Category Archives: National Presentations

Aphra Behn Society 2015: Wikipedia Workshop


I love going to (to me) new conferences–not only do I get to learn about exciting work in the field, but I also get to meet new people and, ideally, expand my collection of “regularly-attended.” What strikes me most about the Aphra Behn Society is its collegiality, its openness to and mentorship of graduate student work, and the palpable sense of feminist solidarity practically oozing from each session. Very happy-making!

Despite the fact that I am in desperate need of sleep and time to catch up on mounds of grading–and as a result not doing the friendly-joining-thing I should be doing–I am excited to be here and am most definitely planning on returning. ABS reminds me a bit of the EC-ASECS regional conference in terms of general tone, though the crowd here is rather different–I don’t see too many overlapping faces. I may have two new conferences to make a habit of!

Tomorrow, I’m co-leading a workshop with Laura Runge on using Wikipedia in the classroom. My EN340 course this term, Major Women Writers, is doing a Wikipedia project for one of the novels I’ve assigned–Charlotte Lennox’s Henrietta. It seems to have proven (surprisingly, for me!) a lot more challenging than expected–students were very confused, in general, by the way the first book is essentially Henrietta telling her story to Miss Woodby. Coupled, of course, with the fact that there is no Wikipedia entry on the novel, and my students are rather struggling!

A bit of background on the class–it’s a LT-2 Liberal Arts Core course (advanced literature), and it’s also Writing Intensive. This means I have at most one major, and this term, none–challenging, but it does free me up to do all sorts of experimental things. My goal is, at root, twofold: 1.) get at least a handful of students excited about reading something from “back in the day” that apparently has absolutely no (right?) relevance for the modern world, and 2.) hopefully instill a sense of curiosity about writing done in public. I’ve designed a project organized around Wikipedia, since I know most of my students use it as a crib-sheet of sorts–I routinely see the pages on Fantomina, “The Reformed Coquet,” and Evelina up on their laptops during discussion, and so many were frustrated by the lack of readily available information on Henrietta. What better way to instill a bit of healthy skepticism about their sources, while encouraging students to help others in their same situation, while modeling the kind of DIY practices that I believe are essential to being a well-rounded citizen of the world, while also engaging students in just the kind of real-world writing that frequently goes unnoticed as writing. Enter: Wikipedia.

I’m presenting tomorrow at 1:45. Hope you can make it! The project details–from assignment to homework to groupwork–are all available in PDF, here. But, for simplicity’s sake, I’m also posting below an overview of how I structure the project from pre-writing to submission:

Charlotte Lennox’s novel Henrietta does not have a Wikipedia page, by which I’m sure you’re all distressed! So, let’s help out future students by creating one. This is a full-class project. See the entire assignment sheet on Canvas.

Pre-project work:

  1. Homework: Complete the Wikipedia Training for Students tutorial:
    1. Create your account
    2. Explore your sandbox
    3. Create your user information page / biographical sketch
    4. Submit your User Contributions URL via Canvas
  2. In-class: Team Wikipedia Quiz / Go over assignment
    1. In-class: (Activity A) How to recognize original research, point of view problems
    2. In-class: Structure/content: Look at “Fantomina” and Evelina pages–what is included?
  3. Homework: Write 1 paragraph for each part of our hypothetical page, upload to Canvas
    1. summary
    2. key characters
    3. theme
    4. style
    5. overview
  4. Homework: Canvas discussion board research post: Find 1 scholarly or biographical source (no overlaps!), download it to your computer. Read it, and post to Canvas discussion board:
    1. bibliographic entry
    2. upload the source
    3. write 1 paragraph overview/summary of the source
  5. In-class: Wikipedia Workshop/Activity B
  6. Homework: Revise in groups
  7. In-class: Lab revision time; add a source; add an image; add a template note
  8. Homework: Revise in (different) groups; sources, content, and writing
  9. In-class: Lab revision time
  10. Homework: Revise
  11. Due: Your user contributions page URL to Canvas

Archives, Encoding, and Students, Oh My! | THATCamp CHNM 2011


May 19, 2011

by thowe

Teacher-scholars unite! I’ve been testing some possible applications of Omeka archives and Zotero as collaborative tools organizing the development of literary research methodologies classes, and I’d like to take the wonderful opportunity of THATcamp to begin developing the structure and content of project I see as The Next Step. I’d like your help to discuss, plan, and/or block out a template for a full-class, full-term student project that works toward researching, annotating, and encoding a small number (perhaps just one per term?) of thematically-selected texts in our shamefully neglected special collections room. Ideally, this project would therefore include study of the texts themselves, research about their material and digital existences (using the ESTC, Google Books, and something like Eighteenth-Century Book Tracker) a basic practical/theoretical framework for DH, collaboratively writing a useful and accessible overview and producing an XML version of the text. Each term or year, students and faculty would work together to select, create, and grow the entries according to a broader thematic logic that can expand over time, based on the strengths of the collections. I’d like to use this template as a basis for a grant application that would allow the project to grow and, ultimately, link faculty, students, and resources at area institutions.

I think this would be a viable model for an advanced undergraduate seminar, and it has the benefit of drawing together a variety of practical and theoretical facets of the digital humanities. Some questions to consider include how we can best design the arc of the class? What specific parts of the project would have as their goal which practical or conceptual outcomes? What are the technological hurdles to be 1.) aware of, 2.) avoided, or 3.) embraced? What should the Omeka site look like/allow, in order to help the project grow over time? How might faculty help students approach the text encoding portion of the project? What are the most useful introductory text-based sources providing a theoretical framework for such a practical project? And what might steps after The Next Step look like?

via Archives, Encoding, and Students, Oh My! | THATCamp CHNM 2011.


