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SEASON Three

HUMANITIES Perspectives

Humanities Radio Covid Conspiracies

EPISODE 1 - COVID-19 CONSPIRACY THEORIES

COVID-19 has been a breeding ground for conspiracy theories since it began in spring 2020. Each day, newsfeeds are filled with information about the virus and media consumers are left to separate fact from fiction. Jim Tabery, associate professor of philosophy, discusses some of these conspiracy theories, why people believe them, how they get started and more.

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Humanities Radio The Impact of COVID on Asia

EPISODE 2 - THE IMPACT OF COVID ON ASIA

Kim Korinek, professor of sociology and director of the Asia Center housed in the College of Humanities, discusses how Asian nations have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the U.S. and the role of the Asia Center in building knowledge about the region.  

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Humanities Radio Cybersecurity And The 2020 Election

EPISODE 3 - Cybersecurity And The 2020 Election

Sean Lawson, associate professor of communication and author of “Cybersecurity Discourse in the United States,” discusses potential cybersecurity threats to the 2020 presidential election, who is behind them, how they are being addressed and what citizens can do about them (spoiler alert: get out and VOTE).

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Humanities Radio Shaping Modern Presidential Politics

EPISODE 4 - SHAPING MODERN PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS

Eric Hinderaker, distinguished professor of history, discusses how history – specifically the creation of the electoral college and the consequential elections of 1800 and 1824 – has shaped modern presidential politics.

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Humanities Radio The Origins of Thanksgiving

EPISODE 5 - The Origins of Thanksgiving

Greg Smoak, associate professor of history and director of the American West Center, discusses the origins of Thanksgiving and how the holiday has changed since the initial feast in 1621.

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The Origins of Black History Month

EPISODE 6 - THE ORIGINS OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Each February, the United States celebrates Black History month to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and honor their central role in history. Eric Herschthal, assistant professor of history explains its origin, its essential purpose and why Black history is American history.

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Afrofuturism

Season 3, Episode 7 - Afrofuturism

Crystal Rudds, assistant professor of English, explores the genre and cultural movement of Afrofuturism – an intellectual philosophy that brings together an investment in the African diasporic past with the possibilities of technology.

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Women's History Month

Season 3, Episode 8 - Dr. Sophia Kleegma‪n‬

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Robin Jensen, professor of communication, discusses her research on Sophia Kleegman. Relatively unknown, Kleegman was the first woman appointed to the New York University College of Medicine faculty of obstetrics and gynecology in 1929 and was a pioneer in fertility medicine. Her patient-centric approach and controversial views helped change the way the medical community approached reproductive health.

Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities and today in celebration of Women's History Month, I'm speaking with Robin Jensen, professor of communication about her research on Dr. Sophia Kleegman. Dr. Kleegman was the first woman appointed to the New York University College of Medicine faculty of obstetrics and gynecology in 1929 and was a pioneer in fertility medicine. Professor Jensen is here to discuss more about Dr. Kleegman and the history of reproductive health.
 
Jana Cunningham: Before we start discussing Dr. Kleegman and your latest project, let's back up a little bit to the very beginning of reproductive health, which as I understand, has some deep roots in experimental and unethical treatment of enslaved women. Can you talk a little bit more about those early years and how reproductive medicine started?
 
Robin Jensen: Yes. The beginning of my interest in Dr. Sophia Kleegman was that I have been long studying the science and medicine behind fertility medicine and I traced that ultimately far back. But one of the earlier pieces of history there that's pertinent to this story is that in the mid 1800s, before the Civil War and heading into the Civil War, we had a doctor namedand many of you may have read about him recentlyDr. J Marion Sims. You probably read about him because there have been a number of statues that have recently been taken down. I think at least two in the South, of Dr. Sims, because he's long been known as "the father of gynecology,"but it turns out that a lot of his medicine and his experimental studies were done on African-American women who were slaves in his care.
 
Robin Jensen: He did multiple experimental surgeries on slave women under his care without anesthesia to solve one very specific health problem at the time, that was quite common, it's a fistula which often happens when there's prolonged labor that a woman has. And then it causes her to haveessentially different parts of her reproductive system are opened up and it causes leaking and horrible pain and bacteria growth. This was very common among slave women at the time who were giving birth under horrific circumstances. They didn't have access to medical care. If the labor was prolonged, usually there was nothing that people could do and so this was a big reason that people developed fistula at the time.
 
Robin Jensen: He wanted to try and figure out how to close up the fistula, and what he did was he just did over 40 surgeries, un-anesthetized with three slave women in particular. And he just kept doing these surgeries until eventually he did manage to close up the openings and the fissures, but under horrible pain. And of coursethe women didn't have any kind of agency in terms of consenting to the treatment and he really didn't attend to their pain in a way that you might find appropriate for that kind of situation. But what ended up happening is because he did develop these kinds of treatments, he published his experimental data in renowned scientific journals and he developed a name for himself. He made a name for himself. He made a name for US medicine and gynecology via his work in this area.
 
Robin Jensen: Then he went on to test some of these procedures and others on immigrant women, largely from Ireland, who didn't have the funds to pay for treatment. So again, he did these kinds of treatments, no anesthesia, horribly painful and then kept publishing about this and other reproductive health experiments. Ultimately all of this translated to wealthy upper-class white women, but it was grounded in these kinds of awful circumstances. And this trajectory of medicine, where you objectify the person that you are trying to treat, and treat them as someone that you're not as concerned about their wellbeing, you're more concerned about solving a medical problem or finding out scientific information, is something that was projected into the 20th century with reproductive medicine, gynecology, and ultimately fertility studies.
 
Robin Jensen: So, I was interested in how did this get thwarted? Because we know we're in a much better place now. It's certainly not perfect, but gynecology and fertility science is certainly in a better place in terms of how it treats its patients than it was back then.
 
Jana Cunningham: Sohow and when does Dr. Kleegman come into this picture?
 
Robin Jensen: Her story is really interesting in that she immigrated from Russia, well actually her family immigrated from Russia and thenshe was born in the United States, but all of her older siblings came over from Russia. Her older sister, Annaalso became a doctor and two of her other sisters worked in factories to help fund their medical education. They had four brothers who died in Russia from various bad circumstances, medical circumstances,so they were all inspired to develop this medical education for members of their own family. So they came over, two sisters worked, two sisters went to medical school. It's a really interesting story that I could go more into, but I'll try and stay on task here.
 
Robin Jensen: Sophia ultimately went to medical school at a point when more women were becoming gynecologists and gynecological surgeons, but there wasn't really a huge field of fertility studies. And when she was doing her residency in both Chicago and in the East Coast, she noticed that lots of the treatments for women who were having trouble with fertility or other reproductive problems, was that they had some kind of surgery and they just removed a bunch of stuff. And that's of course, really colloquial, that there were very specific things that were removed, ovary cysts, lesions, lots of other things. And some of those things that was appropriate, but more often than not, especially in the cases of infertility, they had not tested the male partner to see if they had any role in the reproductive problems happening.
 
Robin Jensen: So you had a lot of women who were having these really invasive surgeries, and it turned out that their male partners were the ones who had the reproductive problem. Soit really didn't matter how much surgery they did, how effective they were, that wasn't even the problem in the first place. She would leave the surgical room in the evening, and there'd be these huge bins of reproductive parts that had been removed from women. And there was just this sense that women were, rather than risk making men feel bad or inadequate for testing them for these kinds of things, it's better they felt, to just open up a woman and take out something that might be problematic, or maybe it wasn't problematic, but we'll give it a go.
 
Robin Jensen: So you have this really horrible pattern of medical intervention that didn't really do anything. So she dedicated herself to developing essentially what she calls a conservative surgery practice for infertility medicine. Where surgery isn't necessarily the first thing that you turn to and you want to do a whole bunch of testing on all partners involved before you cut someone open and deem to try and do something that's really invasive.
 
Jana Cunningham: Did you get a sense of what the medical community's reaction to this was? Because if she was the first person that suggested, "Well, maybe this problem has something to do with the male partner," what was the medical community's reaction? Because that kind of seems like a bold thing to come up with at the time.
 
Robin Jensen: Right. I think one of the things that makes her so interesting is that she really managed to blend in with practitioners who were doing something very different than what she was proposing, and had a great skill for not forcing people to face things that they didn't want to face. She really managed to be someone that was upheld by the community, even as she was telling them,"You've been doing this wrong and it's horrific," she didn't say it in that way. She really became, for me, a great model of communication in that, whether she was writing scientific articles or she was speaking with her professional organization and colleagues, or she was speaking with the public, because she also wrote a lot of magazine articles and was kind of a public doctor.
 
