“‘Things without Head, or Tail, or Form, or Grace’: The Hypercorporeality of Farce on the Early Eighteenth-Century Stage”
An increasingly—and problematically—popular form on the stage during the early eighteenth century, farce thrives on the actions of bodies that, in their very embodiment, problematize the imagined integrity of the human. Instead of insisting that the beautiful body is the fittest vehicle for the legitimate work of the stage, farce extols the im/perfections of the flesh. In doing so, these bodies also confront us with another spectrum of the human, a spectrum in which corporeality figures as its most fundamental refuge—and thus, the most fundamental refuge of art and expression. Early eighteenth-century farce consciously explores the power of the distressed body. This corporeal aesthetic is one framed by questions about the limits of the human body as an agent of making.
Today, I want to take up common tropes from a series of plays in the early eighteenth century that most effectively represent this aspect of the farcical imperative, ranging from fairground drolls, to little-known or regarded pieces on the legitimate stage, to classics in the farcical vein. I will be looking at work by Susanna Centlivre, Benjamin Griffin, Charles Coffey, Charles Johnson, Edward Ravenscroft, and others. All these farces, in their special investment in the disarticulated body, make some claim about the nature of art through meta-theatrical moments of the spectacular (and typically, the spectacularly violent) trick.
In the early eighteenth century, farcical afterpieces—increasingly institutionalized in the theatrical bill, as Leo Hughes has shown—routinely turn on or build to a crucial act of violence comically staged, an act of comic violence that draws our attention to the processes by which the human is made and remade. Often, this is a literal violence—bodies are kicked, cudgeled, and tossed in blankets. Sometimes the violence of farce is less conventionally apparent as such, taking the form of verbal abuse that far overreaches the merely indecorous, scenes of humiliation and the abasement of the human, scenes playing on the fine line separating life and death. And sometimes the violence of farce is directed against language itself, one of the most telling signs of all that is human and civilized and capable of being educated or reformed. The death-ridden action of farce in the early eighteenth century, I argue, stages the transformation of real bodies into impossible bodies; continually staged, yet also continually deferred, the spectre of death becomes the spectacle of farce. Tobin Siebers’ useful model of “the body aesthetic,” which allows us to think of creative practice as always a practice of “making and remaking…the human” (3), thus takes on special resonance in farce, as it happens in, on, and through the deformation of the human body. Farce is populated with the living dead, and they can, in fact, tell tales.
Farce is replete with stories of bodies in distress, and the act of beating—often in highly imaginative ways—is one of, if not the, dominant tropes of the form. In farce, bodies test the limits of the imagination by confronting the imagination with stylized versions of material fact. The act of beating foregrounds human embodiedness, as well as the very real transience of material life. In Otway’s version of Moliere’s Cheats of Scapin (1700), the wily servant convinces Gripe to hide from nonexistent enemies in a sack, in which situation Scapin repeatedly beats him with a cudgel (213ff). In Christopher Bullock’s Adventures of Half an Hour (1716), the “puffing” and perspiring landlord beats Tagg, disguised as a fiddler, out of his tavern (35). In Vangbrugh’s Country House (1715), Barnard extensively beats and kicks his servants (7-9, 30, 45). In Henry Carey’s Hanging and Marriage (1722), Richard Stubble variously “sowers,” “smashes,” “mills,” “lug[s],” and “beats” Solomon Squeak and the “Posse” Gizzard has assembled to corral a violent lover (8-9). Ladies lay about them with their fists, box their servants’ ears, and beat blind fiddlers—icons of popular art—with their own instruments (Jevon, Devil of a Wife ; Coffey, et. al., Devil to Pay ); they bloody the noses of political adversaries (Centlivre, Gotham Election ). Gentlemen threaten to “spit” their foes with swords and “break all the Bones in your Skin” (Anonymous, The Witchcraft of Love [printed, 1742]); they cane unwilling servants and discharge muskets at naked old men who display their disintegrating bodies to the audience with aplomb. In Benjamin Griffin’s Love in a Sack (1715), Sir Arthur Addlepate, played originally by the author, is “so overjoy’d” at his wily servant’s ruse to inveigle an interview with the lovely young Aurelia that, he says to the valet, “I must beat you, I cannot forbear it” (31). Quacks threaten patients with clysters, bleedings, blisterings, and myriad other grotesque forms of treatment, or mistaken burial, that speak at once of healing and illness—a paradox underwriting the farcical imperative.
