- Dramatic Spaces: Scenography and Spectatorial Perceptions by Jennifer A. Low
In Dramatic Spaces: Scenography and Spectatorial Perceptions, Jennifer A. Low offers an ambitious exploration of performance spaces, ranging from Plautine Roman theatres to the sculptural modernism of the German Bauhaus to the Broadway debut of M. Butterfly. With a strong command of theatre history and an exceptionally diverse array of textual examples at her disposal, Low convincingly argues that dramatic space—both its possibilities and its limitations—should be indispensable to the study of drama. Each chapter explores the relationship between production, text, and reception. In this way, Low embraces her role as both a theatre historian and a literary scholar, deftly moving between these interdisciplinary critical positions. Theoretically, Low builds on the work of past theatre historians like Marvin Carlson and Gay McAuley. But unlike these previous scholars, she contends that the study of dramatic space must necessarily take place at the intersection between author, actor, audience, and architect; or as she puts it, "a complex diagram of elements that affect and respond to one another" (11). In contending that none of these elements should be examined in a vacuum, she sets herself up for an intricate, multilayered argument.
Throughout her representative survey, Low mines the symbiotic relationship between performance spaces and drama; as she asserts early in her introduction, "Dramas are shaped by the design of the theatrical spaces that playwrights envision as containers of the dramas they write" (5). For this reason, her readings are rooted in the consideration of original performance conditions. Yet what warrants the focal point of original performance conditions is often slippery, and this focus shifts from chapter to chapter. In some chapters, it is the design of the stage itself; in some, the actor's body; and in others, audience response. Because of the multinational and transhistorical nature of this study, a more focused examination of a particular performance condition, such as audience response, could help to unify the chapters more effectively. Thus while Low offers a number of immensely satisfying readings of specific dramatic examples, at times her polyvalent approach leaves individual chapters feeling disconnected from [End Page 101] one another. Each chapter stands alone quite well, but Low's driving principle of inclusion is not always clearly explicated, rendering the connections between chapters rather tenuous.
To begin her study, Low explores the thematic differences between Plautus's The Menaechmi and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors to argue that the designs of their respective stages engendered thematic differences in the plays themselves. For instance, Low argues that Plautus's shallow stage led to more opportunities for metatheatre. In this respect, Low's depiction of the relationship between stage design and audience response is quite convincing. However, her argument about Shakespeare's deployment of doorways is less convincing and could benefit from attention to Mariko Ichikawa's work on stage doors. Specifically, she claims that the doorways in The Comedy of Errors create a visual allegory that dramatizes time through space, an effect realized in the revelation of the redemptive priory at the conclusion of the play. While the visual allegory argument echoes Martin White's influential work on early modern staging practices, the connection she draws between temporality and audience response is not as convincing.
Low sustains her interest in the early modern period throughout chapter 2, a focus that speaks to her training as an early modern scholar. She uses the Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore to argue that the semiotics of enclosure and penetration can be explored through dramatic space, arguing that space should be seen as a literal experience of the body and not simply a metaphor. In order to show how "bodies shape the scene" (47), she relies on the common assumption that early modern stages were bare, claiming that "minimal sets and sparse use of props lend extra weight to the massing of bodies" (47). However, scholars like Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda have recently challenged this assumption, arguing that early modern stages were...