Robin Jensen: She really had a talent for saying, "Look, this is how we've been doing things and I think we can make that better. And actually this is pretty wrong," but somehow she managed to communicate that message without turning people off and without making them feel like they needed to save face. That's part of the reason that she was able to change the practice because she didn't just come in and say, "This is awful. You're doing it wrong. We need to start something entirely new." She really worked to create a bridge from what people had been doing to where they could go.
 
Robin Jensen: And she built upon... There's a long tradition in US medicine specifically, of women doctors who argued in favor of conservative surgery in particular. Sometimes they did that for really what we would think of as maybe misogynistic or maternalistic reasons. So Elizabeth Blackwell, she was the first woman in the US to get a medical degree and she really was able to establish herself as what some have called, and even she called, a lady doctor in that she said, "Look, I'm a really great doctor and other women need to be doctors because we have a better sensibility about how to be sensitive to patients because we are women."
 
Robin Jensen: She really grounded her credibility in the sense that she had a different sensibility as a woman, and therefore that's why it was important for her to be a doctor. She said, "We don't want to go in and necessarily carve people up if we don't have to." But her reasoning the whole time was very gendered in that she said, "Women are different than men. And also women's bodies, you have to be really sensitive with their bodies because they're more fragile, especially if they're white women," so there was really a racist kind of element to it.
 
Robin Jensen: So Kleegman comes out of that trajectory, but she doesn't employ the gendered stereotypes, and she doesn't employ the racist stereotypes, and opens things up for a more thoughtful surgical intervention. She wasn't against surgeries in the way that Blackwell was. She said, "Sometimes it's justified. If you have something, let's say you have a diseased ovary or something like that, then the only way to take care of it is to do a surgical intervention." If you have a partner where they don't have any sperm and you're operating on the wife, you're never going to solve this problem. She really had a pretty... She said, "Look, there's a problem and no one's addressing it. Let's move forward with this." But she did it in a way that brought people together rather than made them fracture into silos.
 
Jana Cunningham: So, Dr. Kleegman, we talked aboutit was pretty controversial for her to come up with this idea that infertility may be on the male side, but she also had a number of other controversial views for the time. Can you talk more about those views and how they contributed to this patient centric, holistic approach?
 
Robin Jensen: Yes. She was very woman centered, I guess, is what you might say, as was her sister Anna, who was also a doctor and also interested in women and reproductive health, so they were kind of an interesting team. But when she came over from Russia, she was very supportive of movements, such as the contraceptive movement. She supported ultimately abortion, which at the time was really controversial, remains controversial. She was talented, as I said, at bringing people together, even as she presented them with ideas that many of them inherently disagreed with. And she always did this from the belief that individual people, be they women or men, should have the agency and the ability to make their own choices.
 
Robin Jensen: She wasn't arguing about the inherent ethicalness or morality of certain things. She was saying, "Look, people need to make their decisions and we need to give women the decisions to build their families or not, as they see fit. And if we don't do that, we're just going to have many more problems." So the infertility piece fit along with the sense that women should have the contraception they need, if they want it. If they desire to have any kind of intervention, including an abortion, she felt like they should have the autonomy to do that.
 
Robin Jensen: And then all of the advocacy for infertility was to say, "Look, in the same way that I'm fighting for people to start families if they want them, we should be supportive of people if they're on the other side of things and they want to limit their family, or they don't want to have a family." She really spanned all of those areas and every single one of them was controversial in a different way. She was able to use her kind of deliberative sensibility to manage that and bring people together to solve problems, even when they disagreed.
 
Jana Cunningham: Another controversial idea she had that I wanted to talk about briefly was, she had advocated and implemented sex education into the curriculum at New York University Medical Center where she was on faculty. And that, from what I understand, was the first time that sex education was even introduced into any sort of curriculum. How did that change the course of treatment for women and couples?
 
Robin Jensen: Yes, it definitely did. And it's still, if you go on to her alumni page for her medical school and where she was an instructor, they're still talking about how she was the one who instituted sex education for medical students, which today doesn't sound so wild, but back then was considered pretty daring. And part of that came with the idea, she was one of the early practitioners of believing that there was a psychosocial element to issues of contraception. She has all these stories about people who come into her care and say, "Look, we're having trouble, it looks like we're in fertile," and it turns out they thought they were having sex and they really weren't, or just basic things where you have people not having the sex education they need.
 
Robin Jensen: And then of course that also happens for medical students like it happens with anyone else, so her argument was we have to talk about basic sex education, even though it would be shocking to some folks that people might not have that, but a lot of people didn't and still don't. So we need to talk about basic sex education, and also what might be called medical couples therapy or something like that. Or just medical information where you're saying, "This is the basics of what sex is and how contraception happens, and how conception happens," so that when people are trying to make decisions about families or about not having families or whatever it may be, they're actually working with information that is accurate.
 
Robin Jensen: Also there is an element, there was research that was starting to come out at the time. Some of it overlapped with some Freudian psychoanalysis stuff, which that was not entirely factual there. But what came out of that movement was the idea that there is a psychological element in some cases to certain aspects of reproduction and you want to look at every possibility so that you're not saying, "Okay well, it looks like you're not actually having sex, and that might be why you are having trouble with infertility," as opposed to, "Let's have a surgery and open someone up and see what's wrong with their organs," when really that's something you would want to do long after you've come up with all of these kinds of basics.
 
Robin Jensen: It all kind of fell together in terms of her saying, "Look, in order for women to have the ability to advocate for themselves and what they need, we need to make sure that our medical students know these thingsso that they can pass them on and have an open conversation." Because when we're talking in terms of not straightforward language and we're using hyperbole about sex, and we're not being straightforward even in a medical consultation, communication is really at the heart of making sure that that everything's going okay, or identifying a problem. So that element of the medical education became central for her, and then that proliferated in other medical schools after that.
 
Jana Cunningham: Because I mean, it seems like something that would be completely common sense in medical school. I mean the very basics, and I guess in the twenties or the thirties, when Dr. Kleegman was on faculty, it was kind of a new concept, interestingly enough.
 
Robin Jensen: Right. And in the US, medical education even is a relatively new idea. I mean, we're a young nation in the first place, but it was only at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s when we started to institutionalize education, medical education and what that meant. Up until that point, it was a little like, "Well, I followed along another doctor and saw what they did and then I started doing it too, and I became a doctor." Really in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, we were still establishing what it meant to be a doctor, what your credentials were, what you needed to learn before that could happen. She stepped in and said, "Hey, let's make sure we've got the basics of sex education on the table here before moving forward."
 
Jana Cunningham: Before we end, let's talk a little bit about your project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. You're focusing on Dr. Kleegman, so can you tell us a little bit about what you're doing for this project?
 
Robin Jensen: Yes. This is a project where I started out really looking at the history of infertility and fertility medicine, and noticing that there were some central figures in that history that we don't know much about. And Kleegman was one of those who really rose to the top for me, in that she played a major role in changing fertility medicine. Of course it's still not perfect, but she was a pivotal role in saying, "Look, we're doing things that really make no sense. Let's change course and make sure we're solving the problems that we want to be solving." I went to Harvard University and they have the Schlesinger Library there and they have her papers and it turns out that there actually isn't that much there on Kleegman because her family threw out a lot of her papers when they were going through her office after she passed away.
 
Jana Cunningham: Oh no.
 
Robin Jensen: So part of this is, to all of you out there who are taking care of papers as a family, maybe hold on to them to make sure that they're not something that others could use in terms of research or things like that. Anyway, her families threw out a lot of her papers, but there was a lot there and Dr. Kleegman did publish a lot. She was engaged in a lot of advocacy efforts and she wrote letters upon letters and correspondence upon correspondence, so there is sort of a rhetorical path or traces of her rhetorical history that exists. And I just thought, let's figure out how she intervened in fertility science to make it into a more humane, ethical medical trajectory. And certainly it wasn't like she came in and said,"Done, done, done, everything changed. I am the savior." And that's part of why she was successful. It's also part of why we don't know much about her.
 
