The Taming of the Shrew, Cymbeline, and the World Shakespeare Congress

I’m in decompression mode, having spent last week immersed in one of the largest gatherings of Shakespeareans and early modernists on the planet, the World Shakespeare Congress. It’s been an incredible learning experience, and a great chance to catch up on what’s happening in Shakespeare studies–not to mention an opportunity to mingle with the “greats” and catch up with friends and colleagues from around the world. I think most delegates would agree that the exorbitant cost of admission was worth it just for the phenomenal plenary talk by Adrian Lester and Ayanna Thompson.

What’s sticking in my mind this afternoon, however, is not the amazing conversations I had or the cool people I met, but the webs connecting the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, and the issues of intersectional feminism raised for me by participation in the WSC. We must always be allowed to critique the things we love, and that’s what I’m attempting to do here.

The director of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, welcomed us on the first morning of the Congress with a brief history of Shakespeare-commemorative events in Stratford. Highlighting the pale, male, and stale qualities of a 1964 conference committee, Dobson quipped that the current representation was much better–though they were still “working on it”. The room responded with a mix of groans, applause, and chatter. Sarah Olive tweeted:

I have to confess that “working on it” is one of my least favourite institutional euphemisms. It implies that there aren’t scores of people who don’t fit the narrow old, white dude mould ready and waiting to step in if given the opportunity–which is absurd. All it took was a look around the assembled WSC delegates to realise that the old stereotype of an academic as an older gent in elbow patches is on its way out.

And yet, out of seven advertised plenary speakers (not including the “international directors” speaking with Tom Bird on Saturday morning), there were two women and two people of colour–Ayanna Thompson, as a black woman, counts for one in each category, and she wasn’t even speaking on her own. Adrian Lester was amazing, but I would very happily have watched Professor Thompson give a full plenary lecture in her own right. Claire van Kampen, too, shared the stage with Gordon McMullan, who welcomed us to the London portion of the event, and Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music. Following van Kampen’s lecture, the first question was directed at Mark Rylance–who had not participated in the lecture and, to his credit, gracefully deflected attention back to van Kampen. The women and PoC involved in the final discussion between international directors of Shakespeare were framed by and filtered through the chairmanship of Tom Bird, the Globe’s Executive Producer, whose photograph was displayed on the conference website and in the printed programme.

So it seemed fitting, in many ways, to end the week with the final performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe. Taming is one of those plays that make life very difficult for the people who like to argue that Shakespeare was some kind of enormously open-minded and forward-thinking proto-feminist. This particular production, directed by Caroline Byrne, tackled the play’s gender problems partly through a darkened tone, in which Petruchio is portrayed as the sort of “nice guy” that many of us will recognise: he’s friendly and funny and chatty and flirty until you try to say “no” to him, at which point he turns nasty.

The flip-flopping between the genuinely funny and the truly disturbing highlighted the complicity of the audience in Kate’s torture. More than once I found myself laughing, only to stop and realise, “wait, that isn’t funny”. When Petruchio first deployed his famous “Kiss me, Kate”–playing the following line “We’ll be married o’Sunday” as coercive–Hortensio encouraged the audience to join in a chant of “KISS! KISS! KISS!” with him, as Kate herself weighed her options. The audience’s willingness to pressure her into a kiss was genuinely unsettling, especially given that we had just witnessed a scene in which Kate made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with Petruchio.

Interestingly, the production’s figuring of Petruchio’s violent and controlling side contrasted sharply with the presentation of masculine power in the RSC’s Cymbeline, which I had a last-minute opportunity to catch on the second night of the conference (THANK YOU to the previous owner of my ticket, who was generous enough to give it away for free!).