The early decades of the century were awash in theatrical representations that positively revel in the comedic potential of death, the ultimate bodily affliction. To be sure, these farces do not stage the scene of death itself—that would violate even the most basic rules of decorum. Yet, they take great pleasure in staging all the accoutrement of death, all the appearances of death, all the talk of death. Griffin’s The Humours of Purgatory (1716) turns on a jest the end of which is to convince the miserly, hypochondriac “Don Lopez Di Porto Vitranto”—also originally played by the author, who was a noted stutterer (Highfill)—is really dead and in purgatory for his sins. Dogget’s The Country-Wake (1715) features a scene in which Hob and other rural Clowns drunkenly speculate on macabre points like whether to bury the man presumed to have hanged himself in the orchard or not; whether he should be buried at all; who’s to be his heir and his chief mourner; and so on. In Henry Carey’s Hanging and Marriage; or, The Dead Man’s Wedding (1722), the central character—a Hob-like rural clown named Stubble—fakes his own suicide. After the body is judged “dead” by the country folk, it is posthumously wedded to his beloved. Edward Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist (1697) features both a Doctor and a Sham-Doctor who insist on cutting up supposed cadavers before they’re sufficiently dead. And Susanna Centlivre’s A Bickerstaff’s Burying; or, Work for the Upholders (1710) plays off of a popular and powerful conceit set forth in The Tatler Numbers 96 and 99 by the sham-astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff. There, Bickerstaff describes as dead anyone who “resides in the world without having any business in it, and passes away an age without ever thinking on the errand for which he was sent hither” (Addison, 17 November 1709, 318). He continues in a vein that could easily be a scene in a farce, grotesquely imagining the country being overrun by the dead who refuse to acknowledge their state and “go putrefying up and down the streets” (Steele, 26 November 1709, 338).
Perhaps the most fitting image for farce, then, is the spectacle of the body impossibly, eternally on the verge of complete disintegration. The completely disintegrated body is the dead body—and farce is obsessed with the various means of representing this disintegration. Numerous coffins and coffin substitutes seem naturally occurring in the world of farce. Sacks, chests, closets, barrels, and coffins themselves seem immovable props. The coffins that litter the stage of farce may seem to be signs of punishment—threats held over the heads of the immoral, for instance—but they function more often as the trickster’s last refuge, the sine qua non of staying alive.
In Benjamin Griffin’s prototypical farce, The Humours of Purgatory, Don Lopez is an aged, miserly hypochondriac on the verge, as he thinks, of his “Grand Climacterical.” Played by the author, Don Lopez has vowed to disinherit his daugher Constantia. Lopez’ family is at wit’s end; Silvio, Constantia’s lover, contrives a plot to change his mind about leaving all his estate to the Church. Using his “Distemper” and “mad Fancy” against him, Silvio disguises himself as a friar and gives the old miser his last confession–a ridiculously extended scene during which Lopez admits to a horrifyingly sordid past, including adultery, fornication, and rampant thievery, including defrauding soldiers, the government, the church, and the poor. Lopez’ extended confession is punctuated by repeated moans, tears, coughs, and exclamations of impending death–“Oh! my Chair! my Chair! my Chair! my great Chair! Oh! oh! oh! I die! Oh! Oh! Oh! this is my Bane! this Cough is my Bane. Ah!” (4). As he confesses to his last sin, he professes his “Faint[ness],” and summarily begins the farce of fraudulently dying before an assembly including his wife Julia, Constantia, the Physician Guzman, and Silvio as the friar: “How can you be so uncharitable, as not to let a Man die in Quiet? Here you all stand gaping about me, like so many Vultures, to see my last Gasp, and then devour my Substance among you…. Oh! I am dead! Now! now! now!” (12). Unable to wrest him from his “Frenzy,” Silvio has him put into a coffin, paraded through town, and ultimately carried back to his darkened home where the scene has been set for the game at hand. All the family and servants have dressed as “Ghosts” to convince Lopez that he is in purgatory, where he will spend the rest of his afterlife in mirth, drink, and good entertainment. Various characters come in and dance for him; he drinks wine from grapes grown on the banks of the River Acheron. After this performance, Lopez is left, alone, in the darkened room; when a servant enters to check on his health, he is shocked to find that, instead of dead, he has been merely “dreaming these past two hours.” Lopez describes the farce as a “Vision” in which he learned that Constantia is indeed dutiful, loving, and deserving of Silvio’s hand in marriage.
