R/18 Symposium: Reactivating Restoration and 18th Century Theatre for Today's Stages
On October 27th and 28th of 2022, the R/18 Collective, the Congo Square Theatre, and the Newberry Library for Renaissance Studies explored the idea of staging Restoration and Eighteenth-Century plays in today's theatres. These ambitious scholars and actors workshopped scenes from three plays: George Etheredge's The Man of Mode (1667), Edward Young's The Revenge (1721), and George Lillo's The London Merchant (1731). This overview of the symposium by Lisa Freeman, and reflections by Wendy Arons and Chelsea Phillips generate new ideas and questions about staging this repertoire.
Symposium Introduction by Lisa Freeman
After a long pandemic delay, the R/18 Collective was happy to join forces this past October with
the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library to host Re-Activating Restoration
and Eighteenth-Century Theater for Today's Stages: A Collaborative Symposium for Scholars
and Theater Artists. With a focus on theater-making and on the particular challenges and
opportunities for bringing the Restoration and Eighteenth-Century repertory to new audiences,
leading theater artists and theater scholars gathered together over two electrifying days both
to explore possibilities for staging works from this period on 21st-Century stages and to tease
out the contributions these plays might make to some of the most important conversations
going on in theaters in the US, the UK, and Canada today.
Over the course of these two days, we were looking for fresh insights that might help us learn from one another and think together about the prospects for enlarging the number of plays staged from this body of works. In what ways might these plays appeal or speak to producers, directors, actors, and a wider public? What is compelling or exciting about works from this repertory? And in particular, how might this repertory be brought forward to illuminate and explore current understandings of and engagements with race, class, gender, sexuality, and politics? What kinds of mindful choices could be made with respect to the scripts of race, gender, class, or sexuality that run through these plays, by way of intervening in, rather than reinforcing their force and power?
The symposium was organized around an exploration of these questions across three plays: George Etherege's The Man of Mode, Edward Young's The Revenge, and George Lillo's The London Merchant. For each play, we hosted roundtable discussions with scholars, dramaturgs, and artists, followed by a workshop of select scenes from each play performed by actors from Chicago's Congo Square Theatre Company under the direction of Allen Gilmore. To close out
the symposium, the actors replayed all of the scenes again in sequence, followed by a final, open discussion of what we discovered together across an electrifying and transformative two days. Below you will find brief reflections on the symposium from two of our participants: Wendy Arons of Carnegie Mellon University and Chelsea Phillips
of Villanova University.
Before turning the boards over to them, however, I want to extend my gratitude once again to
Congo Square Theatre Company and their artistic director Ericka Ratcliff for partnering with us
in this endeavor and to thank the brilliant Allen Gilmore, whose work with the actors it was an
honor to witness. I also want to thank my home institution, University of Illinois Chicago, for
supporting this event through a Creative Activity Award as well as University of Tennessee's
Center for Global Engagement for providing additional funding. And one final shoutout as well
to the staff of the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies and my amazing graduate
assistant, Tierney Powell, whose attention to every detail made the success of these days
Reflection by Wendy Arons
My charge is to offer “thoughts, insights, reflections about the R18 Newberry symposium and
where we might take things from there.” I hope you’ll forgive me, Dear Reader, if I dispense
with preliminaries and just offer some quick thoughts in bullet point form.
I was initially a bit dismayed when we received the list of three plays we would consider during the symposium, mainly because none were by women! I’m always on the hunt for material I can bring to students that proves that the eighteenth century is not just a canon of white male writing, and I’d hoped that this symposium would feed that hopper. Moreover, I’ll confess that I did not perceive a great deal of potential for subversive or against-the-grain reading when I first read each of the provided scripts. So I’d say the aspect of the symposium I appreciated the most was the way that, between the presentations, discussions, and staged readings put together by Congo Square Theatre, the focus remained so consistently and illuminatingly on how the three plays trouble figurations of gender, sexuality, and particularly race. Some of that came from rigorous historicization of the text – for example, Joyce Green MacDonald’s thorough situating of The Revenge within the context of the South Sea Bubble Collapse – and some from close attention to what normative reception tends to erase from the texts – for example, the homosociality that simmers under (or in some cases, on) the surface of all three texts, and particularly – as the staged reading made clear – in Man of Mode.
