Interview with C. W. Marshall

© C. W. Marshall and Figure/Ground
Dr. Marshall was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. January 17th, 2014.

C. W. Marshall is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia, 2013-14, and is Professor of Greek in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies. Dr. Marshall has won numerous awards, including the President’s Award for Outstanding Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Early Career UBC Scholars program, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, Assistant Professor level, and the UBC Killam Faculty Research Fellowship, University of British Columbia. He has published on numerous topics, including Ancient Theatre and Stagecraft, Greek and Latin Poetry, Performance, translation, and adaptation, and Classics and Popular Culture. Dr. Marshall is currently working on three book projects: Tragic Direction: Structure and Performance in Euripides’, Son of Classics and Comics, and The Cambridge Introduction to Greek and Roman Theatre. Dr. Marshall received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1993.

How did you become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It was certainly the way I was always headed, but I’m not sure I’d call it a conscious choice. More of a fait accompli. I was excited by my subject, I could do it, and I was very fortunate to have opportunities. Once I finished my doctorate at Edinburgh, I worked a number of years as a sessional. I moved every year, but I always had some work, and it was always in Canada. That experience taught me a lot: teaching different courses each year, living in different parts of the country, meeting and working with new people all the time. It was during that time that I did make the decision not to re-certify my lifeguarding certificate — there was a conscious choice that I was going to make Classics work. About two years later, I  was given my first tenure-track job, at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s.

How important were guidance and mentorship during those formative years?

Because I had come from the UK system, I really had no idea how the North American job market worked, and I didn’t know the questions I should have been asking. As a result, the annual meetings and the job fair could be a lonely and barren time. I did meet several wonderful people who did support me, and they remain very important to me: Senior academics who were role-models for the type of scholar I wanted to be. That was important and it encouraged me to persevere.

The value of ongoing mentorship is really important, and I continue to benefit from it. I also try to model it well for my students and junior colleagues.

In your experience, did the role of the university professor and student-professor relations change much since you were an undergraduate?

It’s hard to say, because my understanding of being a professor has changed so much in that time as well. Perhaps because of my theatre background, I am much more aware of the ways in which I am performing when I teach, both in- and out-of-class. When I teach, I am not only conveying certain facts about antiquity, but modelling a way of asking questions, a way of reading evidence, and trying to do so in what I hope will be seen as an entertaining and enthusiastic way. My self-consciousness about what I do has changed so much that measuring any other changes might be misleading.

There’s a lot about the profession that I was unaware of when I was an undergraduate. I was often in the theatre, and likely was unaware of the pressures that academics constantly negotiate. If anything, I overcorrect for my earlier lack of awareness by advocating for complete transparency: especially with grad students, I want them to understand the choices that are being made (by them, for them), and to help them navigate through the difficulties with information, so the decisions they make are more informed than mine were.

How did these two aspects of your career (a pedagogue, a man of theater) further reinforce one another? Did having practical work experience outside the academy help you become a better professor?

I was very fortunate because I just sort of fell into theatre. My first degree was in Classical archaeology, but while I was doing that I was spending my spare time at the university theatre. Then, as it does, the theatre started taking over. I had started an improvisational comedy troupe, and that gave me lots of stage time and a network of friends. We were performing twice a week, offering workshops, etc., all riding this wave of enthusiasm and naive optimism. But it worked. I learned a lot about performance, about measuring the response of an audience – well, about everything, since I really knew so little when it started. At the same time, I had pitched staging two Greek plays back-to-back, and I had translated one of them. (This was done no doubt to impress my Greek professor at the time, who was teaching us Homer and Euripides and luring me away from archaeology.) When the director backed out, I sort of fell into his position, becoming a director by default.