Centlivre’s A Bickerstaff’s Burying, too, employs the coffin as the central trope of the farce. There, after what stage directions describe as an overly-artificial tempest scene, a ship full of Englishmen land on the remote and unmapped island of Cosgar, where the “custom of the Country” requires that the still-living spouse be buried with the dead one in a kind of equally-gendered sati. The Emir, married to Lady Mezro (formerly Mrs. Take-It of Drury Lane), is horrified to learn that his wife has “died” and he, according to the law of the land, is to be interred with her, so to accomplish all these laws he got help from lawyers at sites like https://fieldinglaw.com. Lady Mezro performs her death on the direction of the Captain, who suggests this ruse as the only way to lay bare the selfish conceit of the country’s practice—and save her from being interred alive with her husband. When the servants bring in two coffins, one for the actress and the other for the Emir, he laments his cruel fate and summarily “Runs off,” as the stage directions indicate (15). Afterwards, Lady Mezro, like Angelica, uses the coffin as a means of escape—away from Lord Mezro and Cosgar and back to the more licentious world of English theater.i Centlivre’s play turns on several scenes in which the threat of live burial is drawn out for humorous effect; for instance, the Emir, as he is being lowered down the mountain side in his coffin with a bit of bread and water, cries out, “Hold, hold, let me see my Wife first; she died suddenly, and may come to Life again” (18)–and then proceeds to tear open her coffin, which is of course empty. The play is emphatically a play, here; that Lady Mezro is a former actress at Drury Lane renders the jest not only aware of itself as a jest, but also aware of itself as a theatrical jest. The spectre of premature burial runs throughout the culture of farce, transmogrifying the threat of live burial into a site of uncanny laughter via the perils and the pleasures of excessive imagination.ii
The typology of the rickety old man or the December/May marriage trope, too, takes on a different cast when viewed as part of the farcical death drive. The spectacle of old age, in farce, serves several purposes, but—like the beaten body—it always occupies a privileged position. Charles Johnson’s Love in a Chest is one of the many farces figuring very old men in the position of ridiculous lovers, but it is perhaps the most virulent—here, the violence done to the body is more ideological than corporeal. Theresa, the young object of old Fascinetti’s attentions, is repulsed by his physical appearance and has no qualms about holding his aged flesh up to ridicule, itself a form of violence: “Thou abominable, shrivell’d, Ugly, old Paralitical Monster, begon, or I’ll stab thee; I’ll Bath a Dagger in thy blood, and let out this unnatural heat that works you up into a Lover…” (51). Here, his aged flesh becomes a spectacle legitimating her ill treatment of him; Theresa’s description of her “old Lover[‘s]” body is calculated to create a state of disgust. He “winds the Muscles of his Apish Phyz into Fifty differing turns, and stirs up the two humid lamps that lye sunk in their Sockets, to attempt a feeble blaze…” (48). Sebastian, Theresa’s young lover, calls Fascinetti an “Impotent Fribler” and an “old Polecat” and threatens to “strip your shrivel’d Parchment over your Ears, and Gibbet you in a Warren” (49) if he ever approaches her again. Fascinetti, apparently oblivious to their cutting words, grotesquely displays his body: “Impotent! Look here, here are muscles, here are Sinews, here’s a Leg as firm as Brawn, here’s a Chine broad and sappy, here’s an Eye—bright and wanton; here’s a Complexion florid and full” (49). The grotesque spectacle of Fascinetti’s body is an affront that virtually guarantees violence be enacted upon it. His body, disarticulated by age, and his mind, disarticulated by the enthusiasms of love, are themselves threats hanging over even the youngest and halest of heads. To his own young wife, canoodling with Theresa’s father, Fascinetti threatens to hasten the disfigurements of old age: “I will instantly, with this Penknife, spoil those few tempting Features that are left; I’ll Physic and Diet you ye Pamper’d Jade…” (66). Here, the spectacle of the aging body becomes, itself, a threat—not only to Fascinetti’s wife, but the audience looking on. Johnson’s Love in a Chest could equally be titled Love in a Coffin, for all seem to teeter on the brink of death.