Robin Jensen: There just really isn't a lot of information on her because she played within the dictates of what was expected as much as possible, and then changed things within those dictates. I'm really interested in figuring out all the different ways that she communicated to make that change without blowing the whole thing up. There's also this really interesting story about her family who came over as immigrants from Russia and her sister who was also a doctor. And a whole story about the sister who ended up being a specialist on women's menopause and making the argument that women after menopause could still be sexually active, and that that was really healthy for them. As you can imagine, that was also a pretty controversial line of study.
 
Robin Jensen: The two of them together were just doing really interesting things and they made a real significant impact on how we look at reproductive health, fertility, things that are really prevalent right now. And certainly they're not perfect. We have a number of problems that still exist so I don't mean to make this into a story of the Kleegman sisters came in and they changed everything, and now we're better. No, we still have medical racism happening, we still have women who are being treated poorly. We still have really high mortality rates among African-American women and infant mortality rates, and all of these problems that we still need to deal with and continue to deal with. But I think we can take lessons from Kleegman, Sophia in particular, about how to make changes in ways that are productive and keep things moving forward so that people can receive better care and receive the kind of care that they need. 
 
Jana Cunningham: She seems like she has done so much for women in the medical community. I was so shocked that I couldn't find more information about her online. I thought I would find tons of stuff so I'm glad that you're doing this project. It's really interesting.
 
Robin Jensen: Well, and I think from what I have found, she was also just a real character too. I think that's always interesting. Just in her life she had a ton of energy and she lived about 40 lives in the span of how most of us live one. So it makes for just really, really compelling historical research on a lot of levels. I think it's inspiring in so many ways that people can come from basically, she had nothing at the beginning of her life and she worked together with her family to really change a social structure that she wasn't even a part of when she started, and just unbelievable.
 
Robin Jensen: At that time it was hard to even become a doctor as a woman, let alone an immigrant woman and all of these other kinds of things. So she really spoke a lot about class differences and how in fertility medicine, in particular, we tend to experiment on people who can't pay for it and then charge people who can, and that makes for really unfortunate reproductive outcomes. So she's a great person to look back to understand how we might move forward. 
 
Jana Cunningham: That was Robin Jensen, professor of communication. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu.

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Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the end of Polygamy

Season 3, Episode 9 - Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy

Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious studies, discusses her book “Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy.” Her book offers a history of modern Latter-day Saint women and the often-neglected stories of their experiences from the late 19th century to the present day.

Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities. And today, in continuation of our celebration of Women's History Month, I'm speaking with Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies, about her book, “Sister Saints, Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy.” Her book offers a history of modern Mormon women and the often neglected stories of their experiences from polygamy to present day.

Jana Cunningham: What prompted you to write “Sister Saints?”

Colleen McDannell: Well, as you mentioned, I'm a professor of religious studies here at the university. And within that broad field, I study American religions and I've written a whole bunch of books on American religious history, books that focus on Catholics, books that focus on photography. I even wrote a book about Heaven. And the book that I wrote before “Sister Saints” focused on a Catholic woman and looked at Catholic reform. And since I had been living in Utah for 30 years, I thought it was about time that I looked at my own neighbors and take my expertise in American religious history and try to make sense of Mormon women.

Jana Cunningham: What are some of the stereotypes about Latter-day Saint women that your book challenges?

Colleen McDannell: Well, I think there are two major stereotypes that I try to overturn in my book and the first of those stereotypes is that Mormon women are conservative. And I try to show in my book how in the 19th century, Mormon women followed progressive causes and not simply liberal causes, but actually radical causes. And their most radical cause of the day was women's rights and women's right to vote. And so, in the book, I show how Latter-day Saint women, especially through connections with the Relief Society, participated in the international movement to give women the right to vote.

Colleen McDannell: And the second stereotype that I try to challenge in the book is that Mormonism is a male-dominated religion. And throughout the book, I try to show how women have their own agency and their own activities. And especially up until the 1970s in the Relief Society, women raised their own money, they made decisions about how they would spend that money, they were even involved in politics, and they ran their own very influential magazine. And so these were various activities that try to show that at least up until the end of the 20th century, women were very involved in public activities, as well as doing things in the home.

Jana Cunningham: So, I'm really interested in learning more about these progressive movements and what their lives were like throughout these different movements in history. But first, I want to talk about what was life like for the women just as polygamy ended because that's kind of where we're starting, correct?

Colleen McDannell: Right. So, the second chapter of my book looks a little bit at polygamy and the stresses that polygamy placed on Mormon women. And one of the interesting resources that I used were a series of interviews done of the children of polygamists. And when you read the stories of the children, you get a very different perspective on polygamy. Women who became polygamists, most of them were quite enthusiastic about living a polygamous lifestyle because they were committed to LDS principles and polygamy was a part of the religion. So when they converted to the religion, they also converted to a new way of having a family.

Colleen McDannell: The children, on the other hand, they hadn't converted. They hadn't had a religious experience. And so, they saw polygamy in a very different light than their mothers and fathers did. And for the most part, they were not terribly enthusiastic about polygamy. Many of them were one of many children. It wouldn't be unusual to have 20 brothers and sisters. And the men who were supposed to care for these families oftentimes had a rough job of it, even though they wanted to take care of their families, just financially, it was difficult.

Colleen McDannell: What happened when polygamy ended was there was no clear instructions given about how families should exist. Some men actually decided to continue polygamy and they took their wives either to Canada or to Mexico. And sometimes, they even left wives in Utah and took their favorite wives or the ones that they got along with. They took those to places like Mexico. And sometimes it was the youngest wife, not just because she might've been the prettiest one, but also because she would have been the one to care for the men as they aged. And that meant that other wives were left in Utah caring for their children. And so the children found this life to be a difficult one.

Jana Cunningham: So from the end of polygamy until now, Mormon women, their lives and experiences have gone through a spectrum of changes. So what were kind of the significant movements that you were talking about earlier or moments in history that changed these roles and experiences?

Colleen McDannell: Well, if we go back to the women's rights movement at the turn of the century, as you know, since last year, we celebrated the 100th year of women having the federal right to vote in 2020. They got the vote in 1920. After women got to vote, it was a big question about how would they behave? Would they be a force in politics, with all of these women now voting?

Colleen McDannell: And what happened was the women voted just like the men did. Some voted for Democrats, and some voted for Republicans, and some didn't vote at all. And some voted the way their husband wanted them to vote. And some of them had their own ideas about how politics should be performed. And so actually, what you see is great diversity in the 1920s, once women get to vote. They didn't vote as a block. And so what that meant was that politicians, male politicians, could basically just ignore the women because they weren't a force in politics because they were very diffuse.

Colleen McDannell: So beginning around that time, the 1920s, right after World War I, there was a conservative movement across the nation in politics. A lot of it was a response towards the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and so there was a great fear that something like this, like socialism, might come to the United States. So historians call this the antiradical movement. And many Latter-day Saint male leaders became involved in this more conservative outlook towards society. Whereas the women in the Relief Society continued their more progressive orientation because they had been hanging out with basically progressive non-Mormon women because they were a part of the suffrage movement.

Colleen McDannell: So by the time you get then into the 1930s, the male leaders begin to slowly restrict the public activities of the Relief Society. And perhaps the most important thing was that during the depression era, the church decided to take over the welfare system from the women and to focus it on the priesthood and to have all of the welfare activities organized by men. So, although women still produced much of the labor, they did the canning, they made the clothes, they distributed food to needy people. It was the male church leaders who decided how the church welfare system would be set up and this made a big change. It took one of the very important elements of women's leadership away from the Relief Society, and it began to really the shift of power from the women to the men.

Jana Cunningham: And can you talk a little bit about some of the women we'll meet in this book or who readers will meet in this book and their contribution to the church?

Colleen McDannell: Well, I think what I'd like to do is just talk about one woman. And I want to talk about her because she is one of the unsung heroes in the book. She's not the famous woman like Emmeline Wells, but she is really famous in her own right and she also points to a really important change that has occurred in the church. And her name is Ayanda Sidzatane and she is from South Africa. And I was very lucky, thanks to support from the University of Utah, to be able to travel to South Africa and to live there for a while and interview LDS women about their lives and their history. And Ayanda was one of these really special women that I met there. Like many black, South African women, her family had experienced apartheid, which is a form of really severe racial segregatio, and because of that, she had had a very difficult time growing up.

