Playing with Swords at “Engendering the Stage” (September 18-22, 2018)
Melinda Gough and Peter Cockett (McMaster University) have put together a fantastic “Practice as Research” conference at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, exploring the performance of gender in early modern theater. Along with Clare McManus (Roehampton) and Lucy Munro (King’s College), these scholars are engaged in a broader project that reconsiders what we know about gendered performance in a transnational context. At Stratford, scholars worked closely with company actors as well as visiting artists, under the aegis of the Stratford Festival Laboratory, examining the resonances between theater history and contemporary explorations of gender on stage.
In particular, the conference focuses on sword-wielding female characters, from the (in)famous Lieutenant Nun, in the Montalbán play currently being translated by Mac Test and Marta Albalá, to Clara in Love’s Cure, Fletcher’s version of Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre/The Force of Habit. On the first day, the actors worked with fight captain Wayne Best on the basics of carrying and wielding a sword. Simply buckling on a sword, even before unsheathing it, radically changed their physicality. The younger female actors, in particular, seemed to delight in how the swords tranformed their very stance. Not only did I find myself wishing the scholars could join in, I had new insight into the poignancy of the moment when Hipólita (the source for Clara, in Force of Habit) must give up her sword. If there was such power in simply playing with swords for a short while, imagine what it must have felt like for someone who had elegantly and lethally wielded a sword for years to renounce it. And so, almost before I knew it, I was experiencing the possibilities of “Practice as Research” to provide new insight into the texts.
At the same time, the workshop made me reflect on the fact that wearing a sword is not just about gender. It also reflects a specific class status. Nobles wear swords, and, at least in theory, they only cross swords with other nobles. Consider this exchange in Calderón’s Amar después de la muerte/ To Love Beyond Death:
MENDOZA There are countless men whose positions make them
overbearing, arrogant, and brazen.
GARCÉS That’s why the clever constable don Íñigo
used to wear one sword in his belt
and carry another as a staff.
When asked why,
he said, “The one in my belt
is for worthy men who also wear swords.
The other I use as a club,
for men who don’t carry them
and yet presume to make bold.”
MENDOZA So all gentlemen should
carry two weapons, for two such purposes. (552-64)
The staff comes up, too, in Love’s Cure. Clara, much put upon by the steward Bobadillo, who is charged with making her appropriately feminine, uses a staff rather than a sword to attack him, thereby reaffirming her superiority over him, in class if not gender terms.
I left the conference on Day 2 in order to return to LA and greet the artists arriving for LA Escena, but look forward to collaborating further with “Engendering the Stage” and with the Stratford Lab.
For more on the “Engendering the Stage” project, see: