June 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
My chief scholarly area of interest is performance of early modern English drama, i.e. the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As a theatre historian I am also interested in the conditions under which the drama was originally performed, but for their contemporary applications and not some form of historical purity. Indeed, thinking about it recently I realized that in a lifetime of attending Shakespeare live I have never seen a production that so much as attempted an historically correct (whatever that might mean) re-creation, and aside from a few Zeffirelli movie versions can’t even remember anything set in period, without any lack of enjoyment.
My interest then, is not as a purist, but I confess to a fascination with the issue of how modern productions should interpret, extend and/or adapt the written drama. Are the plays ultimately flexible, i.e. tolerant of any and all performance choices, or are there some boundaries – limits to how far they can stretch without breaking? If the latter, what elements of the plays are the source of their enduring power, therefore vitally important?
The great test case is Pericles – the textually troubled step-child of the canon. The play is Shakespeare’s retelling an ancient folktale about a prince’s odyssey around the Mediterranean in search of his lost wife and daughter. Co-written late in his career this “romance” (in the medieval sense of a journey or quest through a partially supernatural landscape) was never published in an authoritative edition so, even more than with the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no definitive script. It has to be “completed.”
That used to be thought such a drawback that the play was rarely produced, but lately it has become one of the chief appeals of the work. To say that Mark Wing-Davey’s relentlessly eclectic adaptation for eight versatile actors at the Berkeley Rep earlier this spring was less a production of, than a riff on, Pericles just means that it was right in vogue. Wing-Davey’s fame rests on his recontextualizing his texts, and this production confirmed his commitment to the bit. Scene after scene revealed wonderful, unanticipated references ranging from a king costumed like an Assyrian relief as channeled by Klimpt to a wicked stepmother who just stepped out of Sunset Boulevard. But however brilliantly matched this director seemed to be to the task, the production didn’t quite come together – for very instructive reasons.
Although often amusing, his strategy was not always illuminating because Wing-Davey seemed to be placing his considerable invention in service of recontextualizing not the play as a whole, but each individual scene. Occasionally, it appeared, even individual lines. The cumulative effect was too many signifiers without much being signified.
The scenes located in an Italian brothel (already relocated from the text’s Mytilene) into which Pericles’ lost daughter is sold, for example, were inexplicably played using broad Lucy-and-Ricky Cuban accents and comic stereotypes. Pericles was clearly on a wide-ranging odyssey, but his trip seemed less a Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey and more like a mashup of Hope-Crosby road movies.
This worked best in a long first act sequence in which the hero, Pericles, entered a tournament where the jousting knights were introduced with classical mottoes but individually materialized (after rapid fire costume changes by the tiny cast) in such whimsical guises as Napoleon and then Batman. After winning the tournament, Pericles proved himself not just the bravest knight but also the most graceful dancer with a decent Justin Timberlake imitation, and then shyly wooed his intended bride at a “crowded,” but literally faceless, banquet created by just four actors playing the throng in triple-wide costumes with extra heads.
We got a glimpse of the process that must have led to the energetic and frequently engaging outcome from the almost defensive playbill that had no less than three separate essays extolling adaptation, including a double page spread about the director’s unconventional rehearsal process. The production was obviously remarkably fluid until quite a late date as the printed program stated it would be performed in ninety minutes without an intermission. It actually ran a full hour longer, not counting the fifteen-minute interval that resulted from a decision clearly reached after the copy deadline.
David Barlow was a convincing Pericles as both a young man, and – after the intermission – a middle aged father. Jessica Kitchens, doubling as the wicked step-mother character Dionyza and Pericles’ faithful wife Thaïsa, exhibited extraordinary range. Annapurna Sriram was affecting as Marina in the “recognition scene,” but only after we had seen her struggle through a couple of bit parts and the most of the rest of her central role. The big name in the cast was Anita Carey who was wasted as a pedestrian Gower. No one in the small ensemble cast made the anticipated impact, because of the expedient decision to edit the number of roles in the play down from roughly 45 to about 15. The expected excitement of watching a small cast tackle this huge sprawling piece with theatrical cunning never materialized, because the directorial decisions eviscerated the script – often (it seemed) precisely to keep the challenge to a mundanely manageable size.
In comparison to last year’s off-Broadway breakout hit Cymbeline by the Fiasco Theater, which used just six actors to tackle an even more convoluted romance, Pericles seemed over-designed and under-”dramaturged.” Fiasco stripped the scenery down to a single (but astonishingly tricky) trunk, and let a cast of six play some fifty roles – often delightfully performing two or three simultaneously. By contrast, Berkeley Rep’s production placed all their bets on spectacle and then constrained the cast in ways that undervalued and under-challenged them.
Scenic designer Douglas Stein constructed a variable and eclectic environment around a huge industrial winch that was used to slight purpose several times early in the play. The pay-off was supposed to be the mystical appearance of Diana in a vision to direct Pericles to the location of his long-lost wife. Oddly, however, when the time came to lower Diana in, the moment was played for comedy. Ridiculing the hoary plot device of the deus ex machine makes some sense, especially when it is so literary a god in a machine, but not when you’ve built the entire production around the physical device delivering it. The outcome read as a poorly executed stage effect rather than any kind of commentary. Meg Neville’s clever costumes fared better, but worked as contemporary commentary on individual characters more than as a unified design.
None of those shortcomings might have made the slightest difference had the story proved compelling, but when the chips were down the old prejudices about the play seemed to have surfaced. Too little faith in the script led to wholesale cutting of the subplots, great and small.
Before the intermission, the chief loss was due to the elimination of Dionyza’s hapless husband Cleon, who serves to push back against her machinations. Incorporating a selection of his lines, she became a more complex and introspective figure, but her Hollywood inspired interiority needed the visual amplification of film to remain interesting once all the actual plotting – both Shakespeare’s and hers – was gone. She was ready for her close-up, but with no Mr. DeMille to deliver it, the narrative ground to a halt.
In the play’s second half, however, the injury was greater. The text places Pericles’ long lost daughter in a brothel in Mytilene where her literally fabulous virtue convinces the town’s governor to reform his licentious ways and ultimately marry her. This production abandoned the latter half of the formula so following his hasty repentance the Governor just disappeared.
After a moving reunion with his daughter in the play’s most famous (and indestructible) scene, and a less emotional, therefore anti-climactic, restoration of the wife Pericles had presumed dead, we arrived at what should have been the triumphant finale of the play. When it came it was, in fact, little more than a ragged tableau. At the end of our journey we were deprived of the wedding that traditionally ends comedies and romances. Instead, the family seemed pointlessly reunited – beautifully posed like refugees from The Grapes of Wrath, but without direction or beckoning future.
Granted the text we have for Pericles is clearly deficient. On a line-for-line basis it undoubtedly needs intervention. Structurally, however, the skeleton that made it Shakespeare’s greatest success during his lifetime is probably preserved even if the exact words are not, and woe to those who ignore it. All those improbable digressions and repetitive subplots turn out to serve a purpose.
What can we conclude from this particular example? I assert that it tells us actors and directors may have a lot of leeway in interpreting, completing, even extending, Shakespeare’s vision, but at least we have established that undercutting his narrative is tricky territory.
June 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Why does Shakespeare use verse so extensively in his plays? Why, in fact, do almost all playwrights before the twentieth century?
The conventional wisdom, which I think is wrong, is that verse is the best medium for aesthetically beautiful speaking and/or that it is easier to memorize. Both seem theatrically unlikely explanations to me.
Speaking “beautifully” was not widely admired, or even possible, until after the advent of dimmed indoor lighting in the nineteenth century, which hushed audiences for the first time. Before then, it was powerful voices that could make themselves heard over the crowd and command its attention that were admired. Verse does not help that.
Verse is somewhat easier to memorize but not enough to justify the substantial effort it takes for the playwright to create it. Besides, the convenience of the actors has never been a noticeable consideration in the construction of plays.
Verse does accomplish something theatrically useful, but because we now live in a visual culture, it seems counter-intuitive. Verse is actually easier to hear and understand. In addition to content clues, we also get clues about what is being said from rhythm and (when it occurs) rhyme. In an oral/aural culture, greater communicative power is an advantage worth the trouble that versification requires.
