Ellen MacKay

Ellen MacKay

Associate Professor, English

  • emackay@indiana.edu
  • (812) 855-9536
  • Ballantine Hall 462
  • Office Hours
    By Appointment Only


  • Ph.D., awarded with distinction, Columbia University, 2003
  • M. Phil., Columbia University, 1999
  • Graduate Certificate, Columbia Institute for Research on Women and Gender, 1999
  • M.A., Columbia University, 1996
  • B.A., Barnard College, 1994


I work and write in two overlapping fields: early modern English drama and public culture (including sermons, royal entries, ballads, mayoral pageants, beast baitings, polemics, satires and feuds) and Western theatre and performance, from the Greeks to the present. My approach to the Shakespearean stage is driven by the epistemological problems that the theatre poses to a culture eager to draw a clear line between artifice and authenticity. I tend to focus on phenomena that don't sit easily within the counterfeit world of a play, such as onstage animals, gunfire, nudity, stuttering, and pyrotechnics. In my first book, Persecution, Plague and Fire, I argue that the disasters let loose from the realm of theatrical action (most famously the fire that consumed the Globe in 1613) are illustrations of an early modern philosophy of the stage that anticipates a key tenet of performance studies: that performance "becomes itself through disappearance" (Peggy Phelan, Unmarked). Rather more daunting is the correlative proposition, well evidenced in the perplexed discourse of 16th century theatre history, that performance disappears the epochs in which it triumphs.

My second book turns treats the flip side of this apocalypticism. In The Implausible History of the Sea Spectacle, from Nero to Wagner, I take on the persistence of a theatrical form that is, evidentially speaking, highly suspect. My object is to answer two questions: what can criticism say about an irrational entertainment, and what can history do with an event whose occurrence is impossible to ascertain? By bringing together such disparate and questionable occasions as the amphitheatrical naumachiae described by Martial, the water pageants presented for Elizabeth I, Henry II, Catherine of Medici and Samuel de Champlain, Enlightenment electric eel demonstrations and the descent of William Beebe into the Atlantic deep, I hope to make the case for performance as a mode of experience whose ephemerality is counterbalanced by the hold it maintains on the popular mentalité.

While questioning the importance of actuality in theatre history, I have been drawn to the Digital Humanities and to the virtual as a paradigm for a new historiography that privileges the power of feeling over the matter of fact.

My teaching intervenes in these questions, as well as in the following disciplinary discourses: historiography, phenomenology, affect studies, gender studies, social and theological history, Commonwealth studies (I am a Canadian American), and the philosophy of aesthetics.

Beyond the University, I am the resident dramaturg and director of educational outreach for Cardinal Stage.

Journal Articles and Other Publications

"The Monkey Wrench in The Busie Body," Approaches to Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Ed. Catherine Burroughs and Bonnie Nelson. Modern Language Association, 2010.

"Against Plausibility," Theatre Historiography: Critical Questions. Ed. Henry Bial and Scott Magelssen. University of Michigan Press, 2010.

"The Specter of Straight Shakespeare," reprint, Canadian Shakespeare. Ed. Susan Knutson for the series, “Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English.” Ed. Ric Knowles, Playwrights Canada, 2010.

"The Theatre as a Self-Consuming Art," Theatre Survey 49:1 (May 2008): 91-107.

"Toward a New Theatre History of Dionysus," Theatre History Studies 26 (2006): 71-87. Recipient of the Robert Schanke Award; Nominated for the ATHE 2007 essay in criticism prize and the 2007 Gerald Kahan Scholar's Prize of the American Society of Theatre Research (ASTR).

"Fantasies of Origin: Staging the Birth of the Canadian Stage," Canadian Theatre Review 114 (Spring 2003): 11-15.

"The Specter of Straight Shakespeare," Canadian Theatre Review 111 (Summer 2002): 10-14.

"Auditioning for the Role of a Lifetime: Performing Self-Translation at the I.N.S.," Canadian Theatre Review (Spring 2000): 20-24. Nominated for the 2001 Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) essay in criticism prize.

Selected Talks:

"Collections of Nothing: When Performance Goes Into the Blue," plenary talk at "Collections and Collaborations," Indiana University, March 23-25, 2011.

"On Movingness: The Germ of Early Modern English Performance," the opening talk at "Phenomenal Performances: Getting a Feeling for Shakespeare's Theater," Northwestern University, April 30-May 2, 2009.

"Submersive Spectacles," Yale University Medieval & Renaissance Studies Colloquium, April 11, 2008.

"Whither Renaissance Studies?," Roundtable Organizer, Chair, and Discussant, opening session for the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Philadelphia, November 20, 2008.

"The Naumachia and the Limits of Historical Knowledge," Cornell Society for the Humanities, January 24, 2007.

"The Theatre as an Assassin's Bullet," Modern Language Association, Philadelphia, December 28, 2006.

"The Monkey Wrench in The Busie Body," Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies, San Antonio, TX, December 3, 2005.

Fellowships and Grants:
  • IU Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities Fellowship, 2010–2012.
  • Trustees Teaching Award, Indiana University, 2010 & 2004.
  • Cornell University Society for the Humanities Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2006-2007.
  • Indiana University Grant in Aid of Research, Summer 2005.
  • Indiana University Summer Faculty Fellowship, 2004.