Colleen McDannell: Her father deserted the family. Her mother had to support many children. Her sisters oftentimes married quite young and then had families of their own without the support of men. But she had converted and had found, within the LDS community a really supportive organization. She went on a mission to Botswana. She had American missionary companions and she came back to Johannesburg. She worked at the missionary training center. She eventually married a foreign missionary and she became a really strong leader within her church. And I want to point her out as a major figure because she indicates a shift in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the 1960s and '70s into the present.

Colleen McDannell: So as you know, there was a change in the policy towards the priesthood in the late 1970s, where men of African descent could become a priest within the church and that expanded the missionary activities. And so, when missionary activities began to expand, you get diverse responses to the LDS message. And those diverse responses begin to weaken the sharp polarization between the conservatives and the liberals that you had in Utah, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. And so this international church is a very different kind of church, and women's positions in it are very different than they were in Utah.

Jana Cunningham: That was Colleen McDannell, professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies. “Sister Saints” can be found on Amazon. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu.

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Humor and Science

Season 3, Episode 10 - Humor and Science

In celebration of National Humor Month, Sara Yeo, associate professor of communication, discusses her research about using humor to communicate science -why scientists use humor, how they use it and how it affects people’s attitudes. 

Jana Cunningham:
Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with the University of Utah College of Humanities, and today in celebration of National Humor Month, I'm speaking with Sara Yeo, associate professor of communication about her research using humor to communicate science. In 2019, Professor Yeo was awarded a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how humor affects people's attitudes towards science, specifically on social media.

Jana Cunningham:
So, let's start from the beginning. Why did you decide to focus your research in this area on using humor to communicate science?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah, so that's a great question, and I started focusing on humor because I had noticed on Twitter that there were a lot of hashtags that scientists use. There are a lot of scientists on Twitter, and there was this particular one, the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods that scientists use to just talk about the realities of doing science, right, the everyday things that might come up. So, a really good example that I like is, my samples were crushed because the UPS Sky didn't read the fragile labels, right.

Sara Yeo:
And they would tag tweets like this with “OverlyHonestMethods. And so, I started thinking based on the research and political communication on satire and sarcasm, some of that research shows that this type of humor can undermine our trust in political actors, it can undermine our trust in political institutions. And so, I was really curious about how this might work for science, right, especially as it relates to satire and sarcasm. And so, I decided I was going to study humor and that's how I got to writing that grant and fortunately it was awarded by the NSF.

Jana Cunningham:
So through your research, have you found that it's important to use humor when communicating science?

Sara Yeo:
So through my research, I have found that humor can be a really good way to communicate about science because in some cases, it, the sort of experience of that humor encourages people to engage with more scientific information by something that presumably we want. And so, by all accounts so far anyway, using humor has been shown to be a positive thing for science communication, and it's long been recommended for practitioners of science communication, but now we have empirical evidence that this is a positive thing.

Jana Cunningham:
And so why is it, I mean, is that why it's recommended because it creates more engagement with science?

Sara Yeo:
So, I think a lot of the recommendations came prior to having some of this empirical evidence. I think intuitively we think that humor is a good thing, right? It sort of can break down barriers, it can make people more personable, it can humanize some scientists. And so, we sort of intuitively think of it as a good way to communicate, and you can see this, right? There's some of this work in advertising literature, for example, when you look at the likeability of a communicator and people's intentions to purchase something after, right. Using humor in advertising and commercials, this is something that has been researched, and so if we extend that logic to communicating science, right, then intuitively we think, well, yes, if people like our communicator more, right, maybe then it helps them engage with that or it encourages them to engage with science content further down the line.

Jana Cunningham:
How have scientists responded to this recommendation in this way of communicating? Are they hesitant to use humor or are they on board or are the scientists who are on Twitter more likely to use humor? How have, what is their reaction to this recommendation?

Sara Yeo:
Yes, those are really great questions. And actually one that we're setting out to answer right now, what we're currently working on is a survey of scientists and their sort of perceptions around using humor as a means of communicating their research, as a means of communicating their science. So not only how scientists think about, whether they think it is appropriate, for example, to use humor, but also whether they think it might be effective, whether they think others might see this as an appropriate way, right. And so, these are actually questions that we're hoping to answer. And so, in the process of creating that survey that will help us answer that.

Jana Cunningham:
And so, how have you found that scientists are using humor to communicate science? Could you maybe give us, I know it's probably hard to give us some examples because I imagine some are using some visuals to use humor, but can you maybe give us some examples or how scientists are using humor?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So, those overly honest methods are an example. If you look at the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods on Twitter, you'll find some very humorous tweets. If you also look up the hashtag #fieldworkfail, there are some very humorous ones there too, but in my sort of going through and looking on Twitter, what we found is that a lot of the science humor uses puns or some sort of word place. So a really good example that I think is easy for us to visualize is a little cell, any type of cell, with a cell phone taking a selfie.

Jana Cunningham:
So, we talked about, we've kind of hit this a little bit earlier on how it kind of affects people's attitudes towards science, but can you dive into that a little bit more and talk about how this has impacted followers on Twitter and just the community in general and Twitter, how has it affected the way they perceive science and their attitudes?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So as I mentioned, I think there are competing hypotheses on how humor might affect how we engage with science and we haven't had a chance to explore all of these yet. And so, one hypothesis is that if you expect a joke to keep you in kind of a lighthearted or a good mood, you may not marshal cognitive resources to processing maybe the scientific information that underlies that joke, because maybe it doesn't kind of coincide with what you already believe, right, your predispositions, or maybe some of the values that you hold. So that's kind of one hypothesis.

Sara Yeo:
A competing hypothesis is that the cognitive resources that you kind of put into action to getting the joke, right, might then also sort of spill over into understanding that scientific information contained within that joke. And so, these are kind of competing hypotheses about how people might process that information, which affects their attitudes, can downstream of that. In our research, we've measured sort of intentions to behave and the particular ways, since I should be social media, a lot of these intentions have to do with, like you've mentioned gaining more followers or engaging with more content online, liking it, retweeting it, these kinds of things.

Jana Cunningham:
So we kind of talked about how humor affects people's attitudes, and we kind of touched on this, but have you measured yet or do you know, does it make the message seem less reliable, more reliable, more accessible? Have you gauged that yet?

Sara Yeo:
Yeah. So this is a really, really great question because you can see how humor might have the potential of trivializing information in some way. And so, in some of my other work on humor, we've looked at actually whether a scientist who is also a standup comedian, and there are videos of these scientists on YouTube, and it's certainly a trend that is increasing, that scientists are doing standup comedy in some way, talking about their research, telling their stories. And what we see is that people perceive the scientists as more likeable when they use humor, but also they, it doesn't undermine their credibility, it doesn't undermine expertise that the audience perceives. And so, they still see this person as a reliable source of scientific information, which is great news, right? If you were a scientist looking to communicate your work and you enjoy humor or you're enjoying improv comedy of some sort and all of these humor in some way. And on a daily basis, it's kind of one of those communication strategies and tactics that are very ubiquitous and we sort of do it very naturally.

Sara Yeo:
So all of these, so far, all of the research that I've conducted has found pretty positive effects of using humor. That said, there are some issues for which humor doesn't necessarily encourage greater sort of intentions to engage with content. And I think my sort of hypothesis, the working hypothesis on this is that it depends on the issue, right? Not all issues in science are the same consider for example, how we think about astrophysics, right? And space exploration versus climate change. People have very different views on that. And kind of these issues are also on the public's agenda to different extents, right? Or consider artificial intelligence versus climate change or global warming. And so, we started to do experiments using different issues instead of just kind of wordplay puns, like that selfie example that I used earlier. But we started to do experiments on using topics that we are discussing ,right, in media about science right now-

Sara Yeo:
Things like AI, things like climate change and for some issues. So in particular, the climate change issue, people found the joke funny, the visual that we presented them with, they got it's funny, but it sort of didn't encourage them to engage with more content, right, in the future, it sort of didn't have that same positive effect, it didn't have a negative effect, but it didn't have that same positive effect. And so, and my hypothesis is that it's because climate change and global warming are so different, right. Our sort of a politicized issues –they're in a different space on the public's agenda at this point from other issues. And so, I think that matters as well.

Jana Cunningham:
Absolutely. So what's next with your research? I mean, you've had this huge NSF grant and now what are you going on to next?