Joss Whedon’s new film version of Much Ado About Nothing, which I reviewed at greater length in a previous post, got me thinking about this again. The performances in it are stripped of all conventions regarding “beautiful” Shakespeare, but there is a ferocious intensity around conveying the narrative. See it, or should I say listen to it, if you want to hear what verse is for.
June 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
If you sit through even one round of amateur auditions for a Shakespeare play, you will quickly learn that Americans have an almost reflexive assumption that the “right” way to perform the Bard is not only in the King’s English but in high rhetorical style as well. Why would they not? Almost all Shakespeare to which they are exposed on big or little screens confirms this image. It does not matter that their teachers tell them Shakespeare didn’t sound that way, (you can hear what he did sound like in this YouTube), or that the acting style they are imitating was developed for the two-thousand+ seats of auditoriums in another era, when pop culture instructs them otherwise.
Now, however, the cast of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing gives the most unaffected performance of a Shakespeare play ever put on film. For those of fascinated by such issues, the success of this new release might finally reorient the suppositions about the stylistically “correct” conventions for performing Shakespeare.
Whedon’s take on this early comedy is a modern-dress production filmed in his Santa Barbara home over a two-week break in post-production for The Avengers. For a version of the play so aggressively reset visually, it is a remarkably faithful rendering of the play. Far from being an adaptation “based” on Shakespeare, the script is cut lightly and its content almost completely unchanged.* That is, the performance style is not achieved by wholesale rewriting Shakespeare, a lá 10 Things I Hate About You or She’s the Man.
Given the direct simplicity of the performance style, how do they handle the language? For the most part, exceedingly well, but without any displays of technique or stage mannerisms that telegraph the complexity of what they are doing. Compared to Kenneth Branaugh’s delightful, but veddy Britished-up, film of the same play, it is thoroughly American and remarkably understated. No British accents, no grand old men of the English theatre in cameos, and most of all no “beautiful speaking.”
At the core of the film is Amy Acker’s astonishing performance as Beatrice. She delivers an emotionally honest and vulnerable performance as Benedick’s once and future love. While climbing to comic heights for Beatrice’s farcical reaction after overhearing gossip of Benedick’s supposed infatuation with her, (“What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?”), her performance largely relies on darker notes. Her sense of humor is defensively brittle from the outset. Later, her fierce anger at the betrayal of her cousin, and her confrontations with men responsible (including Hero’s own father), are delivered without any softening concession to humor at all.
Alexis Denisof gives us a less emotionally complicated Benedick, but to the degree that his performance is relying on precedents it is inspired by screwball comedies and not Shakespearean theatrics. For example, he willingly throws away Benedick’s famous kicker that he will allow God to choose his wife’s hair color after a long list of “must have” perfections he imposes. Winking and nudging are unnecessary, however, after completing the entire monologue while running stair laps in his sweat clothes. We already understand Benedick’s vanity. Denisof has taken some critical heat for not matching Acker’s depth, most of it completely overlooking that the subject of Much Ado is male immaturity.
Fran Kranz as the callow Claudio makes much of the young man’s overconsumption of alcohol early in the film as explanation for his character’s adolescent fit of jealousy toward Don Pedro, whose wooing of Hero on his behalf he mistakes for (to use a term he might well employ) “cockblocking.” Claudio’s later rejection of Hero is not intended to be sympathetic, but in this case it is thoroughly believable – even in a modern context – because Kranz has already shown us the young man’s insecurity. He gets Claudio’s teary repentance at the end so right, with such honesty, that the bizarreness of the words he is given to express it passes unnoticed.
Jillian Morgese does not quite keep pace as the spurned love interest, Hero, but she does not drown the role in clichéd signifiers of girlishness either, as is common. (Whedon’s great directorial touch was allowing the character to watch Claudio’s rite of penitence. Her seeing Claudio’s atonement goes a long way to justifying her reconciliation with him in the end, which is often a mystery in itself.)
The revelation in this film is Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. If you have Michael Keaton’s interpretation in mind from the Branaugh version, then you might think of this as a character straight out of Monty Python which can only be saved with laying it on as thick as possible. Fillion goes the opposite route. He plays, indeed underplays, the role straight. He delivers the relentless stream of malapropism without a single indication they might be jokes, which is what makes them hilarious. Once Conrad has called him an “ass,” he fixates on that insult with the genuine pain of a man who cannot let a slight go. For once the humor seems organic and not pasted on.
