Author Archives: Laura Rosenthal

What is this “despair”? : Marlowe on the London stage in 2016


Kit Harington greeting his fans.    

If you want to feel young in Washington DC, go to the theater.  Now that I am as old as Lady Wishfort, I myself in most gatherings at the higher end of the age range. Theater in DC, however, remains one place in which that is not reliably the case.  Imagine my surprise, then, in attending a production of Doctor Faustus at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London with hardly any gray hairs and a sea of young people chattering excitedly, checking their phones, looking at phones together, taking selfies, taking photos of the theater, and taking photos of each other.  My first thought was: what a great educational system that so many people under twenty-five get so excited about Marlowe!  As Doctor Faustus began to conjure and demons slinked around the stage, it gradually dawned on me that the other Kit—Kit Harington, who also stars in a television show called Game of Thrones—drew them out.  (I actually had not heard of Kit Harington and never watched Game of Thrones but could sense that the Faustus on stage had another life as a celebrity by the young audience’s particular kind of excitement.  I later confirmed this intuition.  According to Wikipedia, Harington can claim Charles II as one of his ancestors, and he looks, actually, a bit like him.) The restless enthusiasm of the audience shaped my experience of the production.  I was sitting next a pair of young fans from Germany.  The young man did not understand English as well as his companion, so she would translate for him in pretty much a normal speaking voice throughout the production, only slightly less distracting for being in German. “What is this ‘despair,’?” he asked at one point.  A long explanation in German followed.  Then one of them apparently dropped a cell phone.  Both panicked and were crawling around on the floor on their hands and knees, lighting the darkness under the chairs with a flashlight app from the remaining device.  Finally, when Jenna Russell as a steely female Mephistopheles sang “Bat out of Hell”—a highlight of the show—I turned and shushed them, which didn’t help all that much since three American girls behind us were chattering just as conspicuously.  They looked puzzled, offended, and contemptuous.

In spite of these disturbances—although possibly also because of them, a point I will explain—I found the production mesmerizing.  Doctor Faustus begins as a loner in a dingy apartment glued to his television.  He rejects religion, classical learning, and medicine.  He then ceremoniously opens his Macbook, the apple on the lid glowing eerily, to find an easier path to fulfillment.  He seems to be googling something like “conjure Satan,” which yields a set of rituals and incantations, although as Mephistophiles later explains, they mean nothing.  Satan always sends one of his minions to visit those who abandon God.  The devil’s agents, in fact, occupy Faustus’s apartment from the opening scene, slithering around in various states of undress.  Faustus signs the contract in spite of warnings to the contrary and indulges in 24 years as a celebrity magician, surrounded by adoring fans.  These fans appear to us as the same demons slithering around his apartment, but Faustus doesn’t seem to recognize them as such.  When he takes the show to Las Vegas, the demons become his dancers.  Somehow we know that this act looks very different to the Las Vegas audiences, but we only see the demons with their hollow eyes and dirty underwear, without a spangle or pastie in sight.

Reviewers in general did not like this production.  They point to a range of failings: that Kit Harington cannot handle the poetry of Marlowe; that too much blood, shit, and vomit fly across the stage; that too many brains explode.  The main objection, however, seems to be with the adaptation itself, which replaces the enigmatic middle stretch of the play with Faustus’s celebrity career.  The conclusion of the reviewer from The Daily Mail perhaps sums up these complaints: “Why anyone would take out a 24-year contract with Satan to become a Derren Brown-Axl Rose hybrid beats me, but Harington throws himself at this meagre ambition with prodigious enthusiasm.”

There are two ways, then,  of looking at this production.  One would be that the director Jamie Lloyd and the adapter Colin Teevan dumb down Marlowe and feature a television star with insufficient acting credentials in order to appeal to a younger audience. Several of the reviewers mention this as the trademark of this particular director. The other, however, is that the adapter and director asked themselves, what would people now demand in exchange for the high price of their souls?  In other words, perhaps this is a deliberate updating not just of stagecraft and dialogue but also of sin.  Perhaps Faustus’s ambition in this reboot is designed to come across as meagre, a pale shadow of the 16th-century ambition to possess infinite knowledge and power.  (It is also worth noting, of course, that Marlowe’s Faustus plays stupid tricks on the Pope with his newfound abilities.)