Despite casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King (and making the evil Queen an evil Duke), Melly Still’s production presented a highly sexualised, dystopian view of masculine power, including a number of gratuitous sexual assaults. It seemed to me that Byrne and the Shrew cast largely avoided the presentation of sexual and even physical violence between the two protagonists, choosing instead to represent Petruchio’s psychological abuse of Kate. This choice to abstract the physical side of abuse was, perhaps, a desire to avoid sensationalising. But the production didn’t shy away from the physical effects of Petruchio’s “reign” on Kate herself. It’s the first production I’ve seen that keeps Kate in her increasingly tattered and dirtied wedding clothes throughout the second half, for example, taking Petruchio’s dismissal of the Tailor’s efforts to its logical extreme.

By contrast, Still’s Cymbeline never resisted an opportunity to present sexual violence to the audience. While the Iachimo scene was appropriately disturbing, sexual assault became a shorthand for “danger” in the production as a whole, a lazy way to over-indicate which characters were in control and which were not. Cymbeline’s trousers were removed when she was captured by the Romans, as if it wasn’t already clear that she was in a vulnerable and dangerous situation. Watching from the safe distance of the upper gallery of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I wondered how complicit those sitting in the front rows, mere inches away from Cloten’s assault of Pisania, for example, felt during the performance.

Complicity is the note I’d like to end on here, and the thread linking Shrew, Cymbeline, and the WSC in my mind this afternoon. As much as I am convinced that it is important to be physically present–to be “numbered in the song” as Kate sings in the Globe’s Shrew–to what extent are we complicit in perpetuating, for example, all-male, all-white panels, unbalanced plenary line-ups, and the comfortable notion that “working on it” is enough by our mere attendance? Am I numbered among those chanting “KISS! KISS! KISS!” despite (or because of) my silence, guilty by association? What but our continued, insistent presence can change the demographics of the decision makers? What more should I be doing?


Hamilton & hybridity: a response to Adam Gopnik

I’m taking a break from early modern stuff today to write about a more recent bit of theatre history: the Broadway musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second venture on the Great White Way and the most popular American musical of the year, if not the century. Pitched (reductively) as a “hip-hop musical”, it retells the story of Alexander Hamilton–“The ten-dollar founding father without a father” who “Got a lot farther working a lot harder, / By being a lot smarter”, as the show’s opening number tells us–through an astonishingly complex amalgamation of musical styles, including but certainly not limited to rap and hip-hop. Miranda, as both composer and star, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds of his generation.

Obviously, I’m a fan. But the discourse around Hamilton‘s rise to fame is about much more than musical prowess and progress on Broadway–it’s about the way Americans tell our own histories, and critical responses to the show demonstrate just how fraught that question is. “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, George Washington tells Hamilton before the climactic Battle of Yorktown. In Hamilton, the story of these white historical figures is being told by a deliberately mixed-race cast: Miranda himself plays Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs, a hip-hop artist by trade, plays Thomas Jefferson; Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler; and Reneé Elise Goldsberry plays her sister, Angelica. Musically, thematically, and aesthetically, it’s a kind of fantasy portrayal of the “melting pot” we’re constantly told America is. It’s curious and disturbing, then, that Adam Gopnik’s recent review for the New Yorker ties Hamilton expressly to the white musical history of America in classic Broadway shows such as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. 

Respectfully, Mr. Gopnik, I disagree. In musical theatre terms, Hamilton‘s ancestors are not the American book musicals, but operas and operettas, as Hilton Als writes for the same publication (I think it’s worth noticing here that the New Yorker‘s only black critic to have reviewed the show, did so when the show was Off Broadway, whilst its transition to the Great White Way has been covered by its share of white critics who are able to do so without so much as accidentally mentioning the issue of race’). Hamilton is also more like pre-Showboat Broadway, when shows drew explicitly on popular music, than it is like Camelot. But Gopnik’s article also ignores more recent musical theatre history: Miranda’s work clearly builds on the legacy of Rent (whose closing production also starred Goldsberry), Spring Awakening (which also featured Jonathan Groff in the original cast), and In the Heights (also written by and starring Miranda). In some ways, the rap/recitative and leitmotif that drive its plot draw on the tradition of through-composed megamusicals and “rock operas” like Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, too. Perhaps more importantly, however, Hamilton’s musical influences and its sampling of popular forms run the gamut from jazz and blues to BritPop and Destiny’s Child–there’s a reason Audra McDonald’s recent cover of “Say No to This” as Billie Holiday works so well. Miranda is not the first to attempt this kind of hybridity, but he’s perhaps the first to apply it directly to American Revolutionary history. So trying to tie this achievement down to an all-white, elite, Broadway legacy headlined by South Pacific and My Fair Lady just won’t cut it.

