach at a falling object. Her eyes seem averted from some unbearable sight outside the frame, and this was interpreted as an illustration of the character’s reaction to receiving the news about her lover’s death at the war. The actions immediately preceding this reaction were imagined as follows: the woman is at her needlework when the letter arrives; she interrupts her work to read the letter; the letter falls from her hands as she stands up; she runs away from the sight of her ruined hopes. Yet, knowing that there is no escape from reality, she turns back.
The running and stopping pattern, common to everyone who finds themselves exposed to a brutal reality, once identified, conveyed a sense of ‘naturalness’ to the emphatic gesture in Siddons’s Practical Illustrations, with the result that most of the gestural vocabulary became applicable to the characters and situations in the play that called for ‘realistic’ interpretation.
In Part Three, we used this vocabulary to construct sentences of movement specific to each passion portrayed by the characters in Witchcraft, then combined these sentences with non-verbal sub-structures extracted from the preliminary improvisations (animal and mechanical expressions) in order to build a coherent non-verbal expression that would sustain the spoken delivery.
JKD: Cristina details the process of gestural construction for the character of Robert Kennedy of Dungarren, Violet Murrey of Torwood’s stilted lover.
Dungarren’s non-verbal expression was founded on the comic version of the Ajax improvisation which we placed in the context of the love triangle composed of Annabel, Violet and himself. Ajax’s alternate gestures of Anger and Grief purposefully performed in swift motion by the actor (Robert Moncalm), were given the concrete goal of destroying Violet’s garden for which he, himself, had provided the seeds. As there were no props and no set for the performance, the up and down movements were used to express pulling out Violet’s flowers and tossing them in the air, an absurd activity meant to elicit laughter. Dungarren’s reaction to Violet’s appearance was moulded on the gestures of the ‘horse frightened by lightning’ in Delacroix’ painting, and the immediately following lovemaking gestures adopted the animal expressions of sexual fury in Delacroix’ Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable. The ‘necking’ stance terminated the love scene. The breaking of the embrace derived from Improvisation 1. Medea brought Dungarren back to the Anger-Grief pattern in swift motion, constituting the epilogue.
The Baillie style
Some of these gestures remained visible through the spoken delivery (i.e. the Ajax movements, the intertwining of horse manes and the necking stance) but the entire sequence of movements could not be preserved in the actual performance for any of the characters, as it seemed to duplicate the message of the spoken delivery. On the other hand, the removal of all stylized gestural expressions from the acting delivery of the spoken scenes, which we tested before the final presentation, flattened the characters to the point where nobody present at the experiment wanted to, at least, listen to the dialogue.
This led us to the conclusion that the acting style required for Baillie’s dramaturgy might be a hybrid, the result of the intersection between the rhetorical and theatrical expression of the passions, which became extinct with the emergence of the aesthetics of naturalism and psychological realism in the late 19th century.
As the performance unfolded, I became more and more convinced that it is so, that Baillie’s plays were seldom staged in her lifetime mainly because this hybrid acting style we had found had not been invented. But did we find it or did we, simply, invent it ourselves? Did such a style ever exist? Did other authors of the period require it for their plays? Or is it ‘Baillie’s style’, born from her unique dramaturgical plan, and applicable only to her unique dramaturgy?
The results of the workshop were presented at the FQRSC Melodrama at the Interface of Media and Genre conference,xii in May 2011. In the performance, each scene in the Witchcraft script was delivered, first, in non-verbal expression: gestural and musical enactments, and was followed, immediately after, by the full version of the same scene in which the dialogue was added to the non-verbal expression. The guitar music composed during the rehearsal process was played live by the composer throughout the entire performance and constituted part of the dialogue.xiii In order to concentrate the spectators’ attention, exclusively, on the acting discourse we used as set one of the rehearsal studios in the Theatre Department at Concordia, with a minimal lighting plot, basic black costumes and a system of backdrops, displaying the rainbow colours, chosen by the designer to represent, each, a primary emotion as the background for the performance.xiv