The variety of perspectives that came into view because of the combination of scholars and artists – and particularly, the combination of historians, literary scholars, dramaturgs, and directors – is what made this symposium truly special. It’s one thing to think theoretically about reasons to stage a play like The London Merchant; it’s another to have an artistic director in the room grappling, as Nathan Winkelstein did, with the question of its being “not bad enough to dismiss but not good enough to perform.” Having the directors in the room allowed us to think about both the practical and the artistic questions that need to be asked and answered in order to bring these texts back into the repertoire.
One of my favorite questions of the weekend was something Phillip Breen asked apropos The Man of Mode, but which I think would apply to any of the plays we considered: “what if these were real people?” It’s easy to read this canon and envision two-dimensional characters; investing them with a deep interiority and complex motives creates an opportunity for a compelling frisson between the original world of the text and our own sensibilities.
Given that second bullet point, the one thing I would love to see, going forward, is that a future
iteration of the symposium would allow the invited directors to work with the actors and put anew “spin” on the scenes, in response to – or informed by – the conversations in the seminar. It would have been great to see how Phillip Breen or Kim Weild or Nathan Winkelstein might have tackled the dynamics of each of the scenes we watched, and how they might have created a different emphasis or focus in light of the information provided by the scholars. It was so exciting to see the actors bring the characters from these plays to life that I found myself greedy to see even more play and experimentation with the material.
Reflection by Chelsea Phillips
My most significant takeaway from the Symposium is that these plays still “work” in performance. They thrill, titillate, tickle, make us cringe, and engage us in complex discussions of class, gender, race, and sexuality. Each also offers considerable challenges illuminated in the panel discussions.
As with any artifact of a past time we are faced with potential misalignments in values and interests, as well as questions of harm –does our laughter at a piece, for example, do something different in the 21st century than it did in the 17th? Or does it do the same thing, reinscribe the same harm, unless we intervene? What does intervention look like, and what values do we bring to it? As Nora J. Williams (“Incomplete Dramaturgies”) has recently argued, our engagement with older texts must think beyond casting as the dominant solution to such challenges; the Newberry Symposium offered important space for discussion and exploration to make future dramaturgies more complete.
Some specific lessons:
Performance is magical. It can cover, or uncover, all manner of fraught, complex, and ugly aspects of these plays. We should wield this powerful tool with intention.
For better or worse, Shakespeare will shape how residents of the 21st-century receive these plays; we should be prepared to meet this and help audiences move with/beyond it.
It is a disservice to ignore or “fix” disruptions, ruptures, or inconsistencies; they may be key to making vibrant, interesting performances.
Beware girlboss-ifying the women characters.
Recognize white feminism and its harms inside and outside the plays.
I am eager for us to capitalize on our experiences as we move ahead. To that end, a few thoughts that arose in conversation at the Newberry and in subsequent interactions with other participants.
Separating the members of Congo Square from our initial discussion of the play was necessary logistically but had effects worth noting. One benefit was that the artists were able to prepare and present their version of the scenes without concern for how they aligned (or not) with panel discussions. However, having missed the panels, the artists were at a disadvantage in responding to others’ interpretations of the play and characters, either to affirm, deny, or take them up fully in (re)performance. I wonder what might it offer to see the scenes first and then hear the panel?
Regardless of order, the panels included at least one director. Perhaps in future this person could serve as a liaison between the panel and the artists, turning the interpretive comments of the panel participants into actionable notes for the restagings.
We might also ask the artists to prepare fewer scenes, but to offer us contrasting approaches – for example, a version played for comedy or sympathy and one for danger; one in a naturalistic style and one in a heightened one. This would empower the performers and director to make strong choices and emphasize how interpretation can function in performance. It would also provide a variety of concrete anchor points for adjustments.
I am grateful for the incredible gathering of minds R/18 and the Newberry provided. The rich
conversations and explorations we shared have returned to me time and again in the intervening weeks, arising even when I am not engaged in eighteenth-century work directly, a testimony to the persistent relevance of our conversations. I look forward to what comes next.