I didn’t know it then, but my path was set. I started new comedy groups in new cities (most are still performing in one form or another), and directed more tragedies on modern stages. When I started my doctorate, I was working on Greek theatre entirely (doing improv in the evenings) and archaeology was put to the side. Except that new trends in scholarship started looking at vase painting (and other objects) for visual evidence for the ancient theatre. So I still get to use material culture in my research and teaching, even when I’m talking about plays and theatre history.

In that sense, then, theatre gave me a direction for my research that has proved very productive. I approach ancient texts asking questions about practical effects (what an actor had to do; how masks work; what an audience perceived; etc.) and I’ve been able to experiment when directing to see if I actually believe what I think the sources are saying after I’ve tried to make actors replicate those effects. It’s also taught me how to read around the scripts. With ancient theatre, scripts are for the most part all that survive – the words spoken. But that’s such a small part of the Total Theatre Experience. My work with improv gave me a vocabulary and a way of thinking about theatre that did not privilege the words spoken, and it’s helped me understand many of the non-verbal elements of ancient performance. There’s a constant feedback loop, and the two worlds reinforce one another and help each other develop.

I’m interested in pre-thetic forms of communication, i.e., interactions that precede the explicit exchange of messages to be encoded and decoded in a lineal fashion. What else can you tell us about the non-verbal elements of ancient performance and their role as a vehicle to focus practices on stage?

Theatre puts a frame around an action, and it invites interpretation of anything within that frame. Everything that appears on stage is potentially interpretable, because almost everything has been put there by choice. Someone’s choice, whether or not it was made consciously — the stage manager, the director, the costumer, someone. And each choice is governed by a series of constraints: on the one hand exist the artistic visions and experiences of those involved, and on the other are practical concerns such as budget, time, availability of resources, the safety of actors on stage, and the laws of physics. Very little of that matters to the spectator, who is being given the opportunity to watch some other world, but the constraints still shape what it is that she sees. The pauses that an actor makes, the intonation of the delivery, small gestures are all cues to the depth of the character even if the actor doesn’t intend for them to be taken as such. Because they exist in the performance, they invite interpretation.

There’s no way to catalogue all of those things: there are simply too many of them, and all of them communicate on a non-verbal level. The actors present their characters and the spectator considers all that is presented, and (here is one of the more wonderful things about theatre) then actively works to construct a coherent meaning out of what she sees. Because the spectator has invested in the performance (with time, with money), she also invests a critical energy in interpreting the whole of the stage world. Further, each spectator does this individually, and yet shares in the collective (audience) experience. Directors and playwrights can manipulate that investment, though the practical constraints will always be present.

That’s not quite what you’re asking, of course, but it starts to show much information is lost about ancient performance. The script is a small amount of that experience, but it may be all that we have. Western literary criticism has long been logocentric, and I think it’s healthy to think about other elements that might be less well attested about the performance.

Masks offer one example — stage performers wore masks in both Greece and Rome, and these masks communicated information about the character to spectators. The audience might not know that a character won’t be named in the play (i.e. will end up as “Messenger” or “Nurse” in the surviving script), because visually the character is presenting as much information as a named character is. Masks also help to strip away the individualizing elements of all characters, presenting a face onto which it is easier to project one’s own sense of the character’s identity. We can see ourselves in Medea or as a messenger more comfortably because of this stylization.

Greek theatre was not naturalistic — among its more characteristic features was that it was a kind of musical theatre. The singing and dancing and musical accompaniment add additional layers that were available to the ancient audiences but are more or less completely lost to us today.

Speaking of frames and musical theatre, one trend in stage performance generally in this age of digital media is that background processes tend to come to the fore more than ever before. In live music performances, for instance, what happens off stage and backstage appears to be just as important as what happens on stage. Metallica’s recent concert in Antarctica comes to mind as an extreme contemporary example: not only did the environment itself become more thematic to our awareness, but fans were invited to share the stage with the band members. Has the on-stage, off-stage divide blurred somewhat in theater also? Did public participation vary much throughout the ages?