In sum, the entire cast performs this script as if it was fresh from the writer’s room. They deliver it with amazing reverence for the words and images, but stylistically they act like their jobs are not to perform Shakespeare the way you “perform” Shakespeare, but the way you act for the camera. The conventional wisdom is that successful film actors are those who affect a complete lack of affectation the best, but however artificial that style is in its own way, it works wonders to freshen Shakespeare here. In this case, it erases all the condescension and all the cultural imperialism with which Shakespeare is usually loaded and let’s us concentrate on the narrative.**
Nowhere in the film is this as highlighted as it is in what is traditionally known as the “Chapel Scene.” Benedick impatiently chooses the evening after Claudio’s ruthless rejection of Hero at the altar as the time to declare his love for Beatrice. She, in turn, uses the moment to enlist a champion to challenge Claudio and stand up to the complicit Don Pedro. The scene contains the most notoriously difficult line in the play. When Benedick asks Beatrice to name any task by which he might prove his love she answers simply, but with about five levels of complexity, “Kill Claudio.” Frequently, this line gets a “bad laugh” and the play slips away. In Acker and Denisof’s hands, it plays like something out of their old partnership on Angel. It is hard to believe that Whedon did not add the scene. It seems so Whedonesque. Perhaps Shakespeare can still be out contemporary.
*The average stage production of Much Ado is far more edited than Whedon’s version. The only substantial changes introduced are one piece of genderblind casting, rewording of Benedick’s anti-Semitic quip, and the placing of Hero at her own memorial service. Surprisingly, Claudio’s casually racist remark is retained with the usual cringing taking place onscreen instead of in the audience – to hilarious effect.
**For a dissenting view, see Jason Michelich’s review for Wired, which proposes the whole point of film is to get over narrative and get on with auteurs creating as much aut as possible, a lá Terrence Malick.
May 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
After my posting yesterday, an astute reader brought my attention to this story from the New York Times about the release of another Sonnet app.
It is free, so I downloaded it last night and gave it a listen. There is not that much in place yet, as the series is just beginning. Only two of the 154 sonnets were up and running last night. This app is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Touch Press app – containing no notes or even texts. It appears to be just a series of short films.
The great strength of this project is that it is performed by Americans in undisguised American dialects. While I love the Touch Press app, it is relentlessly Anglocentric. One of the startling things about Ben Crystal’s original pronunciation performances on it, which I mentioned were my favorites, is how unBritish they sound. American students rarely get to hear good Shakespeare in their own dialects, although many of them (especially Southern ones) are actually closer to an authentic sound. This new app looks like it might champion the verse without resorting to “The King’s English.”
May 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
Today (May 20) is the anniversary of the date in 1609 when Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published – probably without his cooperation or approval. They remain the most enigmatic part of his output. That he did not intend them for the general public is quite understandable if the prevailing wisdom about them is correct. At least in the order we have received them they read as if telling the story of a middle-aged man getting caught up in a love triangle with a younger male lover and a “dark” mistress, while struggling for professional recognition and patronage in competition with a rival poet. They seem so personal, even autobiographical, that they are appear to be our closest link to Shakespeare, himself.
Of course, scholars have reminded us for some time that the autobiographic assumption is a very dangerous one. There is no direct evidence for it, and it would be uncharacteristic of Shakespeare (and, indeed, of most of his contemporaries) to seek to reveal himself in such a manner. He is, after all, the master of disappearing into his characters. With that caveat, I confess I am among those inclined to read and re-read them because I cannot image how anyone could be so precisely revelatory without having experienced the expressed emotions directly.
To celebrate the day, here is a favorite rendering of Sonnet 29 (from YouTube.)
My preferred tool for studying the sonnets is Touch Press’ Sonnets for the iPad. (I have no connection or financial interest in this product. I just like it, so I have supplied the link to their home page.) This wonderful app allows you to watch a reading of a sonnet by a top British actor, while simultaneously consulting the text in modern typeface or viewing a facsimile page from the 1609 edition. My favorite performances are Ben Crystal’s original pronunciation renderings, the sound of which is very illuminating, but there are many other outstanding performances from such luminaries as Stephen Fry, Patrick Stewart and Fiona Shaw.
