In 2018 in London I saw Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, his award-sweeping play about the Irish Troubles. Over the course of the play, the production incorporates a real baby, a real goose, and a real rabbit—all of whom, by definition, aren’t “acting.” The effect was not, as one might fear, to break the fourth wall, but rather, almost the opposite: to draw the audience onto the stage, or perhaps extend the play’s world into our own. Everyone in the theater was suddenly present together. It seemed to me a way of intensifying the production’s “live”-ness—its risk-taking, its vulnerability, its reality—in a way few shows manage to do. This liveness made the audience more vulnerable as well, setting us up for an exceptionally acute kind of devastation when, in the last few minutes of the play, Butterworth delivers a one-two punch. I won’t reveal the details for those who haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say: just as we are reeling from the first blow, we are flattened by a second, cathartic event (though in this case the audience also immediately jumped to its feet). When I think about that moment, it is my fellow playgoers’ collective intake of breath—that heartbeat of shared, shocked heartbreak—that moves me most, even more than the memory of what was happening on stage.
That night in a theater over two years ago has been on my mind lately for obvious reasons: none of us has been able to experience anything like it for months now, and likely (in the U.S., at least) won’t be able to for months to come. And this inability to go to the theater has inevitably raised the question of what theater does, and how: how might it be able to make sense of our shared experiences—in all of their anxiety and pain, as well as their joys—in ways that other art forms cannot?
Of course, we can still watch recordings of celebrated productions, like Hamilton on Disney Plus or the UK’s National Theatre offerings on YouTube. Live-streamed alternatives have included table readings, monologues, and two-person plays, as well as plays “set” on Zoom or Skype video chats. Nonetheless, there seems to be a meaningful difference between watching a play on a screen and witnessing live bodies moving and speaking on a stage, our own bodies wedged between those of our fellow audience-members. So what, exactly, is that difference? And does it mean what we think it does?
One way to explore these questions is to look at the work of an earlier set of playwrights for whom these problems were keenly relevant: the Restoration dramatists of the late seventeenth century, who were writing in the wake of the most sustained theater closure in the history of the English-speaking world. When the Puritans took control of England in 1642, they banned all theatrical performances, and that ban stayed in place for the next eighteen years. Notably, however, during this same timespan, printed matter—including printed drama—was published in unprecedented quantities. Thus, when the monarchy was restored in 1660 and the playhouses reopened, dramatists were suddenly tasked with renovating a cultural form that, for two decades, people had essentially experienced only via the page. It was a moment of reckoning: What can theater do? What can theater do that reading can’t?
To some extent these are questions posed implicitly by all drama. As scholar Benjamin Bennett has argued, when reading a play, we are always aware of the text’s “ontological defectiveness,” its failure to represent the whole “work.” And yet, inevitably, the staged representation also feels like a “mere” interpretation—just one director’s or actor’s take on who Hamlet is and what Hamlet means. But Restoration playwrights were uniquely well positioned, historically, to contemplate drama’s neither/nor quality.
One of the figures actively addressing these questions in her writing was the former spy, translator, early novelist and playwright Aphra Behn. Not much is known of Behn’s early life—and some believe she wanted it that way. She began writing plays after her final espionage mission, probably out of financial necessity, and went on to become the first professional woman writer in England. (Unlike in Shakespeare’s day, the theater of the late seventeenth century allowed the participation of women, both onstage and off.) At the height of her career, Behn was one of the most prolific playwrights of the age.
Behn was writing in a specific philosophical context (in which she was well read): this was the era in which Thomas Hobbes and others, influenced in part by Lucretius, were developing a materialist account of the world, in which all earthly phenomena are reducible to the motion of tiny particles. But this materialist worldview also left philosophers with the question of how, in the words of Jonathan Kramnick, “nonthinking atoms create thought and experience.” This mind-body problem—the question of how memory, fantasy, and reason are derived from flesh and bone—occupied many of the most important thinkers of the period. Behn was no exception. In her plays, she investigates—and often complicates—distinctions between mental apprehension (on which reading relies) and sensory perception (on which, we would normally assume, theater-going relies more fully). Her work thus asks us to confront the same questions that are raised by the vanishing of live theater today: What role do mind and body play in our attempts to discern truth and meaning, and in our attempts to know and empathize with one another? Which of these—mind or body—is more apt to mislead us?