There’s a lot in your question, and so I’ll just touch on a few of the issues. While I’m interested in digital media and opportunities that they provide, I feel strongly that there is something special about being in the same physical space at the same time as the performer. Live theatre offers opportunities (and risks) that don’t otherwise exist. The communication is bidirectional as well — the presence and nature of the audience changes the performance itself.  That’s not true with cinema, for example: the performance is the same regardless of the people in the audience, though of course individual audience members will experience it differently. Liveness offers a vital dynamic, and it’s something that concerts offer as well.

Most of the time. I don’t know much about your Metallica example, but as I understand it the bulk of that concert’s audience was streaming in, or will see it after the event. Even those that were there had the experience mediated through headphones. That’s cool, but it is working to privilege the technology over liveness. That’s a choice, and it offers some artistic opportunities, but they’re different from the ones I’m talking about.

You also mention environmental conditions. This is something that the outdoor theatre of the Athenians had to deal with. We know very little about how a festival would be affected if it rained on a day plays were to be performed, but it will have had an effect. The wind, the sun, precipitation, temperature — these things affected the ancient experience of the theatre but they don’t if I’m streaming something online. Indoor theatres try to control for many of those variables, creating a more homogeneous theatre experience.

In my outdoor, masked productions of Roman comedies, the actors have performed in wind and rain (March in Newfoundland) or with snow on the ground (March in Ontario), with audiences cuddled up, drinking hot chocolate or hiding under umbrellas. It’s exciting watching theatre when the musician’s script has blown away.

As to the importance of the off-stage/on-stage divide: that’s a distinction that’s always been important, and different cultures explore it in different ways (so yes, it has varied over time). One of the questions I have discussed is how parts are divided between actors. Because of the dramatic competitions (and the pressures of economy) most ancient plays doubled roles among a limited number of actors. I’m interested to what extent an average spectator might “see” the actor beneath the mask, recognizing the same body and voice (actors were celebrities then too!) literally underneath the character being played. How then does that perception connect the characters, providing additional information with which to interpret the plays. I see indications that playwrights used doubling to create some virtuoso effects, but it depends on the spectator possessing a dual vision, capable of seeing the off-stage reality alongside the on-stage one.

I fancy the idea of the actor beneath the mask and how spectators partake in the construction of characters on stage through intersubjective audience participation. To what extent does this process relate to everydayness? Did Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model and mask theory inform your thinking about theater performance in any way?

I’m sure the process does relate to “everydayness”, but that’s not what theatre’s about — for me, at least. Goffman uses theatre as a metaphor for real-life interactions. That’s a powerful analytic tool, and it’s amazing how easily theatrical language seeps into the everyday world: the parts we play, the masks we wear, our choice of costume, role, whether we put ourselves centre stage, etc. Though the metaphor is vibrant, I want to insist that there’s still something special about the actual theatre, the experience of going to a designated place to see a narrative being performed by real people. It’s not that it’s the only thing, but it’s what I want to understand better.

That’s not to say that the knowledge can’t be transferred to other contexts, but my concern is drilling down to the specifics of what happens in a certain type of social activity.

One such type of social activity you seem concerned with is Greek and Roman theatre. What fundamental principles introduced by the Greeks and Romans remain very much at work in contemporary theatre?

For the history of Western theatre, it’s pretty much all there from the start. Different performance venues offer different performance opportunities, but the continuity of theatre over time, the fact that it remains comprehensible, is really astounding. Here though are three things that stand out for me.

First, ancient theatre is a densely networked experience. Plays allude to other plays, and the competence of the audience is really pushed. You never need to know the previous works, but when you do there’s an added dimension.  A recent book has called this “metapoetry”, on analogy with (and as an intersecting set of) the term “metatheatre”, when plays recognize their own status in theatre. So at the end of Euripides’ Hecuba (a play from the late 420s BCE), the character of Agamemnon has his future predicted to him, and is told the details of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (a play from 458 BCE, but which was likely reperformed in the 420s). Euripides writes himself into the Aeschylean continuity, but as a prequel of sorts, retroactively cancelling (or at least having the opportunity to cancel) the earlier-but-happening-later play.

