- Theatres of Contagion: Transmitting Early Modern to Contemporary Performance ed. by Fintan Walsh
Even had COVID-19 not rendered the issues taken up by Theatres of Contagion immediate and pressing, this anthology would still be a significant contribution to twenty-first-century theoretical approaches [End Page 528] to theatre, from conception to reception. Now that the historical closure of theatres for plague referenced in several of the collection's essays has been replicated in our own time, threatening the stability and survival of theatres around the world, the arresting analyses in this slim volume have taken on new relevance. The essays gathered here consider contagion from the literal to the metaphorical, from the early modern to the contemporary theatre, from existential threat to invigorating cultural exchange. Scholars and practitioners will be grappling with the cogent and prescient set of critical considerations that editor Fintan Walsh has judiciously curated for some time to come.
In his introduction, Walsh uses an epigraph from Hardt and Negri's Empire—"The age of globalization is the age of universal contagion" (3)—to place modernity as a middle term between theatre and infection. At least since early modern antitheatricalists found the theatre to be a literal and figurative source of plague, the theatre has been closely linked to contamination. As Kristen Shepherd-Barr notes in her contribution to the volume, "the liveness and corporeality of performance necessarily entails an encounter with other minds and bodies that will always have contagious possibililites that cannot be contained" (102). Theatre of Contagion's three sections explore first the body as a site of contagion, then the theatre as an art form and a physical space capable of contagion, and finally immersive and digital practices as affective contagions. The collection's fundamental argument is that because contagion causes change, responses to it range along a spectrum from fear to resistance to curiosity to overt desire.
Numerous essays in the collection deploy the Latin origins of the term contagion: "con (with, together) and tangere (to touch)" to discuss touching in the literal and figurative senses (5). Many essays—including Walsh's own, "Viral Hamlet: History, Memory, Kinship," in the first section—take the works of Shakespeare, early modern theatre closures for the plague, or adaptations of early modern plays as jumping-off points. "Viral Hamlet," for example, offers a brilliant analysis of Dickie Beau's solo performance piece Remember Me (2017), which uses the acts of memorialization within Hamlet itself as an occasion to commemorate the numerous gay men who have played the part in the twentieth century, culminating in the memorialization of Ian Charleson in the title role at the National Theatre in 1989. Charleson performed throughout the run under a double erasure documented by Beau, and subsequently Walsh, insofar as Charleson had picked up the part after Daniel Day-Lewis abandoned it, claiming to have seen the ghost of his own father on the stage during the confrontation with Hamlet's late father. Meanwhile, Charleson, unbeknown to his viewing public, was secretly and yet very publicly dying of AIDS even as he died nightly onstage in Horatio's arms.
Marcus Cheng Chye Tan chronicles the somatic effects of theatre, particularly its sonic impact, in "'A plague o'both your houses': Auditory Contagion and Affective Frequencies in Musical and Intercultural Theatres" by focusing on Romeo and Juliet, a play that Shakespeare possibly wrote during the theatre closure for plague during 1592–93. Blank-verse drama has aural force both within the world of the play and on the viewing audience. Romeo and Juliet is a play particularly rich in embedded poems, such as the sonnet that the young lovers exchange when they first meet each other. While one may not be consciously aware of these eruptions of structured verse in the midst of blank verse and prose interludes, rhetorical devices such as rhyme and extended metaphor set such passages apart from the surrounding language. Tan traces this aural effect forward in time, to Leonard Bernstein's "complex . . . instrumental work" in West...