Gopnik’s not the only one to misunderstand this: much of the white press on Hamilton has tried to circumvent or ignore the complex intersections of race, storytelling and American/Broadway history that the show plays with, particularly in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. See, for example, this interview with Chris Hayes of NBC, who manages to talk about Hamilton with Miranda for seven and a half minutes without really talking about the casting, although he euphemistically tells us that Miranda is “re-making our vision of the founding fathers”. And even though Gopnik is quite right to point out some of the contradictions in the casting of Hamilton as an unambiguous hero, his subsequent assertion that the mixed-raced casting of the musical doesn’t change its story is absurd. “Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and the rest of the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) are all played by black, Latino, or Asian-American performers using an African-American musical idiom—and within seconds this seems neither jarring nor even particularly daring: it just makes sense”, he tells us: “Who else and in what other range? “Hamilton” [sic] is about the mutability of identity in American history. The players change, the story stays the same.”

But changing the players always changes the story; that’s why Miranda’s mixed-race casting of white historical figures is so important and so revolutionary. It matters, fundamentally, that the person making this version of American history is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants whose father learned English whilst completing a postdoc. It matters, as Als points out, that, had Miranda’s family stayed in Puerto Rico, they would have been “American citizens [who] cannot vote”. It matters that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of people across America were calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many other black men killed by police officers. It matters, equally, that Hamilton became one of the biggest hits in Broadway history in the same year that millions of others across America denounced #BlackLivesMatter activists as violent thugs or irrelevant shit-disturbers. It matters that Hamilton is the most popular musical of the decade while Beyoncé (but not Bruno Mars) is getting attacked for her Superbowl halftime show. It matters that Hamilton came to Broadway during a presidential election cycle. It matters who gets to tell those stories because when the players change, so does the story. And that, actually, is the fundamental innovation of Hamilton: it shifts the power of narrative in America’s founding mythology.



My Problem with the Wanamaker (maybe)

I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.

Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of  Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.

The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.

Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.

Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.

‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

Research Musings: I thought I’d said ‘no’ to this, but…

How is it–after completing an MA in Staging Shakespeare and vowing up and down that my doctoral thesis would be about something other than this ridiculous monolith we call the Bard–how is it that I’ve ended up writing and reading about Shakespeare basically all the time? He’s inescapable. Even the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton talks an awful lot about Shakespeare.

Since he seems to be following me–or, more accurately, since he takes ‘ubiquitous’ to a whole new level–I have come to begrudgingly accept that I can’t run away from him. It might be impossible; it’s certainly very difficult, and I am just a lowly doctoral candidate without enough real clout to declare to anyone besides my anonymous blog audience that Shakespeare is, objectively speaking, no better at playwriting than his contemporaries. Besides, that terrible, constructed dichotomy of ‘Shakespeare’ and then ‘everyone else’ really gets on my nerves (which is totally an academic turn of phrase). As I pointed out in a recent post here, it makes very little sense to me to go around comparing Shakespeare’s plays to, say, Middleton’s in search of a value judgement on either of their works. That would be like taking Shaw’s Pygmalion and Ibsen’s Ghosts and trying to decide which was the ‘better’ play. Ibsen and Shaw wrote different kinds of plays. Is it useful to compare and contrast them without making an (implicit or explicit) value judgement or pitting their works against each other in some kind of ridiculous battle for supremacy? Absolutely! But why does everyone insist on reminding their readers that the constructed idea of “Shakespeare” would cringe at some of the scenes in The Changeling? Please keep in mind that we’re talking about the man who wrote King John.