The fifth century was also a period of great experimentalism in theatre. We know of a handful of tragedies on historical themes (Aeschylus’Persians from 472 is one of those), and Aristotle tells us that the poet Agathon wrote a play called Antheus that had no mythical (or historical) precedent, that was “pure” fiction. We can look at a theatrical experiment such as Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, in which one of the characters is buried above her waist in sand. Her continued immobility, a fundamental symbol of the play, was (I think) unique in Western theatre at the time, except for Prometheus Bound (a fifth-century BCE play that survives under the name of Aeschylus, but which is probably not by him). The fifth century was a time when drama (as we think of it) was just beginning, and the fundamental principles were still being written. Aeschylus’ Suppliants is a play in which the main character is a group of fifty women, with none of them individuated by name. That’s pretty bold, moreso when we consider The Fifty may was likely represented by only fifteen chorus members on the stage.

Despite this freedom, though, the characters and their situations continue to speak to us. That’s really surprising to me — that I can care more about a character in a play form another culture 25 centuries ago than I do for one emerging from my own culture, in my own language. That emotional connection is there: we care about fictional characters, we build emotional attachments. That’s one of the things Aristotle isolates in Poetics, and it’s surprising, or it should be. We get weepy when characters on tv get together or we are concerned for their well-being at a cliffhanger; sappy song lyrics can still make us tingle… Our willingness to invest ourselves (our time and emotional energies) into stories is a central part of human experience. And theatre offers us a good place to think about that, because it’s a medium that is not governed by technology to the same extent as television, novels, cinema, etc.

After the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan starts using the term “Global Theater” to emphasize the changeover from consumer to producer, from acquisition to involvement, from job holding to role playing, stressing that there is no more community to clothe the naked specialist. The difference was that a “global theater” according to McLuhan encompasses “the satellite medium that encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which “ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed.”  I’d like to hear your reaction to McLuhan’s aphoristic insight and your foresight about the evolution of theater as we enter the digital age…

As before, McLuhan is taking the (powerful, evocative) language of theatre and applying it more broadly. And he’s writing at a time when television is still a relatively new medium, dominating and changing culture. So let’s talk about television! The past few years have seen an amazing change in the nature of television narratives, and I think that that is to be tied to the nature of television economics. The best tv in the 21st century is better than the best cinema (in my opinion), and it’s worth thinking about why that might be. Here’s one way of thinking about it. The traditional model of television economics disempowers the viewer: we become the commodity. The job of television was to sell me (my time spent watching tv) to an advertiser, who sponsored the programming. Any talk of viewer demographics points in this direction: I am interesting as a spectator only so far as what products people of my age and sex typically purchase. That’s changing — not only because with more stations the networks have less of a bottleneck on channelling viewers, but also there are now so many opportunities for the individual viewer to choose what they watch actively: buying DVDs or downloading seasons from online vendors, subscribing to specialty channels that are creating their own content, etc. I am able to be an active economic agent in my television watching today in a way that I couldn’t before, and I can reward directly creators who present challenging or thought-provoking television narrative in a way that I couldn’t when I was the product being sold, and the show was the way to reel me in to watch advertisements. McLuhan’s medium has changed as a result.

Has theater as a formal discipline changed much as a result of structural changes in the university as an institution: pressures from the state and corporations, budget cuts, rationalization for research, research assessment exercises, the development of metrics for scholarly journals, to name but a few factors? 

One change that has helped me a lot is the growing understanding of interdisciplinary scholarship: traditional boundaries separating disciplines are seen to be increasingly permeable, which means that I as a Classicist can publish on television or comic books while still doing work on ancient texts. That’s the good side. The pressures that I experience are common to many who work in the humanities, because the scholarly metrics you describe are often reduced to an undifferentiated basic dollar value. Because a research project is comparatively inexpensive, there’s a perception among some that it’s not valuable. Crazy! Fortunately, though the amounts being allocated are smaller, my experience is that there is a genuine goodwill among those who allocate funds to try to support good research.

