Returning to the History Play: Time, Affect, Memory – MLA 2017

I’m excited for MLA Philly for a lot of reasons: friends are coming to town, I’m giving a paper on prophecy from my book manuscript, and I’m convening a roundtable  connected to my research that’s part of the Presidential Theme, Boundary Conditions. If you’re attending the conference, check out the proposal and abstracts below and consider adding this roundtable to your schedule.

742. Returning to the History Play: Time, Affect, Memory

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 202B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Organized by Marissa Nicosia, Chair (Pennsylvania State University, Abington College) and Jean E. Howard (Columbia University)

Speakers: J.K. Barret (University of Texas at Austin), Alice Dailey (Villanova University), Mario DiGangi (Lehman College, CUNY), Jean E. Howard (Columbia University), Brian Walsh (Boston University)

Respondent: Phyllis Rackin (University of Pennsylvania)

Forged in the crucible of the London theater, the history play is a lasting creation of the early modern public stage. By reshaping the conventions of comedy and tragedy on the one hand, and historical writing on the other, history plays are dynamic explorations of the past crafted for the early modern moment. This roundtable will showcase new perspectives on the history play as it arose in the sixteenth century and continues to thrive in the twenty-first. The “returning” of this session’s title points both towards renewed interest in history plays, early modern and contemporary, in literary studies, as well as the act of returning to the past inherent in their very composition.

The MLA 2017 Presidential Theme, “Boundary Conditions,” raises temporal as well as spatial concerns. As literary scholars, how do we negotiate between the past, present, and future of our texts? Furthermore, as new strains of historicism continue to inform literary studies, this roundtable’s interest in forms of historical temporality, commemoration, and affective connection offers rich directions for future study.


J.K. Barret (University of Texas at Austin), 
“Flexible Futures: Contingent Fictions and Alternative Outcomes in Shakespeare’s Histories”

In my remarks for “Returning to the History Play: Time, Affect, Memory,” I will discuss how playwrights in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England used stories and plots drawn from historical sources to unsettle inevitability, and to foreground instead the contingency that their fictions were able to produce. In particular, I consider critical approaches to Shakespeare’s history and Roman plays to argue that the familiar material the playwright often reshaped occasioned meditations on both narrative forms and fiction’s access to alternative outcomes. His historically-inflected material offered a vantage on imagined futures that were remarkable not for their ambition, but for their flexibility. Indeed, references to such futures also enabled the contemplation of emotional rewards articulated on personal, rather than national, terms. I argue that, in a period in which imaginative writing invents new ways of conceptualizing and interpreting time, Shakespeare’s interventions in the past regularly require his audience to imagine different paradigms by which they might approach their own ethical decisions and actions in the present. In these plays, it is the process of contending with contingency that defines ethical activity; when familiar historical material skews and rattles dependable temporal paradigms, what is prompted instead implicates (and makes demands upon) the audience’s judgment. In this way, early modern plays concerned with historical thinking prompt new options for exploring alternative outcomes and contingent futures.

Alice Dailey (Villanova University)
“How to Do Things with Dead People”

Literary critics have conventionally described Shakespeare’s English history plays as nostalgic for a lost heroic past that stubbornly eludes dramatic recuperation.  In this line of thinking, Shakespeare’s histories cannot help dramatizing their own failure to return the dead to us, offering in their place pageants of similitude that expose the discrepancy between theatrical representation and the thing itself.  In this paper, I turn to recent insights from performance and photographic theory to suggest the incompleteness of these assumptions about the temporality of historical representation.  I contextualize the histories among transhistorical visual arts by which humans create and look at effigies of the past, suggesting how forms like historical reenactment, photography, and visual art resist linear temporality by positing the dead as conscious audiences and performative surrogates for the living.  To illustrate briefly the shared phenomenology of these forms, my paper introduces Jeff Wall’s staged 1992 photograph, Dead Troops Talk, as a conceptual frame for exploring how the dead can be translated into sites of potential—into material for creating what is yet possible and imagining a future that is perpetually deferred.  I then turn to two scenes from Shakespeare’s 1 Henry VI, the funerals of Henry V and the Earl of Salisbury, to show how survivors stage elaborate performances for the dead, whose silent but obdurate presence generates current and future action.  In both Wall’s photograph and 1 Henry VI, I argue, dead soldiers are translated into sites of layered performance that complicate strict linear time.