(Thinking about it in retrospect, I sort of take that back…it would be better to say that comparing Shakespeare and Middleton is like comparing Shaw to Shaw’s slightly-less-well-known contemporary who was notwithstanding a very good playwright. But I think you can see what I mean. Hopefully.)

I’m starting to think, however, that there might be interesting research to be done around what happens to the relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton over time. It’s probably not a topic unto itself (not yet, anyway, I’m still developing the idea), but it might be worth at least a chapter. How and why did Middleton return to vogue? Why was 2007 the year in which the first Middleton Collected Works was published? What does the 20th-century theatre see in Middleton that the 19th-century theatre didn’t (despite his strong–if Bard-qualified–presence in academia)?


Set Me Free: Notes on a Director’s Note

I always struggle to write director’s notes for the programme. This is what I have so far for Set Me Free. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that The Tempest ‘addresses itself entirely to the imaginative faculty’. In our version of the play, we have sought to imagine ways in which movement and music might substitute for poetry. As a result, the text you will hear tonight serves a storytelling function rather than a poetic one. As Laura discusses below, we’ve cut away a significant amount of Shakespeare’s words and attempted to create The Tempest with bodies in space and with non-verbal sounds as much as possible. This means that certain parts of the play as it is set down in the Folio have been abstracted or obscured, whilst others have been highlighted. We have imagined a world in which a lovely young woman on pointe can play Caliban, Ariel can be comprised of four actors, and Alonso and Anthonio can have female bodies and male voices. We also have the advantage of having a practicing pagan as our Prospero, lending us the opportunity to explore the realities of magical arts, both in Shakespeare’s time and our own.

Our inspirations range from Sir Ian McKellan to a sea shanty to a production of The Tempest done in Buffalo, New York; our movement vocabulary has been drawn from Viewpoints, yoga, Laban, ballet, modern dance, stage combat, and everything in between. We’ve significantly rearranged and sometimes reinterpreted what text we have left. Our cast is a collective of postgraduate and undergraduate students with a huge range of movement backgrounds and abilities. And, somehow, we hope to create a cohesive and entertaining experience for you here this evening.

It’s been a challenge, to say the least, but we’ve had an awful lot of fun along the way. I think I speak for the entire cast when I say that this has been a journey of learning, and one whose lessons we will never forget. We’ve been stretched creatively and intellectually, and we hope that you will be, too.  Now address yourselves to your imaginative faculties, and enjoy the show.

PhD Proposal Process: The first stuff on paper

Happy 2012! This post is the first in what will likely be a series related to my PhD proposal process.

Since making the decision to pursue at PhD, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time reading, researching, and formulating questions and ideas for the proposal. At the moment, I’m looking to examine the development of Shakespeare iconography, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and its ongoing effects on Shakespeare performance practices. I’ve been noticing that Shakespeare as text-icon and Shakespeare as man-icon developed in different ways and at different times, and I’m curious as to how those developments affect productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The ideas are still very much in process, but I’m attaching here the first thoughts that I put down onto paper as a ‘proposal draft’ (although the final proposal will certainly look very different). I’m posting it because, at this stage, I’m very open to thoughts, ideas, and concerns about the work so far.  Suggestions for the ever-growing bibliography/reading list are also most welcome. Please keep in mind that it is a very, very rough draft, and I wrote most of it on an airplane…

Poet, Text, and Icon: the development of Shakespeare iconography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its ongoing effect on Shakespeare in performance

The major research question that I’m looking to explore is: what implications does the development of Shakespeare iconography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have on Shakespeare in performance in the twenty-first century? In particular, I’ve become fascinated by the tensions between the iconic poet and the iconic text. Each develop at different paces and in different ways throughout the long theatrical period referred to as the Restoration, and yet I believe that both exert a powerful force upon contemporary attitudes toward and productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare as poet developed as an icon quite early in the Restoration, but his renown continued to build throughout the period, climaxing with David Garrick’s Jubilee in Stratford in 1769. Garrick himself, however, freely adapted Shakespeare’s texts throughout his career, indicating that the height of Shakespeare’s plays as icons in their own right had yet to be reached at the time of the Jubilee. On twenty-first-century stages, Shakespeare’s iconography is firmly established as hegemony; he is the ‘national poet’ of Dobson’s title, but the text of his plays has, over time, become just as iconic as the man himself.