“All Deformed Shapes”


Popular Culture Association
San Antonio TX
March 2011

All deformed Shapes”: Refiguring the Posture Master as Popular Performer in Early Eighteenth-Century England”

The early eighteenth-century entertainment economy can be characterized by its variety and its modernity. Host to pre-Restoration repertory plays and bawdy Restoration comedies, heroic tragedies and experimental work, emerging bourgeois dramas, farcical afterpieces, ballet, opera, and more, the eighteenth-century stage featured a rich and decidedly modern spectrum of entertainments calibrated for an increasingly cosmopolitan and middle-class audience. The participatory spaces of entertainment were newly shaped by public debate and the world of print, offering myriad opportunities for the consumption and production of objects, ideas, and experiences. One component of this modern entertainment economy that has received little attention is the posture master—or, in contemporary parlance, the contortionist. Who were these artists in flesh? What were their performances like, and how were they represented? To what discursive or disciplinary purposes were they put? There is much work to be done on this subject, and I can only begin to parse out some threads in a future discourse here.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “posture-master” is one who is “expert in assuming artificial postures or attitudes of the body.”1 Early senses of the word “posture” emphasize relative positioning of parts to other parts or wholes, chiefly the disposition of bodies and objects in space. The term “posture-master,” however, dates only from the 1690s, specifically in reference to one particular performer, Joesph Clark; use of the term seems to disappear by the end of the nineteenth century. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with the influx of Continental tumblers and acrobats, the concept of the posture-master as one who places the human body into an artificially or unusually acquired corporeal shape for purposes of entertainment begins to acquire a more negative connotation, especially when used in reference to the many shapes of performance. The posture-master is not only associated with the deliberate disposition of the body and its parts, but also the suspicion of disingenuity or deception always possible when new forms of behavior and representation are adopted—hence, anxious about the increasing democratization of leisure and the production of leisure goods, the vigorous Augustan critiques of fraud, imposture, and affectation. Because of the posture-master’s unique medium, we can read him as a particularly ambiguous response to new anxieties about the performance of identity.

While there is little archival evidence of such performers or performances in the first person, there is a surprising quantity of information from essays and newspapers that helps us situate them in a larger discursive context. In fact, according to newspaper advertisements, a fad for contortionists emerged most visibly in 1709, continuing to grow during the next decades—as use of full-text searchable databases shows. With the modern—perhaps postmodern—advent of fulltext searchable databases of primary sources like Eighteenth-Century Collections Online and the 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers, scholars can see quickly and clearly an outline of major and minor trends in the historical public sphere; such resources are vital to the archaeology of less well-known subjects of inquiry, in part because very few, if any, bibliographic materials exist to help a researcher navigate the choppy waters of print, and in part because even were they to exist, the chances of them documenting a passing comment that gives shape to a discursive construct is minimal, at best.

The example of the posture-master offers one such example, with illuminating results. A search of the 17th-18th Burney Collection Newspapers for the phrase “po?ture ma?ter!”2 returns 150 results, most of which are advertisements. Strikingly, 125 of these references fall between 1711 and 1739. Between 1740 and 1772, only one reference is returned, and the remaining 24 occur in the last quarter century. All but a few of those 150 results were in fact in reference to posture-masters or contortionists, in a performative sense; this distribution gives us a fascinating look into real material and ideological conditions of existence in the eighteenth century. A small handful of records are duplicates, reflecting the poor legibility of the original scans, but these do not disrupt the larger pattern that emerges—a great upswing in references to performances of posture-mastery during the early eighteenth-century, and many fewer, later. More specific searches tailored3 to both language typical in advertisements for posture-masters and the names of the performers themselves returned additional results, all within the same pattern of a quick rise in the early part of the century followed by an equally swift decline. After mid-century, the interest in posture-mastery shifts toward equilibrists, acrobats, balancing acts; the deliberate deformation of the human body seems to have lost its appeal—or become commonplace, as the narrator of The Fool of Quality notes, much later in the century:“[s]uch wonders are now so common as to be scarce entertaining; but, at that time, they were received with bursts and roars of applause” (226). The discursive practices by which posture-mastery became a fad within which some practitioners approached celebrity status thus has a clear shape.

While one might expect contortionists to play, at best, marginal roles in the eighteenth-century entertainment economy, they in fact speak very much to the consolidation of the modern cultural landscape in which “entertainment” as a category—richly discussed by Simon During in Modern Enchantments and John O’Brien in Harlequin Britain—is becoming a viable, and even threateningly dominant, mode of consumption. For O’Brien, entertainments are distinctly modern points of intersection between performance and audience, producer and consumer, drawing significance from that intersection; entertainments are events understood as less “serious” than the main theatrical performances and designed for mass appeal (xiv-xv). The site of entertainment increasingly slips outside of the traditional boundaries of well-defined spaces, itself a sign of the proliferation and increasing accessibility of the public sphere. Throughout the eighteenth century, public shows like rarity exhibitions, legerdemain, waxworks, and ropedancing increased in number and visibility (Pender, “In the Bodyshop” 113), making the public show into a key site for the emerging concept of entertainment. During’s exploration of magic assemblage—“that motley of shows in the public spaces where magic was performed: theaters, fairs, streets, taverns, and so on”—speaks to the development of modern entertainment culture no less than the English pantomime investigated by O’Brien (66); given the peculiar salience of the posture-master to the image of embodied assemblage, the contortionist must firmly be situated in this modern entertainment economy. One posture-master, John Riner, for instance, deliberately characterized his art as, variously, an “Entertainment of Postures” (“The Famous John Riner”) and an “Entertainment in Metamorphoses” (“In the Little Piazza in Covent Garden”).