There are not one, but two, sets of marvelous notes included – the first from the Arden edition and the second from the controversial, infuriating, endlessly-fascinating Don Paterson. I find myself returning to this app with regularity for both enlightenment and entertainment.
September 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
Since Norman Rabkin’s 1981 article, “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,” it has been a commonly accepted view that Henry V is a play which contains a deep dichotomy. Rabkin invoked the analogy of a famous optical illusion, the Rabbit/Duck, to argue that the play contains two almost opposite readings that co-exist at all times but no matter how great the effort, one can only see it one way at a time. The play is either a rabbit – elevating Henry into “the mirror of all Christian kings” – or a duck – portraying the king as a ruthless, duplicitous manipulator. (Of course, the assignment of rabbit or duck could be reversed, but Rabkin’s argument is that in performance he is always one or the other, never a dabbit, never a ruck.)
Even scholars who are not fond of the infelicity of Rabkin’s essay, of which there are many, tend to accept its premise. Critical agreement suggests that both Olivier and Branaugh created rabbits on film, while Michael Bagdanov’s stage version from the 1980s (easily found in its entirely on YouTube) is the archetypal antiheroic duck.
I recently took in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s “Free Shakespeare in the Park” production, reset to the general period of World War I, (albeit with enough deliberate anachronisms – ranging from a huge reproduction of the WWII “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster to optic yellow tennis balls – to keep it vague) under the insightful direction of Kenneth Kelleher.
Craig Marker’s superb performance as Henry successfully dislodged the rabbit/duck cliché in a manner both simple and direct. His young king begins his journey as an overconfident, but naïve, new monarch itching to prove himself. Flattered by both church(men) and state(smen) he quickly embarks on his campaign to conquer France and claim its crown. His ego swells when he providentially uncovers a plot against his life and discovers that he literally commands men’s fates with a word. For the first act he quacked like a duck, callow at best and possibly downright Machiavellian. Much of the local critical response has pegged him as such throughout. (Robert Hurwitt, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, thought him “conflicted” and “confused,” but read the production as propagandistically anti-war.)
Marker’s performance is far more nuanced than that, however. In Kelleher’s smart staging, things begin going south on his plans almost immediately on his arrival in France. The siege of Harfleur does not go well and the set piece, “Once more into the breach,” had an edge of desperation about it, absolutely justified since this production got right (for the first time in my experience) that his troops did not immediately overrun the walls. Instead a standoff ensues. Henry’s desperate bluff that the Governor of Harfleur unconditionally surrender lest he turn his army loose to rape, pillage and slaughter the innocents (a speech that is often completely omitted in rabbit productions) turned even darker than usual when, clearly “losing it,” he held a cocked gun to the head of a captured, unarmed peasant girl. His threat to summarily execute her in front of the governor was chilling and effective. Immediately after, however, Marker’s Henry began a long, slow climb toward self-knowledge. His actions had horrified him, and he collapsed. The order that his Uncle Exeter should occupy the city on his behalf when the gates are opened is usually played as anxiously wanting to press forward. Here Marker seemed to interpret the speech as a desperate desire to (literally) distance himself from his actions as quickly as possible.
For the rest of the war Henry learns the hard way the costs of battle. He is frightened for his men. Although he starts out far from a “brother” in this band, each encounter forces him to deal with the realities of his choices, particularly effectively in his early morning encounter (just before the impending battle of Agincourt in which they are vastly outnumbered) with Sean Robert Garahan’s excellent Williams. (The subsequent “quarrel” sub-plot was cut, which helped move the plot along briskly but deprived us of the opportunity to see this fine young actor develop the character fully.)
Henry is inspirational not out of inherent heroism, but from a growing assumption of moral responsibility to get his men out of the situation alive in which he has placed them. His order to kill the French prisoners, another speech often omitted in rabbit productions because it amounts to a war crime, was not glossed as panic but came across as his making the unavoidable decision so that his men did not have to do so.
