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Students bring 17th-century literature to the stage


In a provocative new approach to learning, Queen’s drama students are being assigned an acting role in a play written by an English professor.

The innovative cross-disciplinary approach is the brainchild of two Queen’s professors.

Associate professor Leslie Ritchie wrote the play based on her research of a little-known aspect of seventeenth-century theatre for performance by undergraduate students in Judith Fisher’s drama class.

Under the direction of Dr. Fisher, the student actors will learn about prologues and epilogues by ’spouting’ several of the most famous of these short poems, which traditionally came before and after plays.

Dr. Ritchie argues in her research that prologues and epilogues provide key spaces in which women, who were new to the English public stage, assert their right to be included in English drama as actresses and playwrights.

These were lively and challenging roles to play. A theatre convention used to communicate with audiences, the many rhetorical approaches used in prologues and epilogues to settle an unruly crowd or aid in the play’s interpretation included hectoring, threatening, criticizing, satirizing, flattering, and flirting. They were also used to satirize or heckle actors or playwrights, or to bring attention to them.

Challenging theatre-goers to leave their preconceived notions outside the theatre, Before & After highlights the performance practices and the larger social and historical contexts of seventeenth-century prologues and epilogues where women cross dress as men to exploit gender stereotypes.

Dr. Ritchie discovered as part of her research that prologues and epilogues were not as ephemeral and occasional as other scholars have previously suggested. “They led an exciting afterlife outside the theatre,” she says. “They were read and published widely in newspapers and poetry anthologies, and, later in the eighteenth century, they were performed enthusiastically by amateur actors in ’spouting clubs.’”

The Queen’s play was specially written and cast for two separate performances - one using an all-female cast with four women cross-dressed to play male characters; the other cast using both males and females as would be considered appropriate to the roles.

“Before & After provides an opportunity for modern audiences to experience Restoration gender politics on the stage,” says Dr. Fisher, who has studied and published widely on the lives of actresses from the era.

Performing the two versions of the play on consecutive nights will allow both researchers and audience to speculate and gain insight on how Restoration and eighteenth-century character types depend on gender stereotypes.

Dr. Ritchie notes that roles where women wore male attire - referred to as “breeches roles”--were very popular at the time, and continue to be a source of interest and controversy amongst today’s scholars.

“Some scholars see the breeches role as empowering for women, who temporarily got to assume male privilege with male attire; others see breeches roles, which revealed an actress’s ”shape“ and legs quite suggestively, to the delight of many men in the audience, as an exploitative spectacle of femininity,” she says. “An all-female cast will draw attention to this historical practice.”

Funded by Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRCC), Before & After is the culmination of a chapter in Dr. Ritchie’s ongoing prologue and epilogue research.

She will present a paper titled “Revenge of the Spouters,” concerning amateur actors’ use of prologues and epilogues in the late eighteenth century, in March at the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies convention in Portland.

Before & After will be performed Wednesday, January 30 and Thursday, January 31 at 8 pm in the Vogt Studio, Carruthers Hall. Admission is free.


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