Cognitive and Spectatorial Turns

John J. McGavin and Greg Walker, Imagining Spectatorship: From the Mysteries to the Shakespearean Stage (Oxford, 2016)

I’ve been looking forward to reading this for a while, ever since Greg Walker gave a talk in Cambridge addressing some of the key themes. The book is a response by two early drama experts to the ideas about theatre developed by cognitive theorists. Their two key responses are united by a resistance to the general and to the automatic; they don’t like the way that some scholars have depicted dramatic effects as predictable and sub-personal. So they focus on…

(i) the situational, i.e. / e.g. They say that in early theatres the particular physical positions and angles from which spectators viewed a play made a big difference to what they saw, felt, and thought. Your place in the theatre interacted with (and often reflected) your place in society. Some saw it all from a position of authority, some saw fragments from the margins or from within a crowd. The point is: you need to understand those historical conditions and thereby not generalise about theatrical effects.

(ii) the reflective, i.e. / e.g. They say that the ‘cognitive turn’ has described a lot of unconscious mirroring, simulating, and interacting with the action on the stage, and has undervalued the role of the audience member’s conscious thought. In Medieval and Renaissance drama there is a lot of confrontational emphasis on what the audience makes of the action and the questions it raises, so it makes sense to attend to how an audience would deliberately think things through.

(from the title-page of , written c. 1500)

My general thought as I read the book was partly ‘we need both, don’t we?’, which is not a very dynamic response. Still, perhaps it’s not entirely obvious that a fully engaged historical awareness can nevertheless be informed by the proposals about shared human resources (between diverse individuals, and across time) that have been taken from cognitive science. This is an important creative tension in any attempt to understand the literature of the past. And we also need to remember that responses to artworks engage us at every cognitive level, and that our reflective functions are infused with non-reflective functions, and vice versa (I dare say).
      My more specific thought was a sort of counter-intuitive doubt about the difference made by physical position in the performance space. It has two components, one anecdotal and one theoretical.
      I once went to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe in London, to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle. I had the worst seat in the house. It wasn’t even a seat — a few of us stood, leaning at a barrier, on the balcony right at the side of the stage. Restricted view? Very much so. You could say it told me about my place in the world. On the other hand, the tickets did cost 10 quid and were available at short range, so I didn’t grumble much. I ask myself now how much my sense of the play was inflected by that position. I can remember discomfort, that it got better after some people in the same boat gave up, and that there were some specific bits of the action that I simply couldn’t see. On the other hand, I feel that I really saw the play, and loved it, and got the benefit of numerous things that were facing somewhere else.
      Why? Well my reading of some studies of perception and social cognition leads me to think that we are very responsive to what others can see, and what they are attending to. In fact I wrote about this very thing in an article alluded to here. While we may see things physically from the side, our awareness of how a play looks may be mediated by those seeing it head-on, by those close up, by those far away, and so on. We may always be constructing fuller images of plays based on inferences about what others can see, as well as living in our own perspectives. So although I literally couldn’t see the actors when they gave certain speeches that day at the Wanamaker, that doesn’t simply mean I was not watching (perceiving, remembering, etc.) them and the rest of the action of the play.
      Again, of course, we need both. For some observers at some plays my location would have impinged more, or differently. McGavin and Walker are right that cognitive theories are sometimes based on modern theatres that homogenize spectatorship, and that there is a need to attend to the situational differences in the households and streets and oddly-shaped theatres where earlier drama took place. But the particular is interacting with the general, and it’s a provocative thought that social cognition may broaden our perceptual worlds with surprising consequences.

I think this is one of the most interesting plays of the early Tudor period. It does a lot of clever stuff with the boundaries between actors and audience, with freedom of speech, and more. Another favourite of mine, from a few decades later, is The Play of the Weather.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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