The other class was my English Renaissance seminar. The subject was Ben Jonson's Volpone, in which a rich old Venetian man pretends to have a terminal illness in order to received splendid gifts from three other greedy old men, in the hope that they'll be named sole heir. There's a cast of freaks, a wily servant, the legacy-hunters, a bland young man who saves a bland young woman from rape by the eponymous anti-hero, and for comic relief, a naive English couple abroad, agog at the city's conspiratorial nature: they want in.
|Volpone 'seducing' Celia in the 1941 French adaptation|
I decided that we should look at the play as a performance, because that would require the students to consider all the other questions about how it works. So I asked them to prepare the scenes in which Corvino orders his wife Celia to sleep with Volpone, and the one in which Volpone attempts to rape her. They had to explain their casting choices, costumes, tone of voice, movement, set design, whether to keep the action in Renaissance Venice or move it to some other time and place, what to do about the language and a host of other things. Finally, they'd have to consider genre: how does a rape scene play in a comedy? In doing so, they'd have to make choices: about attitudes to sex, gender and ageing, whether virtuous Celia is a heroine or a prig, whether retaining the original setting and language distances a 2013 audience from Jonson's social critique, and how to portray the animal symbolism which structures the play: do we want to produce a piece of symbolic art or an intervention into a discrete cultural situation?
|A more stylised production of Volpone|
The idea was to get them to do a reading of the play in the seminar, once we'd discussed their ideas. They chickened out of that (though a few were enthusiastic), which I can understand completely (though it's going to happen soon, now I know how good they are), but otherwise the exercise was hugely successful. They enjoyed it, they drew on all parts of the play to justify their choices. One group went for the original setting but a farce-like staging, while the other chose a modern setting in a scrapyard, perhaps drawing on Steptoe to emphasis Volpone's purposeless acquisitiveness. One group decided that Celia is a figure of fun because she's so uptight and dull, so they proposed casting Sheryl Cole to avoid the audience sympathising with her: their Volpone was to be Alan Rickman thanks to his depiction of evil in Harry Potter. The other group went for a Benny Hill-style romp: lots of chasing each other round the furniture.
I was so impressed by the sophistication of their thought. Just goes to show that breaking away from the standard seminar format can produce really rich results: we talked about all the same issues but the challenge of performance really added something. One of those occasions which makes this job so brilliant.