Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Take a Seat

In 1957 Thorton Wilder, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and playwright, wrote a preface for a collection of the three most famous plays we had authored twenty years earlier.  In this preface, he explains how he went from despairing about the theater’s irrelevance to feeling that it still had the potential to be humanity’s highest art form.  One reason he offered for his sense that theater had become an “inconsequential diversion” was the way it had been crammed into a gilded box—where the main attraction was the sets, costumes, and special effects (not to mention the fashions of the bourgeois patrons sitting silently back in the dark).  He opted to strip all of that away, starting with the furniture.  No sets for him—except for a few non-descript chairs.  After all, he explains, “Have you ever noticed that in the plays of Shakespeare no one—except occasionally a ruler—ever sits down?”

That got me thinking.  Elizabethan theater, like Greek theater, certainly did not involve much in the way of set pieces.  And Shakespeare does seem to have been quite aware of how much you can say simply by having someone sit or even lie down while others stand.  For instance, one of his funniest “low” scenes begins with the low-life Caliban (of The Tempest) throwing himself on the ground at the approach of a shipwrecked sailor, Trinculo, whom Caliban mistakenly thinks is a spirit conjured up by his angry boss, Prospero:
Lo, now, lo! Here comes a spirit of his, to torment me
For bringing wood in slowly. I'll fall flat;
Perchance he will not mind me.
Stumbling upon the prostrate Caliban, Trinculo marvels at the strange specimen’s stinkiness.  But when a storm suddenly appears, Trinculo decides his best bet is to creep under the stinky creature’s garments down there on the ground, thereby giving birth to one of the English language’s great metaphoric expressions:
Alas, the storm is come again! my best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

Then I thought about the pivotal scene in Hamlet involving the play-within-a-play.  For that event, the fake royals—the actors playing a king and a queen—are elevated on a platform; the real royals are seated so that they can see and be seen; and Hamlet plops down on the ground, in a manner that simulataneously succeeds in insulting both his mother, Queen Gertrude, and his girlfriend Ophelia:
Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.

No, good mother, here's metal more attractive.

[To KING CLAUDIUS] O, ho! do you mark that?
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

[Lying down at OPHELIA's feet]

No, my lord.

I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ay, my lord.

Do you think I meant country matters?

I think nothing, my lord.

That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.

What is, my lord?


You are merry, my lord.

Who, I?

Ay, my lord.

O God, your only jig-maker. What should a man do but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.

Hamlet is “merry,” in an unhinged way. Because he is the one orchestrating the evening’s entertainment, whereby he hopes to expose the King, his uncle, as a murdering bastard.  To underscore just how upside down Hamlet’s world has become, how precarious his mental state is, Shakespeare puts the high-born Hamlet down on the ground.
That observation got me thinking about how seating arrangements convey information in a different theatrical arena: in the courtroom.
When judges or justices enter, everyone stands up.  When the people in black robes sit, they are stationed at the highest level up there on "the bench."
The next level down is the witness "box."  When it is occupied, all eyes are fixed there, working to ferret out the truth.
Slightly lower down but near all the action sits the court reporter, charged with the crucial task of capturing the official version of what transpires.
Then one finds the jurors in their "box," which is off to one side but usually raised slightly off the floor.  The jurors may not be as high as the judge, but when they make their entrances and exits, everyone stands.
Meanwhile, the stiff, pew-like rows in the back are reserved for the public.  Their configuration suggests the role those occupying these seats are supposed to play; they are there to take notice while remaining as somber as folks at a funeral service.
Standing somewhere near the bench, where he or she can see everything, but without stealing focus, is the bailiff, whose job is defined by the constant state of attention that goes along with standing upright.
Lowest of all are the chairs at counsel table.  The implication cannot be lost on anyone.  The only means those seated there have to elevate themselves is when they are questioning a witness or answering a judge’s questions.  Some courts require that the lawyers remain seated when examining witnesses, and all require that they remain standing behind a podium for the latter activity.  Only some trial courts permit lawyers to roam freely while examining witnesses.  And lawyers have to ask permission if they want to approach a witness or the bench.  They almost never get to approach the jury box—except during closing arguments.  But even when standing they are spacially below the seated people whom the lawyers address. 
All of this stagecraft is built into the ritual form.  Who must stand, who takes a seat, and where and when these actions take place--all of it says a great deal about the perceived natural order.  And those looking on get it without requiring a word of explanation.

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