Marker was at his best in his last exchange with the French herald. It is the scene in which Henry feebly confesses that, in the fog of war, he does not know if he has won the battle or not. When the herald told this Henry that he was not there to demand ransom again, but to surrender, Marker’s character burst into tears of relief.
Although Marker dominated the production, as his character does the text, he was not the only actor of note. The company was comprised of a mixture of experienced professionals and younger actors. The unevenness occasionally showed but did not misbalance the production. Michelle Delattre’s supporting contributions as the French Princess’ lady-in-waiting Alice, and Mistress Quickly were of Marker’s caliber, and her versatility especially shone through when employing her Celtic-style singing to effect transitions. (Newcomer Barnaby James also deployed a beautiful tenor similarly, and held his own in the minor roles of Bedford and Orleans.) Maggie Mason doubling as Princess Katherine and Falstaff’s former page, known only as Boy, showed a deft, dry wit.
The comedic scenes featuring Falstaff’s old pals transplanted from Eastcheap into the war were less effective, often coming off as somewhere between contrived and condescending, although Jack Powell and Michael Ray Wisely did wring genuine pathos out of Bardolph and Pistol’s final moments.
The role of Chorus, often a bravura part, was divided among the company, reducing its impact considerably. Some famous passages soared, but the focus lay elsewhere for most of this simply costumed and designed production. In the end, it was Marker’s performance that proved revelatory.
When reading the text, I have often found Rabkin’s argument to be true, because the experience of reading is totalizing. Henry is heroic or Machiavellian (but not both at once) because the script adds up one way or the other. In performance, however, things unfold over time. Marker’s duck started a fight for all the wrong reasons and then grew into hard won rabbithood – more a product of humility than heroism when it came. It was the first time I have ever believed a Henry truly thought the victory was due to the benevolence of his deity, and not because it was his birthright or his leadership. Dabbits exist, after all.
September 16, 2012 § 12 Comments
In graduate school during the early 80s I stage-managed a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that exploited the now notorious silence of Isabella in the face of the Duke’s proposal of marriage at the end of the play in what was then a novel way.
The director (Jack Clay) allowed the actress playing Isabella to either accept or reject the offer nightly at her own whim. Two entirely different endings employing elaborate stagings – one that suggested a return to the nunnery and the other preparation for a wedding – using alternative lighting cues, separate blocking, and even different supporting characters, were prepared. It was my duty nightly to coordinate with Isabella (via a secretive signal delivered from the stage about five minutes from the last lines of the show) and then get the entire technical crew and waiting cast prepared to execute the chosen ending, which was not divulged to the Duke or other onstage characters in advance. The dramatic tension was quite real as they awaited her decision.
Thus did I learn in a stunningly concrete way how ambiguous such endings are. Before the advent of computer boards, the five minutes of mad scrambling to warn a supporting cast and repatch a new set of lighting cues for the nights on which she rejected the Duke remind me that very different readings are possible even if they are unconventional.
Since those days the exploration of alternative readings of female silences in the ending of Shakespearean drama has become commonplace in criticism, and even in production – although rarely in the performance-by-performance mode Clay’s production employed.
Convention is very powerful, however. Thirty years later, I was still not prepared when viewing a recent production of Othello* directed by Steve Bologna for a radical re-reading of the ending of the play which explored male, specifically Iago’s, silence. In the text, after his capture Othello stabs him in revenge, but Iago tells us he is merely wounded. “I bleed, sir, but not killed.” A dozen or so lines later, lest we miss that his silence is intentional, the playwright give him this last line: “Demand me nothing. What you know you know./From this time forth I never will speak word.”
This production marched through the 70 lines of the play following Iago’s speech orthodoxly, including Othello’s death, up to and including the final instruction that the Lord Governor may “censure this hellish villain” when and as he pleases. The stage cleared leaving Iago alone with his two (sadistic-looking) guards.
To my surprise, he calmly rose and removed from his pocket a small volume of Machiavelli that he had carried (and frequently referenced) throughout the night. Opening it, in what was surely intended to be read metaphorically as well as literally, we saw that the middle of the book had been hollowed out and was now stuffed with gold coins from which he coolly bribed his guards – who took their money and departed, leaving him a free man. He began to walk away, but after a brief pause, he turned back and crossed to the bed where the bodies of Emilia, Desdemona and Othello had been covered with a large crimson sheet. The actor playing Iago picked up the corner of the covering, and wrapped himself luxuriously in it as he fully exited, slowly revealing the hideously distorted corpses left behind beginning to stiffen with rigor mortis.