Although Shakespeare the man was revered from the early years of the Restoration as part of ‘the happy Triumvirate’ of Fletcher, Jonson, and Shakespeare, his position in that group of exalted pre-Civil War playwrights rests on the ‘widespread view of [his] plays as virtually unmediated expressions of Nature’ (Dobson 2001: 30, 32). In other words, the person of Shakespeare was seen to have created rough but fixable poetry which the early Restoration adaptors were only too happy to polish up; he was seen as having possessed an instinctual genius that needed pruning and editing in order to produce truly great plays.

Thomas Shadwell’s ‘1678 alteration of Timon of Athens explains the adaptor’s right to have his name on the title page instead of Shakespeare’s by prefacing it with a description of the crucial work he has carried out on the text in question: “Made into a play.  By Tho. Shadwell”’ (Dobson 2001: 33). In the Restoration period, adaptations of Shakespeare tended to radically alter the text and plot of the plays; in the twenty-first century, adaptations tend to keep the text as intact as possible while  lifting the play and dropping it into a set of circumstances different to those of its origin (cf: Rupert Goold). Dobson points out the tendency during the earlier years of the Restoration to ‘modernize Shakespeare’s language to make it blend in with their own’, a practise which resulted in productions which fit the theatrical trends of the time, despite the implicit rejection of Shakespeare’s unaltered texts as old-fashioned (Dobson 2001: 123). In the twenty-first century, however, this trend is reversed: we exalt the universality and timelessness of the plays, and yet we keep their texts unaltered, sometimes resulting in ‘museum piece’ Shakespeare that feels out of joint with contemporary theatre as a whole.

Somewhere along the line, Shakespeare’s iconic status changed from an iconic poet to an iconic text written by the iconic poet. Over time, adapting and altering his texts became an edgy and daring way to do Shakespeare rather than the norm.  Major companies in the twenty-first century seem more than willing to adapt Shakespeare at a surface level: we drop the intact text into such locations as Baz Luhrman’s ‘Verona Beach’ and Rupert Goold’s vaguely Soviet dystopia. We might cut lines here and there to keep the running time down, but the text is always taken from a reputable edition of the Complete Works and never cut in such a way as to substantially alter the plot.

While Dobson argues that the Restoration adaptations between the Exclusion Crisis and the Jacobite uprisings ‘cumulatively […] seem to demonstrate the timeless value of the plays they individually set out to rewrite and replace’, I will argue that the twenty-first century has reversed this equation, seeming to show that the plays are out of date despite our best efforts to emphasize the continued relevance of their now-ancient poetry (Dobson 2001: 97). What do we gain by either a surface-level modernization of the plays’ contexts or a strict adherence to the so-called ‘original’ circumstances of their playing? What might be stand to gain by chancing a radical, Restoration-style adaptation of the iconic text? Suppose someone were to stage Davenant’s Macbeth or Tate’s King Lear or Durfey’s version of Cymbeline; would such a production tell us anything about the validity of the way we ‘do’ Shakespeare? Take it one step further: suppose someone were to write an entirely new adaptation of a Shakespeare play in the spirit of the Restoration adaptors. Criteria would include a radically altered plotline, divers new characters, scenes, and speeches, and at least one added song or dance. Who would do it? and, perhaps more importantly, who would pay to see it?

With all this in mind, I would like to explore the following research questions:

Group 1: Shakespeare as Icon

What events led to the development of  Shakespeare as both an iconic personage and an iconic text?

What is the relationship between the iconic text (the Folio) and the iconic man (the Bard)? How has that relationship developed?

