Several essays in Shakespeare Bulletin's recent issue on early modern metatheater present a powerful and long-overdue challenge to the assumption that it creates a Brechtian alienation effect. While these critics are correct that metatheater does not alienate an audience on an emotional level, a significant proportion of spectators at metatheatrical early modern plays do experience a reflective distancing. I discovered evidence of this effect by using the best way to understand audience members' experiences: asking them. My essay employs audience surveys I conducted at productions of Knight of the Burning Pestle and Hamlet to contend that, contrary to claims made in the Bulletin issue, early modern metatheater creates mental distance in many audience members. Forty-three percent of Pestle respondents reported being more aware than usual of theatrical elements like acting choices, staging, and audience behavior. Far from emotionally alienating the spectators, however, this type of distancing can actually heighten an audience member's engagement with the production, as multiple comments by those who experienced reflection suggest. One found it "fascinating." Another "really felt like a part of the production." They explicitly stated that they felt this way because of their conscious thoughts about interpretive choices. Establishing such a fine distinction—distancing, but not alienation—is only possible if one speaks directly to audience members. By attending to what they have to say about themselves, we can sharpen our claims about how metatheater affects them. This approach is vital to clarifying the phenomenon's role in the performance of early modern plays.


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pp. 231-250
Launched on MUSE
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