A Perfumed Recipe on the Early Modern Stage (Part 1)

By Colleen Kennedy

This is the first part of a two-part reading of the pomander recipe depicted in Thomas Tomkis’ allegorical Jacobean comedy, Lingua: or, the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority (1607)[1]. Below, I consider how this perfume recipe has an immediate effect and affect on the audience. In my next installment, I consider the gendered implications of this same passage.

Theatre historian Sally Barnes argues that in our modern deodorized world and theatre, that there is a real dearth of attention paid to what she terms “‘olfactory effect’ in theatrical events—that is, the deliberate use of ‘aroma design’ to create meaning in performance” (68). Holly Dugan claims “a sixteenth-century stage devoid of smell is anachronistic.”[2] Within the playhouse, the intensity of and types of smells would vary from amphitheatre to hall playhouse. The larger structure and open roof of the Globe Theatre allowed for many smells to disperse and waft away, but within a smaller enclosed space odors would linger in the air.

Tiffany Stern reports on the smoky conditions of the Jacobean Blackfriars Theatre, a “delicate haze” but also a “confusion of smoke from candles and tobacco, and smells—again from tobacco, but seemingly also from the perfumes that Blackfriars plays so often demand” (45).[3] The new Sam Wanamaker Theatre, a reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre, with its “oak-framed construction” has already been denoted as sensuous space, “striking for its smell and warmth, its irregularities and warps, for its closeness to nature.”[4] Dominic Droomgale, artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, relishes the “intimate and sensual” qualities in a recent interview on The Duchess of Malfi: “In our virtualised world of high technology, with no physicality or smell to it, it’s great to be in a tiny room with people that you can see and almost reach out and touch, telling you a rich and complex story.”[5]

With these concepts of the aromatic theatre, I turn now (to what I believe may be) the only recipe performed on the Renaissance stage and experienced by the audience members. In the course of the play Lingua, each of the personified five senses must appear in front of a jury (consisting of Common-Sense and some of the inner five wits) in his attempt to win the crown and robe of the supreme sense. When Olfactus, the Sense of Smell, presents his show he is accompanied by a group of seven boys all carrying sweetly scented items—two carry casting bottles, two more “with censors of incense,” and one boy each carrying flowers, herbs, and ointments.

Olfactus’ aptly named page Odor shares a recipe for creating a pomander:

 “Your only way to make a good pomander is this:

Take an ounce of the purest garden mold, cleansed and steeped seven days in change of motherless rose-water, then take the best labdanum, benioine, both storaxes, ambergrease, civet, and musk, incorporate them together, and work them into what form you please.”

Venetian woman with pomander

We can imagine that in the original performance space at Cambridge University, the room must have been redolent with sweet aromas and thick with the smoke of the censors. The sweet odors of incense and the recipe for the pomander in Tomkis’ play are especially fraught aromas of the Renaissance, with both religious and medicinal connotations.[6] Incense was considered a Catholic ritual of the old “smells and bells,” no longer practiced in the more austere Anglican Church.[7]  And the fragrant pomander, composed of spices and resins contained in a small rounded container, was one of the most ubiquitous of plague remedies. Held to the nose, the sweetly scented materials filtered out the miasma of the plague. That is, these aromas could save one’s body or soul.

Olfactus (like all the senses) must describe where he resides in the body and how he benefits the body (microcosm) and soul (psyche). The sense of smell, he argues, is the most important sense as it “refines wit and sharpens invention/ And strengthens memory.” The use of incense, he further exclaims, “makes man’s spirits more apt for things divine.”  Performed onstage, the incense and pomander recipe create exactly the sort of ambient environment that Olfactus promotes.

This innovative use of incense and a performed pomander recipe could immediately resonate with Tomkis’ audience. Tomkis innovates in other ways, composing in English rather than Latin for example,  allowing for a more immediate accessibility for non-University students to understand his works. And in another play Albumazar, a character uses a telescope to look across England, but he is truly commenting on the clothing trends of the audience, collapsing space and breaking the fourth wall.

The use of incense functions in a similar metatheatrical way when we know that the sense of smell was usually conceived as a mediating sense, unlike vision and hearing with the object perceived from afar or the senses of taste and touch that call for immediate proximity. Tomkis directs the incense to waft through the space uniting his allegorical characters and his audience as they smell the same sweet fragrances and are told that it will “refine wit,” an especially proper effect in a University setting.

Smelling incense on the stage can alter the audience’s engagement of the performance. Unsurprisingly, Olfactus is ultimately awarded the “chief priesthood of Microcosme, perpetually to offer incense in his Maiesties temple” (M3v).

Notes


[1] Thomas Tomkis, Lingua: or the Combat of the Tongue, and the Five Senses for Superiority. A Pleasant Comedy. (London: 1607. Old English Drama Students’ Facsimile Edition, 1913).

[2] Holly Dugan, “Scent of a Woman: Performing the Politics of Smell in Late Medieval and Early Modern England,” Journal of Early Modern Studies 38:2 (Spring 2008): 230.

[3] Tiffany Stern, “Taking Part: Actors and Audience on the Stage at Blackfriars.” Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance, eds. Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2013), 35-53.

 

[4]Rowan Moore, “Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – review.” The Observer. 11 Jan. 2014.

[6] Holly Crawford Pickett, “The Idolatrous Nose: Incense on the Early Modern Stage” (in Jane Hwang Degenhardt and Elizabeth Williamson, eds. Religion and Drama in Early Modern England: The Performance of Religion on the Renaissance Stage. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011: 19-39). Holly Crawford Pickett studies the controversy over the use of the liturgical use of incense in the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and the use of staged incense in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women as well as in Ben Jonson’s Sejanus.

[7] See Jonathan Gil Harris’s “The Smell of Macbeth” (Shakespeare Quarterly 58.4 (Winter 2007)), in which he makes the convincing argument that the stink of Macbeth’s squib’s (used to create thunder effects) reenacts a nostalgia for Catholic “Harrowing of Hell” style plays and the lack of “smells and bells” in the Anglican church. Harris claims that Shakespeare’s staged scents subvert the inodorous Anglican Church by recreating the scents associated with Catholicism and rebellion.


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