Do any of Shakespeare’s contemporaries come even close to his iconic status? Does this make us any more or less willing to adapt their plays?

How and why have the specifics of Shakespeare-worship changed over time?

When and how did the unaltered text, particularly the First Folio, develop as an iconic, idolized element of Shakespeare?

Modern editions make copious changes to the Quarto/Folio texts; why do so many students and practitioners of Shakespeare then practice reverence for texts that are already altered from the ‘originals’?

Group 2: Shakespeare Performance Trends in the Twenty-First Century

How do twenty-first-century productions of Shakespeare on major stages compare to overall trends in theatre practice? In other words, has Shakespeare kept up with the times?

Do twenty-first-century audiences reject productions that include radically adaptive elements such as Rupert Goold’s recent version of The Merchant of Venice and Julie Taymor’s ‘Prospera’ film version of The Tempest because of legitimate artistic objections or simply because they ‘break the mould’ of what Shakespeare is supposed to look like? Is there a clear distinction between these two things?

What is the value of studying ‘original practices’ (ie, cue script, the Globe, all-male casts, etc.)? What is the value of Shakespeare’s Globe? What do we gain from (fragmented) reconstruction? Where does the Globe fit into contemporary theatre?

Is Shakespeare in the twenty-first century more successful as a vehicle for innovation and spectacle or as a vehicle for re-creation and reconstruction? What sells Shakespeare to contemporary audiences?

What are the implications of retaining Shakespeare’s iconic status?

What are the contemporary forces working against Shakespeare as icon?

Group 3: Shakespeare in Adaptation

When does a production of a Shakespeare play become an adaptation? How is a twenty-first-century definition of ‘adaptation’ different to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century definition?

Does adaptive intent matter? Must an adaptor be aware of himself as an adaptor, and, conversely, is a production an adaptation if there was no directorial/authorial intent to adapt?

Working Bibliography:

Clark, S. (1997) Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare London: Everyman.

Desmet, C. and Sawyer, R. (1999) Shakespeare and Appropriation New York: Routledge.

Dobson, M. (2001 [1992]) The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship 1660-1769. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Egan, G. (2010) The Struggle for Shakespeare’s Text: Twentieth-Century Editorial Theory and Practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Falocco, J. (2010) Reimagining Shakespeare’s Playhouse: Early modern staging conventions in the twentieth century. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Gidal, E. (2010) ‘ “A gross and barbarous composition”: Melancholy, National Character, and the Critical Reception of Hamlet in the Eighteenth Century’ Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture vol 39 pp 235-261.

Hoenselaars, T. (2006) ‘Between Heaven and Hell: Shakespearean Translation, Adaptation, and Criticism from a Historical Perspective’ The Yearbook of English Studies vol 36 no 1. pp 50-64

Holderness, G. (2001) Cultural Shakespeare: essays in the Shakespeare myth Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press.

Kendrick, W. (1765) A review of Dr Johnson’s new edition of Shakespear London: J.Payne

Kiernan, P. (1999) Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe London: Macmillan

Kidnie, M.J. (2009) Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation New York: Routledge.

King, E. G. C. (2008) ‘Pope’s 1723-25 Shakespear, Classical Editing, and Humanistic Reading Practices’ Eighteenth-Century Life vol 32 no 2 pp 3-13.

Marowitz, C. (1991) Recycling Shakespeare London: Macmillan.

Marsden, J. (1991) The Appropriation of Shakespeare: Post-Renaissance Reconstruction of the Works and the Myth Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Massai, S. (2000) ‘Nahum Tate’s Revision of Shakespeare’s “King Lears”’ Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 vol 40 no 3 pp 435-450.

Olsen, T. G. (1998) ‘Apolitical Shakespear; or, the Restoration Coriolanus’ Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 vol 38 no 3 pp 411-425.

