Where are the plays of yester-month? Mostly, to be honest, they are in a 3-ring binder on my office shelf. They have notes scrawled in the margins—because I’m a fan of material texts and have a whole project about annotated plays—but those notes have stayed private and those binders have stayed put. Consequently, anything I might have wanted to say about them has remained private, static, frozen in amber (or at least something middling sticky like maple syrup).
That’s obviously antithetical to what I had in mind when I embarked on my play-reading project. I’d heard from fellow scholars who’d accomplished the considerable feat of reading all plays listed in W.W. Greg before that it was less the reading and more the keeping of notes that would be hard. My goodness, were they ever right! (Sidebar: can we collect data on how many of us have done or attempted this? You know, for posterity? And also make up a catchy name that is similar to, but far better than, the Mile High Club for those who finish?)
To try to learn from the experience as it happens in the real world (and not as it was ideally plotted out in my beginning-of-semester calendar) I’ve devoted some time thinking about why it’s so hard to do a write-up of a play you’ve read. For me, it has to do with the fact that, no matter how colloquial my tone or how many references to “Buffy” I make, I can’t afford to conceive of blog posts as “public” but not “professional.” If I were writing on some unrelated topic—the knitting I do, the food I make, the wine I drink—I think I would be able to draw the line more solidly. But if you are an early career academic specializing in Shakespeare and early modern drama a blog post, even just a wee little post, about an early modern play becomes a part of your professional portfolio whether you intend for it to or not. Or, at least, that’s the fear.
I intended to read plays at a good clip and to use the blog as, at once, a tool to keep track of my thoughts about various texts and a way to make the process more social or collaborative. In line with my Protestant heritage, however, the individual, solitary, private reading of plays has proved far easier to integrate into my routine than the public commentary or analysis. But that’s largely because I find myself genuinely incapable of recording the kind of “raw material” response to a play that I’d imagined. I underline, annotate, and, if there’s an especially striking passage or passage, transcribe all before I even think about putting fingers to keyboard. And, I’ve come to realize over the past 6 weeks, that it’s not simply that I’m afraid of publically saying things that are not “scholarly” enough to impress a search committee.
To my surprise and disappointment, I find that I’m not able to remove these plays from their “scholarly” category and approach them as fun, non-serious objects of entertainment. I have, effectively (and affectively), friend-zoned them. Look, EM drama, I like you. I really do. We have some good times together and I feel like we really understand each other on a fundamental level. We have a lot of fun and when I feel sad you’re right there with me. We are ALWAYS going to hang out. But when I want to unwind, relax, laugh and just, y’know, play, I’m always going to be looking at television.
Seriously, though. I started the play-a-day project partly to attempt to recreate the “horizons of expectations” — I just love Reception theory more and more the older I get– of dedicated reader-viewers of early modern drama. And in some sense I will succeed at this—getting a better picture of what was it was “normal” (or not) to see on stage, judging more accurately when something is “innovative,” and catching up on a hell of a lot of inside jokes. But what it’s never going to be possible for me to do is to consume 400-year-old artifacts of mass entertainment the way that I consume contemporary ones.
If I really wanted to do a parallel kind of project, I would have been blogging about the episodes of “Supernatural” I’ve been watching on Netflix. I started the series about the same time as I started the play-a-day project and I have definitely watched more than an average of one a day over the past 8 weeks. In fact, I just checked and I’ve watched 115 (and that’s not counting the ones I watched twice because they were so funny/meta/or otherwise awesome). And I can safely say that I’d find it pretty easy to write unmediated notes on each episode. (Right now I inflict them on my long-suffering partner who must listen to my monologues on how “souls work differently here than in the Buffyverse” or “it’s a shame that the only women who are allowed to have agency are evil.”)
Now, I haven’t and won’t be analyzing the TV I’ve been watching (even though I could because how is there not a book on Milton’s theology and Supernatural?!) because that’s not what it’s “for” (for me). But the ease with which I feel welcomed into, understand, and “get” the world of television is the kind of experience I imagine early modern audience members having in the theater: it speaks to them and they just “get” it.
I could go on at great(er) length about which parallels obtain between the “culture industry” of Shakespeare’s theater and that of modern Hollywood, but instead I will end by asking myself (and you, Dear Reader) whether it’s the “silent reading” aspect that keeps me bound to academic approaches to play texts. I have very limited experience with play readings but those I have done were social—not to say raucous. Is this perhaps the difference between “drama” (a form of literature to be read silently on one’s own) and “plays” (existing in performance)? And when did these categories evolve for English vernacular literature?
Also: if this blog suddenly becomes entirely devoted to WB/CW shows from the late 90s and 00s—now you know why.