Combat and Compromise: A Practical Approach to Researching Stage Fights Lucy Nevitt Practice-as-research in combat is not uncommon. Groups such as the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA) work with combinations of padded, blunted and replica (sharp) weapons to drill and spar their way towards a practical understanding of various historical fighting techniques. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, a group of ‘Interpreters’ also concentrate on transferring the descriptions and illustrations from historical fighting manuals into physical, practical fight sequences which they then adapt for performance with the aim of increasing our knowledge and understanding of how people used to fight. Fight directors in the theatre – whose brief is somewhat different since the characters, plot, style and concept of the production are of greater importance than accurate historical representation – nonetheless base many of their moves and techniques on this essential combination of theory and practice: studying the manuals and then finding out, through practical experimentation, how their contents can be used in performance. The history of real fighting, then, is well-researched both by combat historians and stage and screen fight directors, and the practice-as-research approach is generally favoured. The history of stage fighting, on the other hand, tends rather to be avoided than explored in practical ways. Changes in audience expectations, the added realism made possible by the advent of film, and, of course, the increase in knowledge generated by the aforementioned research into historical fighting styles, have all contributed to the current lack of interest in the practical reconstruction of historical stage fighting. The Jane Scott project offered a fascinating opportunity to work with other experts on the performance styles of a period whose enthusiasm for exciting combats on stage fed directly in to the tradition of ‘swashbuckling’ that, immortalised most famously by the film performances of Errol Flynn, remains familiar and popular still today. In the event, I learned more about the nature of stage combat in general, and the nature of practice-as-research, than about nineteenth-century theatrical fights. The great learning experience was also the great stumbling block: the very nature of modern stage combat has changed in ways that render it incompatible with the Combat and Compromise 59 styles and approaches of centuries past. An example from the project will serve to illustrate this point. At one stage in The Old Oak Chest we had choreographed a series of bladejumps. As described by Dickens, in his highly realistic (and only slightly exaggerated) description of a theatrical fight between two ‘sailors’ in chapter 22 of Nicholas Nickleby, the moves are executed thus: . . . the short sailor made a vigorous cut at the tall sailor’s legs, which would have shaved them clean off if it had taken effect, the tall sailor jumped over the short sailor’s sword, wherefore to balance the matter and make it all fair, the tall sailor administered the same cut and the short sailor jumped over his sword.1 Completely redundant in real combat terms (why would anyone bother swiping at the ankles of an opponent when aiming a bit higher would do more damage as well as making the blow impossible to jump over?) this is a popular move in ‘swashbuckling’ theatrical combats as it is visually big and exciting to watch. In Jane Scott’s day it would have been executed just as described: a ‘vigorous cut’ that ‘would have shaved [the opponent’s] legs clean off if it had taken effect’ – except, of course, that the sword would have been blunted, and so the result of accidental contact would in fact have been a big bruise on the shin and a very angry, limping, actor. In modern fight choreography such a risk of accidental contact is unacceptable and so the cut under the feet is executed ‘out of distance’. Should the recipient of the cut fail to jump, therefore, the sword will swing safely in front of his/her legs, no doubt spoiling the effect for the audience (or at least making the attacking character look extremely foolish) but guaranteeing that no injury will result. In order that such out of distance manoeuvring should appear convincingly dangerous to the audience, the move is usually executed on an upstage/downstage line, taking advantage of the lack of accurate depth perception that is natural to the human eye to mask, or misrepresent, the distance between the two performers. Performing the cut under the legs on a diagonal line immediately removes its effectiveness because the audience can see that the sword is too far away to connect with the character at whom the cut is aimed. From my point of view, this was no problem. I had a move that was correctly in the spirit of the play and production style, that was historically appropriate, and that could be executed by actors with the degree of safety necessary for modern stage combat regulations without compromising too much the reconstructive accuracy of my side of the project. Unfortunately, however, this upstage/downstage line went entirely against the historically correct principles of diagonal movement being adhered to throughout the rest of the production. Suddenly we had an impasse. Historically speaking everything was fine: executed ‘within distance’ the cut under the feet could have been performed on the diagonal and, while potentially threatening the safety of the performers, would have in no way compromised the effectiveness of the fight. Working with modern actors, however, it could not be so, and the fundamental basis of modern stage fighting – safety first, last and always – was suddenly in direct opposition to an equally crucial rule of nineteenth 60 Nineteenth Century Theatre & Film 29/2 century theatrical movement. The only possible compromise would have been to eliminate the move and yet surely that was detrimental to the research exercise from my perspective. If the move would have been performed, why