by Sammy Condusta

The occasion of The Dark Lady Players' performance of "Shakespeare's Anti-Christian satires: The Virgin Mary Parodies" gave us the opportunity to investigate how Elizabethan Meta-Theater could be enacted with contemporary puppet theater.

So we interviewed John Hudson, the theorist and dramaturg of The Dark Lady Players, to illuminate the possibilities. We learned, in short, that all puppetry is metatheatrical but not all metatheater is puppetry.

NYPUPPETS: Why do you think that the Elizabethan concept of the actor as a puppet is relevant today?

JOHN HUDSON: Most of Shakespeare’s plays were written for the Elizabethan theater. That means they were written for a theater that was allegorical and highly meta-theatrical. Theater was produced on an open stage, you could see from one side to the other like the mystery plays. It was not a slice of life. Actors were clearly not real people, they spoke in verse, they may have held cue scripts, they were highly oratorical and used stylized gestures. The women characters were very evidently boys. And the actors were evidently actors, constantly reminding the audience that this was an illusion—for instance one actor who came on stage with only half his beard stuck on, or another who stabbed himself with a scabbard rather than a sword. These actors were known in the Elizabethan theater as puppets because the audience had to see beyond the actor to the underlying allegory that the actor was representing. The smarter members of the audiences “those with stronger stomachs” would see through the surface presentation to discern and solve the underlying allegories in the play. The plays were a sort of enacted puzzle to be solved, and the actors were just the presenters.

John Hudson

So when we watch Shakespeare today, mostly we are seeing it performed with a wholly different set of conventions— TV and film influenced realism--that prevent us from seeing through the honeyed sweetness of the verse to what lies below. That is why the Dark Lady Players are bringing back some of the Elizabethan conventions, because we are trying to create a kind of Shakespeare that allows intelligent audiences to see through into the inner meanings of the play—as the playwright intended. To understand Shakespeare you have to understand the actor as a puppet, and see beyond the actor and the surface into the allegories underneath.

NYPUPPETS: How does this relate to modern puppetry?

JOHN HUDSON: All puppetry is meta-theatrical but not all meta-theater is puppetry. However the audiences today that are most used to non-realism are puppetry audiences. The audience is skilled in understanding that the surface of the play is an illusion. They know that the actors are not real people, they are merely puppets, and have to be seen as performing objects who are there to make the playwright’s point. So I think that audiences for puppet theater, who are used to meta-theater, may be nearer in their way of thinking to the audiences in Elizabethan London, and have a better chance of understanding Shakespeare.

NYPUPPETS: How do Dark Lady Players use the actors as puppets to show these allegories?

JOHN HUDSON: Let me start with a simple example where we actually used a physical puppet. In our productions of As You Like It in 2008, the Dark Lady Players presented the figure of the clown William as a larger than life cardboard cut-out of the First Folio engraving of William Shakespeare. Similarly, Sir Oliver Martex was another cardboard puppet, of the portrait of Christopher Marlowe, with a large bloody knife stuck into his eye. In these cases a physical puppet could be simply used to convey the simple contemporary allegories for the characters that had been identified by scholars. In these cases we simply let go of the surface identities of William and Martex and overwhelmed them with the visual presentation of the underlying contemporary allegory.

The problem comes when you want to show multiple identities, for instance how the character’s underlying allegorical identity as the Virgin Mary, governs the surface performance as say Ophelia or Desdemona. We could have had the Virgin Mary perhaps as the puppeteer and operating a Desdemona puppet. In our present production of Shakespeare’s Three Marys at Manhattan Theater Source we do something similar. We don’t have physical puppets but we have two stages. On one are the Biblical characters doing scenes from the mystery plays. They are the ‘puppeteers’. On another stage are the Shakespearean characters—so the Virgin Mary on one stage is a sort of master archetype or puppeteer for the derivative parody that is being performed on the other stage.

NYPUPPETS: So how do you show the relationship in Shakespeare’s Three Marys?

JOHN HUDSON: The characters on the two stages mirror each other, and wear similar costumes, so that the Jealous Joseph of the mystery plays becomes very clearly comparable to the jealous Othello. Similarly, Desdemona—who is addressed initially in terms appropriate to Mary and then appropriate to Jesus—is clearly identified with the pregnant Mary who Joseph complains about in the mystery plays.

So instead of the audience simply seeing the Shakespearean characters and having to work out what relationship an action such as Hamlet hitting his head might have to Joseph in the Mystery Plays or the apocryphal gospels, in this production the audience simply has to turn around to see the parallel passage being enacted. In addition, the Dark Lady Players continue to make the plays’ various inter-texts obvious through the clever use Biblical readings and signage to announce key passages. So for instance, Ophelia’s identity as Mary is made obvious by showing Hamlet’s letter to her as a large FedEx envelope, on which the different aspects of her address are clearly indicated as attributes of Mary.

NYPUPPETS: So you are using the two different stages as a metaphor for the relation between the symbol and what is being symbolized?

JOHN HUDSON: Yes. Our director Jenny Greeman refers to it as a kind of "split screen." You have to maintain attention to both to understand the full range of meanings, and how the Shakespearean puppet characters have been constructed. By seeing the master allegory at the same time, helps the audience deconstruct the surface text and see how it was composed, and why. It helps understand the artistry and why the plays were written.

UNDERLYING RELIGIOUS PARODIES -- In the "Hamlet" portion, the light from the eyes of Hamlet/Helios makes Ophelia conceive like the Virgin Mary. The Shakespearean phrase, "For if the sun breathed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion," is illustrated literally on her belly, referring to a metaphor for how the Virgin Mary conceived. L: Anna Wood; R: Alexandra Cohen-Spiegler. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

NYPUPPETS: There is a whole controversy about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and why they are so complex. Does your work, and this new style of performance, help explain why these plays were written?

JOHN HUDSON: Our current production of Shakespeare’s Three Marys shows that Romeo & Juliet, Othello and Hamlet, contain rather extreme anti-Christian parodies of the Virgin Mary. They seem to be Jewish comic satires. This raises the question of how they could have got there-since the man from Stratford was a believing Catholic.

The most likely explanation is that these underlying allegorical plots were written by England’s only Jewish poet Amelia Bassano Lanier. She was almost certainly one of the collaborators, perhaps the main writer, on the Shakespearean plays. As the first woman in England to write a book of original poetry and as mistress to the man in charge of the English theater, she is a very good fit, especially since she wrote her own 1600 line parody of the gospels. So I believe that using these meta-theatrical conventions opens up the possibility of finally understanding what these plays mean, and why they were written. That is why the Dark Lady Players are so excited and committed to doing this work. I hope everyone who reads this will come and see one of our performances this September and judge for themselves.

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