Behind the Book with Vin Nardizzi

9781442646001Vin Nardizzi is the author of Wooden Os. Wooden Os is a study of the presence of trees and wood in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries – in plays set within forests, in character dialogue, and in props and theatre constructions.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research? | What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

Wooden Os is an example of “historical ecocriticism,” a subfield of ecocriticism, which has been theorized as a method that typically, but not uniformly, concerns the here-and-now, and the future, of the planet’s environmental health. My book participates in an ongoing conversation that aims to document a longer view of such environmental matters and, in so doing, offers narratives about how the planet got to where it currently is environmentally and about how it might have been – and still may be – otherwise. What’s unique about Wooden Os in the subfield of historical ecocriticism and is most interesting to me is its focus on an entertainment venue that was new to people living in and around early modern London: the outdoor, commercial playhouse where drama was performed, for the price of admission, on a regular basis. My book asks how this entertainment venue was materially implicated in England’s environmental crises and how it engaged the discourses surrounding these crises in the dramas that were staged there. My hope is that scholars and students of historical ecocriticism who read Wooden Os will further explore the relations among theatre, aesthetics, and environmentalism in the period.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research? | Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book? | What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Wooden Os explores the relation between actual locations – London’s outdoor theaters, which were constructed mainly of wood – and England’s woodlands, which, at the time, some writers imagined to be threatened by imminent environmental ruin. As do many scholars, I like to have several objects pertaining to my project surrounding me at my desk when I write: photocopies of the plays in the early editions; my Norton Shakespeare; stacks of history books; and a number of visual representations of London dating from the period. But I discovered early in the writing process that the two things I could not have close by were the theatres and the trees, my book’s marquee subjects. Since the theatres were disassembled in the seventeenth century and since industrialization has changed England’s environment so dramatically, I only had their traces at my disposal: some archival (and well-known) materials about the use of tree stage props and about the construction of the theatres; carefully researched accounts of specific theatrical architectures, many of which were based on the archival materials and on archeological details made newly available after the area on the Bankside where Shakespeare’s Globe and Henslowe’s Rose stood had been excavated; and some articles in the fields of economics and historical forestry that tracked the use of wood and timber in the construction of London’s sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings. In short, I couldn’t touch or be inside these theatres and woodlands; I could only imagine what it may have felt like to be inside them by means of records that were sometimes twice removed or proven to be inaccurate and, in one case, even a forgery. I discovered after drafting the book that I had written a material history of England’s theatres and woodlands without having experienced these locations myself. In seeing the forests inside the walls of the playhouses, Wooden Os is my attempt, as a scholar, to re-imagine and re-mediate possible theatrical experiences.

In preparing the book, I decided to walk some paths through old growth forests outside San Francisco and on Vancouver Island, and twice I visited the replica Globe in London. Hiking through “Cathedral Grove” – or what’s left of it – on Vancouver Island was pure magic: there’s a palpable stillness, even as life on all scales bustles around you, and, walking under the forest canopy and in its freshest of air, I experienced a sense of wonder like I had never experienced before, especially when I saw for the first time moss “upholstering” the ancient tree trunks and branches. As I describe in the “Epilogue” to Wooden Os, a production of As You Like It at the Globe generated for me a similar feeling of wonder when, by means of theatrical magic, the crew transformed the architectural space of the theatre into the Forest of Arden by stripping away the black fabric that was covering the stage posts. Many of us in the audience gasped: we were made to see, in a new and surprising way, the constitutive tree-ness of the theatre during this moment of “dis-upholstering.” I think, then, of Wooden Os as my attempt to imagine, with meager archival evidence, how playgoers in Shakespeare’s day might have responded to moments, which are scripted in the plays, when characters entered a forest and call explicit attention to their wooded surroundings.

What are your current/future projects?

Tentatively entitled Vaster Than Empires: The Lives of Early Modern Vegetables, my new research project is an offshoot of Wooden Os. This new project continues my interest in historicizing ecocritical inquiry, but its literary focus is broader than the dramatic texts that I study in Wooden Os. It explores the vast reach of “vegetable life” in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century letters and illuminates the surprising vegetable capacities, deprivations, materialities, and necessities that, in early modern ethical, political, and scientific registers, constituted the human being, a creature so closely allied with and routinely defined against “the animal” in Scholastic and post-Cartesian articulations of humanness. Vaster Than Empires re-adjusts this creaturely vision by demonstrating the centrality of the vegetable to the lives of humans in early modern English culture. Key figures discussed in Vaster Than Empires will include Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Donne, Machiavelli, Harriot, Marvell, Montaigne, Seneca, Sidney, John Smith, Spenser, and, of course, Shakespeare.

Vaster than Empires also constitutes my contribution to a new research cluster that colleagues at SFU and UBC and I have established. Called “Oecologies: Inhabiting Premodern Worlds,” this cluster will kick off this year (on 23 October) with a Thematic Speaker Series at UBC’s Green College and aims to convene conferences and workshops on various eco-themes in upcoming years. To learn more about the cluster and events, visit Green College UBC.


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