Behn’s 1686 comedy The Luckey Chance is in many ways a meditation on how what we think, or what we know—or what we think we know—interacts with sensory input as we piece together crucial information about each other. The dramatic focus of the play centers on two reciprocal “bed-tricks.” The bed-trick, the covert swapping of one potential sexual partner for another, was a familiar device on the seventeenth-century stage, though for today’s readers and audiences, its use often raises questions of consent and requires some suspension of disbelief. In The Luckey Chance, the bed-tricks pose complex epistemological questions for the play’s characters and audience alike.
Charles Gayman and Julia Fulbank are young lovers whose courtship was cut short by Julia’s marriage (apparently financially motivated) to the old banker Sir Cautious Fulbank. Both of the play’s bed-tricks are therefore intended to unite Gayman and Julia without (supposedly) imperiling Julia’s honor. In the first, which Julia engineers, a disguised servant offers the cash-strapped Gayman a large amount of gold (which Julia has stolen from her husband) in exchange for sleeping with an unknown woman (who will of course turn out to be Julia). Taken aback by the sum, Gayman assumes his propositioner to be an aging harridan “past all hopes of courtship and address,” but accepts anyway. In the second trick, Sir Cautious agrees—after Gayman has beaten him at dice in the “lucky chance” of the play’s title—to allow the young lover secretly to take his place in bed, thus leaving the unsuspecting Julia theoretically innocent of adultery. Significantly, both tricks share what would seem to be a fairly major obstacle to their success: in each, the expected bedfellow is far older than the actual body in the bed—a discrepancy that one would think would be almost immediately apparent.
And yet, oddly, in both instances the covert identity of the “aged” partner goes undiscovered for several minutes—possibly, in the first trick, for the entirety of the encounter. As a result, both bed-tricks end up raising a number of philosophical conundrums: To what extent do our preconceived ideas determine our sensory perceptions? And if one of these sources of information contradicts the other, which—internal or external—can be considered more “real”?
The bed-tricks also raise questions, of course, about the epistemology of drama: how does an audience member gain knowledge of what is happening in a play? Can we trust our physical senses more than, or less than, our powers of intellectual comprehension? Are there moments when the audience can actually understand more about a story, or its characters, by ignoring what our senses are telling us?
To use a famous example from Shakespeare’s As You Like It: If we allow ourselves to disregard the countless physical reminders that the disguised Rosalind is still Rosalind, and if we attempt to see her instead as Orlando sees her—that is, as the boy Ganymede—we may find, as Rosalind herself does, that she actually becomes more fully “Rosalind” when she is “Ganymede.” Playing along with Rosalind’s game of make-believe—despite empirical evidence to the contrary—thus affords us, as well as Shakespeare’s lovers, a deeper understanding of who Rosalind is, and how identity is constituted. But are these complexities best appreciated in the theater, with the actors’ bodies before us? (Or indeed, would they have been better savored in an Elizabethan-era theater, in which the woman playing the man would, in turn, have been played by a man?) How might the additional leap of imagination required by the page, or the screen, either impede or enhance our ability to learn from Shakespeare’s comedy?
In The Luckey Chance, Behn poses these questions by carefully leaving a number of points ambiguous to reader and playgoer alike. In the first trick, although we follow Gayman as he enters Julia’s disguised bedchamber, our only sense of what happens next comes from Gayman’s later recounting of the event to Julia (who pretends ignorance). As he relates how he “forced [his] arms about” his bedmate, she interjects, in a confident aside, “And sure that undeceived him.” And yet Gayman resumes by describing so knobby and desiccated a “carcase” that “a canvas bag of wooden ladles were a better bedfellow.” Can Gayman possibly be conveying his experience truthfully here?