You’ve already mentioned plays being performed in natural environments… Indeed, you happen live in a city that’s gifted with natural beauty. Tell us some more about your experiences with stage-making in a postmodern city such as Vancouver…

Vancouver as a city has an interesting relationship with live theatre. There are so many creative and dynamic individuals — including many truly great actors — but in my opinion there isn’t an established culture of theatre-going. Building an audience base is very hard, especially since Vancouver also draws a number of touring shows that are competing for the same market. That’s a generalization, of course, and some venues are doing very well, but again there’s a bottleneck. Even on campus, access to established performance venues is tightly controlled. My life as an academic means that I’m not working in theatre full time, and consequently I am spared many of those hardships. I get to grab opportunities when they are presented to me.

The past few shows I have directed have been in a community venue by the beach. It’s a gorgeous location, and a very dynamic, small, intimate space that is still flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of shows. But it’s an indoor space, and the mountain vistas don’t really impact things. There’s a resident amateur/semi-professional company that puts on five shows a year, and is prepared to take risks in what it chooses to mount. They have season subscribers, and that helps fund what I see as an ambitious season. Those shows typically alternate with professional companies that come in to use the venue. I’ve been able to work with both types of group.

I’ve directed two verse plays by British playwright Tony Harrison there. The first was an adaptation of The Misanthrope, transferring the action to Washington D.C. It was an unperformed script set in the George W. Bush era, in Harrison’s characteristic rhyming couplets. Last spring [2013], we did his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, which Harrison calls The Prince’s Play. It’s the play that was adapted into the opera Rigoletto. So two 18th-Century French translations by the same playwright, one comedy and one tragedy. I was able to use five of the same actors in both shows, too, which added another continuity. That was exciting.

I’ve also directed Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, and an adaptation of a Mark Twain script with a new professional company. It’s all enough to keep me feeling creative, but I am under no illusions that this is surviving in the world of the theatre. These opportunities come with an infrastructure that makes it much easier to mount productions. Real theatre people work much harder than I do.

What are you currently working on?

Too many projects! But I enjoy them all. My next book is a study of Euripides’ Helen, a Greek tragedy from 412 BCE, which plays with tone in really interesting ways, and at times is genuinely funny. The book tries to find new categories of evidence for the examination of ancient stagecraft by looking at audience expectations of dramatic structure and the choices a director makes. I’m also working at a few articles: one re-identifying a character from a Roman comedy; one finding a place for a fragment of Euripides that describes Achilles throwing dice; and a co-authored paper on an papyrus fragment about a guy considering buying the slave woman he is sleeping with.  And that’s tied to my biggest project right now, a study of the representations of sex slavery in the comedies of Menander, Plautus, and Terence (the surviving comedies from 321-160 BCE). I’ve written about these comedies before (in The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy) focusing on how funny they are. Now I want to write a book on how un-funny they are.

Our understanding of ancient slavery is often mediated by historical analogies, and the African-American experience of slavery has really shaped the understanding of these plays. I’m using another model, one from modern Southeast Asia, and the result is a very different kind of play: one that focuses on the weakest and most disempowered members of society (young female slave prostitutes). Even if these examples are all fictional, they demonstrate the place that such women could hold in the (male) imagination of the ancient spectators. What we see is an easy acceptance of trafficking and sex tourism, for example. I want to explore the place that these women hold in their plays, and show the ways in which their physical presence on stage (even when they are not given lines to speak) shapes the interpretation of the plays. They’re still funny, but its a much darker funny than has been recognized before.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to C. W. Marshall and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2014). “Interview with C. W. Marshall,” Figure/Ground. January 17th.
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