Sara Yeo:
Well, like every other, like many researchers at the U, I'm still working on writing more grants to fund by research, and some of it is on humor, and the ones on humor are starting to move into kind of the differences and how people perceive those who use humor, right, who we are, and our identities as people are going to change how people perceive how funny we are. And so, in a collaboration that hopefully will get funded, we're starting to look at kind of creating videos on how science shows the hosts of science shows, who they are, right. Might increase representation in science, but also how they use humor and how people perceive them, how this sort of intersection of who they are, right, their race, their gender, as well as how they used humor and people's perceptions of those things. So that's one thing that I'm working on right now.

Sara Yeo:
I also have a follow-up study with a science writer who works for NASA and some of my collaborators around the country and we're looking and she, the science writer at NASA is also an improv. She's a stand-up comic. And so, she does science jokes. And so, we're recording a couple of videos with her and some of her colleagues and testing kind of people's perceptions. And again, it has to do with race. She is Indian American. And so, we're looking at sort of the differences, right, in gender and race and when scientists are also sort of stand-up comics, right? Thinking about, again, credibility, likeability, how funny people think they are. So kind of, those are the things in the works at the moment with the humor project.

Sara Yeo:
I more broadly have studied emotions, so I've looked at emotions of disgust for example, I'm starting to look at emotions of hope as well, right, something that we kind of overlook when it comes to scientific issues. I think science can give us a lot of hope for the future. And this in particular, this project is a collaboration with another project on campus, the Utah FORGE Project. And they look at enhanced geothermal systems. They have a field station in Southern Utah. But, so we're using that geothermal energy and EGS as a context for this kind of examination of what is known as emotional flow, right? This idea that technologies like this renewable energy technologies, which has these can give people hope, but it can also be kind of fearful in some ways. And so, do those kind of the emotions that people go through influence what they think about the technologies, how they support them, right, their attitudes toward them and so on.

Jana Cunningham:
That was Sarah Yeo, associate professor of communication. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu.

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Stage Clowns

Season 3, Episode 11 - Stage Clowns

In continuation of the celebration of National Humor Month, Richard Preiss, associate professor of English and author of “Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theatre,” discusses the origins of stage clowns – their purpose, their tactics and how their roles changed with Shakespeare.

Jana Cunningham:
Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Jana Cunningham with University of Utah College of Humanities. And today we're continuing our celebration of national humor month by discussing the original comedians, clowns. Richard Preiss, associate professor of English and author of Clowning and Authorship in Early Modern Theater, is with me to discuss the origins of stage clowns and their roles in William Shakespeare's plays. So let's just begin with when were clowns first introduced in theater?

Richard Preiss:
So the super short answer to that question is since forever, they've been there since the beginning, but we should probably back up. It might be helpful to begin by clarifying some terminology. What we mean by theater and what we mean by clowns. I teach and research early modern English theater. The drama of the English Renaissance is most associated with, but not limited to, Shakespeare and his London contemporaries. Obviously theater is much older than that, dating back thousands of years across a wide range of cultures and each theatrical tradition had its own modes of comedy. Within each of those, they must have also had clowns. We don't know much about particular actors in ancient Greek theater, for example, but we know that the plays of Aristophanes were extremely vulgar and explicit, featuring lots of scatological humor and sexual innuendo and lampoons of public figures.

Richard Preiss:
So the comedians who staged them must have specialized in things like impersonation, slapstick, crowd work, which are a very clown specific set of skills. So that brings us to our second definition, which is probably the more pertinent one. What's a clown. This term has generated some confusion because it's much more commonly used to refer to characters in plays than to performers. Even when experts in early modern literature hear the phrase Shakespeare's clowns, they think of a specific character type in Shakespeare's plays, namely low class dimwitted, clumsy, unsophisticated, constantly misinterpreting things, simple in their tastes and very large in their appetites, both culinary and sexual. The word clown in the period, in fact, literally meant rustic, someone from the countryside rather than the city, good natured and well-intentioned, but clueless.

Richard Preiss:
So if you think about the Pixar movie, Cars, the character of Mater, voiced by Larry the cable guy, is a classic clown right down to the stereotype accent. So these characters are often cast as mischievous servants or bumbling oafs, were like a stock type in early modern theater. They derived from similar types in Roman drama and they were very useful for the kind of plotting that these plays required, as well as for the kind of culturally unifying work that early modern theater as a whole was concerned with. But there is a different narrower sense of the word clown as well, that refers not just to the character, but to the kind of performers who specialized in these parts. Playing companies, almost as a rule, employed among their several comedians, a comedian in chief, a single player called the clown of the company. And here, they were not marginal figures. These were core members of, and shareholders in the company. They were named in the company's charter, they were often the ones who were recorded as taking payment for court performances, so really, central, visible personalities in the organization. They were like the face of the company.

Richard Preiss:
If you were a serious troop, you needed a clown. Early modern English theater before Shakespeare in fact was mostly clowns in the early 1580s, just a few years after dedicated playhouses started being built in London, but well before Shakespeare came on the scene. Queen Elizabeth the first decided to cherry pick the best members of all the active companies at the time to form a super company under her own patronage, the Queen's Men, and half the actors they selected were clowns. By far the most famous among them was a man named Richard Tarlton or Dick Tarlton, who was like an absolute superstar. He was easily more famous than any tragic leading actor would be in later generations, he was certainly more famous than Shakespeare himself was.

Richard Preiss:
Back then, much as it is in movies today, hardly anybody knew or cared who wrote a play. No one especially even conscious of plays has written things, but they knew who the actors were, and the clowns were the star actors, they were the first real celebrities. So even though we think of their roles in plays as relatively minor and confined to the subplots, we know that their parts were always parts for one so that the clown was never used to double other parts in the play. That actor was reserved solely for that role. And that's very unusual, this was a theater that doubled actors in different roles a lot. This tells us that what clowns did in performance was very important and that they must've been doing a lot more than the surviving texts of those plays captured.

Jana Cunningham:
So what was their specific purpose within the play?

Richard Preiss:
Well, okay. Here's where things get trippy and this follows from what I was just saying. Plays for us exist principally as books, because that's how we encounter them, we tend to think of the experience of early modern theater as unfolding like a book does. When you pick up a volume of Shakespeare's collected plays and you turn to the first page of Romeo and Juliet, if you try to imagine what it was like to watch that play being performed live back when it first premiered, you picture an audience congregated in a big open air amphitheater, and they all fall into a hush, they all fall quiet. And then out walked the chorus on stage, launches into this prologue, two households, both alike in dignity and so forth. And then that's it, the play is just suddenly underway, and it runs uninterrupted until the end when the audience applause and then equally quietly, they all shuffle out.

Richard Preiss:
If you remember the film Shakespeare in Love from, what is it now, 20-25 years ago, that's how Elizabethan theater is depicted, and that's not at all what it was like. The words in our books rarely correspond to the way plays were actually performed and neither did the experience of play going, in early modern England, reduced simply to a single text called the play. And more than any other performer, the clown was really the source of that difference. So for starters, early modern audiences were really unlike modern ones. They were drawn from a mix of occupations and social classes, ages, genders, backgrounds, levels of education for whom commercial theater was like a relatively novel and experimental institution.

Richard Preiss:
Going to the theater was not the boudoir activity that it is for us today where you can dress up in your trip's clothes and you sit quietly in the dark and God forbid, you forget to silence your cell phone, that's mortifying. These were open-air amphitheaters where shows started at two in the afternoon broad daylight, so the audience was very much a part of the show, and indeed for some it was the show. People came to see and to be seen and to make their voices heard, they were loud, they were opinionated, they were given too much freer norms of audience participation than we are. If they didn't like something, they booed and hissed, and they threw nuts or apples at the stage.

Richard Preiss:
It's still strange to realize that theater, now and then, sells you concessions that can be weaponized against it. They're like, "Here, we're going to put these hard objects in your hands to hurl at us." And if audiences did like something, they might burst spontaneously into applause in the middle of a scene or a speech or laugh uproariously or call out an appreciative response or demand that something be performed again. In other words, either way, they were compulsively given to derailing the performance.

Richard Preiss:
The idea of theater as something that you sat through and passively consumed was totally foreign to them. After all a large segment of them weren't sitting, they were standing at the lip of the stage. This is the group called the groundlings, standing on the ground at the theater. They were on their feet the whole time. So they were working no less than the actors were. And in a very fundamental sense, they saw theater as a collective experience, something that they, along with the actors, were collectively producing. So, that's a lot of energy to campaign. And if you're the playing company, it almost certainly means that the play is never going to go exactly according to plan. That's a good thing actually, because as it turns out, companies were not terribly invested in the play going according to plan.