Scholars have suggested that Gayman is dissembling his real enjoyment of the liaison so as to keep Julia from becoming jealous. But if Gayman is in fact prevaricating, his description of the event is oddly emotional; he depicts himself as “trembling with his fears” in the bed, and even his syntax seems to shudder: “Such a carcase ’twas—deliver me—so rivelled, lean and rough…”
Assuming, then, that Gayman is honestly relating what he thinks he underwent, we are left to conclude that his imagination—his belief about whom he would find in the bed—has somehow effectively superseded any sensory information available under the covers.
That may sound like a simple failure of perception. But Behn complicates matters by suggesting that Gayman’s conviction that he is in the presence of an old woman may actually point to a more profound psychological reality. In an earlier conversation, Julia pleads with Gayman simply to wait until her aging husband is dead. Gayman objects that, by then, their own “youth [might] be past enjoyment.” Gayman’s experience of embracing a withered body thus seems to enact his fear that he and Julia can only be united by death, and at a time when their own deaths will be closer to hand.
Similar anxieties are also on Julia’s mind, as, early in the play, she laments the consequence of her marriage:
Had I but kept my sacred vows to Gayman,
How happy had I been—how prosperous he!
Whilst now I languish in a loath’d embrace,
Pine out my life with age, consumptuous coughs.
The final line here suggests both Julia’s dread that her life will be spent beside the senescing banker, but also her sinking feeling that the choice she has made is aging her, too. In that sense, Gayman’s misapprehension of Julia’s body may reflect not only Gayman’s own insights into the likely consequences of Julia’s decision, but also the workings of a sympathetic imagination—his half-conscious grasp of Julia’s own, inner sense of mourning and loss. Behn thus suggests that the mind, in overriding physical perception, may actually sometimes improve upon it—may disclose that which is unavailable to empirical observation.
Paradoxically, then, Behn—even while writing in an era when live theater had been revived—hints that physical presence may not reveal truth in the way we think it does. It’s a problem many of us are wrestling with today, thanks to our reliance on streaming video for everything from meetings to family chats to, yes, live theater. The limitations of this kind of video are by now familiar: digital images are pixelated, and they can freeze, jerk, blur, or fall out of sync with their accompanying audio. As science journalist Kate Murphy has explained, these discontinuties require our brains to “fill in the gaps,” and this effort can be exhausting. And yet, as Behn reminds us, all of sensory perception may be bound up, to some extent, with the work of our brains; indeed, perhaps the most clear-eyed perception is that which draws most fully upon our powers of imagination.
As I’ve thought back to that night at The Ferryman, and the effects of seeing it live, I’ve also been reflecting on how much of the play is suffused by death—or, more precisely, by ghosts. The title alludes to Charon, conveyor of souls across the River Styx to the Underworld; and several of the characters find themselves in various states of limbo—between past and present, memory and desire, vengefulness and hope—as they struggle to come to terms with a family member’s disappearance (and, eventually, with the discovery of his corpse). Would experiencing The Ferryman first on the page, or on a screen, have allowed these hauntings to resonate differently—more uncannily, more disconcertingly—than they did in the theater? While I can’t help but feel that the play’s final strokes affected me in the way they did because I was physically there, I also wonder: might they have gained a different kind of impact in a different form? And could the same be said for other plays as well? The scholar Marvin Carlson has proposed that, indeed, all theater is haunted theater: “one of the universals of performance … is its ghostliness, its sense of return”; in any given production, he notes, everything—from the actors, to the costumes, to the stage-properties, to the language, to the space itself—is being repurposed from show to show and night to night, coming to us overlaid by, steeped in, their previous roles and iterations. Is there not something fitting about encountering this ghostly otherworld via a virtual, disembodied medium?
In the wake of this pandemic, I hope that dramatists and drama lovers alike will follow in the footsteps of our Restoration predecessors—that we will once again turn with renewed urgency to questions of how we connect, how we communicate, and how we employ both body and mind in that undertaking. These months spent without access to in-person productions have already begun, I think, to offer us a new perspective on how theater works, and I am eager to find out what kinds of plays will result. I am looking forward to reading those plays, perhaps even seeing them streamed; but I am looking forward, too, to encountering them through live performance—to experiencing, again, that shared intake of breath.
Katherine Mannheimer is author of Print, Visuality, and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Satire. She teaches at the University of Rochester.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.