This brings me back to the young people next to me crawling around on the floor in search of the dropped phone.  They could have been part of the production, as could many of the audience members snapping selfies and basking in the excitement of seeing their favorite celebrity on stage.  Whether they meant to do this or not, Colin Teevan and Jamie Lloyd suggest a difference between temptations in 1592 and in 2016: if the 1592 Faustus sold his soul out of megalomaniacal ambitions, Kit Harington’s Faustus collapses into narcissism.  This may seem like a let-down, but perhaps this is the point.  While nostalgia for late Elizabethan megalomania would be misplaced, concern over a rise in narcissism has attracted the attention of some academic psychologists as well as numerous commentators on this year’s election cycle. (A witty highlight of the production was Faustus’s conjuring up the soul of Barack Obama for insight in the age of President Trump.)  Jean M. Twenge summarizes such research here, and concludes from a range of experimental data that narcissism has become a more significant social force.

This production of Doctor Faustus, then, could have been hypocritical, as some of the reviewers charged, for exploiting the celebrity of Kit Harington to draw audiences to a play about the emptiness of celebrity and the loss of genuine feeling, illustrated in the production by a now-female Wagner who offers Faustus hope of salvation through her love.  Or, it could have been a brilliantly self-conscious critique of its intended audiences, grotesquely distinguishing between what narcissists think others are seeing and what they actually see, captured as beautiful bodies in sparkling bikinis on the Las Vegas stage vs. writhing zombies in soiled underwear.  By attending the performance, you have already filled the pen with blood.  The good angel doesn’t look much different from the bad ones, vomiting white rather than black, but reminding the faux-magician that God still loves him. In this second possibility, then, the production offers through irony powerful insight into the ways in which temptation has shifted.

I’m going with the latter.


Review of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

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Review of Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Written, directed, and performed by Paterson Joseph

Co-Directed by Simon Godwin

At the beginning of his one-man show, Paterson Joseph addresses the audience directly and confesses that he wrote Sancho: An Act of Remembrance  because he always wanted to star in a costume drama.  He then stops and briefly becomes Sir Peter Teazle from The School for Scandal to make the point.  Joseph wrote Sancho, he contends, to fulfill this costume drama fantasy, blocked in its realization by his skin color, and also to put to rest the myth that there were no blacks in Britain in the eighteenth century.  “But don’t worry,” he assures the audience, the show won’t be too overly political, and he promises to mix entertainment with, as the title suggests, remembrance of the first black man to cast a vote in a British election.


Joseph uses the act of voting, along with the portrait of Ignatius Sancho painted by Gainsborough, to anchor his performance.  The author, director, and star soon morphs into his eighteenth-century subject, first by simply pulling his socks up over his pants to approximate eighteenth-century style.  Throughout the production he dons and doffs various pieces of clothing, but the transformations mainly emerge from posture, gesture, and pronunciation.  Paterson Joseph as Sancho (and as several other characters) is charming and nimble throughout.  He gives Sancho a slight lisp, as Sancho reportedly had a speech impediment, but he lisp also marks off when Joseph speaks as the actor/author and when he speaks as Sancho. In one scene, then, Joseph reads a letter written from Lawrence Sterne to Sancho in the character of Sancho doing an impression of Sterne, thus with both lisp and Irish accent.  In another scene, he has Sancho recall his own brief acting career by reciting the speech from Thomas Southerne’s  Oroonoko in which the royal slave pledges his love for Imoinda.  The speech is not only beautifully delivered, but also, one imagines, not unlike the way actors presented such set pieces on the eighteenth-century stage as feats of elocution.  Joseph takes us through Sancho’s life, playing Sancho as a frightened child; a cooperative but restless adolescent in the household of the three maiden sisters to whom he had been given as a gift; an eager student excited by an education made possible by John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu; a butler in the Montagu household; and then later as a middle-aged shopkeeper with a wife and children.  Joseph enlivens the production with Sancho’s impressions of the people who fill his life: the racist ladies who first own him; his beloved West Indian wife; his five-year-old son.  Joseph keeps up an extraordinarily high level of energy throughout.  He portrays his subject with admiration, documenting his accomplishments (writing, composing), his vulnerabilities (gambling), his losses (his parents; a beloved daughter), and the many injustices he faced.  Joseph suggests parallels between Sancho’s frustrated career on the stage and enduring prejudices over color in casting. His moving portrait of Sancho begins with Gainsborough’s painting to suggest the importance of his subject and ends with Sancho casting a vote in favor of an abolitionist candidate.

