Building a Scene: The Text and Its Representation in The Atheist's Tragedy


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

There is no play and no theatrical performance which does not in some way or other affect the dispositions and conceptions of the audience. Art is never without consequences, and indeed that says something for it. -Bertolt Brecht, "Two Essays on Unprofessional Acting"1

Scholars now agree that Renaissance playwrights' numerous "faults of inconsistency" are in most cases integral to contemporary dramatic technique.2 This essay extends the concept of a "discourse of inconsistencies" to include the relationship between the text of Cyril Tourneur's The Atheists Tragedy and its probable representation on the Renaissance stage.3What follows results from my curiosity about a stage direction (rather, about the lack of a stage direction) at the climax of the play's sub-plot in Act IV: a reader, looking solely at the spoken words, cannot determine precisely the relative timing of an entrance and a death. The approach is dialectical rather than Aristotelian or formalist. I do not propose an exhaustive reading of Toumeur's play. Instead, discussion is focused on a single scene in order to develop a method which enables the text to be explored for its gestural value. "Gesture" in this sense does not refer simply to the expressive movements of the actors or to their deployment within the playing space, but describes in addition the play' s ideological "story" by foregrounding the contradictions of the social reality in which the play is produced. "Gest," therefore, is both an aesthetic and a political term. Any play, according to Brecht, is readable in terms of its "basic gest" (Grundgestus), a concept which opens to view not only the fictive world of the text but also the various relationships between the text and its historical audience.4

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