Joel Simon


Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

William James


Those of us who are readers and analysts of play texts rarely examine the basic structure of the theatrical experience as it is conveyed to us. One might justifiably ask why it is that we sit in a darkened space, in relative anonymity in relation to our fellow auditors and spectators while the stage spectacle is brilliantly illuminated as an autonomous wonder. The theatrical experience appeals to the individual audience member in the solitary shadows of his or her discerning judgment. But this was not always the case. Before the advent of theaters in London exclusively dedicated to the showing of theatrical representations, theatrical events took place in a realm of mutual recognitions. For example, the city of Coventry was the backdrop for the ‘pageant plays’ performed annually as part of the Corpus Christi celebrations. This civic spectacle created by craftsmen was a performance of reciprocal recognitions and appreciations between the city and its constituent members. Biblical stories were used to promote a specific profession, as an appropriate guild created the wagon and its members enacted a performance related to the service that the guild provided. The event functioned to cement and celebrate the civic and spiritual bonds of Coventry’s populus as the entire city served as both stage and audience to its accomplishments. Such pre-Reformation ‘plays’ and/or rituals as the Stations of the Cross and the Castle of Perseverance took place in the church as a journey through the symbolic body of Christ, or in a field under the heavens in view of God. Audiences were engaged as active and integral participants of these rituals. The places and spaces where these performances occurred were not neutral backdrops but were integral to their occasions as part of a spiritual and material nexus of meanings.

Commercial and ‘artistic’ interests necessitated a delineation and distinction between audience and spectacle. The progress of the transformation of theatrical space follows the progress of the depiction of history in the first decades of the commercial theater’s existence. William Shakespeare made his initial impact on London’s theatrical scene by audaciously representing a slice of English history in three plays based upon the life of Henry VI. The tetralogy is an episodic review of his troubled reign that saw political fragmentation and the loss of the French lands won by Henry’s illustrious predecessor, Henry V. The plays reflect the country’s factions by presenting a plurality of voices and figures at war with one another. Henry, as the plays’ nominal figure, is portrayed as an indecisive king, whose personal weaknesses license the proliferation of voices and factions that overwhelm the kingdom and inevitably result in the rise of the tyrannical Richard III.

Written approximately in 1590, the life of Henry VI provided a complex view of history that differed greatly from such earlier historical depictions as The Famous Victories of Henry V (1588). That comic play portrayed Henry as a prodigal son surrounded by a band of clownish comrades. The prince eventually sees the error of his ways to assume a place in history as an English folk hero. Despite the forsaking of his boon companions, the play manages to enshrine him as the people’s king. The author of The Famous Victories is unknown. The play was noteworthy for the appearance of England’s most famous performer, the clown, Richard Tarlton. Such performers as Tarlton and Robert Wilson dominated the first decade of London’s commercial theaters from 1576 to 1586, when popular versions of moral interludes were liberally interspersed with jigs and opportunities for comic improvisations between the audience and actors in such plays as The Seven Deadly Sins and The Three Ladies of London. Tarlton dominated The Famous Victories in his role as Derick, a comic foil to the future English king. On one occasion he stepped into the role of the Lord Justice and when Henry V cuffed him hard, the audience laughed because they knew it was Tarlton. In the following scene, Tarlton reappeared as Derick and was told of the incident with the judge. He then offered an extemporaneous response, "it could not but be terrible to the judge, when the report so terrifies me, that methinks the blow remains still upon my cheek that it burns again." Of course, the delighted audience roared with laughter. With such theatrical liberties, the quality of the playing space became permeable, as the actor moved in and out of character taking the audience along with him. The fact that the identity of the author remains unknown should come as no surprise, since it was the performer’s immediate and dexterous response to the (meta)theatrical moment that was the primary source of the occasion’s pleasure.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)