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Title:Great bellies and boy actors: pregnancy plays on the Stuart stage, 1603-1642
Author(s):Thiel, Sara Boland Taylor
Director of Research:Stevens, Andrea
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Stevens, Andrea; Robinson, Valleri J
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Gray, Catharine; Bishop, Mardia J
Department / Program:Theatre
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Pregnancy play
Pregnancy plays
Theater history
Original practices
Early modern theater
Early modern London
Early modern drama Stuart
Stuart London
Queen Anna
Anna of Denmark
Masque of Blackness
Great belly
Great bellies
Boy actor
Pregnancy prosthetic
Abstract:Before 1603, pregnant characters were seldom present on English stages; because of mounting anxiety over Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir, representations of pregnant bodies were, perhaps wisely, rare. In contrast, after James’s succession, dramatists displayed a growing interest in staging visibly pregnant characters that drive dramatic action, despite prevalent notions of the motherless Stuart stage. For example, Felicity Dunworth has suggested that the staged mother all but disappears upon James’s arrival to the throne. Despite scholarly biases toward maternal erasure on English stages after Elizabeth’s death, I argue the gestating body was indeed a site of dramatic interest, evinced by the wide variety of pregnancy plays written by the period’s most prolific writers including Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Heywood, to name a few. In “Great Bellies and Boy Actors,” I analyze all twenty-two extant—what I term—“pregnancy plays,” first performed between 1603 and 1642. The defining characteristic of this dramatic subgenre is a pregnancy or pregnant character that drives the action of a plot in some significant way. Over the span of thirty-nine years, pregnancy became conspicuous in its representation on Stuart stages and this sudden increase in gestation’s visibility is deserving of significant critical consideration, though it has received scant attention from other scholars of early modern theatrical materials, prosthetics, or performed maternity. My work sheds light on this critical blind spot in early modern theatre history and drama that has emerged in the shadow cast by Queen Elizabeth and King James I. Each chapter takes as its central focus a text or group of texts that represent a particular dramaturgical strain within the subgenre such as patricentric, prosthetic, or peripheral pregnancy plays. Chapter one, A Pregnant Performance: Wielding the Royal Reproductive Body in The Masque of Blackness, takes Queen Anna of Denmark’s painted pregnant performance in Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness (1605) as its primary object of study. I examine how Anna made her pregnant body highly visible in Blackness to create space for her political influence in the newly minted English Stuart court. Chapter two, Patricentric Pregnancy Plays: The Problem of Opaque Bodies in Histories, Romances, and Tragedies, illuminates a major dramaturgical trend in Stuart pregnancy plays—those wrestling with patriarchal anxiety produced by the unknown child concealed within the mother’s opaque belly. In these patricentric pregnancy plays, the gestating characters’ high-stakes pregnancies have the ability to secure or destroy their respective lineage. As such, I suggest these pregnancy plays tacitly hearken back to the anxiety-inducing matriarchal authority wielded by Queen Anna at the beginning of the Stuart reign. Chapter three, Prosthetic Pregnancy Plays: Materializing the Belly and Demystifying Gestation in Comedies, centers on how comedies foreground the prosthetic and material construction of the “great belly” while simultaneously undermining the maternal authority asserted throughout chapter two’s patricentric pregnancy plays. In the comedies analyzed throughout chapter three, the pregnant characters lose the dangerous qualities they possess in Webster, Ford, and Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, Middleton, Jonson, and May stage the incontinent pregnant body that fails to contain its fluids, secrets, or authority through metatheatrical disruptions of recently established pregnancy performance conventions. Chapter four, Peripheral Pregnancy Plays: Marginal Gestation in Tragicomedies and Problem Plays, explores how problem plays and tragicomedies relegate pregnant bodies and characters to the plays’ peripheries, while the pregnancy itself remains integral to the playwrights’ dramaturgy. I begin with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604) and All’s Well that Ends Well (c. 1606), in order to examine the ways in which pregnancy can be simultaneously crucial to the plays’ plot structure, yet peripheral to the overall action of the drama. Following these analyses, I reveal how Shakespeare’s early peripheral pregnancies influenced later plays by Webster, Heywood, William Rowley, and Thomas Middleton. Finally, Pageantry and Pregnancy: The Enduring Influence of Blackness, examines two late pregnancy plays—Middleton’s The Nice Valour (1622) and Thomas Heywood’s Love’s Mistress, or the Queen’s Masque (1634). These two plays hearken back to Queen Anna of Denmark’s pregnant performance in The Masque of Blackness. Specifically, Love’s Mistress points to the lasting influence that Queen Anna’s painted pregnant performance had on the cultural and artistic imagination of early modern London. However, where Queen Anna was able to use The Masque of Blackness to assert her matriarchal authority, Cupid’s patriarchal dominance tames the disobedient Psyche in Heywood’s masque. Throughout this study, I establish pregnancy plays as a discrete subgenre of early modern drama through a dramaturgical analysis of pregnancies and gestating characters in twenty-two extant plays. In so doing, I spend a significant amount of time considering the material reality of staging pregnancy on boy actors’ bodies, as well as the role the “great belly” plays in the Stuart theatre’s mise en scène. These plays, which have never been considered as a distinct subgenre, gesture to a blind spot in scholarship that has emerged in the dual shadow cast by Queen Elizabeth and King James’s respective influence on London’s theatrical culture. By putting these plays in conversation, this study begins to fill a major gap in scholarship that ignores the rich and abundant presence of prenatal motherhood on Stuart stages, and further interrogates how Queen Anna of Denmark heavily influenced dramatic literature and performance practices. My close examination of pregnancy plays as a viable subgenre on the Stuart stage, as well as their (at times) explicit connection to the first childbearing Queen in two generations, troubles this binary categorization from maternal to paternal—from strictly matriarchal to wholly patriarchal. In other words, “Great Bellies and Boy Actors” challenges ideas of “Elizabethan” and “Jacobean” as categories of early modern dramatic literature. In so doing, I establish the pregnancy play as a subgenre of early modern English dramatic literature worthy of further investigation by theatre historians as well as early modern literature and maternity studies scholars.
Issue Date:2017-02-14
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Sara B.T. Thiel
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-08-10
Date Deposited:2017-05

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