THIS POST IS THE SECOND IN A SERIES OF DAILY CONFERENCE RE-CAPS WRITTEN BY EARLY CAREER SCHOLARS ATTENDING THIS YEAR'S CONFERENCE.
By Megan Heffernan
The Marlowe Society of America is in the midst of an experiment in historiography. The conference is meeting this year in Wittenberg, a town in the east of Germany best known as the birthplace of the Reformation. It is home of Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, Philipp Melancthon, and of course Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (at least in one textual tradition). Drawing participants from across the globe, the 2018 MSA has wagered that location matters: that we as scholars can learn as much from the spaces that housed history as from the textual records of the past.
This ambitious gambit has already started to pay off, and in ways I hadn’t quite anticipated before I arrived. Walking the streets where Luther and his cohort of thinkers fomented a radical break with tradition, I have been startled to encounter the ways in which the history can inform or even live on in the present, perhaps becoming most vividly felt in the moments that emphasize the distance between then and now. Beyond a literal encounter with the world of Faustus, this conference is an opportunity to rethink how we tell responsible, passionate, and timely stories about the nature of our scholarly engagement with Marlowe, as well as the bodies and books that deliver versions of his authority to us today.
Much of Renaissance Wittenberg was later consumed in a fire, wiping away the interior of the church where Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517 and destroying the houses where a print trade flourished later in the sixteenth century. To their credit, the town’s custodians have announced their interventions in reconstructing the past. One of my favorite examples is Cranach’s altarpiece in the parish church where Luther preached, the front of which was restored in 2014, while the back was left with dulled, muddy colors and obscured images. On this space behind the altar, we can also see the graffiti initials carved into the painting by sixteenth-century tourists, like “AVIA 1563.” (See photo slide show below.) To restore this image would be to scour away the evidence of these early visitors.
Over the past two days, I have been delighted to find similarly thoughtful reflections on the nature of our scholarly engagement with Marlowe and early modern studies more broadly. Of particular note on the Wednesday schedule, the plenary panel “Marlowe and Cultures of Collaboration” urged us to remember all the ways in which collaboration defies modern logics of intellectual agency and, as a result, how it often remains difficult for us to see. Laurie Maguire asked: how might we understand the shared work of playwrights as a spectrum of collaboration, a horizontal partnership and not a vertical hierarchy? Collaboratively extending Maguire’s questions, Emma Smith worked through the, ahem, “prostheses” or tools that might enable us to see a more complete play, particularly the songs that editors have too often left out of Dido Queen of Carthage. In a later panel on sexuality and the body, Corey McEleny asked what it might mean to read beyond the boundaries of firm evidence, finding (in his students’ desire to figure Marlowe and Nashe as lovers) a reminder of the value of speculation in scholarship, since “any claim about the past is a conjecture” or “a supposition” in George Gascoigne’s language.
Holger Schott Syme delivered Wednesday’s keynote lecture, “‘Genius of a Naïve, Uncouth Time’: Marlowe on the German Stage, from Brecht to Plametshofer.” In a dazzling survey of staging Marlowe over the past century, Syme showed us the distinct contours of a German theatrical tradition. I was struck by how German directors, most prominently Brecht, performed their relation to the past when returning to historical theater, particularly in the midst of twentieth-century experiments with both political and aesthetic modernism. Recognizing that “the labor” of restaging “old plays” belongs to directors and actors, and “is not a textual” project in any simple way, Brecht and his followers sought to bring the past closer to the present by recreating the effect the play had in its own moment. Like the judicious (and at times uneven) restoration of Cranach’s paintings, German adaptations of Edward II widened the gap of time, allowing history to be visible, jarring, rickety or damaged, because the discord between past and present was a condition of giving their audiences the same experience as Marlowe’s early playgoers and readers.
Megan Heffernan is assistant professor of English at DePaul University. She is finishing a monograph entitled Delight in Disorder: Making the Poetry Miscellany in Early Modern England and is in the early stages of another—Resilient Books: Archival Science in an Age of Precarity—about the institutional and human history of caring for rare books.