Richard Preiss:
These were repertory companies, they were rotating through some dozen or 15 plays over the course of any given month. At the same time as they were premiering or rolling in to the repertory one or two new ones on a regular basis, all of these parts, they needed to keep continuously memorized in their heads and ready to go at almost literally a moment's notice. So negotiating all of this means having really wide margins for errors, scripts that don't arrive fully finished, sometimes you get blown lines or blown scenes or scenes that need to get added on, like on the fly when a disaster happens in the backstage, you have to have techniques for stalling when things are in a state of unreadiness. And so in turn, that means that you need players who are really good at improv and crowd control. So enter the clown, literally. The first thing that these unruly audiences got when the day's playing began was usually not the play at all, but a solo performer who took the stage by himself to manage the crowd. Have you ever been to the taping of a live TV show? Whether it's a-

Jana Cunningham:
I haven't.

Richard Preiss:
Yeah, I think I've been one time, and it's a weird experience. It's really unlike the product that you watch at home. It could be a sitcom or a talk show or a game show, but TV studios employee warmup comedians, whose job is to come out and tell jokes and work the room and loosen up the crowd, they have to get people ready to laugh. So it takes a lot of behind the scenes work to make the product that comes out of your TV.

Richard Preiss:
The early modern stage clown did essentially the same, except he wasn't just warming the audience up, as we've seen, they've already arrived warm. His job was also to settle them down. If a crowd was too headstrong or too insistent on being heard and recognized, they're going to constantly disrupt the performance. So in a sense, it became the clown's job to absorb all that energy and harassment himself to keep it from invading the play. So most of his interactions with the audience were structured as games, in which the audience tries to get the better of him and he tries to get the better of them. Most of the time he won, although of course we tend to hear mostly about the performance who were good at this, there must've been many, "You sucked." And got pounded off stage and didn't last in the business.

Richard Preiss:
So think about it again, like in a modern analogy, as the contest between a standup comedian and a heckler. If you've ever been in a club where that happens, where a heckler starts talking, you can immediately feel there's a heightened sense of tension and anxiety, everybody's holding their breath to see if the comic can withstand the abuse and put the heckler in their place. In fact, we're thinking about why that scenario still happens all the time today. It doesn't make any sense, people are paying money to go to the club and just hear themselves. So the same impulse is still being activated upon.

Richard Preiss:
So in the process, the stage clown is teaching the audience something really fundamental and profound about how theater works. Like namely that this is work, not just anybody can stand up here and do this. So gradually through figures like the clown whose routines were almost always improvised and were never recorded as part of the text of any play, audiences are starting to learn that they don't make theater, that actors and playwrights do. The plays have scripts and that performances are supposed to stick to those scripts. That what we're doing up here is like producing a product, a commodity. So ironically clowns were teaching audiences how to be audiences and consumers all under the guise of just making them laugh.

Jana Cunningham:
What were some of the tactics that they used? You had mentioned that there was this game between the audience and the clowns. What were some of their tactics, and not just to make people laugh, maybe to make them calm down?

Richard Preiss:
Yeah. It covers the gamut. There's a really wide range of genres, different clowns develop their own styles and their own schticks that became their trademarks. Which Playhouse you frequented was a big part of your identity as a play goer, and that choice depended in turn on which individual clowns you liked and had an affinity for. But we can review, we can survey some of the different genres of performance that these comedians innovated by mapping them onto the structure of the theatrical event. And think about the clowns as presiding over that whole event, like a master of ceremonies, like an emcee. They would appear at the beginning before the play, they would pop up at various points in the middle to give you something extra and see how you're doing during the play and then they would take over the stage once more at the end, after the play was over.

Richard Preiss:
So, few of these genres really had their own names, people just describe what the clown did as if it needed no explanation because they weren't aware that they were talking to posterity when they wrote this down. That [Diane 00:14:30] mentioned Dick Tarlton was responsible for inventing a lot of them. He was reputedly really homely and had a large bulbous nose, and he used to open the show with a little bit that was predicated on how instantly recognizable he was and how eager fans were to see him. So there was no front curtain to the stage back then, the way that we have now with the proscenium arch stage. It was the bare thrust stage, but the back of the stage, there was this little recessed area called the discovery space, where a small curtain was hung to conceal the door that led to the tiring house.

Richard Preiss:
So you could use it to sneak items on stage, you could dramatically discover things. That's why it was called the discovery space. Like pulling aside the arras to show the body of Polonius after Hamlet stabs him for eavesdropping. So Tarlton would poke only his nose through that curtain, and then somebody in the audience would catch sight of it and point and be like, "Look, he's here." And then gradually more and more of his body, he would expose and people would point and squeal in delight that he was about to make his first appearance. This little comic strip tease became a clown tradition, and we hear about other stage clowns still doing it 60 years later. So thereafter, Tarlton seems to have done a pantomime bit where he made grotesque, silly, funny faces. The crowd would yell out things for him to imitate like, "Be a drunk or now be a baby and now be an animal." And they'd pick whatever animal they wanted, and he would just become that thing.

Richard Preiss:
Again, they're like imitators. Years later, a clown called Thomas Greene did such a convincing imitation of a baboon that it genuinely freaked people out. There's really little narrative to build on here, in order to make this funny, you have to be a really gifted mimic and also able to find inspiration in anything to make it a story. So, picture somebody rubber faced like Jim Carey and also extremely volatile and high energy like Robin Williams, but combined all in a single package. So throughout this, the clown remains something that the crowd wants to control and that also eludes their control, but they don't ever fully have control over him, and that's the tantalizing aspect of it.

Richard Preiss:
The prelude that best exemplifies this was something called themes, which was also created by Tarlton. So here the audience takes turns shouting out a theme on which the clown has to rhyme extempore. So his ugliness or the weather, or a church bell that happens to ring in the background or his wife's infidelity. Often these themes from the audience would just take the form of rhymes themselves, so it would escalate the encounter into a rhyming contest between the spectator and the clown, like a freestyle rap battle. The object is to continuously one up each other. The spectators trying to stump the clown, and the retorts invariably devolve into really withering personal insult. We often hear about the loser in this exchange, usually the spectator, actually being shamed into departure, like they just turned tail and leave the playhouse humiliated.

Richard Preiss:
So a spectator will shout, "Me thinks it is a thing unfit to see the great iron turn to spit." And wait to see what Tarlton's answer will be. And Tarlton replies, "Me thinks it is a thing unfit to see an ass have any wit." And everybody cracks up and that's it, it's a pretty good comeback, you're not going to come back from that. So there was apparently a lesser clown called William Kendall, we don't hear much about him, who was not as good at this as one needed to be. During this one performance at Bristol, which is on the border with Wales, he decided it would be a really smart idea to make fun of the Welsh and to call them all cuckold, whereupon a man in the crowd cried out, "The horn," like the cuckold horn, "the horn becomes the saxon best, I kissed thy wife, suppose the rest?" And Kendall, we're told in the punchline to the schtick, was put to silence. So like damn, I mean, how do you recover from that devastating one-liner that comes from the audience that Kendall couldn't? This is a hard job.

Richard Preiss:
So after this point, the clown might turn up anywhere in the play in a scripted or partially scripted or totally unscripted capacity. These comic interludes or merriments, as they were sometimes called, often existed in a very ambiguous relation to the script. We're not sure how much they were actually part of the play. Will Kemp, who is Tarlton's successor as the preeminent clown of the early modern stage, appears in a play from the early 1590s called A Knack to Know a Knave. The title page of this quarto advertises, "With Kemp's applauded merriments of the mad men of Gotham." So there's no byline on this playbook title page to tell you who the author was, but the clown is so famous that he actually gets blurred on the front page of the book. And yet when you open the book to find this episode, the episode itself on the page amounts to very little.

Richard Preiss:
Like at one point, we have a bunch of citizens who are gathered around because they're expecting the King to pass through their town and they are having a debate to decide which of them will deliver a petition to the king. And when the king finally arrives, one of them says, "Sir, here's our petition." And the petition just asks the permission for them to brew ale three times a week. And the king is like, "Sure, fine, whatever." And they all disperse and that's it. That's the end of the scene. That's what gets advertised on the title page. How did this deserve big neon lights on the title page? We don't really know. I mean, probably all we're seeing here is a blueprint for the scene, maybe a framework around which the actors improvise with a lot of physical comedy that the text can't capture. But the question still remains why you would want to buy a copy of that framework only. Then again, why did anyone ever buy a playbook no less an empty shell of the performance?

