Throughout the spring semester, students enrolled in Leslie Satin’s Gallatin arts workshop “Excavating Titus Andronicus: Exploration and Embodiment” used movement, choreography, and theater games to better understand one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and bloody works. These somatic responses were undertaken along with close readings of the 16th-century play and the classical texts that informed the writing of it.
Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first tragedy, includes scenes of the rape and dismemberment of the titular character’s daughter, Lavinia, whose rapists mutilate her, in an effort to keep her from indicting them, by cutting off her hands and cutting out her tongue. With such a brutal violation and silencing of a female character, Titus presents a challenge to actors, directors, and theatergoers even as it o ers the possibility of engaging with contemporary feminist conversations around rape and rape culture.
“I’ve been looking at the performance history of Titus,” says Billing, a theater director and Shakespeare scholar. “In many modern productions, Lavinia is completely destroyed by her moment of violation and then, afterward, hangs around in the margins of the story. Because she doesn’t speak, there’s no agency—which is a response to be expected from a method of performance based on psychological realism that privileges speech.”
For modern stagings of Titus, many of which have their roots in Stanislavskian psychological realism, Lavinia’s forced silence makes her seem irrelevant. Further complicating matters are attempts to depict—in graphic terms—the multiple instances of violence described in the play.
In the first round of this exploratory performance-based research project, participants uncovered a number of surprising aspects of the play. Recovering and embodying in movement and gesture the Ovidian myth of Philomela, which underlies the story of Lavinia, students discovered the power and potential aggression of the victimized figure while also experiencing the constraints the play places on her. Shakespeare’s rendering of violence and suffering in words became clearer and more immediate when understood through movement, dance, and enactment.
“If we’re worrying about making Lavinia’s trauma believable,” says Edinborough, a trained Feldenkrais teacher whose scholarship is focused on the study of performance as an embodied art form, “we’re misconceiving the ways in which Shakespeare brings together certain intertextual elements. His expectation is not that a character is believable as a real person but that it is to be understood as a symbolic figure. The Ovidian intertexts suggest that actually there is a potential for Lavinia to have some form of agency—or, at least, that she can act on the other characters in the play in such a way as to pose questions about what’s going on within Rome and within the play.”
In order to come to a better understanding of Lavinia and the character’s function in Titus, students sought entry into the work by replaying scenes without using language, employing movements from the Japanese martial art of Aikido, and even responding to iconographic imagery of Renaissance emblems.
“The best criticism of the play in the 20th and 21st century,” says Billing, “has been that it is a complex web of references to classical intertexts and references to atrocity drama of the period. This criticism allows all of that to be unpacked so that we can see how these things intermesh with each other. We’re interested in trying to find a theatrical and performative equivalent to that kind of scholarship.”
The workshop’s experiments included the enactment of scenes and sketches from Titus, all of which were informed by the semester-long, performance-based research into the play led by Satin.
The course also offered an opportunity for graduates of the program to come back and work with undergraduates around the play. “As a drama therapist, I am interested in the larger question about how trauma performs in culture, society, and interpersonal relationships,” notes Gallatin and Steinhardt faculty member Maria Hodermarska (MA ’89, top photo), who also participated in the course. “Titus has been a play that I’ve always been intrigued by, because it is not only the performance of trauma—it’s about the impossibility of performing trauma.”
The arts workshop participants also included Hodermarska, and two recent alumnae, Kelsey Burns and Maya Ward. “People came into the workshop with such a mix of backgrounds and attributes to offer in terms of thinking about dance, theater, and human experience,” says Satin. “That’s what made the class so rich.”