Four of the most famous posture-masters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—Joseph Clarke, (d. c. 1696), Mr. Higgins (d. c. 1710), John Riner (fl. 1721-1726), and William Philips (fl. 1720s-1730s)—gained renown through their marvelous bodily manipulations. Yet, these are only a handful of the working entertainers of the period; many more are nameless, having been lost to the victors of history as well as the victors’ ways of seeing, and only the wealthiest of performers could afford to purchase newspaper space on a daily basis. The ephemera of print—advertisements, anonymous pamphlets, cheap engravings, and so on—in addition to the clearly authored and subsistent documents readers are more familiar with reference a whole host of experiences to which we have less access. There seem to be no references to Clarke’s performances, for instance, in any of the public newspapers of his day; yet, not only did he become a significant reference point for later posture-masters, who are often described as representing “the whole Performance of Posture Clarke,” but he was also the subject of both a scientific observation published in the Transactions of the Royal Society and an engraving in Laroon’s iconic Cries of London, the visual rhetoric of which was passed down through the years to appear in advertisement woodcuts as well as descriptions of later artists. Isaac Fawkes, the noted sleight-of-hand artist whose performances in legerdemain mark the inauguration of During’s “secular magic,” gained visibility not primarily through his skill at conjuring; in fact, his first performances occurred under the sign of an unnamed posture-master to whom Fawkes was yet an unnamed “English Artist” (“At the Duke of Marlborough’s Head”).

Amidst the urban entertainment economy, posture-masters performed in many venues telling in their variety. As we see in Hogarth’s Southwark Fair, and as numerous advertisements document, they performed in fairgrounds, both as stand-alone artists and as pre-show entertainment, where their antics served, like those of tumblers, ropedancers, and jugglers, to draw crowds into booths both for summer drolls and glasses of beer alike.4 Displays of posture-mastery appeared on legitimate stages as entr’acte entertainment, and in the fore- or great-rooms of legitimate stages. Like waxworks, automata, and strange creatures from around the world, posture-masters displayed their extraordinary bodies in taverns and coffeehouses; they appeared in piazzas, in semi-permanent booths throughout the year, and we can infer from Clark’s inclusion in Laroon’s London Cries of London that they may have appeared on street corners and other undocumented public spaces. Indeed, there seem to be no advertisements at all for formal performances by “Posture Clark,” though he is referenced in a variety of literary, anecdotal, and scientific materials in addition to being a founding father of sorts for similar artists. Fawkes even advertised private performances of his young posture-boys for the more well-heeled of his clientèle, and posture-mistresses were, as Randolph Trumbach has noted (cite), fixtures in the sexual underworld of the Enlightenment.

These performers were frequented by audiences of all classes, and they could be seen across the city throughout the year. Advertised prices ranged from 2s. 6d., the cost of prime seating at a benefit on April 17, 1727, for William Philips, one of Fawkes’ erstwhile young posture-boys (Daily Post, Friday, April 12, 1728), and 3d., the cost of the “Upper Places” at Yeates’ booth near Tottenham Court Road (Daily Post, Tuesday, August 5, 1729). In many cases, the cost of seeing a posture-master perform was comparable to seeing Betterton tread the boards at common prices for pit seating. Some performers, depending on the venue they were working, charged flat rates, and others, tiered, and a posture-master who performed for limited engagements sometimes lowered their prices as they neared the end. At the Rummer tavern, Higgins charged 1s. 6d. for front seats and 1s. for rear seats (Daily Courant, February 15, 1710), though the more elegant Duke of Marlborough’s Head tavern in 1712, the “famous posture-master of Europe” who performed with the as-yet-unkown Fawkes, could command 2s. for side boxes and 1s. for the pit (Daily Courant, Monday May 5, 1711). A decade later, when Fawkes began performing under his own name and a his own booth, he charged 12d and 6d, little enough, but—like all of these performers—he showed almost every day and often throughout the day: “Their Hours, every Day, from 9 in the Morning till 9 at Night, the last Shows beginning at 3, 5, and 7 in the Evening” (Daily Post, Saturday, March 3, 1722). These must have been grueling schedules indeed; yet, they were sustained by audiences who returned day after day. When Fawkes’ young “Apprentice” posture-master Philips ran away from his “Master” in April of 1724—an astonishingly detailed account of which is given in The Daily Post—the reward for his return was 2 guineas, suggesting just how integral a part of the show he was.

While there are a few notices given in papers based outside of London of provincial performances, posture-masters incarnate a striking cosmopolitanism. These performers, especially those who were known by their own names and asserted more control over their financial affairs and image, spent much time on the Continent—there seems to have been at least a few “European” posture-masters. Higgins had performed in Holland; Riner, in both France and Germany; one or two of Fawkes’ posture-boys were French, and if they stayed with him as “Apprentice[s]” (Daily Post, Saturday, April 18, 1724;), they may have been orphans handed over to the entrepreneur during one of his own trips abroad—a number of advertisements take special care to mention successful performances before foreign courts. Such cosmopolitanism was a sign of status and rank. Performers capitalized on the outlandishness of their postures, suggesting an active association between posture-mastery and the unhome-like, the uncanny. In December of 1721, for instance, John Riner was performing, for 2 shillings a place, his daily series of “Entertainments in Metamorphosis” that included, in addition to “the whole Performance of Posture Clarke,” an entirely novel collection of postures “Never Perform’d in this Kingdom before.” He goes on to elaborate: “First, a Pigmy Dance, he appearing to be but two Foot and a half high […] and a pleasant Entertainment of an Italian Scaramouch, with two Heads and four Legs.” (cite). Not only does this advertisement capitalize on the kind of outlandishness often associated with exhibited curiosities—“pigmies” were notorious staples in such exhibitions—but it also maps the new fad for harlequinade and pantomime onto the allure of posture-mastery.5