Taken together, these bodies imbue the stage with an overriding sense of corporeality. These are frenzied bodies, bodies that seem driven, somehow, to cudgel, kick, trip, beat, bleed, punch, souse, spit, and cane. They are driven to act, to perform—even if they are passive—when they are cudgeled, kicked, tripped, beaten, bled, punched, soused, spitted, and caned. These are bodies that, in their frenzied corporeality, can seem more mechanical or bestial than human, more impossible than real. As much as these bodies are frenziedly informed by violence, however, they are also very much alive. The sense of corporeality permeating farcical performance comes to us in facsimile—through the act of acting. These bodies simulate their abuses, pushing the limits of livable trauma to the edges of the imagination and beyond. In performing the brinksmanship of life and death, the bodies of farce perform a paradoxical act of deferral. The acting-est of bodies,iii those most bound up with the chaos and violence of the farcical stage—the Hobs, the confused old men, the shrill wives, the pugilistic bullies and their victims—are paradoxically those closest to utter annihilation. In their actedness, however, the bodies of farce are also unreal; no human could bear such abuse. In foregrounding embodiment, farce renders it, strangely, a potentiality—as opposed to an actuality. While Henry Fielding’s Tragedy of Tragedies (1731), for instance, satirically and self-consciously concludes with a wealth of dead bodies, Eliza Haywood and William Hatchett’s Opera of Operas (1733) parodically takes the farce one step further by reanimating the dead as ghosts and felling them yet again. One of the most salient sites of this fundamental farcical logic is the consistent and macabre infatuation with death, sickness, disease, and lunacy. In the popular anti-Jacobite Cobbler of Preston plays (Christopher Bullock, 1715; Charles Johnson, 1716), for instance, the Cobbler of the title is grotesquely convinced by the local Justice of the Peace that he has been in a nightmare for fifteen years. In “real life,” he is not a poor and work-weary cobbler, but a wealthy and influential landowner blessed with a young, demure bride. The farcical imperative expresses violence in other ways, as well, and which often take cues from the spectre of affliction.
Farce offers an aesthetic organized through the spectacle of physical disarticulation, but that physical disarticulation is also effected through and of language. Farce is replete with characters who seem unable to speak—from the literally voiceless contortionists and harlequins to the problematically voiced stutterers, illiterates, and uneducated rural clowns whose English often approaches a foreign language. Farce features a variety of bawdy puns, a form of wordplay routinely indulged in by witty tricksters; but any effective use of language is shadowed by the ineffective use of language. Languages of all kinds are butchered—Dutch and French, especially, but also English. In Carey’s Hanging and Marriage; or, The Dead Man’s Wedding, Jeremy Spiller plays Richard Stubble a virtually illiterate young man in love with Betty Gizzard. With the notable exception of Stubble’s “Londonshire”-educated cousin, Jerry, all of the characters speak a virtually unrecognizable form of English heavily steeped in topical references, idiomatic expressions, and dialect. Stubble’s Mother routinely juxtaposes her son’s lack of delicacy in language with his lack of delicacy in body—both of which, apparently, will lead to his hanging: “Why he would ha’ caw’d me Madam as you do [Jerry], and talk’d as good Londonshire as our Curate, long e’er now; but stead o’ that, I mun seen hang’d, mahaps, and I live to next Presizes!” (13). Jerry’s conversely “perfect” English is a point of comparison drawing the heavy dialect of the townspeople into a dialogue on the entertainments enjoyed there. Old Smut in Griffin’s Love in a Sack is a noted stutterer, and when Addlepate disguises himself as the chimneysweep, he, too, takes up the vocal disarticulations of the worker:
Phil. And can you stammer as he do’s, if by the way, or by any unlucky Accident, you should be interrupted?
