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?
[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]
- 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?
Last month marked the third iteration of an annual exercise in which I alienate a substantial proportion of my Twitter followers by posting a multi-day string of quotes from and riffs on the corpus of an early modern English playwright. Every year the Shakespeare Institute, under the direction of Dr Martin Wiggins, organises a marathon reading of the known (or strongly suspected) members of the dramatic canon of one such dramatist: this year’s chosen specimen was Thomas Dekker. Every year, a subset of the marathon’s participants offer a running commentary on the likes of James Shirley’s The Bird in a Cage or Thomas Heywood’s The Four Prentices of London in the form of a lively and scurrilous Twitter feed. Every year, we find that a growing number of people outside the room are listening in. Why do we do this? And what can we learn from the exercise?
Often little-known even within academia, and floating free of context into the wider world, in a sense these plays – old, complicated, ornery documents – are the opposite of traditional Twitter fodder: too niche to trend, too sprawling and involuted to lend themselves to a neat and snappy 140-characterisation. But there are clearly benefits to responding to these unfamiliar texts in this particular, instantly reactive way, as well as potential downsides which raise the question of how this method sits alongside conventional scholarship. In the spirit of Hamilton, I’m going to attempt to summarise my instincts about what happens when we live-tweet early modern drama in the form of ten live-tweeting commandments. These are all provisional and quite possibly largely wrong, and I’d love to hear from my fellow Dekkathletes, and from anybody brave enough to follow along at home, how true or otherwise they feel to your experience.
- Live-tweeting is inherently presentist. It can’t help responding to current affairs, and to the mood in the room, and making quickfire transhistorical comparison: it is still Twitter, after all. In its simplest form, this means the #dekkerthon live-stream fills up with gifs from Game of Thrones and Hamilton, offering flagging readers a quick, amusing hit of unexpected intertextuality.
More seriously, it leads to original and unconventional political readings. If It Be Not Good, the Devil is In It is not a play about Brexit, or about the nation’s attitude to refugees and migrants. On June 24th, however, with its exploration of a divided state in which a place of sanctuary rejects a group of travellers as ‘idle vagabonds’, it seemed wholly pertinent to those two things to almost everybody taking part. Are we imposing modern interpretations? Maybe: but the material within the text is there for the asking, and finding new political purposes within these works creates a powerful sense of Dekker, our contemporary.
- Nonetheless, live-tweeting as a form of response is capable of supporting serious scholarship. In recent weeks, Holger Syme’s #1Lear experiment has drawn into question the appropriateness of Twitter as a space for intellectual engagement, including in this article which (spoiler alert) quotes me at the very end saying it can be. The readers in the room, and those engaged from a distance, keep up an ongoing dialogue about sources, similarities between the work in question and the author’s other plays, as well as references to texts with which the play we’re reading is in dialogue. This places the current moment in a larger frame, and allows for some pretty rapid-fire connections. At its best, these kinds of exchanges can assist the work of scholarly editors, operating as a kind of continuous open-source concordance.
- Live-tweeting leads to a certain sense of temporal disjunct. Where readers are taking on multiple parts, their tweets sometimes appear minutes after the lines or scenes to which they were referring; the interactive whiteboard takes time to catch up, and often while the main action of the plot is moving forward chronologically, there is a secondary dialogue going on in the background, where scenes within a play are linked, backwards and forwards, to each other and to other plays by Dekker, Shirley, Shakespeare, etc. This disrupts the sense of a play as a single-focus, linear narrative, creating eddies and cross-currents, and chimes with much recent scholarship on the complicated life of early modern playworlds. More practically, it means you often miss your cue.
- A more obvious kind of temporal dissonance while live-tweeting comes in the form of anachronism. Joanne Tompkins, taking a cue from Foucault, has explored the idea of theatre as a heterotopic space, where different time-zones are multiply present. In this case, it can be a source of humour, where the meaning of a word or phrase has obviously changed, or of surprise: finding the conditions of the present perfectly expressed in the language of the past. Live-tweeting these 17th century texts, we find ourselves both ‘here’ and ‘there’ at once: or less charitably, we find ourselves ‘here’ with a here-inflected mental image of ‘there’ simultaneously in mind.
- It is impossible to recapture the experience of an ‘original’ Jacobean audience, but our response to these plays as live-tweeters presents an interesting analogue to that experience. By and large, we don’t know the texts, we don’t know the lines, the rhymes, the stories. We experience in real-time, the twists, the revelations, the transitions: when we read Epicoene, we already know the deal. But when we read Northward Ho, or almost any Shirley play turning on the question of potential cuckoldry, we are genuinely (if not necessarily pleasantly) surprised to discover that
it’s all a test. Of course – it’s all a test.
If we want to think about early modern plays not just as literature, but as dramaturgical constructions which have effects on their audiences, moment by moment, we could do a lot worse than watching the immediate, unscripted reactions to this material unfold on the #dekkerthon or #shirleymarathon Twitter feeds. Like an early modern audience, we are also cross-comparing to the plays we’ve seen the previous week, the previous day. Unlike that audience, we’re also comparing to plays we know that were published later, bearing in mind the ‘after’ as well as the ‘before’: we’re reading Dekker and anticipating Jonson, and the experience of an audience who knows one before the other — who sees The Whore of Babylon before King Lear — is what’s truly irrecoverable.
Go here for Part Two!