Conference Report: Liminality and Early Performance Culture

Liminal Time and Space in Medieval and Early Modern Performance

5th-7th September 2014, University of Kent

Human experience of time and space has been the focus of much critical enquiry since philosophers such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and Michel Foucault (to name but a few) suggested that both are subjective, dynamic and socio-culturally constructed. In light of the so-called ‘spatial’ and ‘temporal’ turns, scholars of medieval and early modern performance have examined the ways in which writers, actors and other artists have shaped and been shaped by shifting constructions of time and space. England’s Reformation, the establishment of permanent playhouses in early modern London, and the advances of cartography and travel across Europe are just some examples of specific historical events and cultural phenomena in which thinking about time and space has been central. In September 2014 the ‘Liminal Time and Space in Medieval and Early Modern Performance’ conference held at the University of Kent offered scholars the opportunity to think beyond these more specific, identifiable, and well-documented phenomena. The conference asked delegates to examine the more ambiguous, unidentifiable, transitional times and spaces and to establish the ways that early performers and performances created and responded to such liminality.

One of the aims of the conferences was to focus on non-traditional sites and times, and explore performance in all its complexities. Professor Carol Symes (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) opened the conference with a keynote address that encouraged us to expand what we think of as ‘performance’, as well as to push at the division between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ which, she reminded us, was not helpful to our understanding of early performance culture. The page might have codified existing performance practices, but the making and reading of text was also its own form of performance. The approach proved immensely fruitful as alongside more traditional forms of drama, such as plays, delegates did examine an eclectic range of practices/texts which included pageants, rogation processions, pilgrimage, liturgy, legal testimony, ceremony and hagiographical rituals. Beyond the playhouse or the pageant wagon, the field, the street, the church, the country house, the monastery and the library were considered as contested sites for cultural play and acting out. Within these sometimes overlooked spaces for performance, many papers focussed on liminal architectural details, such as the half-opened door, the window, the tiring house or the pathway to the church, places that often embodied contradictory qualities, both public and private, inside and out, onstage and off.

Grand narratives of theatre history, Professor Symes noted in her opening keynote lecture, often marginalise the medieval, placing emphasis on the early modern and specifically Shakespeare. The conference questioned such grand narratives, not least through its cross-periodised approach which encouraged delegates to identify the changes and continuities between medieval and early modern temporalities, spaces and performance practices. Certainly the commercialisation of drama through the establishment of playhouses in London was confirmed as a well-known rupture between the two time periods. However, delegates also considered similarities in thinking about time and space brought about through, for instance, continuities in gender identity, material culture and dramaturgical practice. The conference concluded that it was important to resist the traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries between medieval and early modern performance scholarship as doing so results in engaging discussion that reflects the realities of the early period. To that end, Professor Andrew Hiscock’s (Bangor University) closing keynote address, entitled ‘Liminal Times and Spaces in the Prodigious Early Modern Polity’, brought together many of the medieval and early modern strands of the conference. Professor Hiscock discussed, for example, different categories of space, such as “erring space”, “thinking space” and “immanent space”, how such spaces might be defined through various cultural and corporeal practices of space, and the sociological and semiotic effects of the “stacking” and “texturing” of inhabited times and spaces.

Professor Symes’ thoughtful response to the closing keynote lecture exemplified the energising conversation between the medieval and early modern which took place over the conference. In particular an ‘Open Space’ session half way through the conference provided the time and opportunity for more in-depth discussion between delegates. Based on a new technique for meetings, conferences and symposium that has emerged in the last ten years, in this session delegates were invited to write short answers to key questions on Post-It notes – including ‘what are the gaps in this research area?’; ‘what are the ruptures and continuities in space and time across the medieval and early modern periods?’; ‘what are the most useful theoretical tools to discuss liminal time and space?’. These notes were displayed on several whiteboards situated around the conference space and delegates were given time to view and discuss their collective response, as well as ask questions of each other.

An important feature of the broad approach to performance and periodization in the conference was the ‘Early English Performances Cultures and Contemporary Creative Practices’ session. Here delegates heard from a selection of modern artists who are inspired by medieval and early modern culture and texts. The session included readings from poet Chris McCabe’s forthcoming collection Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, 2014) and novelist David Flusfeder’s John the Pupil (Fourth Estate, 2014). McCabe’s sequence of sonnets draws on Jacobean city comedy to examine twenty-first century London; while Flusfeder’s novel is a ‘medieval road movie’ inspired by a journey from Oxford to Rome in 1267. In addition to readings, theatre director and Professor of Drama (Kent) Paul Allain introduced Gavin Carver’s documentary about Fourth Monkey’s recent production of Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris at Canterbury Cathedral (2014). McCabe, Flusfeder and Allain answered delegates’ questions about the reasons for their engagement with early English culture, language and drama, as well as the difficulties and creative potential of anachronism, reconstruction and re-enactment. For the conference, it was enlightening to hear a different and fresh approach to very familiar texts, and indeed texts that had been discussed in other sessions throughout the conference. McCabe and Flusfeder spoke of the nuances of medieval and early modern syntax and vocabulary that had influenced their own writing in Speculatrix and John the Pupil respectively. Delegates agreed that creativity and informed speculation is a way of thinking about early performance which is sometimes unfairly overlooked in favour of more traditional forms of research.

The most striking and urgent point to emerge from the conference is (to adapt Professor Hiscock’s phrase) the apparent need to develop a new ‘lexicon’ for medieval and early modern performance, one that adequately reflects the ambiguities, anachronisms and slipperiness, indeed the inherent liminality, of early English performance culture.

Social media response to the conference can be viewed at

Sarah Dustagheer and Clare Wright, University of Kent