Sir Arth. I’ll wa, a, wa, wa, wa warrant you.
Phil. Most exactly, I’ll swear…. (36)
This choice to interpolate the vocal disability into the weave of the farce is far from coincidental. Griffin was himself a stutterer, and thus all of his parts—like Addlepate—would be stutterers, too. Insofar as the authors body hangs somewhere behind his texts, the spectre of stuttering haunts all Griffin’s creations.
The counterpart to the stutterer in farce is the character with the extravagant name. Criticisms of farce—or farces more critical of farce than fully farcical—often dramatize this tendency to pull language apart at the seams by featuring highly self-conscious performances of language gone awry. In Three Hours after Marriage (1717), a “farce” jointly penned by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Arbuthnot, the Lady Hippokekoana’s ill body haunts the periphery of the play (52). She spends the entirety of the farce in physical “Convulsions” (56) that duplicate the convulsions of the tongue when it rolls over her name. Samuel Johnson of Cheshire’s eponymous Hurlothrumbo (1729) is a character as extravagant as his title, as are Fielding’s Huncamunca, Dolalolla, and Glumdalca. For The Tragedy of Chrononhotonthologos (1734), Henry Carey requires his actors to acquire virtuosic verbal skills, skills which must have both amazed and appalled the audience: Chrononhotonthologos and Fadladinida are the King and Queen of Queerumania; Bombardinica, the General of the King’s army; and Aldiborontiphoscophornio and Rigdum Funnidos, two Courtiers. The inability to speak “correctly” is reduplicated, with a difference, in speech that causes the tongue to trip over itself. Farce is permeated with a variety of convulsions of the tongue, mimicking those of the body. All of these bodies are somehow hypercorporeal, too embodied to be quite human.
At the same time, however, their embodiment speaks profoundly to the dangers of life in this world. The strangely typical fascination with affliction suggests a kind of privileged relationship with the realm that afflicted persons represent, a realm all-powerful, all-consuming, frightening, and pervasive. This is the realm spoken to by the popular “filler” in newspapers of the period, tales of life gone suddenly and abruptly awry, or by the advertisements for cure-all remedies advertised right next to new pamphlets, prints, novelties, and current affairs. And this is the realm spoken to by the bodies that give truth to that fascination: the bodies distorted by pain and disease, the bodies that require the straightening effect of iron “trusses,” bodies that seek out the panaceas of pills curing everything from “the Secret disease” and “Leprosy” to blindness and bad skin. Historically, the human body was subject to an entire spectrum of material intertexts; the ideality of the body was always and everywhere confronted with its reality.iv
As Simon Dickie has shown, the ill, diseased, deformed, and “unnatural” were everywhere visible in popular representation, from the “Entertainments involving dwarves, cripples, blind men, or amputees” that composed an important element of London’s “entertainment economy” to the ballad singers and songsters of the street, who “were almost always blind or disabled” (15). Laughter coalesces around these bodies, even in an age increasingly noted for its sentimentality; farce concentrates this problematic visibility, funneling it onto the stage, and claims it. When we examine the bodies populating farce, we come to see that they enact a significant kind of theatricality—one that can hardly be dismissed as lightweight or inconsequential. Perhaps by confronting and enacting disarticulation on the stage, it is rendered more familiar, less dangerous, more controllable; farce seems to suggest the fantastic ability to overcome the real threats of embodiment in the early eighteenth century, offering a way to render the body, through theatrical hypercorporeality, somehow outside of such dangers by placing the body squarely and spectacularly within them.v By remaking, on the stage, an endless series of bodies paradoxically freed from the normal constraints of physicality, farce suggests a concept of the human that is emphatically embodied, and a form of art that hinges on the work that flesh can do.
