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Dr Jessica Winston, Between Theatre and Reading: Early English Plays on BBC Radio (1956-1957) and Traditions of ‘Partial Performance’

7 February, 2019 @ 5:15 pm - 7:00 pm

In Shakespeare performance criticism, the current trend is to conceptualize each performance as a unique event that brings together text, acting, lighting, directing, sound, blocking, spatial layout, and other elements to create a unique occasion. In these cases, the text is only one part of the production, and often not even the most significant part. While this idea of performance makes sense for full-scale, and especially professional productions, it does not map well onto modes of performance where the textual or verbal element of the text is the most important feature of the performance, for instance in readings, staged readings, radio dramas, or other audio recordings (such as librivox). Such modes of performance have been understood in relation to full-scale productions, in the words of Genevieve Love on staged readings, in terms of a “stepping-stone,” “wish,” or “becoming” on the way to full performance. This paper argues that such modes should be understood differently, not in relation to theatre, but in relation to private, silent reading. They exist in an increasingly popular, modern tradition of reading plays aloud as a substitute for and spur to private, individual reading.
To illustrate this point, I turn to The First Stage, a thirteen-episode series of early English plays produced for BBC Radio in the mid-1950s, which includes professional productions of many rarely played Tudor dramas, such as The Play of the Weather, Gammar Gurton’s Needle, Ralph Roister Doister, and Gorboduc. Initially, the history of this series suggests that the broadcast of each play should be understood as an event, which brought together an often radically adapted text with voices, musicians, sound and other technical effects to create a distinctive listening experience. Yet the presentation of the plays in a series and its audience reception suggests that the implicit, but guiding principal of The First Stage was to present the plays as written texts made accessible via radio. That is, the series offered a way to engage with written drama by listening, instead of reading.
Jessica Winston is Professor of English at Idaho State University. She is coeditor of Elizabethan Seneca: Three Tragedies (MHRA 2012), and author of Lawyers at Play: Literature, Law, and Politics at the Early Modern Inns of Court, 1558-1581 (OUP 2016), which received the 2017 Joseph L. Andrews Legal Literature Award from the American Association of Law Libraries. Her current research focuses on Tudor plays in modern performance.


7 February, 2019
5:15 pm - 7:00 pm
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Sheffield Centre for Early Modern Studies


Humanities Research Institute
34 Gell Street
Sheffield, S3 7QY United Kingdom
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