Boundaries of The Actors’ Body: Staging Ghosts in Revenge Tragedies

In his poem, ‘On Everyday Theatre’, Bertolt Brecht, writes:

‘Somewhere between

Dressing room and stage:

An Actor leaves his room

A king enters the play.’

The identity of the actor shifts as his body moves from dressing room, to stage. Between these two spaces, between the final act of the play and the curtain call, between one side of the theatre doors and the other, there is a shift in role between actor and character and between theatre-goer and co-conspirator. This experience is one that is unique to theatre; it requires a subconscious mutual agreement between audience member and actor that neither will acknowledge the fictionality of the play, except within accepted spaces, at accepted times. The theatrical experience relies on the prerequisite that the audience will suspend their disbelief while the play is in motion. This is the way that theatre has always worked, as J.L. Stvan notes,

‘Aeschylus had only two male actors to play all his parts, male and female: his audiences accepted a sex-change at the drop of a mask’.

This suspension of disbelief is particularly important during a performance of a tragedy, a revenge tragedy, perhaps, even more, for the audience must not consciously doubt that the grievance, anger and desire for revenge are real; the audience must care for the characters if they are to pity them at the play’s end. In revenge tragedy there will, inevitably, be acts of violence and dead bodies present on stage and the audience must accept these as being real while they remain within the realm of the theatre if they are to receive the feeling of catharsis at the play’s bloody end. For example, in Thomas Kyd’s, The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronimo, throughout the majority of the play, grieves over the murder of his son, Horatio. He seeks revenge against Lorenzo and Balthazar, who had killed Horatio to prevent him from marrying Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo’s sister and the woman that Balthazar seeks to marry. In Act Four, Scene Four, the play’s penultimate scene, Hieronimo, after finally enacting his revenge, reveals his son’s dead body to both the remaining characters in the play, and to the theatre audience: ‘see here my show; look on this spectacle! / Here lay my hope, and here my hope hath end’ (IV. 4. 90-91). This is the climax of the play, the moment that the surviving characters discover that Horatio had been murdered, that Balthazar and Lorenzo were his killers, and that the murder has been avenged. The audience’s suspension of disbelief, when the actor who had played Horatio is brought back onto the stage, this time, hung and lifeless, is absolutely necessary to achieve tragic effect.

While it is pivotal that the audience withholds their sense of incredulity, it is not always possible. The boundaries of the actor’s body do not allow for seamless or absolute transition from actor, to character. Of course, this this not something that should be deemed a deficiency for it cannot be helped and with the aid of makeup and costume, the transition can be made as smoothly as possible. There are two things that transform actor into character: the undertaking of a role (reading from a script and adjusting behaviour to comply with the behaviour dictated in the text) and costume. The actor who is cast in the role of De Flores in The Changeling, for example, is given a ‘riot of red sores’ and ‘pustules’ or ‘a dark rash on his left cheek’ to exhibit his character’s ‘bad face’ which so repulses Beatrice-Joanna — her disgust would not make sense if the audience could not see De Flores’ blemishes.

The costuming of a fleshly character is a relatively easy task; makeup and clothes are used to make an actor look the way he or she is described in the text, or according to the environment and time period in which the play is set. This task becomes an increasingly difficult one, however, when the text demands the staging of the supernatural. It has been recognised that between the years 1560-1610, fifty one ghosts were present in twenty six plays. Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, estimated to have been written some time between 1582 and 1592, was one of these plays — Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which was licensed for performance in 1622, fell just outside of this period, but, too features a ghost. In these plays, the ghost must be recognisable as a something “other” than human and so, as M.C. Bradbrook records, ghosts often wore leather, ‘though some wore armour […] the ghost’s face, according to The Rebellion […] was whitened with flour’. The costume of the stage ghost must somehow signal that the actor in the ghost’s role is a ghost, yet the, as Aoife Monks puts it, ‘”thereness”’ of clothing ‘interrupts the illusion of the “not-there”’ that the actor playing the ghost must possess in order to be convincing in their role.

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy this is less of a problem, for the ghost of Don Andrea is not seen by any other character, with the exception of his accomplice, Revenge. There is no real need for Don Andrea’s ghost to “look” like a ghost, because he does not need to convince any other character that he is one, because his identity is never called into question by a character during the course of the play. The theatre audience of The Spanish Tragedy, too, is unlikely to question the actor’s role as a ghost in Kyd’s play, for the ghost of Don Andrea closely resembles the Senecan ghost in that he acts as a kind of chorus in the play, demonstrating the repercussions of sin. This kind of ghost is likely to have been familiar to the Elizabethan audience, who probably would have known of Seneca’s ghosts in Thyestes and Agamemnon who frame their respective plays. More complicated, is the role of Alonzo’s ghost in The Changeling. The ghost appears in only two scenes, Act Four, Scene One and Act Five, Scene One and only De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna, within the realm of the play, see the ghost. The second, and final, time that Alonzo’s ghost appears, is when Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores plot to murder Diaphanta, Beatrice-Joanna’s waiting-woman, to prevent her from revealing, to Alsemero, that his new wife is not a virgin as he believes her to be. The ghost appears and De Flores speaks: ‘Ha! What art thou that tak’st away the light / ‘Twixt that star and me?’. It is in this moment, when De Flores asks ‘what art thou’ that the audience, too, be in danger of beginning to ask the very same thing. The question suggests that that which is present on stage is questionable and of course, it is, and it is a threat to the effectiveness of the play’s end.

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