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  • Title: Introduction to the SQM Performance of Famous Victories
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Introduction to the SQM Performance of Famous Victories

    The performance of Famous Victories, the video record of which forms part of this edition, was produced by the Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men project (SQM) – a research-creation project in theater history. The project used theatrical production to explore the work of the premier acting company working in England in the 1580s: the Queen's Men. It was conceived as an experiment, designed to test hypotheses McMillin and MacLean proposed in their book: The Queen’s Men and their Plays and to extend our understanding of the working practices of this influential company. Due to the research criteria of the productions, my approach to directing Famous Victories, and the two other plays performed beside it in repertoire, was markedly different from the approach I commonly take to directing, a difference best explained through example. When directing Shakespeare’s Henry V for McMaster University, for example, I was interested in the relationship between the rhetoric of war in the play and the language being used at the outset of the Iraq war. My adaptation of Macbeth (Macbeth’s Kitchen) for the Toronto Fringe was focused on the issue of ambition in contemporary, urban Toronto. When directing the SQM plays, I was interested in what the plays could tell us about the past and about the company that originally staged them. I was using performance as a historiographical medium (Cockett "Performing the Queen's Men"). This approach is something I had developed when directing plays for the Poculi Ludique Societas (PLS), the University of Toronto company that has been staging influential research productions of early theater since the 1960s. In fact, my experience touring a production of The Old Wives Tale (another Queen’s Men play) for the PLS was the inspiration for the SQM project.

    The two approaches to directing are not distinct but involve a significant shift of focus that influences the production decisions made, the artistic choices that I, the actors, and designers made to bring this play to the stage. My performance annotations to this edition are focused on these production decisions. For productions not concerned with theater history, I look for choices that will make the plays speak to our present times. When understanding theatre history is the object of the enterprise, I study the play texts in the context of their times and try to let them tell me how they were performed. As any theatre historian will admit, understanding the past of this ephemeral art form is a fool’s quest: very little can be established as certainty. But that does not stop all of us fascinated by this subject from reaching back into the past and trying to understand. The Queen’s Men, as McMillin and MacLean put it, are "not our contemporaries": their theatrical process was different from ours, and their artistic and political intentions were specific to their times. My production of Famous Victories was created to explore and better understand those differences. None of the choices made in the production should be considered definitive. In my annotations I have tried to raise questions about what we were doing and open up avenues for further debate.

    The SQM performance of Famous Victories formed part of a repertoire of productions, and the interpretive choices observable in the video here are largely a consequence of my approach to the project as a whole, rather than my application to the particular needs and goals of this play. I was principally interested in the Queen’s Men and how they worked and I did not apply myself to each play in the repertoire as a distinct unit. I created a rehearsal process for the productions that roughly approximated our best understanding of early modern theatrical practice and this process had a direct impact on the way each play was staged. A full exploration of this process can be found on the Performing the Queen’s Men website, and analysis of the way the rehearsal and performance techniques applied to the plays worked to define a performance style for the SQM company can be found in the Performance section of this site. The relationship between the SQM repertory performance style and the individual texts is a complex one. The speed of the rehearsal, our emphasis on clowning and direct address, our use of men to play female roles, the company hierarchy created by the master actors, the casting of actors by type, and my relatively passive role as director, all had an impact on the way Famous Victories was staged. In addition, however, the play texts themselves influenced the development of the company style. The texts remain, after all, our principal source of knowledge about the Queen’s Men. The twenty-first century actors, working in a rehearsal process that approximated Elizabethan practice, applied themselves to the specifics of the texts as they have survived, and the texts presented them with performance challenges that had to be resolved. The relationship between the process and the texts was dialectical and the shows developed quite organically. In setting up the rehearsal process, performance conditions that approximated Elizabethan practice, and encouraging clowning and direct address, we established a fertile, creative environment that allowed the texts to grow into full productions. The resulting productions of all three plays have a characteristic spirit that is a consequence of this organic process. Since the creative environment was constructed with an eye to historical theatre practice, the productions provided us with a lively opportunity to further our research in theatre history. Although they were modern productions and were not designed to recreate or reconstruct the past, they reference theatre history as a means to encourage reflection on how these plays may have been performed and how they may have been significant in their time.

