Pulpit, Playhouse and Page: Moving Online

Mary Morrissey writes:

Like many people, I was looking forward to attending a couple of academic conferences this summer. This year, I was particularly looking forward to a conference being hosted at the University of Sheffield and organised by Emma Rhatigan and Catherine Evans on ‘Pulpit, Playhouse and Page: Theatrical and Non-theatrical Exchanges in early modern England’. It promised to bring together some very interesting papers on topics concerning performance cultures in the early modern period and the transformations affected when those performances (be they from the pulpit or the playhouse) moved into manuscript and print, the media by which they reach us today. Unfortunately, the Lockdown made it necessary to postpone the conference. But this did not mean that the conversations about research needed to stop too.

The organisers and I decided to try and set up a series of rather informal research seminars online. Where larger organisations like the SRS had hosted grand events with several hundred participants, we would host a smaller group that would enable people to talk about ‘ideas in progress’: thoughts that had not yet developed into papers, let alone articles. This would enable presenters to get feedback from other scholars earlier in their development of a project, and in research that often crosses disciplinary boundaries that can be enormously useful.

Our first online seminar took place on 9 July at 3pm, and I gave a short presentation on ‘prosopopoeia’, the rhetorical figure that involves the creation of a fictional voice (or the co-option of a real voice) by the speaker. Dr Jennifer Richards, author of Voices and Books in the English Renaissance (2019) rightly reminded us of how complex this figure could be.  I gave one example, from John Foxe’s Sermon of Christ Crucified (1570), which I thought particularly audacious. I was to discover there were more audacious examples still: In 1596, Anthony Rudd had used prosopopoeia to represent the Queen’s prayers to God about her old age in a sermon preached before Elizabeth. (She responded by placing him under house arrest.) We discussed how prosopopoeia could give a speaker greater freedom by allowing them to distance themselves from their own words. We also discussed how far the creation of a persona through prosopopoeia would go, and to the use of gesture or tone of voice that might signal where the speaker’s voice ends and the fictional voice created by prosopopoeia began. And so our conversation ranged over the use of gesture in oratory to the different forms of drama found in venues outside the playhouse.

Those topics will be picked up and explored further in our next three meetings, which are already scheduled. On 30 July, Dr Elizabeth Sandis will talk about ‘Dramatists and clergymen at Oxford and Cambridge: the role of theatre in early modern university education’. On 13 August, Dr Arnold Hunt will give a presentation on ‘Preaching and Gesture’ and on 10 September, Dr Rosamund Oates will speak to us about her current research. Details of the seminars can be found here on the conference website. If you would like to join us for all or any of these seminars, please email: pulpitandplayhouse@sheffield.ac.uk

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