But what distinguishes the posture master’s art, as perhaps is to be expected, is the centrality of the performer’s body. Advertisements for contortionists describe in minute detail the bodily permutations and deformities paying audiences can expect. One 1712 advertisement in The Spectator for an unnamed contortionist is in many ways typical of such paratheatrical entertainments, and is therefore worth citing at length. Performing at

the New Tunbridge Wells by the New River Head, in the Dancing Room, is to be seen the famous Posture-Master of Europe, who far exceeds the deceased Posture-Master Clarke and Higgins: He extends his Body into all deformed Shapes, makes his Hip and Shoulder Bones meet together, lays his Head upon the Ground, and turns his Body round twice or thrice, without stirring his Face from the Place; stands upon one Leg, and extends the other in a perpendicular Line half a Yard above his Head, and extends this Body from a Table, with his Head a Foot below his Heels, having nothing to balance his Body but his Feet: With several other Postures too tedious to mention. Likwise a Child about 9 Years of Age, that shews such Postures as never was seen performed by one of his Age. Perform’d from 6 till 10 every Morning, and from 4 till 8 every Evening, except Mondays and Thursdays, when it will be performed only in the Morning. Note, Tuesday next will be the first Day of performing at this Place. (“At the New Tunbridge Wells by the New River”)

This is a “famous” posture-master who hails, ostensibly, from Europe; his performance is aligned through the venue with dancing as well as an existing tradition—he “far exceeds the deceased Posture-Masters Clarke and Higgins.” In this paradigmatic advertisement, the variety of corporeal dislocations that we can expect to see are detailed extravagantly, with an almost scientific attention to angles and lengths and units of measurement. This level of detail emphasizes the wondrous and surprising quality of the performance, as posture after posture is pictured in language. There is a notable but indefinable sense of excess about this advertisement; we are getting more—the posture master “far exceeds” what earlier artists were able to do, though the description calls to mind Laroon’s image of Clarke. He “extends his Body into all deformed Shapes” (my emphasis); he performs not only those described, but “several other Postures, too tedious to mention” here. The advertisement actively creates a visual rubric of the performer’s body, suggesting at once an existing image repertoire on which readers can draw to imagine the performance, and a need to contour the performance anew with a precise set of individual postures occurring in a specific order. This is not a random rary-show, but a routinized performance. It presents us with a set of still images that, in being linked together, create an almost cinematic quality of motion—and suggest the presence of the awestruck gaze of the audience, as well. In this sequence of hip and shoulder, head and leg, heel and foot, the whole gives way to the arrangement of parts, as well as how we see them, what we do with them and what we cannot do with them. Indeed, the identity of the posture master is in some ways a function of his fragmented body shaped into a whole only as performance. The architectural imagery of the contortionist’s postures finally emphasizes his ability, the extent to which he is indeed a master of postures, building an edifice of flesh. We encounter his agency, here, his active ability to shape his body; he “extends,” he “makes,” he “lays” and “turns” and “stands” and “extends” again. In advertisements, the posture master is clearly depicted as a master of postures, inviting the audience to partake in the pleasures of the stare, to wonder, to situate these bodies in a tradition of interpretation that features the limits of the human body and our experience of it.

In addition to performing their postures in fairgrounds, taverns, and other spaces of buying and selling, contortionists also worked on the regular or patent stages, often in the capacity of entr’acte entertainment—this is where Addison’s Bickerstaff problematically encountered a posture master, an experience he describes in horrified terms in a Tatler essay from December 17, 1709.6 In December 1709, Higgins was the posture-master du jour, and from the run of his advertisements, we learn that he began performing at Congreve and Vanbrugh’s Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, where he continued throughout the holiday season, performing at least eleven times. While in the Queen’s Theatre, Higgins performed his postures between the acts of a variety of plays starring Betterton and Barry, including Macbeth. It is therefore likely that Higgins is the posture master to whom Addison refers in The Tatler 108 when he writes of an abomination that has infiltrated the heart of the tragic stage, a “monster with a face between his feet” who “raised himself on one leg in such a perpendicular posture, that the other grew in a direct line above his head. It afterwards twisted itself into the motions and wreathings of several different animals, and after a great variety of shapes and transformations, went off the stage in the figure of a human creature” (2: 389). After his tour at the Queen’s, Higgins moved across London to the Rummer tavern in Cheapside; his performance ran until March of 1710, just before his death; there, he was able to charge 1s 6d for front seats, and 1s for rear—astonishingly, the common prices for gallery and upper gallery seating in the regular theaters (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins,” Thursday Feb. 7, 1710). At the Rummer, Higgins participated in at least fifteen performances, though possibly many more were unadvertised given the claim in each that his performance would begin “at Six every Evening during his short Stay in the City” (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins,” February 9, 1710). Many other performers appeared on legitimate patent stages, to the chagrin of arbiters like Addison and Steele. John Riner performed in the Opera House, Fawkes at the French Theatre and the James Street playhouse, and, years earlier, in 1702, an anonymous Black contortionist performed “a Variety of Postures to Admiration” in an entr’acte during Wycherly’s Country Wife at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (“At the New Theatre in Little-Lincolns-Inn-Fields”). This “infiltration” of the popular7 was denigrated by many as indicative of the bad taste of the town; a letter to Pasquin dated January 21, 1724, proclaims that “if Affairs go on at this Rate, the Poet and the Player will become useless Things, while the Joiner, the Dragon-maker and Posture-Master run away with all the Credit and Profit.” Not only compromising any hard-and-fast distinction between legitimate and illegitimate performance, however, such perceived infiltration also emphasizes the promises and threats of a mobile, urban public sphere—a commercial site of exchange, debate, and diversion.