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance entertains and educates.  Sometimes the performance felt a little piecemeal, with many wonderful scenes but without a full sense of Sancho himself.  Joseph seems to have resisted the temptation to fill in too much from imagination.  It also seems more possible than Joseph acknowledges, at least of late, to see “costume dramas” with mixed-race or race-blind casting, although that doesn’t diminish Joseph’s point about acting while black.  From the teasers embedded in Sancho, I would love to see Joseph in a full production of Southerne’s Oroonoko—or as Peter Teazle in The School for ScandalSancho: An Act of Remembrance takes part in the crucial project of rethinking our picture of the British eighteenth century not just in scholarly writing, but in more broadly public venues as well.  True to his word, Joseph achieves this with subtlety and charm, offering a memorable Sancho and a memorable performance.

CFP for Symposium at the University of Maryland


Call for proposals:

The Restoration and the British Empire:

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

April 29th 2016

University of Maryland, College Park

We seek proposals from all disciplines about the Restoration era’s significance for the creation of the British empire, including theater, politics, literature, gender, war, sexuality, colonialism, dissent, religion, and the slave trade.  For purposes of the symposium we define the “Restoration” as roughly 1660-1688, but also welcome considerations of the enduring effects of this period in later times, on other nations, and in all locations touched by this expanding empire.  We particularly encourage proposals that seek to cross oceans & disciplinary boundaries.

This symposium celebrates the move of the journal Restoration

 to the University of Maryland

Keynote Speaker: Timothy Harris, Brown University

Please send proposals of up to one page along with one-page cv to the co-organizers by Nov 1:

Holly Brewer (History) and Laura Rosenthal (English)

Co-sponsored by the UMD English Department; the UMD History Department, and Restoration


Happy Valentine’s Day from Bernard Mandeville



[B]y Love we understand a strong Inclination, in its Nature distinct from all other Affections of Friendship, Gratitude, and Consanguinity, that Persons of different Sexes, after liking, bear to one another: It is in this Signification that Love enters into the Compound of Jealousy, and is the Effect as well as happy Disguise of that Passion that prompts us to labour for the Preservation of our Species. This latter Appetite is innate both in Men and Women, who are not defective in their Formation, as much as Hunger or Thirst, tho’ they are seldom affected with it before the Years of Puberty. Could we undress Nature, and pry into her deepest Recesses, we should discover the Seeds of this Passion before it exerts itself, as plainly as we see the Teeth in an Embryo, before the Gums are form’d. There are few healthy People of either Sex, whom it has made no Impression upon before Twenty: Yet, as the Peace and Happiness of the Civil Society require that this should be kept a Secret, never to be talk’d of in Publick; so among well-bred People it is counted highly Criminal to mention before Company any thing in plain Words, that is relating to this Mystery of Succession: By which Means the very Name of the Appetite, tho’ the most necessary for the Continuance of Mankind, is become odious, and the proper Epithets commonly join’d to Lust are Filthy and Abominable.

Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, 2 vols. With a Commentary Critical, Historical, and Explanatory by F.B. Kaye (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988). Vol. 1. Chapter: [45]REMARKS.

Accessed from on 2014-02-14


Congreve’s “Love for Love” staged reading

For Congreve fans in the DC area, there will be a staged reading of Love for Love on Monday evening.  Sorry for the short notice but I only recently found out about it.  I have attended these before and they are excellent.



When you’re done grading, go to the theater



Ever on the lookout for productions of drama from the extra long eighteenth century, I am passing along the announcement of this production of Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille (translated by Richard Wilbur) at the Storm Theatre in New York.  This is the same theater and the same director responsible for an outstanding production of The London Merchant,  discussed here and here on this blog. The Red Bull Theatre’s production of Volpone might also be of interest.  I have not yet seen this, but admired this company’s deliciously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy a few years ago and hope to see Volpone as well.  Finally, today’s New York Times reviewed a production of Amy Freed’s play, Restoration Comedy, based in part on Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The review did not make the production sound particularly tempting, but I would be happy to hear from anyone with a different perspective.

What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.