should it not be performed? And yet, if the actors would have maintained the diagonal positioning, it was equally inaccurate to set a fight that went against that rule. For this experiment into reconstructing historical stage fights to work, lessons needed to be learned and applied from the thriving field of practice-as-research into historical real combat. Safety distance is essential in performance but there are ways around it in the rehearsal room – protective shin pads and soft/padded swords would have done the trick in this particular example, allowing the accurate construction of a period stage fight without any major risk to the modern actorcombatants. In the context of this project, however, other areas of research would then have been compromised: costume and weapons would no longer be accurate, and, while the principle of stage diagonals would be adhered to, the effect of padding would probably have been detrimental to other elements of the actors’ movement work. Rather than eliminating the problem, such solutions merely shift the site of compromise onto someone else’s area of research. This discovery, while initially seeming to present one of those problems that cannot be overcome, in fact was the greatest moment of illumination for me. A project such as this, with the focus on cross-disciplinary collaboration, is the perfect situation for problematising, rather than solving, individual research questions. Without the opportunity to work alongside experts in movement, music, costume, and so on; without the enthusiasm, patience and expertise of trained actors; without the space and the time to play around and run up against such problems, what is now so obvious might never have been discovered. The problem with the reconstructive approach to period stage combat is that historical techniques are incompatible with precautions for actor safety, in a performance or general rehearsal situation. Immediately, the next step becomes clear: change the situation. Remove the performance element for a while in order to permit different types of safety protection, and test the effect of executing moves and techniques precisely as they would have been performed. To succeed with this next phase would require a company of advanced actorcombatants, in order both to minimise risk and maximise the potential for discovery through experiment. (With sufficiently experienced actor-combatants, in fact, the routines of cue and response would be sufficiently ingrained as to render the safety fears less acute than with the Jane Scott project actors, and the need for protective padding would be less of an issue.) The approach would be trainingrather than rehearsal-based; the situation closer to that of a dojo than a theatrical rehearsal room. Working thus, it would perhaps be possible to build a company whose knowledge and experience of nineteenth-century stage fighting approximated that of Jane Scott and her fellow performers and, with that practical knowledge in place, the conditions would be right for a return to the rehearsal room. Fight scenes in the nineteenth century were not choreographed especially and specifically for each production but were ‘set’ from a number of well-known routines, selected and strung together to create the most appropriate effect for the Combat and Compromise 61 particular play and scene in question. ‘All these routines,’ as fight director William Hobbs explains, ‘were made up from a series of cuts – not cuts as we know them today, but rather whacks at the opponent’s blade. These could be repeated as often as required all over the stage . . . ’2 The Nicholas Nickleby stage fight perfectly illustrates this, as Dickens (who trained in fencing under the tutelage of Felix Bertrand, the Master of Fence responsible for setting stage combats for many of the most famous actors of the time) has the Crummles boys battle through a comprehensive series of set moves and combat clichés under the proud gaze of their actormanager father: ‘That’ll be a double encore if you take care, boys.’3 In Jane Scott’s company, those actors who were required to fight would have known the rules, and been masters of the ‘Standard Combats’ – the set routines of theatrical fighting. To recreate truly the rehearsal of fight scenes in Jane Scott’s day, my fellow fight-setter and I would have walked through the door with a bag of swords and said something like: ‘OK, let’s start with The Inscription. Sarah and George, we’ll do a couple of Long Elevens, bring it downstage right for the Glasgow Tens, then a Skeleton Sevens, a Square Eights, and a Double Pass to downstage centre. We’ll finish with a disarm leaving George on the floor and Sarah triumphant standing on the rock. Right, when you’re ready, let’s give that a try.’ The actors would have executed these standard sequences in the order we had set them, run through it a few times to refresh their memories, and on we would have moved to do the same thing with The Old Oak Chest. Under the circumstances of this project, this was, of course, inconceivable. Yet, by positioning such an approach as the goal, rather than the starting point, of a research agenda, the true success of the Jane Scott project from the perspective of stage combat research becomes clear. It is not as an end in itself but as a launch-pad for potential further specialised work that the project contributed to my ongoing research, and it was precisely those problems that were impossible to solve at the time that illuminated the essential next stage. The ideal, now, would be to go back to the beginning with specialist work as described, and then return to the rehearsal laboratory, with appropriately trained actor-combatants, to fit the different elements of the project together again. Notes 1 Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby first published 1839; ed. Michael Slater (Harmondsworth: Penguin English Library, 1978) p. 354. 2 William Hobbs, Fight Direction for Stage and Screen (London: A. & C. Black, 1995) p. 17. 3 Nicholas Nickleby p.355.