In early eighteenth-century print culture, then, we can see an outline of the contortionist’s significance. Advertisements of the day suggest the centrality of these performers to the London entertainment economy, despite remaining largely nameless and unheralded, and the prices they could command both on and near legitimate theatrical venues illustrate their popularity for a variegated audience. With other paratheatrical entertainers, like tumblers, rope dancers, ladder dancers, jugglers and conjurers, the contortionist participates in the production of what Simon During has called “secular magic.” His feats of agency render him a fitting Proteus, and he can become virtually anyone or thing. The posture-master is, fittingly, a master of postures, a master of shapes and appearances who can slip easily from insider to outsider. He can confound the tailor’s codes of measurement and bodily coherence (described anecdotally in The Guardian 102, 8 July 1713), the highwayman’s Robin-hood act, and the spectator’s sense of the limits the human form. The contortionist steps easily from the street to the fairground, from the tavern to the legitimate stage, the public world of print to the private world of secret desires. A dexterous wonder, whose ability to reshape the human body is surprising, he capitalizes on the physicality and exhibitionism central to modern entertainment. His “distorted” form becomes a metaphor for the chaotic range of voices, desires, and modes of consumption available to an increasingly mobile, modern world. The posture-master circulates as easily as money, slipping from subject to object, curiosity to monster, outlandish to English, human to inhuman, fairground and streetcorner to patent theater, criminal to trickster, of the marketplace, mechanistic automata to living sign of the ghost in the machine.

Works Cited

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Evelyn, John. Numismata. London, 1697. EEBO. Johns Hopkins University. 5 Dec. 2007. Online.

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Laroon, Marcellus. The Criers and Hawkers of London. Ed. Sean Shesgreen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990. Print.

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Pasquin. 21 January 1724. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Johns Hopkins University. 2 May 2008. Online.

—. 4 February 1724. 7th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Johns Hopkins University. 2 May 2008. Online.

Pender, Stephen. “In the Bodyshop: Human Exhibition in Early Modern England.” Defects: Engendering the Early Modern Body. Ed. Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. 54-74 95-126. Print.

—. “No Monsters at the Resurrection: Inside Some Conjoined Twins.” Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. 143-167.

Posture Master, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Print.

Shesgreen, Sean. “The Cries of London in the Seventeenth Century.” Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America. 86.3 (1992): 269-294. Print.

—. Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2002. Print.

Shesgreen, Sean and John Bywaters. “The First London Cries for Children.” Princeton University Library Chronicle. 59.1 (1998): 223-50. Print.

Smith, Alexander. The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-Men. London: Printed for J. Morphew, 1714. ECCO. Library of Congress. 28 January 2010. Online.

Stephens, John Calhoun, ed. and intro. The Guardian. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1982. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub. 3rd Ed. London: Printed for John Nutt, 1704. ECCO. Library of Congress. 28 January 2010. Online.

Trumbach, Randolph. Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume 1: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.







1These references are drawn from the New Edition; as of the 2010 draft revision, the word “unusual” replaces “artificial.”

2A search for “po?ture! N10 ma?ter!” yeilded 198 results, only slightly more than the more targeted phrase, “po?ture ma?ter!”; this is in part because “ma?ter!” hit words like “matter” and therefore many news articles about the posture of political or military affairs.

3Though this language will be examined more fully, below, it may be helpful to note here that ECCO and 17th 18th Century Burney Collection databases support fairly complex proximity, wildcard, nested, and boolean searches. For instance, one can search for “variety” within fifty words of “shape!” (in which search the exclamation point signifies one or no characters, hence returning results for “shape,” “shapes,” or “shaped”). Because of the persistence of the long S, it is also helpful to conduct multiple searches both replacing “s” with “f” and using the question-mark wildcard, which signifies any one letter. Fuzzy searches are also useful, because they can compensate for the variant spellings and approximations common when older materials are scanned and read with OCR software. The differences in returns between a search for “po?ture ma?ter!” with no fuzzy searching and low fuzzy searching is minimal. For more information on these searches, see the online Gale help documents on “Fuzzy Searching” and “Search Tips.”


4According to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, posture-master is virtually synonymous with tumbler, which is described as “a sharper employed to draw in pigeons to game; likewise a posture master, or rope-dancer” (Ff2). Here, the pigeons drawn into game are customers attracted by the spectacle of the fairground hawker. Some taverns where posture masters performed include The Rummer, The Queen’s Arms, and the Duke of Marlborough’s Head. There are numerous advertisements for posture master performances during Bartholomew and Southwark Fairs, though not all are specific as to the nature of their performances. There is also evidence that posture masters performed in the Covent Garden Piazza (“At the Little Piazza in Covent Garden”) and “The New Tunbridge Wells by the New River Head, in the Dancing Room”)

5It is likely that performers toured widely across Europe, including Italy. Goldsmith’s narrator in Citizen of the World notes his regret that “none of our Eastern posture-masters or showmen have ever ventured to England,” for he “should be pleased to see that money circulate in Asia, which is now sent to Italy and France, in order to bring their vagabonds hither” (cite). This may suggest that there were few Asian posture performers in the eighteenth century, though it is, of course, difficult to prove a negative. In the early nineteenth century, Chinese performers were noted in the papers, and given the resemblance between the illustrations that have survived and several yogic poses, in addition to the extent of Continental travel, it is plausible that some Eastern knowledge had likely been acquired.

Worth pursuing: fawkes’ elision of the posture master from his image—branding himself the famous “english artist”–is this symptomatic of a larger “Englishing” of the entertainment economy?

