Orange Alert

SU's Ray Smith Symposium presents expert on early modern English drama Feb. 23-24

Brandeis' Thomas King explores relationship between voice, sexuality

Feb. 7, 2012, by Rob Enslin

The Ray Smith Symposium in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences continues its yearlong examination of “Sex and Power from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment” with a mini-residency by an expert in early modern English drama.

Thomas King, associate professor of English at Brandeis University, will present a keynote lecture titled “Barry's Ear: Voice, Demand, Erotic Response” on Thursday, Feb. 23, at 7 p.m. in the Heroy Geology Laboratory. The following day, he will participate in a Ray Smith-HC Mini-Seminar from 9:30-11:30 a.m. (with breakfast served at 9 a.m.) in The SU Humanities Center Seminar Room (304) of the Tolley Humanities Building. Both events are free and open to the public; however, the seminar requires registration.

For more information about the keynote lecture, contact Cassidy Perrault in the college’s Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Programs at 315-443-1414. For more information about the HC Mini-Seminars, contact Karen Ortega in The SU Humanities Center at 315-443-5708.

King’s lecture draws on a famous 17th-century anecdote involving John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, who allegedly trained Elizabeth Barry, considered the first great professional actress in England, in the performance of the passions. Rochester is said to have taught Barry how to understand and interpret the feelings of her characters, thus making her more present to her audiences, vocally and gesturally, than if she had relied on traditional modes of rhetorical delivery.

King says Barry’s performances were so majestic and passionate (particularly in tragedies of pathos) that she developed a reputation for arousing strong feelings in her audiences.

“This anecdote explores the relationship between voice and sexuality,” says King, adding that it inspired the 2004 feature film “The Libertine" starring Johnny Depp and Samantha Morton. “My lecture asks us to consider several things—what we want to hear when we try to reconstruct Barry’s voice, what the consequences are of representing patronage as seduction, and what it might mean to locate Rochester’s desire at the origin of Barry’s ear.”

King traces the social productivity of aural desire—what he calls the “flesh of the voice”—and suggests its centrality to modern sexualities.

“I am inquiring about the flesh of the voice, neither as a substance nor as the internal origin of vocal presence, but as a situation … wherein each speaker has already posed her responsiveness in anticipation of another's response,” he continues. “If ‘sexuality’ posits a subject, of which it is the expression, the flesh of the voice makes any apparent relation of ‘I’ and ‘you’ … insufficient and incomplete. This is key to [understanding] the social productivity of sex, a productivity that doesn't easily conform to a history of sexualities construed as substances.”

King hints that such understanding may prove revelatory for historians of Restoration and 18th-century eroticism. “[It] may be a wedge against or a tool for opening out and up the historical implantation of the sexual subject within discourse,” he says.

In addition to teaching English at Brandeis, King directs an interdepartmental program in sexuality and queer studies, and serves as a core faculty member of the women’s and gender studies program. He is an expert in early modern English drama and social performance, 18th-century British studies, performance studies, queer studies and gender studies. King is the author of “The Gendering of Men: 1600-1750” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004 and 2008), a two-volume exploration of normative and queer masculinities of the 17th and 18th centuries. His writings have shaped gay and gender studies, as well as the study of theater and performance history.

This year’s Ray Smith Symposium is organized and presented by the Renaissance and Medieval Studies Working Group, composed of interdisciplinary scholars from across campus. Dympna Callaghan, the William Safire Professor of Modern Letters in the Department of English, has taken a leadership role in the planning.

“We are calling into question modern conceptions of gender by historicizing sexual roles and practices in Europe from the fifth to 18th centuries,” says Callaghan. “Already, the effects of ‘Sex and Power’ have reverberated throughout the academy, giving rise to interdisciplinary conversations about queer-related curriculum, pedagogy and research.”

“Sex and Power” is enabled by a bequest from the estate of Ray W. Smith ’21. Additional support for this year’s programming comes from the Office of the Chancellor; the departments of art and music histories; English; history; languages, literatures and linguistics; women’s and gender studies; the LGBT studies program; and the SU Humanities Center, which sponsors the mini- seminars.

Until June 26, “Sex and Power” is partnering with Syracuse University Library for an exhibition titled “The Power and the Piety: The World of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.” The exhibition showcases a variety of rare books and manuscripts, including illuminated prayer books decorated in gold leaf, a page from the Gutenberg Bible, and an antiphonal Elephant Folio, from the Special Collections Research Center. For more information, contact Sean Quimby, librarian and director of the SCRC, at 315-443-9759.

The Ray Smith Symposium is named for the Auburn, N.Y., native who, after graduating from SU in 1921, became a highly respected teacher and administrator.

Media Contact

Rob Enslin