    Famous Victories was a key factor in defining the company ethos and style. It was the second play that we undertook and it dramatically affected the process because on the surface it was so different from the first, King Leir. King Leir is written largely in verse and more closely resembles the more familiar plays from the period. Because Shakespeare and his more famous contemporaries are so much part of our own theatrical world, the similarity between King Leir and King Lear, at least as we generally understand it today made it harder to discover the differences. Famous Victories in contrast was strikingly different: a play written almost entirely in prose with a knockabout style we do not generally associate with the ‘great’ drama of the period. To give us some sense of the speed with which Elizabethan actors prepared a play for performance, our rehearsal process was compressed and gradually accelerated as the company became acclimatised to the new rehearsal techniques. A full production today would typically have between eighteen and twenty four days of rehearsal. King Leir had twelve days rehearsal, and Famous Victories was assigned nine. The consequence was that the company had to rely more heavily on the rehearsal techniques established for the company. The actors found that due to the system of type casting, their performance of a character in one play provided the groundwork for the development of their characters in the next. Paul Hopkins' Prince Henry, for example, had much in common with this performance of the impetuous Gallian King in King Leir. The parts system encouraged the actors to embrace independence in their creative work , while at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the master actors also began to take charge of the rehearsal process. Don Allison who played King Leir had a less influential role in Famous Victories., where he played King Henry IV, but Alon Nashman and Paul Hopkins picked up the mantle and drove the creative process from the first day of rehearsal. It helped that they were playing the two characters around whom the expertly balanced double plotline of the play is built. Nashman played the principal clown of the play, Derrick; and Hopkins played its protagonist, Prince Henry.

    Clowning the Play

    Nashman is a vastly knowledgeable actor, a trained clown and expert in physical comedy, but he also has long experience in modern and classical theatre. Our preparatory research had established that modern clowning techniques were an excellent means to unearth the sometimes obscure dramaturgical logic of the Queen’s Men texts. The plays are not designed for circus clowns with red noses, but we discovered that the grounded, physical comedic techniques that have emerged in recent times through the influence of Jaques leCoq and his many students, offer effective and dynamic means to discover what is funny in these plays. The texts can appear flat on first reading but we know they were written for a company renowned for its comic actors (McMillin and MacLean, 128). Famous Victories offered us many classic clowning scenes and indeed features one of the first examples of a character that was relatively new to the Elizabethan stage at the time the Queen’s Men were performing: the simple rustic transposed to an urban setting. It is no coincidence that the term “clown” was synonymous with the term “rustic” in Elizabethan England and it was likely thanks to the popularity of the new clown characters in the plays of the period that the term began to denote a company’s principal comic actor. No actor contributed more to the development of the stage clown than the Queen’s man, Richard Tarlton . Tarlton is celebrated as the first Elizabethan star actor and Derrick is the role that perhaps best defines the new type of character he made popular on the stage. The character derives from a lower social stratum, he is a “poor carrier,” a lowly porter who enters the play having been robbed by one of the Prince’s servants. He appears to be the dupe, the comically suffering victim seeking justice for his wrong, but not knowing how to secure the same. However, once his initial conflict with the London watch is resolved peacefully he says: "'Tis a wonderful thing to see how glad the knave is, now I have forgiven him" (TLN 170-1), which establishes this clown's special relationship with audience. It quickly becomes clear that he is smarter than the London watch who at first apprehend him but are then persuaded to help his quest for justice. Tarlton created a role in which he could play both a trickster and a dupe. As Wiles has observed, Tarlton presents himself initially as a victim, a person who appears simple-minded and offers himself as the target of ridicule, but then turns the tables on his aggressors and outwits them while continuing to "present himself as so stupid that anyone should be able to outwit him" (17). We see this pattern in his initial interactions with the Watch (TLN 132-199), in his performance of outrage when he believes he has been wronged by John Cobbler’s wife (TLN 647), and in the way he tricks the French soldier on the battlefield (TLN 1420-1448). Tarlton/Derrick plays the victim in order to draw his victims in and then quickly turns the tables on them. Ultimately in this play he is more of the trickster, and the hapless John Cobbler is his unwitting dupe. Having kindly accompanying Derrick to “take the law” (TLN 155) from the Lord Chief Justice, Cobbler gets a box on his ears for his pains (Scene 5). Derrick then inveigles his way into Cobbler’s house (TLN 463-81) , eats all his food, insults his wife, and threatens to smash his windows (Scene 7). When war is declared Derrick happily marches off to kill Frenchmen (TLN 1054-7) dragging the cowardly John behind him. In the war, he manages to avoid all combat, tricking his officers into believing he is wounded (TLN 1571-1587), and leaves the field of battle with a bag full of Frenchmen’s clothes (Scene 20). Derrick’s clownish exploits offer the comic counterpoint to the career of the English king.

