On Thursday, Dr. Ellen R. Welch, Associate French Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, visited UNCG’s campus for a presentation on theatre and the performing arts in early modern Franco-Spanish diplomacy.
In an open windowed room at the top floor of the MHRA, otherwise known as the faculty lounge, close to 20 students and faculty members attended this presentation made possible by the History, International & Global Studies and the Languages, Literatures and Cultures departments. High praise was placed on Welch’s book, “A Theatre of Diplomacy: International Relations and the Performing Arts in Early Modern France” from the main facilitator of the event, Dr. Ignacio Alemany, who is also an Associate Professor of Spanish at UNCG.
While introducing her topic, Welch highlighted the significance of the performing arts and emphasized how “dance, music and dramatic performance can communicate across cultures and bring about international harmony.” This theme of international harmony as a result of the performing arts is not very common today, due to modern styles of entertainment ranging from reality TV, Pop music and YouTube video blogs, being more targeted towards addressing the needs, wants and thoughts of people within a specific society and culture.
In the 16th century, different forms of cultural entertainment and ideas were applied and translated through nation-specific costume of Spanish or French nobility, but today, translated entertainment is achieved through as simple an action as putting the subtitles on a Netflix film or cable channel.
In Welch’s presentation, she detailed that these theatrical methods of demonstrating international terms and themes allowed for a sense of unity and harmony in the interpretations of the entertainment. The early modern period teaches us, she believes, that from these diplomatic performances, negotiation is apparent through the varying degrees of interpretation addressing the ambiguity of these stories.
“The main difference between the early modern period and now,” Welch said, “is that today’s diplomatic of theatre arrives fully interpreted for us, transparently legible. There’s not much ambiguity in a state dinner where Mario Batali [an American chef] cooks pasta at the White House for the Italian Prime Minister, or when the United State’s best immigrant comedians help the Obamas to welcome Justin Trudeau. But even these not too subtle diplomatic spectacles seem to be about the meaning.”
It is the ambiguity and the less transparency that audiences of art are missing out on now, Welch emphasized, which brings about a lack of unity and artistic themes across the world. Now, rather, she said, entertainment is specific to nations, regions and societies, in order to tackle this uncertainty of meaning or avoid the process of interpretation.
When I inquired to Welch about the simplicity of translation today, and how the lack thereof is causing a waning sense of audience unity, she said that to put translation into a modern context, the equal to those early modern French and Spanish diplomatic performances today would be the state dinners.
Another example, Welch said, was modern diplomats thoughtfully and carefully choosing their designers based on backgrounds and specific themes relating to the purpose of their outfit.
“These kinds of theatrical gestures are seen as irrelevant to real diplomacy. Whereas in the early modern period these entertainments [of costume and dress] were performing a function. They were subtly suggesting plans or visions for what the international community could look like. But also being usefully vague or ambivalent enough that everyone could find something in that to work with,” said Welch.
Nowadays, one would very rarely think to connect the performing arts with diplomacy and international relations, considering the shift in theatre from this form of negotiation, nation relations and ambiguity, to a reflection or representation of societal aspects including fears, dreams, wants and needs.
From this presentation, Welch discussed the merging of politics and art and emphasized the purpose of their creation within contemporary and 16th century societies around the world. Welch articulated the concept that once again, it is possible that “art could serve as a starting place or as a facilitator” in diplomatic conversations. The extent to which it already impacts society today could grow within our modern notions of entertainment and everyday lives.