Richard Preiss:
So finally, at the end of the show is where things get really interesting. From Tarlton onward, play going ritually ended with the performance of a stage jig. And today the word jig means just a little informal dance, but this was a whole dramatic after piece with characters, a plot, dancing, singing, and the clown takes the lead role. This was an obligatory thing no matter whether the day's play happened to be a comedy or a tragedy, you got a jig at the end. You may have just watched Romeo and Juliet die and everyone is in tears, and now Will Kemp comes out playing an apprentice who's trying to prevent his master from finding out that he's having sex with the master's wife, and they chase each other around and somebody gets a bucket over their head and kicked in the rear end.

Richard Preiss:
Audiences loved the stuff, they loved jigs. For some people, it was more of an event than the play itself. We were told that they would rush to the playhouse doors at the end of the play, because now you no longer needed to buy a ticket to enter. And the atmosphere during the jig was so ruckus, and for lack of a better word, orgasmic, that it gets described as a kind of whirlwind or cacophony or a mosh pit. This one observer says, "The stinkards," that's his term for the audience, "The stinkards speaking all things, but no man understanding anything." That's a really terrifying prospect if you're a city alderman.

Richard Preiss:
Jigs activate the most destructive potential of theater to degenerate into a full-blown riot. And in 1612, they were briefly abolished, they tried to just abolish jigs and everybody pretty much ignored that ban. Kemp was especially beloved for his jigs, many of which he published. For a time in the 1590s, he had more titles in print under his own name than William Shakespeare did. So we really need to think about the clown as a rival to the playwright. We hear about play goers spilling out into the streets after a performance chanting Kemp's jig. The amazing thing is that none of this stuff is in any playbook ever. If you open up Shakespeare's plays or any other playwrights plays, you get no sense that these events are happening in the periphery of the play, it's just act one scene one until the end, and it's much more of a variety show.

Jana Cunningham:
Speaking a little bit of Shakespeare, how did Shakespeare change the role of the stage clown, and how were they different than the pre Shakespearean clown?

Richard Preiss:
That's a good question. Yeah, this is a complicated story, Shakespeare in relationship to all of this. Are you surprised to hear that it's a complicated story? Shakespeare's capacity to change what the stage clown did was, by definition, limited, because his influence is confined to how he writes the clown's dramatic role in the play, that's his part. So to be clear to listeners, we're switching now from talking about what the clown does outside the play, back to what he does inside, where we can observe it, where we can see it in the text. But you've asked her a good question that will eventually lead us back outside again.

Richard Preiss:
So Shakespeare, as he always seems to do, occupies a unique place within the early modern theatrical ecosystem. On the one hand, he was unusually permissive with and trusting of the clowns in his company, but on the other hand, he also seems to have invaded their territory in really sneaky ways. To appreciate this, we have to create a context around him, we have to compare him to how other playwrights of the period wrote for their clowns. So, for the sake of illustration, at one end of the spectrum you have somebody like Christopher Marlowe, who wrote just five or so years before Shakespeare's career began, and his plays feel very much like the product of a different era, a different decade. Remember that during the 1580s clowns were still the kings of the stage. Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe was a freelance writer, he was unattached to any specific company. He didn't have personal working relationships with most of the actors, and in some of his plays it seems like he just lets them do whatever they want, he doesn't care.

Richard Preiss:
So, for example in Doctor Faustus, a play about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. There were whole themes consist of nothing but clowns goofing around. Faustus's servant, Wagner, gets ahold of his conjuring book and he threatens to use it on some guy named Robin. We don't even know who Robin is, he's just like this dude. He threatens to use it on some guy named Robin, unless Robin becomes the servant's servant intern. And after some bad puns and jokes about food and sex, Robin ends up getting chased off stage by devils. In another scene, now Robin and his friend Rafe have the book, and they use it to get out of paying their tavern bill. So we just get this Russian doll sequence of increasing parodies of the main action with these peasant clown characters.

Richard Preiss:
These scenes feel like vehicles for open-ended improvisation and they probably were. Doctor Faustus exists in two distinct texts that were printed a number of years apart. And in the later one, not only are the clown scenes different, they're also longer, as if stuff that the comedians came up with in performance during the intervening years, eventually migrated into the permanent text. At the other end of the spectrum, you have a playwright like Ben Johnson, who's writing half a generation later than Shakespeare, who's extremely intolerant of clowns. Johnson was the first real auteur of the early modern stage, somebody who felt that the playwright should be calling all the shots and getting all of the glory. And he wrote these incredibly long meticulous plays with almost no clown characters. Many of them for children's companies who had no clown performers whatsoever. And in these plays, not a syllable was allowed to be out of place, and Johnson gripes about it to no end when the actors invariably make mistakes in performance.

Richard Preiss:
So Shakespeare falls somewhere in between these extremes. On the one hand, he deferred from both Marlowe and Johnson in not being a freelancer. He wrote more or less for only one company his whole life, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who would later become the King's Men. And he knew these actors intimately, he knew their strengths and weaknesses as well as they did. And he seems to have been quite content to let them use their assets. It was his job, as we've said, to concoct dramatic scenarios that are designed to let them exploit their own talents to the fullest. So for roughly the first half of Shakespeare's career, the company's clown was Will Kemp, who we've talked about. We've seen that he's cut very much from the Dick Tarlton mold. His persona is this blunt down to earth, every man who gets into trouble anytime he's forced to grapple with learning or with big words, but who also doesn't mind being the butt of the joke sometimes.

Richard Preiss:
Shakespeare's parts for him are like blank canvases that allow Kemp to explore different aspects of this persona. So in The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, he plays servants who patiently suffer endless beatings at the hands of their masters, but who also get their own stage time to vent about it. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, he plays a servant who gets blamed for the misdeeds of his incorrigible pet dog, and in Romeo and Juliet, he plays an illiterate servant who needs to ask strangers to read the instructions he's been given, and he gets into fights with musicians. So you can see a pattern developing here. These are all really just variations on the same character who are all intern variations on the persona, by which Kemp is already known to his audience through his jigs and through his extra dramatic activity.

Richard Preiss:
But Shakespeare is also opportunistic and greedy. At the same time as he's recognizing the independence of the jig, he's also subtly encroaching on it. Toward the end of the 1590s, he starts leaving these little openings at the ends of his plays for the jig to grow out of it. So at the end of Love's Labour's lost, we're left with this plot point unresolved of how Costard, the clown character, is going to win Jaquenetta's hand in marriage. At the end of Much Ado About Nothing, we're told that Dogberry, the buffoonish constable, has arrested the villain, Don John. But we never see Don John punished, which we're expecting to.

Richard Preiss:
At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom, the attention hogging leader of the amateur actors, that we affectionately call the rude mechanicals, promises Duke Theseus that they want to conclude their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe with what he calls a booger mask dance. And all of these are almost certainly Kemp's parts, and all of these seem like setups for the jig to follow. But they also are attempting to annex the jig as a continuation and extension of the play. And they implicitly require Kemp to stay in character, which is a character that Shakespeare has written for him. So if you're Kemp, do you see this as a compliment? I'm not sure he did. So, yeah, I think that probably covers it for his attitude toward it.

Jana Cunningham:
So other than Kemp, who were some of the more well-known Shakespearian clowns? And what was their specific contribution to comedy and the theater in general?

Richard Preiss:
Okay, well, so the next person that we have to talk about in this context is Robert Armin. Kemp left the Chamberlain's men in 1599. Nobody knows why, but what I just told you suggests that there might've been creative differences between Kemp and Shakespeare. I mean, it's all conjecture, it's a nice story, we'll never really know. But he left on this solo career and eventually returned. He traveled for awhile and he returns to London and joins a different company.

Richard Preiss:
Armin, is a comedian who's come up with a different company and was hired to replace him. And Armin is a radically different kind of performer. Whereas Kemp established this bond with the audience in their shared lower class sensibility at their lack of pretense, Armin's persona seems to have been very distant and aloof. He was not an athletic performer like Kemp, he didn't dance or do slapstick. His specialty was vocals, he was a singer and he was something of a ventriloquist. He was also a lot more literate and cerebral. He considered himself a student of folly in the humanist sense. He wrote a book called Fool Upon Fool, which was an anthology of jest by and unfortunately about the mentally disabled, which should be set here that Elizabethans were unapologetically cruel in their treatment of the disabled, whom they called natural fools.