6In The Daily Courant of February 9, 1710, for instance, we learn that Higgins is performing his whole show, including “several other wonderful Postures that he had not Time to perform between the Acts” at the Queen’s Theatre (“The Surprizing Mr. Higgins”).

7There has been a richly documented tradition of cross-fertilization between the fairground and the patent theatres, as well—in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, actors from the patent theatres typically set up booths in Bartholomew and Southwark to earn income during the summer closures. Pinkethman may have been the first to, as Rosenfeld puts it, “exploit the resources of the fair” (9), but Bullock, Spiller, Hippisley, and many more soon followed suit. Not only did actors and actresses from the patent stages support their income with fairground performances in the summer, but many popular plays on the legitimate stages were redacted and altered for the meridian of Bartholomew or Southwark. Indeed, newspaper advertisements for fairground performances including posture masters begin to look quite a bit like advertisements for regular season theatrical performances by the 1730s. Theatrical advertisements for contortionists in the eighteenth century, like advertisements for other dramatic forms, indicate the venue of performance, sometimes the prices of attendance and the length of the run, whether the performance was a special request, and any additional entertainments to be had at the event.


Collaborative Research Tools in the Methodologies Course


ASECS 2010
San Antonio, TX
Web 2.0 Roundtable


Over the past few years, I’ve been experimenting in the classroom with a variety of web 2.0 technologies: IBM’s ManyEyes, wikis, blogs, and, most recently, Omeka archives and Zotero groups. Some technologies I use to produce single-authored lecture and discussion tools, like ManyEyes, and others, I use to encourage multilateral collaboration. This upcoming term, I’m using Omeka and Zotero in an introductory graduate research methodologies course. In this course, we draw on two key primary source texts, including Pope’s Rape of the Lock, to explore a cultural materialist mode of scholarship that itself approaches the kind of decentralization of web 2.0. My goals in this class are oriented toward the varied needs of returning or transitioning graduate students, many of whom are familiar with neither advanced analytical techniques, contemporary research methodologies, nor the electronic tools that have so taken over research in the humanities. I am attempting to blend the familiar modes of research and writing, typically learned in a lecture-oriented classroom, with the demands of seminar-style courses that seek to position students well for individual participation in a brave new world of creative, collaborative scholarship. While the second major essay of the class is essentially traditional in nature, it is built from an archive assignment in which students compile both primary and secondary sources that situate the 18th century poem in a material context. I will be asking students to contribute items and annotations to a course-wide archive, which I hope to grow over time, expanded with a collection of personal, reflective responses to the research process. In this roundtable, I would like to present my colleagues with an overview of the Omeka archive and Zotero bibliography we create, as well as organize some best practices for such projects.

Web Discussion:

Like Lisa, I am very interested in student digital resistance–in fact, as I, too, continue to mull over my comments for this roundtable, I am increasingly faced with the need to deal, head-on, with such resistance. I used zotero, omeka archives, and wordpress to teach basic research methodologies and textual interpretation to graduate students at a very small, private Catholic university, the graduate student body at which is highly diverse, especially in terms of ages and skills. We also visited the Library of Congress and experimented with EEBO, ECCO, and Burney–we have neither these resources nor extensive microfilm collections on our campus. I went into the class with one idea, and realized–much later, as it turns out–that it had to be radically rethought.

In my presentation, I am now planning to frontload the class purpose, show some of the resources we used to participate in research and writing, and share some of the problems I encountered, along with some possible ways to overcome those hurdles. Part of what interests me about this topic is much like what Ben says:

I think pushing these sorts of tools in pedagogical settings is at least as valuable for the ways it might prompt students to become more thoughtful and sophisticated users of online resources as it is for the ways it allows us to teach the eighteenth century.

This class wasn’t really about the 18c, but about how to think more closely and critically and holistically about literary texts, research, and argumentation. I believe there are very real ways in which becoming more cognizant of and expert with a variety of digital research tools–even including library catalogues–can help students interact with texts and concepts in more systematic and self-aware manner. For instance, knowing how–even the basics of how–a database works and represents is data can change how we conduct searches.

I think I could do this in pecha kucha, but I also don’t want the format to suture over the real physical problems that many of my students encountered when trying to deal with our resources–the encountering of which focuses the ways technology (might) offer unique opportunities to confront some assumptions of transparency in literary interpretation. However, I also don’t want to eat into others’ time. I would be interested in the discussion format, but, like George, I think it is very important to have a resource that allows us to indulge, later and in the privacy of our own homes, in the wealth of experience the roundtable collectively represents.

[slide 1]

Building Textual Interpretation was a course set up as an introduction to graduate study at Marymount University, a small school just outside of Washington DC. Given the diversity of our student body—age ranges, language proficiency, educational and disciplinary background–we discovered that incoming students needed a basic intro to the concepts, methods, and purposes of textual study in a seminar environment. Part of my goal was to defamiliarize their encounters with the texts we worked, to circumvent the problem that Wayne Booth describes in The Craft of Research, which we used extensivelyof falling back on what you know.

[slide 2]

The class wasn’t radically nontraditional in its research and writing—rather, it was about how to think more closely, critically, and holistically about literary text, research, and argumentation, especially when you may not be well versed in the subject matter from previous experience. There are very real ways in which becoming more cognizant of and expert with a variety of digital research tools–even including library catalogues, which we too often use as if they were transparent-–can help students interact with texts and concepts in more systematic and self-aware manner. For instance, knowing even the basics of how an index catalogs and represents its data can change how we conduct searches.