    In performance, Alon Nashman established an immediate connection with the audience, which he sustained throughout the play. As part of our general approach to the performances all actors were encouraged to address the audience directly whenever possible, but the lead clown developed the closest relationship of all. Nashman was master at bringing the audience in on his character’s jokes, and letting them see the trick and anticipate the series of comic reversals he inflicted on his victims. In rehearsal he worked closely with the ensemble, who were less experienced with clowning than he, developing their skills and creating comic business that served the intentions of the text. He worked closely with Jason Gray (Cobbler) who learnt the equally challenging task of playing the dupe; this might be summarized as the art of “not seeing the banana skin.” As our nine days of rehearsal progressed, the younger members of the company embraced the new clowning techniques. Scene 13, in which the French Soldiers brag about all the clothes they are going to take from the English, did not feature any of our master actors and the comic business around the throwing of the dice and the French Captain’s radish root was developed independently by the ensemble. The company’s focus on clowning had generated a permissive atmosphere in which comic creativity was allowed to flourish. Nashman’s training in classical and modern text-based theatre, however, ensured that the comic business created for the most part remained aligned with the evidence in the text. The performance annotations in this edition aim to reveal the interpretive process behind the creation of the physical comedy, indicating the textual references on which it was built as well as the places where I felt it departed from the text and followed a logic of its own.

    The Spirit of the SQM Production

    While Alon Nashman was busy developing Derrick’s storyline, Paul Hopkins was driving the rehearsal process on the Prince's scenes. The first rehearsal of the first scene was a turning point in the development of the company’s working practice. I vividly recall Hopkins gathering his team of actors together in a huddle and establishing his concept for the performance. There was a striking coincidence between the prince’s role in the play and Hopkins' behaviour in the rehearsal room, as he conspired with the younger actors to generate the excitement the youthful aristocrats felt about their highway robbery. Just as Derrick instigates the fun in the clowning sub-plot so Prince Henry is the trickster responsible for the escapades of the main plot. In performance, Hopkins sustained the palpable sense that Harry was driving the action for the benefit of the audience remained present even after his character had been crowned king. His intentions became more serious and his actions honorable, according to the military code of the times, but Hopkins maintained the spirit of a trickster underneath a more mature exterior. Although the two plots are only loosely connected by narrative, they mirror each other in fascinating ways that invite comparison between Derrick’s actions and the king’s. The casual enthusiasm with which Derrick plunders the battlefield of French shoes and apparel is not that different from the king’s sudden desire to add a French princess to his spoils of war. In the SQM productions, the clown and the king represented two new kinds of English hero, both men of the people, both full of nationalistic sentiment expressed with brash, plainspoken vigour.

    Prince Henry is Not Hal

    The appeal of the figure of Henry V for the English public arose from the enticing combination of his victory over the French and his wayward youth. Henry V is imagined in part as a kind of Robin Hood: an aristocrat mixing with the commoners and resisting the authority of the king. In this play, he is also figured as a prodigal son, a bad boy who repents his ways and is welcomed back into the fold by a joyfully tearful father. In the process of developing this role, we were careful to resist the influence of Shakespeare's Prince Hal and in this I took more of a directorial hand. Hal famously informs the audience that his association with Falstaff and his cronies is a political guise intended to make him seem more glorious when his true virtue is finally revealed (TLN 296-318). There is no such soliloquy in Famous Victories, and I encouraged Hopkins to commit whole-heartedly to his character's criminality in the early stages of the play and then suddenly convert to virtue under the influence of his father's tears. His sudden conversion is reminiscent of morality plays, a genre that was an influential element of the Queen' Men's theatrical milieu. In order to remain true to the monarchist and patriotic purposes of the original company, I wanted Hopkins to provide a young rebel with charismatic appeal who then transformed into a noble warrior-king; I was delighted to watch him do just that. The charismatic Hopkins developed a very close and playful relationship with the audience, charming them and asking them to identify with him as their hero: the ultimate English warrior king. The performance annotations to this edition track the specific choices that Hopkins made in the construction of his charismatic performance: how they served to align the politics with our knowledge of the Queen’s Men, and where I now feel his character could have been interpreted differently.

