The organisers invite paper proposals for the 2020 Société Française Shakespeare conference, Paris, Fondation Deutsch de la Meurthe, 9-11 January 2020. The conference theme is Shakespeare and Actors.
“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (2.7.139-40), says Jaques in As You Like It, suggesting that playing is inherent to life itself. Throughout their dramatic production, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were keen on showcasing the omnipresence of actors while also stressing the instability of their status. As a theatrical practitioner himself, Shakespeare wrote primarily for his company and his rhythmic language was specifically designed for being projected from a stage. It is thus hardly a surprise to find so many metadramatic and metatheatrical allusions on the early modern stage, from the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the travelling actors in Hamlet, instances of mise en abyme of the theatrical world abound, emphasising the motif of theatrum mundi. Together, they call for a reflection on the uncertain boundaries between stage and life, and on the material conditions surrounding the acting profession.
Early modern playwrights seldom missed an opportunity to play on the uncertainty generated by boy actors performing female parts, given women were excluded from the professional stage until the Restoration. While sometimes joking on the male actors’ cross-dressing, they also subtly rely on the permeability of gendered identities in the theatre to reconfigure desire. “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness, / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much,” young Viola cries out disguised as a page in Twelfth Night. If the disguise complicates identities and enmeshes the heroine in a love tangle, however, it also conjures up hitherto unknown feelings in her and helps enact what Stephen Greenblatt called “self-fashioning,” namely the shaping of one’s social and sexual identities.
Yet, dramatists did not always judge actors kindly, for their means of livelihood bore the mark of infamy, contrary to poets. In Macbeth, Shakespeare emphasises the frailty of the “poor player, / Who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more” (5.5.24-26) and he reminds us of the ephemeral quality of performance. In Hamlet, he makes fun of those who overplay or strive to “bellow” their cues (3.2.2), and finds fault with clowns who improvise at the expense of the playtext. He portrays mediocre, imperfect actors overwhelmed by stage fright, who forget their lines and spoil the part, as in Sonnet 23. We know today that a Renaissance actor’s ability to learn his lines was exceptional. Grammar school education particularly cultivated this skill in children from an early age by making them learn by heart whole segments from the classics. Acting styles were steeped in such rhetoric. Speech acts and passions that were played out on stage were associated with a particular rhetorical form and style, providing a whole repertory of speech codes playwrights used and subverted.
While early modern playwrights nowhere claimed that the most competent actor is the one who best keeps his temper, as Diderot later would in France, some of their characters seem to be born actors in full control of the arts of manipulation and illusion. They are hypocrites in the everyday sense as well as the etymological sense of the term — from the Greek term, ὑποκριτής, hupokritếs, which means “stage actor” or “one who recites”.
In spite of the players’ imperfections at which Shakespeare and his contemporaries delighted in poking fun, showing the play’s seams, playwrights also defended those who brought their own worlds to the stage. Actors certainly needed their support at a time when Puritans were beginning to make themselves heard, threatening the profession. In An Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Heywood praised the dignity of actors in response to the attacks of such critics as John Northbrooke or Stephen Gosson. An actor had to be multi-talented. He had to memorize, play, sing, dance, improvise, and adjust to the changing material conditions of the stage. Despite very limited rehearsal time, early modern actors were able to produce meaning almost instinctively, and a playwright’s success ultimately depended on the players’ ability to perform their plays. Even today, it is mostly up to actors to update the potentialities of the Shakespearean text and to make characters from the past our contemporaries. French actor Denis Podalydès claims that “Shakespeare is every actor’s dream” (“Shakespeare Album,” La Pléiade, Gallimard, 2016). Playing early modern parts allows actors today to reflect on their own acting style. The actor and his text were indeed front and center in the creative process, in the writing, directing and stage business of early modern companies, which constantly needed to adapt to the changing material conditions of the stage. Such practices may help today’s theatrical practitioners explore the multiple possibilities that are offered to them as they move from page to stage, from collaborative writing to collaborative performance.
This conference aims to bring together early modern scholars, theatre historians, actors, directors and filmmakers to discuss the ways in which early modern drama still enriches our understanding of the actor’s profession and place today in a world which sometimes seems to be nothing but a stage.
Possible topics may include (but are not limited to) the following:
- The actors’ professionalisation in early modern drama
- Amateur practices in the early modern period and today
- The material conditions and organisation of theatrical companies
- The actors’ apprenticeship
- The versatility of the actors who performed in public, private, court, and itinerant theatrical forms
- The praise and condemnation of histrionic arts
- Protection and patronage circuits
- The place of the comedy actor in society
- The rhetorical practices of actors on stage
- Declamation, voice and gestures
- The mise en abyme of performance and actor figures in early modern plays
- Historions and jesters in early modern plays
- Duplicitous and hypocritical characters in early modern plays
- Great Shakespearean actors, from the 16th century to the present day
- The experience of acting an early modern part
- Early modern playwrights and (collaborative) stage writing
- The representation of Shakespearean actors in popular culture
Roberta Barker (Dalhousie University), Yan Brailowsky (Université Paris Nanterre, Société Française Shakespeare), Sophie Chiari (Université Clermont Auvergne), Anne-Valérie Dulac (Sorbonne Université), Sarah Hatchuel (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, Société Française Shakespeare), Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3), Ladan Niayesh (Université Paris-Diderot), Laetitia Sansonetti (Université Paris Nanterre), Chantal Schütz (École Polytechnique, Société Française Shakespeare), Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, Société Française Shakespeare)
Please send your proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org by 15 May 2019, with a title, an abstract (between 500 and 800 words) and a brief biographical notice. A few words in the abstract should explain in what way(s) your paper intends to address the topic of the conference.
Letters of acceptance will be sent by May 30, 2019. Selected papers are expected to be submitted for publication in the weeks following the conference for our peer-reviewed online series available here: https://journals.openedition.org/shakespeare/32. We accept only proposals which have not been published previously; however, papers initially published by the Société Française Shakespeare may be submitted for publication elsewhere not earlier than 3 months after publication in our online series.