[slide 3]

I wanted students to be able to come up with original (not necessarily groundbreaking, but new and different) research topics based on accurate readings of primary and secondary source material, put together in logical, well organized and supported essays of varying lengths—nothing too ambitious. Another purpose of the course was to introduce students to a seminar-style learning environment, with which few had had experience—being more familiar with a traditional lecture-based model of learning. I wanted to help students claim their voices in an unfamiliar, vast, and diverse fields—to participate actively in an academic community as scholars and students, rather than just as students. Web 2.0 tools, as many here today know, can be vital sites for creating an energizing context of inquiry; however, there are very real dangers. Some were related to using the technology itself, but more were related to the need for a foundational conceptual sense of the interconnectedness of writing, analysis, and research.

[slide of assignments]

The course was divided into two broad sections: the first half of class was devoted to cultivating the skills of close reading and creative analysis required in graduate study, using Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—I introduced students to Many Eyes visualizations to help them see the text as a system, and they were to write a 6-8 page essay without secondary sources. The goal here was to encourage sophisticated and interesting textual analysis. This was a familiar approach for students with literature backgrounds, but not necessarily for those with humanities backgrounds.

The second half of class was devoted to the skills of creative research, and we used The Rape of the Lock as our primary text. The course culminated in a 15-page seminar essay that situated the poem in its material cultural context; the essays sought to answer the question, “How can a fuller knowledge of some material context of the early 18th century help me understand some aspect of Pope’s poem more clearly?” It was for this second project that I used zotero and omeka. One student noted that this “focus on an object…within a contextual framework was [an unfamiliar] approach to textual criticism that demanded learning new methods of research” (McCall)–students went to the Library of Congress to use their massive print and digital collections.

[slide of archive assignment]


For this project, students were to build an archive of primary and secondary sources; I encouraged students to post key pieces from their archives to our class Omeka site at the end of the term, and to contribute to the class zotero library throughout their research process. Both these sites were not only models for the kinds of resources that could create a coherent and responsible context for argumentation, but also the places students could go to get ideas, see what their peers were working on, and begin an ongoing public conversation—which also mimics a seminar environment, by transforming the classroom into a space of exchange rather than a site of lecture.




I pre-populated our zotero archive with subcollections of records and notes that sought to explain some starting places—how to use the web, how to use LOC subject headings, how to read catalog records to learn the vocabularies used in literary study, how to keep track of notes. There were other subcollections relevant to Pope, further divided into background resources, resources on the study of material culture, and so on. I imagined the zotero library as a model for a methodological approach to the assignment students would ultimately complete. In a way, it also modeled the kind of physical bricolage that students at Marymount have to do if they want to get good resources—use consortium delivery, physically visit better-stocked and wealthier area libraries, collect and systematically archive copies so originals can be returned.


Actually using the group zotero library proved more difficult than you might imagine, because few students were familiar with the concept of a plugin and most had very sketchy note-taking or record-keeping habits. Also, there was the problem of using zotero 2.0 on public university computers, as several students did not have laptops. Students who were careful observers and clear about the purpose of the tool were able to use it successfully, adding relevant records related to their topic and filling in all of the record information so as to allow the tool to generate effective bibliographies and keep track of notes. But, there were many additions that missed the mark, either by not being completed or by being only tangentially relevant; there were a lot of “untitled” additions.


[slide—failed additions]


Students did share their resources with each other through zotero, but not as fully as I had hoped—they found it more effective to simply give each other copies of the articles they’d found. None of the students used zotero to generate their bibliographies; however, a lot of these difficulties could have been avoided by using individual libraries instead of a group library, as some of the features in zotero 2.0 were clunky. If I use zotero again, I would need to spend more time demonstrating effective ways to use it—and I would definitely have students use the individual install, rather than the group. As one student commented, zotero seemed like an “interesting diversion,” and while it was useful in that it allowed him to “immediately archive links to important documents” from ECCO and Burney, the group library didn’t give him the ability to save full texts, only links—he stopped using zotero because he “feared not being able to retrieve important materials.” (McCall)




I built the Omeka site as a repository for useful materials, much like the archives they were to be creating for our second project. I wanted students to see the kinds of resources I would use, have easy access to them, and share the interesting resources they’d found. Few students were able to upload resources they’d found in fulltext primary source archives because of file size limitations, but others had difficulty downloading from ECCO and Burney in general—some of this was because the LOC computers don’t all have the same access levels, which was annoying. Selecting relevant resources and fully documenting them were additional problems that became visible with this component of the course, which is perhaps the most useful insight I gained from the experiment. For instance, students learned they couldn’t find “conduct manuals” by searching in ECCO for “conduct manuals.” What did work well, however, was the requirement that students upload their end-of-term reflections about how their research process had evolved.




One student commented in her final reflections on the differences between her undergraduate concept of research and what she came out of the class with in a particularly insightful way, referring to a process rather than the process of research: as an undergrad, “research was a haphazard search conducted to find mildly relevant sources that supported a preconceived notion of my argument. I read, created an opinion, and looked for someone who published similar thoughts.” The goal is to create a “meaningful collection of sources,” but the ability to distinguish the meaningful from the less so is a difficult skill to learn. Sometimes this means, as another student noted, “stumbling in the dark”–while it can be confusing and disorienting at first, it “yielded some interesting nuggets…that lead to the development of her thesis” (Kay); this student had started with lapdogs, but ended up with something new—a piece on the deliberate absence in the poem of good English hunting dogs, like the Great Dane Pope himself loved.

I incorporated these tools to get at some of the root causes of our difficulties—a dearth of the sense of adventure and initiative that underpins sustained inquiry, itself perhaps a result of uncertainty and lack of confidence. What questions should I be asking, and how do I situate myself within a larger argument, when I don’t really know what the larger argument is? I approached the course as a lesson in the relation of parts to wholes. All my assignments were based on the idea that these parts—whether of a literary text; a wider cultural, material, or historical context; of the discipline of literary study; or of our own writing—are networked to other parts to form wholes. The kinds of skills needed to interact successfully and creatively with the varied toosl and technologies available to students, from library catalogs and primary source databases to blogs and web-based research tools, enhances the ability to put an idea together from its parts.