    Famous Victories was the play that revealed to us that all the characters in the Queen's Men plays are stage clowns to a degree. The impulsive, naïve spirit that is at the heart of clowning and the clown 's openness to the audience infused all the SQM performances from this point on. Even Don Allison's Leir, which was initially conceived as a shadow of his tragic cousin Lear, took on a more playful tone in the later performances following the rehearsal process for Famous Victories. McMillin and MacLean's description of the Queen's Men style as "medley" is something that I would now dispute. The consequence of clowning all the characters is that the artificial division between the tragic and the comic, the serious and the funny, is broken down and the two can live side by side in the same scene. The Cobbler's Wife scene in Famous Victories is one of the prime examples of this effect. It was one of the funniest scenes in performance but also one of the most poignant: the audience laughed at the spectacle of John Cobbler being dragged off to war while still sympathizing with the couple's emotional farewell. Robert Cushman remarked on this scene in his perceptive review, writing:

    There is a scene (echoed in Shakespeare, though he spread it out among various episodes) in which soldiers, pressed into service, take leave of home and loved ones, the latter represented by one alternately heartbroken and lascivious wife. It's part pathos, part broad farce; the actors played both modes, full out and simultaneously, and the results were both rich and instructive. (Cushman "Play")

    The company's ability to switch between the serious and the comic or to combine them in this way was one of the distinctive features of their style and distinguished their performances from the slow-burn character transitions of theatrical realism.

    10Morality Drama

    Although actors have always relied on observation of human behaviour, it is anachronistic to apply the principles of psychological realism to the interpretation of Queen's Men plays, which cannot be fully understood without reference to the sophisticated religious and political propaganda of the morality play tradition. Shakespeare's second Henriad, although influenced by moral drama, is more directly informed by the political realist Machiavelli than the Queen’s Men’s play is, and thus represents the prince's journey in terms of his political agency, the choices he makes to advance his political agenda. Famous Victories does not operate in this way and is far better understood through direct reference to morality drama rather than through reference to Shakespeare’s plays. At the time Famous Victories was performed, morality drama had developed into a complex form that was used to advance a variety of political, religious and moral arguments (White). The story of Prince Henry follows the conventional pattern of the form. He begins in a state of sin and folly but is converted by the sight of his sick father. The transformation is as sudden as St. Paul's conversion at Damascus and should be understood in this way: the prince is a sinner one moment and a noble prince committed to a path of virtue the next. This approach created a significant acting challenge for the company, and especially for Paul Hopkins, who had to effect an emotional transformation the size and suddenness of which is not normally encountered in our accustomed repertoire of psychological realism. (The onsets of jealousy in Othello and Leontes are comparable moments from Shakespeare.) The annotations in this edition of the text draw attention to key choices made by the company that worked to bring this alternate performance tradition to life on the stage.

