Staging Renaissance plays in the 21st century: Etiquette.
George Nichols is the Assistant Director for Edward II and After Edward. He is writing a blog series about the processes and ideas in these two plays.
In this blog George looks at the importance of understanding the etiquette of the time the play is set. In further blogs he discusses the relevance of the Church and Feudal system in 14th century England and the meaning of words and how they have evolved.
Edward II was written in the 16th century, set in the early 14th century and will be performed to a 21st-century audience in a building that has the central goal of recreating the performance conditions of the early modern stage. This convoluted series of perspectives brings with it a number of challenges and questions. For example, how do we deal with obscure allusions and references? How do we work with words that are no longer in common usage or now have different meanings? How do we stage peculiar and antiquated codes of etiquette from the day?
Not only is it difficult to answer these questions because we’re making our best-educated guesses about the world the play was written in, but also because Marlowe was writing about a period he likewise didn’t live in.
Engaging with these questions is something at the heart of what the Globe experiment is all about, and in week one of rehearsals for Edward II they’ve certainly been a central preoccupation of ours. As the assistant director, a lot of the responsibilities of research fall to me. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the etiquette of the court during the 14th century, the relationship between church and monarchy, the feudal system and 16th-century definition of words with the intention of contributing to the fabric of the world of the play. We’ve then worked to interpret what is most important about this information and how it can best be translated or used to create a coherent and, of course, enjoyable production.
Etiquette from the 14th century is positively barmy, although they might say the same thing about today. It’s easy to forget that we still obey a code of etiquette that we perceive as innate behaviour, but which is actually socially determined; just think about the way we queue, the way we dress or the way we behave in the workplace.
In medieval England, there were a number of writings about proper conduct for people from all different walks of life. Some of these instructions sound ridiculous, for example in Daniel Beccles 3000 word poem The Etiquette of Man, it stipulates:
‘In front of grandees, do not openly excavate your nostril by twisting your fingers.’
And in The Book of Courtesy it says:
‘Don’t put up at a red (haired and faced) man or woman’s house.’
These are some of the silliest examples, but if we get bogged down in etiquette then we can quickly end up in a place where the play becomes difficult to stage, and where we leave the audience thoroughly confused. What’s important is to understand the role etiquette plays in Edward II and how we can best use it to tell the story effectively. By working on when the rules are followed and when they are broken, we can emphasise a threat to social order, an integral theme of the play.