Ultimately, the diversity of skill sets proved the biggest hurdle to this experiment; it brought home to me the real need for a framework in which to conceptualize the system of writing, analysis, research, and synthesis. I hoped to address this problem in part by adopting a less-is-more model for approaching textual interpretation, along the lines—though in a much less expansive way—of what Franco Moretti describes in “Conjectures on World Literature,” and in Maps Graphs Trees: “fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection” (1). Unfortunately, I think my less-is-more approach became itself a little unwieldy—in the future, I would have students use only one of these tools, but do so throughout the term, or use the individual zotero tools in conjunction with an omeka archive that students only participated in creating in a very circumscribed manner—like contributing to a growing collection of research reflections.

While this course was not set up as a radically non-traditional or web-based course (in fact, it was fairly traditional in its writing requirements), a few of the techniques for researching and writing in an electronic environment were in some cases perceived as radically non-traditional for my students.  One, who describes herself as “a bit ‘shell schocked’ with [her] re-entry into school after almost twenty-five years, when [she] actually typed papers on a typewriter,” purchased her first laptop computer during the process of our class. In fact, the lack of easy access to portable computers was a big problem, and one that I’d not really considered—because students’ ages were so varied, and because they were used to either taking notes with pencil and paper or being given lecture notes as powerpoint slides—they were very loath to bring computers into the classroom, and had to be pushed into it. Even here, not all students had laptops. Added to this lack of access, many students had never really used computers for anything more than accessing email (from a single entry point like AOL or Yahoo!) or browsing the web. Few used Microsoft Word for notetaking, for keeping track of versions, or for commenting on peers’ work, though learning how to do this was something students found helpful.

Underlying this tentative approach to the web, though, is a more fundamental problem—there isn’t a clear (or generally clear) sense of what else it is or can be, and a general unwillingness to test things out. For instance, the perceived difference between library catalogs and google meant that the knowledge of how to perform sophisticated searches in one didn’t translate into the other. They were two separate kinds of things, one of which was unfamiliar.

Similarly, many of my students’ initial approach to research was built on the “research report” model–finding sources that discuss your topic and weaving them together into an essay that more approaches the literature review. This “research report” model ultimately stunts the critical and creative thinking essential to graduate students’ success in the program, because it neither fully addresses the question of originality nor models the fundamental skills of lateral thinking. I was seeking to provide students with a model of research that emphasized growing their ability to generate both interesting ideas from their own encounters with the texts we were working with, and new insights into the texts by examining other primary sources from a relevant cultural or material context.

My logic for incorporating the technologies I did was fourfold. First, several students were either returning to graduate study after a hiatus or drawing on the graduate program for career enhancement, and so needed an orientation to doing research in an electronic environment. Second, because several students were interested in pursuing careers in education, it seemed incumbent upon me to sketch out a little of the terrain that their students would be increasingly familiar with. Third, vast disparities in skill sets and knowledge repertoires of my students demanded a different approach. Fourth–and definitely related to the need for a foundational conceptual sense of the interconnectedness of writing, analysis, and research–I believe that the kinds of skills needed to interact successfully and creatively with the many and varied platforms and technologies available to students, from library catalogs and primary source databases to blogs and web-based research tools, enhances the individual ability to put an idea together from its parts.

Challenges: giving tools that allow students to figure out the shape of a discourse or a discipline or a subject of research—for instance, knowing what a bibliography is and how a catalog works can allow you to find other bibliographies on any topic. Also giving them tools that help them to evaluate any instance in a discourse, discipline, or subject of research;

Successes: students did come away with a clearer sense of how to mine catalogs and indices for starting points, for an overview of the shape of the conversation, and of the relationships between different kinds of research tools. They became more comfortable with a mode of research that stresses achieving originality not by completely mastering a new conversation, but by being able to see what’s not been included—sure, many people talk about material culture and Rape of the Lock, and a lot of folks have researched the cultural history of tobacco, snuff, and so on; however, has anyone looked at these specific examples in the context of Pope’s poem? To help us get a handle on the poem?

Difficulties: students had a surprisingly difficult time understanding contemporaneity and periodization—I got a lot of students, for instance, who wanted to use examples from the 19th century or the Victorian period in their analysis of Pope. [slide] Some, with newfound freedom, selected very inappropriate topics and could not be swayed from them—these are related points. However, some students were able to do quite wonderful work—one student began her research interested in the lapdog as a cultural sign, but was able to refine the topic having seen what criticism was available and what kinds of primary sources other scholars were using, in addition to browsing ECCO, into a piece on the absence of good English hunting dogs, like the Great Dane Pope himself loved.

Miscellaneous Points:

In some cases, students continued to resist their own responsibility for the research process.

One of the first assignments asked students to create an account and introduce themselves to the class Every student did this, and they found the blog much more user-friendly than Bb, but my students did not use the site as much more than a static webpage that could be easily updated. All the assignments were linked from the schedule, each day in which contained a variety of specific tasks that required students to visit various resources I’d provided, interact with them in some way, or produce some kind of written response, in addition to the readings we were doing. You can view this site online, and the URL is visible in these slides.


"Things without Head, or Tail, or Form, or Grace"


2010 ASECS
Albuquerque, TX

‘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 [1686]; Coffey, et. al., Devil to Pay [1732]); they bloody the noses of political adversaries (Centlivre, Gotham Election [1715]). 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 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.