‘BELIEVING IN’ THEATRICAL PERFORMANCES
Where to begin? From history? History of events and institutions? History of ideas? The history of what Max Weber called the ‘external conditions’ of the age? Alternatively, we might start from language, a category that comprises both verbal and visual language systems as well as particular words and images. I choose the latter option.
‘Enter Cælia, the Fairy Queen,in her night attire’ is a stage direction in the manuscript text of Tom a Lincoln, an anonymous theatrical romance that dates from around 1611. The play’s hero is the Red Rose Knight. Thomas Heywood may have written it, possibly for staging at Gray’s Inn, but it was never published, and perhaps not even performed.
What does the stage direction signify? A search of the corpus of early modern drama reveals that a player in night attire was in fact a stock theatrical image, one that signified that his character was vexed or confused. In the ‘closet’ scene of the first quarto of Hamlet, we find ‘Enter the Ghost in his night gown’. Heywood’s Fairy Queen, accompanied by a court of night-tripping fairy Amazons, had been abandoned by her lover … like Dido. So, fairies or ghosts in night attire serve as signs requiring to be read, not as visible representations of substantial creatures, real or imagined that might be seen. Shakespeare frequently referred to players as ‘shadows’ … the word could also designate ‘figures’ or ‘types’. More particularly, the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (a friend of William Blake), whose pictures of fairy topics are impressively both suggestive and informed, described dreams as ‘personification[s] of sentiment’: the implication is that, to be understood, they need to be translated.