Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Performing the Sublime. Theatre & Politics in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

The project will clarify that in the search for these new means the treatise On the sublime of ps.-Longinus played a crucial role. However, the project will also place the theatre performances in a broader social and political perspective. These public events and the theatre performances suggest that their creation and it responses were informed by the sublime and neighbouring concepts, such as Senecan vividness.

Duration
2013 - 2017
Contact
Stijn Bussels
Funding
ERC Starting Grant ERC Starting Grant

Description of the programme

Throughout the entire seventeenth century terrifying deaths were staged to juxtapose bloodshed with the ideal image of the Stoic ruler. The subjects were drawn from crucial moments in the formation of the new Dutch Republic, and often expressed political positions for or against the Oranges. Viewers expressed to be totally overwhelmed, such as Barlaeus’ reaction to Vos’ horror play Aran and Titus: ‘k stae gelijk bedwelmt en overstolpt van geest’ [I am stupefied and my mind is overwhelmed]. The plays were often influenced by Senecan tragedy in which explicit violence was carefully brought before the eyes. However, from the 1640s onwards, Vondel and later on theatre company Nil Volentibus Arduum increasingly followed ancient Greek prescripts to overwhelm. Although political bloodshed was still a main subject of their plays, they avoided to stage explicit cruelties. These theatre makers developed other strategies to overwhelm, such as horrid descriptions by eyewitnesses. My project will clarify that in the search for these new means the treatise On the sublime of ps.-Longinus played a crucial role. 

However, the project will also place the theatre performances in a broader social and political perspective. Although there are many interesting correspondences, modern studies seldom link the explicit staging of political bloodshed, its responses and artistic reactions with real political bloodshed: the public executions in which the government showed its ultimate power. Besides, there are the public festivities which were performed in the same place as real executions, at the Dam in front of the Town Hall. These also caused mixtures of horror, fear and fascination. An illuminating example is the entry of Mary Stuart into Amsterdam (1660). From the Town Hall, she saw twenty magnificent floats designed by Vos and was appalled by one representing the execution of her father Charles I. As the pamphlets written in reaction show, the public debated the use and appropriateness of such an overwhelming effect for political purposes. Here too, the choice between the explicit staging or the suggestion of cruelties formed a central point of the debate. 

Aims of the programme

These public events and the theatre performances suggest that their creation and it responses were informed by the sublime and neighbouring concepts, such as Senecan vividness. The main objects of this project are therefore: 

  1. To identify a representative series of public events in which the sublime or neighbouring concepts played a role. 
  2. To ascertain whether this was indeed the case, by close reading of the surviving designs, eyewitness accounts and other documents such as pamphlets or poems; 
  3. To investigate the knowledge of the sublime by those involved as authors, patrons, actors or the public (such as Vossius and Barlaeus who were acquainted with, contributed to and possessed versions of the sublime), in what manner cultural milieus functioned as disseminators and adapters of the sublime, and how this disseminations and adaptions can be related to neighbouring concepts.

Connection with other research

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