Richard Preiss:
These people were often kept as wards in, or by aristocratic households for entertainment because their unpredictable, accidental, witticisms surprised and delighted others. So this, together with performers, professional performers, who merely pretended to be mentally disabled artificial fools, this is the origin of that other strain, that's in the background here, the bigger of the court jester or the fool. So instead of jigs, Armin made the game of themes, that we mentioned earlier with Tarlton. He made the themes like his post show signature. And he used it to showcase both his vocal talents and this new, weird comic persona.

Richard Preiss:
He published these routines too, so we can actually read what they were like and they're very difficult to reconstruct. Unlike in the jest books that record Tarlton's themes, that's where most of that material resides, jest and joke books, people telling anecdotes about funny stuff that Tarlton said. Unlike in those jest books where it's really clear what the structure of the exchange with the audience is, it's clear when the clown is talking and then when the audiences responding. Armin doesn't differentiate his voice from the crowds.

Richard Preiss:
Sometimes it seems like different spectators are responding to each other, and sometimes it seems like they're the only ones talking and Armin's not talking at all. And it's entirely possible, in fact, that the reverse is true, that all of the voices are Armin's, and that in this version of themes, the audience never got to talk, he just kind of performed them in a virtuosic polyphonic display that must've been at once, charming and fascinating and also bizarre like an Andy Kaufman routine where he'll start off in an accent and then unexpectedly drop it, or he'll start crying as if he's having a breakdown and then turn his sobs into music, and you never know what's real and what's part of the act.

Richard Preiss:
Armin was very avant-garde in the same way. He was always tempting you with the possibility that his folly was natural rather than artificial. So Shakespeare had a new comedian to work with now, it takes us back to the story of the collaboration between playwright and actor. So once again, he used the resources that were at his disposal. Armin forms the bright dividing line in Shakespeare's place between the clowns of the earlier plays, which are designed for Kemp and we've covered some of those already. And the fools of the later ones, which are designed for a new performer with a very different set of gifts.

Richard Preiss:
So in, As You Like It, for example, Touchstone, is literally a court jester, but that's his character, it's an establishing role for this new performer, to introduce him to the audience. And Feste, in Twelfth Night, is exactly the same. He's a minstrel who travels back and forth between aristocratic households. Both characters sing, neither character fully participates in the same reality that everybody else seems to occupy. That's even truer of a later role, like the Fool in King Lear, he doesn't get a name, he's just called the Fool. Who speaks in riddles and for no apparent reason just disappears from the play halfway through. Nobody knows why. So although Armin could play more conventional rogues and rascals like the ballad-monger and pickpocket, Autolycus, in The Winter's Tale, it's hard to see what audiences enjoyed about him, specifically enjoyed about Armin. But they clearly did, as did Shakespeare, who seems to have taken quite seriously the philosophical potential of the persona that Armin developed.

Richard Preiss:
I mean, if you think about it, Armin's specialty was playing multiple people at once, and Shakespeare's roles for him, like the snarling misanthrope societies in Troilus and Cressida, who have conversations with himself, occur in plays that are likewise asking what it means for us to see ourselves as others see us, to be just outside of our own bodies. For our self image and our self-worth always to be a function of and bound up in the perceptions and subjectivity of others. So you're like, "Are you ever really yourself? Are you just seeing yourself as others see you? Are we really individuals or our own personalities just amalgams of everyone else we come into contact with?"

Richard Preiss:
So here again, it becomes inaccurate to call Armin, Shakespeare's fool, no less than it was to call Kemp, Shakespeare's clown. In both cases, it's their solo work on stage that's giving Shakespeare the ideas so that their characters in his plays can be better described as collaborations between actor and playwright. So again, in a different way of phrasing it, what happens inside the play is always on some level in dialogue with, and like an extension of what's happening outside it in the parts of the performance that we can't see because our texts don't document it.

Jana Cunningham:
So before we end, it's easy to see how these stage clowns have influenced comedy today. But I would love to get your ideas on some ways they have influenced modern day comedy.

Richard Preiss:
That's a good closing question. It's tricky. I mean, there's a big gulf of time and space separating early modern English theater 400 years ago, and what we know today as the contemporary anglophone entertainment industry. So it's hard to pinpoint an exact route by which any, one specific aspect of stage crown practice survives today. I mean, after all, the London playhouses were shut permanently by order of parliament in 1642 once the English civil war began and it became important to the government to silence dissent, and the first thing you do is you close the theaters. And the theaters stage shut for a generation such that when they reopened in 1660, a lot of the institutional culture of pre-civil war theater was just gone, it was just lost. Very few former actors were still in the business to remember how things were done and the audiences for which they performed had different needs. No one built huge open air amphitheaters anymore. The new theaters were all relatively small enclosed spaces, seating perhaps five or 600 spectators at a time rather than several thousand, which is what you had with the Elizabethan amphitheaters.

Richard Preiss:
So the composition and the dynamics of audiences were different, theaters are now a more exclusive and upscale affair. And so the custom of having clowns begin and intersperse and end performances just drops away. And for the first few years of theatrical performance during the restoration, most of the plays being performed were revivals of pre-war drama. I mean, it takes a while for people to start writing new plays. The audience knew these plays first and foremost, as the relief visiting counterparts did not, as texts. That was how they knew them as books, just as we do. And there was less of a sense of theater as a live, spontaneous collaboration between actors and audience that could end any number of ways.

Richard Preiss:
So those play texts remain the primary means by which the stage clown survives today, even though, as we've seen, they preserve only the dramatic characters and erase most of the clowns extra dramatic behavior. But also as we've seen, those characters already preserve the extra dramatic within themselves too. But even beyond that, that doesn't mean that the influence of these generations of stage clowns altogether disappears or is extinguished. English players were renowned throughout Europe for their comedic skill, and they regularly toured the continent. There, they would've come into contact with other performers like practitioners of the Italian commedia dell'arte, and they must've learned things from each other. Commedia gets imported into England in the late 17th century, and when that happened, it's entirely possible that English audiences were getting bits and pieces of their own clowning traditions filtered back to them. The Harlequinade becomes the dominant form of theatrical after piece.

Richard Preiss:
And it's really like a mashup of commedia dell'arte and the English stage jig. You get an extended slapstick vignette that's usually in pantomime, centered on a love triangle or a sexual liaison between Harlequin, his mistress Columbine, her father, Pantalone, who's usually trying to resist the match. And two new characters who emerged on the scene Pierrot, who's Pantalone's servant, and this buffoonish antagonist, who's called simply Clown. From these two characters, it's a straight line, from Pierrot and Clown, it's a straight line to the two 19th century types of the mean scary circus clown and the sad crying clown that most people still picture today when you say the word clown.

Richard Preiss:
As embodied by Shakespeare's characters, clowns are of course, very much still alive. They still provide the template for the clown characters that we enjoy in, like the sit-com formula, Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld. He's the hipster doofus who's always crashing into Jerry's apartment to the cheers of the studio audience, like exactly the same as when Tarlton enters, tripping over stuff and mooching food, doing socially inappropriate things and he seems to exist in a different reality from everybody else. He's like a textbook Elizabethan stage clown. But the essence of stage clowning, of course, the solo performer standing up, telling jokes, inviting talk back from the crowd, taking the stage and trying to defend it persists through more of a process of convergent evolution just by virtue of the universality of comedy itself that from generation to generation it's kind of the same thing.

Richard Preiss:
We've rediscovered that art form, I think in the 20th century, it's a distinctly American one, it's stand up comedy. I think that has something to do with the American commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, which even though we shouldn't confuse Elizabethan England for a democracy, it's not. Those things are inherent in the social experiment that playhouses represented. How does the individual define themselves through or against the group? How does the gathering of individuals become a group, become an audience and improvise for themselves a collective experience. Theater is like a laboratory for figuring out what different forms of social organization are possible. And society, like theater, is at some level always an improvisation. It's a form that we're making up as we go along, and that is an inherently risky, dangerous exercise in which to participate.

Jana Cunningham:
That was Richard Preiss, associate professor of English. For more information about the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu.

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Last Updated: 6/1/21