    A Nationalistic Interpretation

    The politics of the play hinge on the audience's relationship with its central figure. In keeping with McMillin and MacLean's understanding of the Queen's Men, I interpreted Famous Victories as an open piece of political propaganda written to support the agenda of Queen Elizabeth I, the English monarch and patron of the company. The play is designed to appeal to English national sentiments and to promote patriotism. The development of Hopkins' charismatic performance was key in our adherence to this interpretation of the original text and context. The close relationship he developed with the audience as trickster-prince subliminally aligned the spectators with his monarchist and nationalist agenda. However, our approach to the French characters was also a significant factor. There are two basic types of French characters in the play: wise Frenchmen who are afraid of the English king (King of France, Archbishop of Bruges) and proud Frenchmen who were overly confident of victory (Dauphin, Herald, the French Captain and his soldiers). It is a clever design that serves the political intent of the play well since it makes the French both worthy adversaries of the English king offering significant military resistance, and also overweening braggarts primed to be cut down to size. We therefore had the French king and Bruges played sincerely by Don Allison and Jason Gray and found ways to expose the pride and folly of the other characters. The French Herald confronts Henry twice expecting surrender and demanding ransom, both times Prince Henry wittily turns the Herald's overconfidence into fear and sends him packing to his masters (TLN 1158-84 and TLN 1305-1323). The third time he returns humiliated by the French defeat and Henry takes pleasure in reminding him of his previous pride (TLN 1354-93). The movement of the French character from confidence to submission mirrors Derrick's comic interaction with the French soldier who has Derrick at his mercy only to be tricked out of his sword (TLN 1420-1448). The Queen's Men appear to have taken particular pleasure in the fact that the boastful and insulting Dauphin was not allowed to play a part in the battle of Agincourt. We cast Derek Genova, one of the actors who played female roles in our company, in this role and his relatively small stature made the Dauphin's bragging immediately ridiculous. The French soldiers and their Captain were given full clown treatment. They feature in a key scene prior to the battle of Agincourt where they eagerly anticipate all the clothes they will be able to steal from English following the obvious French victory in (Scene 13). The association of the French with fashion is clearly long-standing. The text indicates they should speak in French accents and I encouraged the actors to make the accents as extreme as possible, playing into every French stereotype. Offering the French soldiers as objects of ridicule was another way the SQM productions were intended to serve the nationalist agenda of the play.

    Although the company and the rehearsal process took charge of much of the creative work for this production, I took a direct directorial approach in the political interpretation of the play. The annotations in this edition track my efforts to maintain a sincere commitment to the nationalistic agenda and my ultimate failure to do so because the company was resistant to such politics (for sound reasons) and our audience was unwilling to respond to such nationalism with anything but irony. This phenomenon was noted by Robert Cushman in his National Post review:

    This Henry's attitude to all things and people French is unabashedly contemptuous and acquisitive. It must have warmed every patriotic Elizabethan heart. We now see things a little differently, and Paul Hopkins, playing the role here, could hardly avoid winking with us at his own outrageousness. His was altogether an irresistible performance, bold and fluent and charming. (At a couple of points he helped himself to the audience's beer.) He went, as his remote predecessors must have done, with the flow; only now it was a different flow. (Cushman "Play")

    Cushman's astute observation encourages a healthy approach to processing audience response both in our modern performances and also in the reception we might imagine the play received in the past. Although production decisions are designed to make particular impact on an audience and will often have the effect intended, audience response is not something that can be dictated from the stage. The protestant, monarchist and nationalist agenda of the company was not something that was necessarily received as it was intended in Elizabethan England (see Cockett's "Performing the Queen's Men" for more in depth discussion). That said, I imagine this play in its original context was a very effective piece of political propaganda. The fun of this play, its riotous, interactive brilliance must surely have been hard to resist.