This was a modern-dress production that suggested the warfare in the play is an analogy for current class warfare, with more than a little suspicion that the disproportional ill effects on a younger generation are intentional. (It is probably worth noting that the recent economic crisis has hit California, and particularly its higher education systems, especially hard.) With a grim pessimism, the last image implied that contemporary Machiavellians are “winning,” ruthlessly stripping everything (even life) from women and ethnic “others,” and getting away with it.
My intent is neither to defend nor attack this reading, but to remember that most Shakespearean plays have endings with less closure than is conventionally believed. (I’m no exception. So strongly did I believe that Iago dies, I had to recheck my handy Norton to be sure that no textual manipulation was involved. I’ve certainly never seen another production that did not at least imply his imminent execution.)
My take-away: Much as I love Shakespeare’s words, interpreting his silences is still also a fascinating, and rewarding, exercise.
*Disclaimer: Although I had no direct connection with this production, it was a thesis project at the university where I now teach. My comments are meant to capture the intellectual stimulation of the specific reading of Iago’s silence without implying critical judgment about the production in any manner.
August 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
This startling statement is one of the first dramaturgical corrections I ever received about early modern performance, and one that I have heard often since. It is also one that infuriates my acting colleagues, appalled at the instruction to “just say the words.” Some time ago, on a forum with both literary and theatrical scholars as members, I attempted to explain why both sides of this debate were partially correct, and what each side was trying to communicate. Requests for this short piece of “translation” have continued to pop up over the years from people who remembered reading it but could not find it again. For those intrigued by the subject, here it is again in slightly modified form:
Shakespeare and Subtext
Theories of subtext date from the Russian schools of acting at the turn of the century, especially relating to training about how to perform Chekhov. Scattered throughout his major plays are scenes where the text (i.e.,. the dialogue) is at odds with other non-verbal (i.e.,. subtextual) aspects of the scene. A simple example might be the scene near the end of Three Sisters where Tusenbach holds a very trivial conversation with his fiancé Irina about coffee and a few items on his desk. The scene is utterly incomprehensible if you don’t know that Tusenbach is on his way to fight a duel that he suspects (correctly, as it turns out) he will not survive. This fact is never mentioned in the scene, and no reference is ever made to the reason that Tusenbach utters such banalities instead of telling his love goodbye, perhaps forever. We are left to conclude from his behavior and manner of delivery that his words have very little to do with the main plot interest at that moment. Commonly, we read into his psychology that he is unwilling or unable to utter the words out loud because he is unable to face his coming death.
As an acting teacher I have to help students learn to do something rather sophisticated and difficult when they face this kind of material, which is make the plot point clear by undercutting the dialogue and filling in with much “behavior.” To fail to do so in Chekhov is to render the play meaningless. In this usage, subtext doesn’t mean that the actor is feeling some parallel emotion or motivation for the speech. It doesn’t even mean that the actor is feeling something different than words are expressing. Characters do this throughout Shakespeare, as when Juliet pretends to agree with the Nurse about dumping the exiled Romeo in favor of Paris, or more subtly when Hermione delivers her moving trial speech in Winter’s Tale.
Sub-text (in the sense that it I am proposing, which is how it is used in actor training) means that there is an essential plot point in the scene that is not directly expressed or referenced in the dialogue. Audience members must infer this plot point by interpreting the non-verbal behaviors of the actors, even at times when their words explicitly contradict the underlying point. This dramatic technique is very common in Twentieth Century drama, and learning to play these behaviors is an essential acting skill.
The problem is that this skill has also proven useful in cases where there is no underlying plot point, but the text is minimal or banal (like, for example, much daytime soap opera writing for television). Some actors are now used to “filling in” with interesting bits of their own invention on almost all occasions.