Mario DiGangi (Lehman College, CUNY) 
“Affective Entanglement and Political Agency in the Early Modern History Play”

The concept of affective entanglement offers an alternative to the conventional understanding of political agency as a property enjoyed by aristocratic individuals who mobilize their intellectual, emotional, and material resources in schemes to acquire or consolidate power (think of Shakespeare’s Richard III). In Politics of Affect, Brian Massumi attempts to dispel some “oft-repeated misconceptions about affect and its political implications,” including the belief that “affect is asocial.” Instead, Massumi insists that affect, “as the openness to being affected, is directly relational”; in fact, it is “pure sociality, in the sense of the social in the openness of its incipiency, ready to become all manner of social forms and contents.” Because, for Massumi, affect is a force of transindividual relationality and change, it operates inescapably in the political arena. Building on Massumi’s framework, I argue that an understanding of affect as “the ongoing force of the social taking evolving form” allows us to conceive of political agency in the early modern history play beyond the conventional understanding of agency as the intentional expression of an aristocratic subject. Rather, the affective entanglements among aristocrats and commoners, as well among monarchs and subjects, constitute emerging events through which participants can generate political knowledge and make an impact on their world. My analysis of affective encounters in the early modern history play will address the different forms of agency made available by the unfolding temporality of political process.

Jean E. Howard (Columbia University) 
“Thinking Through and Against Shakespeare: The Historical Consciousness of British Post-War Playwrights”

A generation of British playwrights (Hare, Bond, Brenton, Wesker, Barker, Arden, and others) used the history play to redefine the political nation in the wake of World War II, the early years of Labor activism, and the waning of Labor pre-eminence and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.  In doing so, they implicitly and often explicitly worked both within and against the terms of the history play established by Shakespeare, often violently rejected what they say as his elitist class politics and imperialist marginalization of those from the Celtic fringe.  This paper will examine several plays, probably Howard Barker’s The Romans in Britain, Edward Bond’s Bingo, or Howard Barker’s Victory to show how the figure of Shakespeare, the Shakespearean history play, and the politics of seventeenth-century England inform their vision of post-World War II Britain.

Brian Walsh (Boston University)
“What’s history for you is life lived for me”: Aesthetics and Instruction in Moira Buffini’s Handbagged (2013)

The history play, from its Elizabethan roots to the present, has always sat at a crossroads of epistemological and political concerns, and this intersection has itself always been framed by a nagging question about the nature of its entertainment value. What is the pleasure of performing the past? In the case of a recent phenomenon like Hamilton, an experience bathed in the power of its charismatic performers and invigorating music and dance numbers, the answer is obvious. But what motivates playwrights and draws audiences to the imagined past on stage is more often enigmatic. Moira Buffini’s 2013 play Handbagged raises this question especially in regards to its self-conscious didacticism. The play depicts the private meetings held between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, from Thatcher’s historic ascension in 1979 to her ouster in 1990. The play covers the major topics one might expect: the miners’ strike, the Falklands War, the Cold War, Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Thatcherite economic policy, and her often inflammatory rhetoric about society. What is unexpected is the unusually dialectical form the play takes. Present on stage throughout are four actors that portray younger and older versions of the Queen and Thatcher; the older selves frequently chide the younger ones by claiming that this or that thing never really happened or never was said, foregrounding questions of truth, memory, and the knowability of history. In a persistent set of “meta” comments, the characters also express anxiety that their supposed millennial audience won’t understand the references to Thatcher-era people and events, prompting a series of mini-lectures on the 1980s.  In this paper, I want to query what motivates these explicitly didactic moments in the play, and to consider what they tell us about the anxieties, aesthetics, and assumptions that surround the staging of history today.


One thought on “Returning to the History Play: Time, Affect, Memory – MLA 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s