The human body is always already subject to decay and disintegration, and farce is a kind of representation that revels in embodiedness and the subjection of the body to the imminence of death. Yet, in foregrounding human embodiedness, farce also renders it, increasingly, a potentiality—as opposed to an actuality. The early modern familiarity with death, disease, and disfigurement becomes, on stage, a protracted familiarity that has no real end—on stage, these bodies do not actually die, and neither do we really want to see them die. This very familiarity is rendered, on stage, strange and other, eternally present but also eternally deferred. In some sense, the farcical stage becomes a protected space where performance retards death into spectacle. In the spectacle of death, we see not death itself, but its ghost, its spectre.
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iIn The Anatomist, it can be argued, the space of anatomy doubles for the theatre itself.
iiThe presence of death in the culture of farce blends seamlessly into the perils and pleasures of excessive imagination or enthusiasm. For an excellent introduction to enthusiasm and excessive imagination, see…
iiiThe number of early farceurs who were both actor and author is striking: for instance, Anthony Aston, Christopher Bullock, John Corey, John Hippisley, Benjamin Griffin, Thomas Jevon, John Rich, and Henry Ward. Hippisley and Griffin were also notably disabled, though not, perhaps, by the theatrical context in which they worked. There is much work to be done on these farceurs, and on the intersection in early physical comedy between disability, aesthetics, and aesthetic ideology.
ivBathing was infrequent; even the rich bathed sporadically, and the poor would often stitch their children into their winter garments. The smells of London—a city of over half a million in 1700—would probably disgust us today; the street was a universal toilet, the kennel a public home for all the waste of the city. It would not be uncommon for a woman of any class to dirty her skirts with refuse human and animal during even a short walk. Disease was rife and indiscriminate: people of all ranks and classes suffered from dysentery, typhus, consumption, smallpox, diphtheria, scrofula, goiters, pleurisy, gangrene, a variety of venereal diseases, and more. Open sores were commonly visible; teeth were often rotted; limbs were often missing. During the eighteenth century, England and France were competing for European dominance, which meant conflict and death. In addition to those dead on the field of battle, many more died as a direct result of wartime complications, and vast numbers were disfigured by survival.
The actual point at which death occurs, too, was subject to debate. As Jan Bondeson has noted in Buried Alive, the threat of live anatomization and burial was, if not a common occurrence, definitely a topic of concern for eighteenth-century citizens. Vesalius, the famed Renaissance anatomist, was reputed to have killed a man by untimely dissection; stories, myths, and legends abound about people who had been put living into their graves, or young women entombed alive—only to be further brutalized by robbers come to steal their jewelry. Babies, it was thought, were often born into their graves by mothers whose deaths had been incorrectly diagnosed, and when coffins were disinterred, contorted faces and raw (or sometimes absent) fingers suggested the ultimate horror of live burial and later expiration.
vThe farcical body is duty bound to perform at once the transcendence of the flesh and the flesh as limit, beyond which nothing is. What I term the hypercorporeality of farce is the state in which the bodies of farce are transformed, through the magic of the stage and the language-work of the threat, from real bodies into impossible bodies. Yet, this hypercorporeality exists in a curious liminal space. In staging these impossible bodies—bodies beaten to a pulp, bodies threatened with disintegration—farce also transforms the impossible back into a bracketed, counterfeit version of the real. In farce, the imagination blurs the line between the body and the mind by foregrounding the praxis and practice of mimicry, in all its permutations. Acting on the imagination, twisting it up into various ecstasies of embodiment, farce presents the body as intimately bound up with the imagination.