Dr Harry McCarthy wins J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize
Harry’s prizewinning dissertation is titled Boy Actors on the Early Modern English Stage: Performance, Physicality, and the Work of Play. We spoke to him about what sparked his interest in this topic, Shakespeare studies in the UK and US, and what he plans to do next.
What’s the focus of your dissertation?
It’s about the boy performers (aged from pre-adolescence to their early twenties) who performed all the female roles, and a great deal of male ones, on English stages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The dissertation has a particular focus on the bodily skills these boys brought to often highly complex roles. It considers how these performers were trained, employed, and celebrated by the burgeoning theatre industry of early modern London.
How did you first become interested in this aspect of Shakespearean performance?
That goes right back to my undergraduate days. I’ll never forget the moment in a first-year Shakespeare lecture at the University of Exeter when the professor, Pascale Aebischer, pulled a male student to the front, put him in a dress, and had him read out Katherina’s ‘submission speech’ from the end of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
I knew, of course, from films like John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love and Richard Eyre’s Stage Beauty that female roles were played by boys and young men right up to the Restoration. However, this was the first time I’d been challenged to think about the implications of that historically distant performance practice on the production and reception of Shakespeare’s plays.
From then on, whenever I read a play by Shakespeare or his contemporaries during my first degree or my Master of Studies at Oxford, the idea of the play in performance, acted out by a tight-knit troupe of men and boys was something I couldn’t get away from. And, in fact, that led me right back to Exeter and to Professor Pascale Aebischer, who became one of my PhD supervisors (though she never asked me to wear a dress).
This is the first time that the J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize has been won by a UK scholar. What prompted you to enter?
I was aware of the prize, as several people whose work I really admire - among them Claire Bourne, Carla Della Gatta, and Noémie Ndiaye - had won it in previous years. There aren’t many opportunities for graduate students to have their work recognised professionally, so it seemed worth giving it a go, not least since I’d already completed the hard work of writing!
I wasn’t particularly deterred by the fact that no one from the UK had won it before - as an organisation, the SAA welcomes scholars from all over the world. A dissertation is only eligible for one year, so I’m glad I didn’t hang about!
What do you think are the most significant differences between how the UK and the US engage with, study and perform Shakespeare’s works?
There’s a lot of overlap, of course, because collaboration is more possible now than it’s ever been. One thing that has struck me in recent years, however, has been how much more willing US scholars and teachers have been to engage with questions of race in Shakespeare’s plays: how race is formed and presented in the texts themselves, but also how Shakespeare’s plays have historically been used to uphold and reinforce racial injustice.
That conversation seems to me considerably more advanced in the USA. There, the idea that literary and performance criticism can somehow be ‘objective’ or impervious to questions of race is less commonplace, though things are slowly starting to change over here. It’s exciting to be a part of that change through involvement with organisations like the SAA, who are in some ways leading the way.
Which is your favourite Shakespeare play, and why?
The clichéd academic answer is often ‘whatever I’m working on at the moment,’ but I’ve never minded being considered a cliché. I’ve been working closely on Antony and Cleopatra for years now (there’s a whole chapter dedicated to Cleopatra in the dissertation, and the book that’s come out of it), but it remains my favourite.
The role of Cleopatra is among the most challenging Shakespeare wrote for boy performers. There’s always an aspect of what Shakespeare calls Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’ that seems somehow ungraspable in performance—I find that endlessly fascinating. The play calls for some hugely impressive physical feats on stage (most of them performed by Cleopatra herself) which have the potential to dazzle an audience. It also has some of the most beautiful set speeches Shakespeare wrote, I think.
What’s next for you and your research?
I’m still in the process of turning the dissertation into a book, but I’m getting there. I have started thinking quite seriously about the ‘difficult second album,’ which is going to be a project on race and early modern childhood.
It’s becoming more apparent as I rework the material for the book that race - particularly whiteness - doesn’t often come into the conversation in scholarship on historical boys and children. I think it’s worth exploring why that is, and how we might address that.