This is going to make a lot more sense if you read Part One. I think I can only number it 1-5, but we all know it’s 6-10, right?
- Another historical experience live-tweeting might allow us better to imagine is the role played the early modern repertory company. Some of the pleasure of the Marathons involves an increasing identification between certain readers and a certain kind of role, which is reinforced by the ongoing Twitter commentary about the aptness (or otherwise) of the casting. Over three years of play-readings, I have found myself repeatedly given the parts of flustered young gallants and thundering kings: our esteemed organiser, Dr Martin Wiggins, is by this point indelibly associated with sorcerers, clowns and Welshmen.
It’s possible that this is only relevant to those present in the room, but given that many tweeting in from afar have some personal familiarity with the performers, they are also often responding on the basis of accumulated associations. Seeing readers play related parts in quick succession allows links to be made and theories to be expounded with regard to the original casting: it also helps us vividly understand the joke of Polonius playing Julius Caesar. Something of the necessarily reactive, improvisatory quality of early modern acting — reading cold, delivering your lines with the motivation of a genuine response to a cue you might have never heard before — also comes across in this method of engagement.
- Live-tweeting is a lot of fun for those involved in it, but also potentially alienating for those who want to engage with the reading process in a different way. Though I heard no explicit complaints during the #dekkerthon, it was clear that not everyone reading the text was comfortable or interested in engaging with the Twitter feed, and of course, nor should they have to be. Does this imply any kind of gap opening up between digital and non-digital approaches to the humanities? If so, does it point to any deeper divides which contemporary scholars who work heavily with digital and social media ought to be aware of, and what are the possibilities for bridging the gap between these different varieties of engagement?
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- Following on from the above, it’s clear that live-tweeting tends to prioritise certain experiences of the play over others. Not everything we get in the room from reading the play is summarisable; not every line is equally quotable without its context. Put bluntly, knob and fart jokes play better on Twitter than abstruse Latin references, and as such they’re correspondingly more visible in what becomes the digital record of the play.
The more obscure the play, the more problematic this might seem: the impression that we give of any text we read is undeniably a skewed and a reduced one, however hard we might try to offer more traditionally scholarly material. That said, is anyone going to read a bunch of live-tweets about The Welsh Ambassador who isn’t also more than averagely likely to go away and read The Welsh Ambassador? And if not, does this pose any ethical problems?
On the other hand, it does mean this happens:
- As Eoin Price has noted in his great post about reading the tweets without participating in the room, there is a marked resemblance between live-tweeting the early modern practice of commonplacing. When we tweet these texts, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what we’re doing, and who it’s for: the audience in the room, or beyond it? Are these tweets our own records of the text, a kind of intellectual crib of the lines we enjoyed or wanted to remember for own research, or are they a way of enticing potential readers? Should we aim to tweet in a way that clarifies the throughline of the play, giving a flavour of every scene and plot development, so that a reader can follow the entire narrative? Or should we (as in practice, I think we mostly do) tweet at particular flashpoints, underscoring the lines or moments that have had the most comic or dramatic impact? (As a side-note, it’s obvious that the plays that have the most people tweeting about them produce the greatest amount of content, and that the most popular plays to attend are probably the ones of which readers already have a background awareness: is this self-reinforcing, and is this a problem?)
It’s worth reflecting on whether we tweet primarily to summarise, to offer commentary, or – and this is no small thing – to express and share the pleasures of discovery these unfamiliar texts produce. And it’s probably worth asking if going about this task with any kind of self-consciousness about its academic value or otherwise is likely to stymie the fluidity and surprise which makes it so exciting to be a part of, even if that might make it somewhat less edifying to read at home.
- A final point which underlies much of the above: comedy is easier to live-tweet than tragedy. As such, when we do live-tweet a primarily tragic narrative (as, for instance, Shirley’s The Cardinal), the questions above might be especially pertinent: what are we hoping to convey? Will we inevitably focus on the comic elements of the tragedy, or does the absence of obvious jokes make it easier to foreground the dramatic poetry (something I sometimes fear is a casualty of the pithy format)? On the one hand, this suggests some plays aren’t going to benefit from live-tweeting as a method of response. On the other, it’s an endemic problem that early modern comedy is far less highly valorised in academia than its tragic counterpart. A lot of what we turn to Twitter for is making people laugh. If that’s what these plays are doing to, and the medium helps us to rediscover that, perhaps it’s no bad thing to put them centre stage. That said, I’m looking forward to a time when my own timeline is no longer filled with the word ‘whoremonger’. In that respect, I’m glad this comes but once a year.
I’d love to know what anyone else, involved in the Marathons or otherwise, thinks about the pleasures and perils of live-tweeting early modern drama: do comment below if there’s something you’d like to add. You can find all of the #dekkerthon tweets here yourself, and all the Shirley Marathon entries on this much more clumsily-integrated website which I cobbled together last year, when I refused to simply lie down and take WordPress’s refusal to play nice with Storify, with predictable consequences. I haven’t gone as far back as the Heywood Marathon for most of these points, largely because it doesn’t have its own site, but you can find everything posted under that hashtag here. Martin’s blog on this year’s marathon is here. See you all next year?