    A Company of Men

    Famous Victories is very much a men’s play about men being manly. It features only two small female roles, the comic Cobbler's wife and Henry's prize for victory, the French princess Kate. In the SQM productions, all female roles were played by men. Paul Hopkins’ charismatic and deeply masculine interpretation of Prince Henry gradually infected the rest of the cast. The atmosphere in the rehearsal room took on something of the tone of a locker room , and it was at this point in the process that one of our company 'boys' (the male actors who took on female roles) had to politely insist that the actors playing men refrain from pinching his backside when he was in his dress. I would like to hope that this was something that would never happen in a modern mixed gender rehearsal room today (though I suspect sadly, I may be wrong). The absence of women in the cast permitted the boys to play as boys have learnt to play in a single sex environment and this affected the interpretation of the female characters in the play. Matthew Krist could play into the grotesque stereotype of the shrewish Cobbler's wife without reservation and I encouraged Julian DeZotti to take Kate's aside as the touchstone for his character: "I may think myself the happiest in the world, that is beloved of the mighty king of England" (TLN 1549-50). In the SQM production Kate's desire for the "mighty king of England" outweighed any political obligation to serve her father's political ends from the very start of the scene. DeZotti entered shyly, like a young girl walking into the presence of her school crush - ostensibly coming to represent her father's interests, but already subject to her desire for the English king. The reinterpretation of classical roles by female actors since the advent of feminism has been one of the great joys of the late twentieth century, but within the all male rehearsal room of the SQM productions, although there was sensitivity to the gender politics of the plays, it was far less marked than is usual today in a mixed gender cast. Making the French Princess a passive schoolgirl besotted with the English king, however, works within the context of Famous Victories' nationalist agenda. The scene could be played to stress Kate's successful re-negotiation of Henry's "unreasonable demands" (TLN 1505) and accord the French princess a higher degree of respect and agency. Ultimately, however, the scene is not about Kate, it is about the hero-king, and her desire for him is another sign of his irresistible power, providing further affirmation of the loyalty he must have stirred in the hearts of the English audience. In our modern performance, Hopkins gave some sense of how this character in the hands of a skilled and charismatic performer could become an inspirational embodiment of a victorious England, even while his performance and its reception was tinged with irony bred in our own times.

    Interpreting the Stage Directions

    As with any early modern drama, the surviving text of Famous Victories prior to editing can be very confusing. There are numerous missing entrances and exits, characters enter the stage when they are already on the stage (TLN 415 and TLN 597), and speeches are assigned to the wrong characters (TLN 106). In addition characters refer to a “gate” (note at TLN 542 ) "curtains” (note at TLN 681 ), a “chair” that can be “remov[ed] a little back” (note at TLN 704 ), and a “bar” (note at TLN 301 ), and yet no such set pieces appear in the stage directions. Where did they come from? How and when do they get on stage? Are the characters referring to something physical or asking the audience to use their imaginations? These are pragmatic questions that we had to grapple with in the rehearsal room just as Matthew Martin, the textual editor, has had to do in creating this edition of the play. Our production policy was to find a staging solution that satisfied the majority of stage directions in the surviving text. It was often impossible to satisfy them all, and our staging for the prince’s two visits to his father, which contain the greatest number of confusing stage directions, was of necessity inventive (Scene 6 and Scene 8). My annotations track the logic of our production choices and how and why they concur or differ from the editing decisions made by Martin.

    15Directly Engaging the Audience

    My one regret about the SQM project is that we were not able record Famous Victories in front of a live audience. The actors' unions were generous in negotiation, but we were limited to three days of shooting and the schedules of live performances did not align with those dates. I was, however, able to record the one scene from the play that did not feature any union actors. The recording is of the French Soldiers scene from the performance at the Tranzac Club on the first night of the SQM conference. I have embedded the video here in the hope that it will give readers a sense of the rambunctious, interactive quality of the SQM performance of the play (especially when it was performed with accessibility to beer). In the live version, you can see the clowning noted above in the action and observe how the actors found ways to direct the majority of their lines out to the audience. Most importantly, however, you can get some sense of the audience response to this approach to performance. The audience clap along with the Frenchmen and bang on the stage as the soldiers throw their dice at the “Englishmans” (TLN 1197), but others in the crowd accept the implied casting of the audience as Englishmen and boo the arrogant French captain. The politics of the performance are tangled up in this interaction. When the French Captain refers to the audience directly as “poor English scabs” (TLN 1245), the playfully antagonistic sentiment in the audience grows and Jason Gray (French Captain) reacts to the response of the crowd, as any good clown should do, by staring them down before continuing his speech. Such a moment in the context of the original Queen’s Men would have provided an opportunity for the English audience to express their patriotism, or not (see Cockett "Performing the Queen's Men" for more in depth discussion). Although the quality of the video below is very poor, the laughter in this scene should also give readers a sense of the winking irony that critic Robert Cushman detected in the actor's performances and our very modern audience’s response to the play. The largely Canadian audience did not carry any hatred for the French and were enjoying the overt representation of nationalistic English sentiment in a way specific to their own culture and times. Listening to it carefully, I would argue that the laughter is directed at the outrageousness of the ridiculous French accents the actors adopted, rather than at French people for being ridiculous, but readers can listen and judge for themselves.

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