The firm pronouncement that there is no subtext in Shakespeare pops up occasionally, almost always in connection with trying to put a stop to the indiscriminate use of this modernist acting technique in early-modern drama. “All you need to do,” actors are told, “is say the words.” To suggest that Shakespeare’s characters ALWAYS say exactly what they mean with no irony or sarcasm or intent to deceive is ludicrous. To suggest that actors do not need to feel and perform the inner lives of the characters is theatrically ignorant. It is sound advice to the inexperienced actor, however, to say the plot lines of the scenes are rarely, if ever, rendered totally below the level of dialogue in early modern drama. When the text is strong, invented subtext is unnecessary.
Shakespeare’s characters have inner lives, and occasionally they say something different from what we know they think. Playing both is important. The advice to avoid sub-text in pre-modern literature really just means, “don’t muck up the plot with invented stuff.”
August 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
There is a very funny video, “Stuff People at a Shakespeare Festival Say” going around, created by Great River Shakespeare Festival. Tabard jokes figure prominently in the beginning, but at around three minutes the scansion jokes pour forth. Of course I laughed, but it got me thinking again about how unfortunate it is that there are so few resources available to those really wanting to learn about scanning poetic meter and applying it on stage.
After many years of frustration at this situation while teaching classes on acting Shakespeare, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create a guide for my students – The Down and Dirty Guide to Scanning Verse. My friend, Edward Isser found room for it on a server at The College of the Holy Cross as part of a teacher’s guide for a larger project, for which I am very grateful. These days it gets a lot of hits because the Internet Public Library (http://www.ipl.org/) provided a link from its Shakespeare resources.
Because the basic rules are simple and easy to master, I thought I’d repost a link here also, to encourage the curious to give it a go. Happy scanning!
July 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I don’t know exactly when I became a Shakespeare geek. I can’t recall a specific life-changing moment like some of my friends who saw an indelible performance or fell in love with a perfect passage in English class. But I DOknow when I first realized that it had happened.
It was fall 1978, and I was browsing in a local independent bookstore. (Back then such things still existed.) My eyes fell on A.L. Rowse’s just released, three-volume annotated Shakespeare.
I was entranced. It was something I just felt I HADto have. Compared to any book I had ever purchased it was stunningly expensive, far beyond my means as a student. Still, just leafing through it seemed a revelation on every heavily illustrated and annotated page. How was I going to become an actor and a director without it?
For weeks I was too embarrassed to mention it to my parents, even though persuading them to buy it for me seemed my only practical option. One afternoon while shopping with my mother I somehow concocted a plausible excuse for stopping by the bookstore and (hinting broadly) showed it to her. I wasn’t asking for it, mind you. Just showing off my erudition as a theater major. As casually as possible I lectured my mom on all the reasons this boxed set stood head and shoulders above the cheap editions nearby. The clincher, in my opinion, was that the author didn’t just discuss the plays as literature, although he did plenty of that also. His notes were littered with references to actors, designers and productions. He illuminated the plays in performance!
I knew nothing then of Rowse’s idiosyncrasies, or critical debates. All I knew was that I lived about as far away from live theater as a human could, and yet four hundred years of production history were suddenly available to me – if only I could somehow save up enough money to purchase Rowse’s edition. My mother was not fooled for an instant, I now realize, but she played it with a poker face. This was not the scale of purchase our family made, least of all for something as impractical as books, she said, and left it at that.
On Christmas morning that year, although it was far more extravagant than a usual present in my home, the set was waiting under the tree. Having been taken in by my mother’s act, I was both surprised and thrilled. It was a great gift. Thirty-five years later, I still have it. I still consult it regularly. In the end it was, hands down, the most practical gift I ever received.
The excitement I felt when I first encountered my Rowse is the excitement I still feel when I think about, talk about, see, and most of all teach Shakespeare. My interest is still in how the page and the stage relate to each other. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life to pursue this discussion in extraordinary forums. In the early ’90s I was able to study with the brilliant Lois Potter in an NEH seminar at the Folger Library, and toward the end of the decade had the opportunity to participate in another seminar led by Alan Dessen and Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s founder, Audrey Stanley.
This blog is a continuation of those conversations, and of the excitement I felt when I discovered the richly illustrated Shakespeare volumes so long ago. It is a manifestation of my Bard-based nerdiness. I don’t when I became a Shakespeare geek but I know I still am one.
Welcome to my blog.