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Laughter, Cruelty and Emotional Excess in Early Modern Drama and its Contemporary Revisions

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Tim Crouch. http://www.timcrouchtheatre.co.uk/ Latitude Festival, 2012 ©Bruce Dalzell Atherton

Date: Wednesday 30 July 2014
Time: 1-3pm
Venue: Rogers Room, Woolly Building, The University of Sydney
Lecturer: Dr Bridget Escolme, Reader at Queen Mary, University of London


Bridget Escolme explores a range of recent productions and revisions of early modern objects of laughter. Turning to comedies and treatises on laughter from the early modern period she discusses how ideas of cruelty and kindness, propriety and excess have changed and remained across four hundred years. Malvolio is treated as mad in his dark house, and Escolme focuses on the ‘mad’ as subjects and objects of humour in the early modern drama. Drawing on her recent monograph, Emotional Excess on the Shakespearean Stage, she interrogates historical and cultural assumptions around the treatment of the mad as comic spectacle, arguing that these comic figures are more powerful and theatrically dynamic, less pitiful and objectified, than scholarship has hitherto figured them. There is a long stage and critical history of ‘notoriously abused’ Malvolios who are revealed in the ‘dark house’ as bewildered and tortured; in early productions he would likely only to have been heard.

Writer and performer Tim Crouch, a visiting artist at Sydney Festival 2014, appears in his one-man performance I Malvolio, in which he relates the story of Twelfth Night from the Steward’s perspective, as a victim of late medieval shame punishment and a contemporary vision of benighted historical cruelty to asylum inmates. Dressed in filthy ‘combinations’ and a turkey comb and wattle, Crouch’s Malvolio provokes his audience members to laugh at him, then confronts them with their cruelty, their bullying, their decadent excesses. Tim Crouch seeks to recuperate and re-empower what he calls ‘minor’ characters from Shakespeare in his series of one-man shows; Escolme argues that for some seeming objects of cruel laughter, the plays themselves are already doing this work.