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  • Staging Pain, 1580-1800: Violence and Trauma in British Theatre
  • Elizabeth Hanson (bio)
James Robert Allard and Mathew R. Martin. Staging Pain, 1580-1800: Violence and Trauma in British Theatre. Ashgate. 2009. 232. US$99.95

The essays collected in Staging Pain explore the contradictory bond between theatricality and the agony of the human body. 'Pain,' the editors write, 'is the very stuff of tragic drama.' 'Powerfully sharable [End Page 340] in spite of its resistance to language,' the sight of pain produces feeling in the audience even as it 'holds the potential to rob the theater's attempts to represent it of their force, to manifest theater's unreality.' As Robert Allard notes in the essay that concludes the volume, 'The real insists,' and pain, as perhaps the most insistent real there is, has the capacity both to impart that insistence to dramatic spectacle and to expose the unreality of mimesis in comparison with it. These paradoxes are rendered all the more pointed in the early modern period by virtue of the rivalry afforded the theatre by what Foucault famously called 'the spectacle of the scaffold.' In an age when men and women were routinely publicly tortured to death on platforms, it was no wonder that the theatre drew power from scenes of traumatic violence and interrogated the meaning of pain, or that in so doing it raised questions about its own mimetic relation to the insistent scream of the real. As the editors argue, however, it would also be a mistake simply to align the mimetic with the theatre and violence with the 'real' for, as trauma theory has shown, the incapacity of the mind to be fully present in the moment of violence means that replaying is intrinsic to the experience of trauma itself, a fact that grants the theatre a privileged relation to it.

The essays contained in this volume explore this complex of ideas in relation to the obsessive staging of violence on the English stage from the beginnings of the commercial theatre to the end of the eighteenth century. With one exception the essays are arranged in rough chronological order, but the organizing principle of the volume is thematic, and each topic is provided with a brief introduction. The first, 'Traumatic Effects,' contains essays by Mathew Martin on Marlowe's Tamburlaine and Zackariah Long on The Maid's Tragedy. Drawing on trauma theory and Žižek's idea of the Sadean subject, Martin demonstrates that Marlowe's play enacts a repetition compulsion that renders it 'the outside other of tragedy' rather than a moment in the development of the genre. Long develops a parallel between the Freudian notion of trauma as uncathected energy and the early modern theory of a disordered self. In the following section, 'Pedagogies of Pain,' Annalisa Castaldo shows that revenge tragedies do not endorse state control of violence but suggest 'that any violence is legitimate if it is spectacular.' William Levine argues that Joshua Reynolds, in his account of the pleasure of watching an execution, stresses the decorous subordination of the malefactor to the inevitability of the occasion, thereby bringing a principle of taste to bear on a public life. In the third section, 'Bodies (Im)politic,' John Staines argues for the importance of the pitying witness to pain as exemplified by the outraged response of Cornwall's servant to the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear. Sarah Covington explores 'shared codes of signification between the theatrical and juridical scaffold,' demonstrating that the early modern state borrowed from medieval theatre in developing punishment [End Page 341] practices that in turned influenced the theatre. And Susan B. Iwaniszew looks at Elkanah Settle's Morocco plays as comment on the Stuart use of 'torturous execution' in the factional struggles of the 1680s. In the final section, 'Spectacular Failures,' Kara Reilly considers the actress's body when playing violation in Ravenscroft's Titus Andronicus, while Cecilia Feilla charts the progress of filicide on the eighteenth-century stage, from a spectacle too horrible to stage to a means of revealing fatherly virtue through suffering. James Robert Allard concludes the volume with an account of Joanna Baillie's adjustments to her plays to...


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pp. 340-342
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