Semenza, G. C. (2010) The English Renaissance in Popular Culture: An Age for All Time New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spencer, H. (1930) ‘A Caveat on Restoration Play Quartos’ The Review of English Studies vol 6 no 25 pp 315-316.

ibid (1963) Shakespeare Improved: the Restoration versions in quarto and on the stage New York: Ungar.

Taylor, G. (1990) Reinventing Shakespeare: a cultural history, from the Restoration to the present London: Hogarth.

Worthen, W. B. (1997) Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ibid (2003) Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Drama Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Theatre and Language, Part A

Part A of what might be a multi-part half-rant-half-analysis.

I’m heading off to England to pursue an MFA in Staging Shakespeare in just over a month. No one will ever convince me that language is not an integral part of the theatre experience, both for audience and for actor.

That being said, one of my favorite productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was done mostly in Korean.

So what exactly is the function of the text in a theatre production? How are audience members affected, positively or negatively, by hearing a play in a language they don’t understand?

Laura Barnett posted to The Guardian‘s Theatre Blog this week on this very topic  ( ). Her angle is one of conditional appreciation for the opportunity to hear plays in foreign languages at France’s Avignon festival: “I’m not saying that you don’t lose something in not being able to understand every word – merely that this loss is compensated for in other ways.” She speaks of noticing other production elements and better appreciating the play as a whole when she could not understand that dialogue. Her title, “Can You Understand Theatre When You Don’t Speak the Language?” speaks volumes about her thoughts on the subject: namely, you can’t understand the language, but you can understand the basic gist of things and appreciate other stuff about the production.

This is, to my mind, a rather narrow and overly simplistic way of thinking about theatre in any language, firstly because of her assumption that we, as audience, understand every word of a play we see in English. I can tell you that I certainly don’t. On average, I would say that I catch probably about 70-80% of the actual words, unless I know the play very, very well, in which case the percentage is closer to 90. In both cases I do not “understand every word,” despite the fact that English is my native tongue and despite the fact that I’ve recently graduated from a good university with a degree in English Literature and despite the fact that I’m a theatre practitioner myself and am therefore inclined to pay close attention to my fellow actors while they are onstage. I might reasonably claim 100% understanding of a play that I’m acting in or directing, but I would be cautious even of that.

When I take “non-theatre” people to see a Shakespeare, for example, they probably catch somewhere around 40-60% of the individual words, but they very often appreciate the production in other ways and/or forget about understanding every word and just relax and enjoy the play as a whole. Barnett speaks in her article about feeling relieved from the pressure of needing to understand every word and being free to just enjoy the production when she saw plays in non-English languages. Odd, since (based on my experiences) that would seem to be what  people who see theatre in their native tongues feel. Why does Ms. Barnett require a play in French or German to discover that a total understanding of every spoken word in a play is not a defining factor of overall understanding or enjoyment?

Additionally, the idea that an increased understanding of individual words creates meaning for an audience strikes me as a bit absurd. Isn’t the point of a script to put words together into combinations? Why do we need playwrights–or how do we distinguish good playwrights from bad ones–if our goal in the theatre is to understand every word? We understand the meaning of Romeo’s lines to Juliet in the balcony scene even if we don’t necessarily know quite what “vestal livery” means. It would seem that, in Barnett’s view, the only thing necessary to the understanding of a play is an actor who speaks with exact clarity, such that the audience hears and understands every single word. Her argument that we “lost something[…] by not being able to understand every word” doesn’t hold much water for me.

Watching a Japanese Noh production of Medea in a seminar course last year, I realized something about language that I’m sure I had noticed before and never put into words: when you can’t understand the words themselves, you understand the music of the language anyway. English has a certain cadence to it when it’s spoken by, say, Torontonians. It has a completely different musicality when spoken by someone from Louisiana or London, England. And yet we can watch actors from each of those places perform the same text and still understand them through their use of the language and its musical qualities. The same is true of actors who speak languages other than English. Japanese, especially when semi-sung as it was in this Noh production, has a musicality to it that communicates without words. There are certainly ways of speaking and utilizing the music in language that are, if not universally, then certainly widely understood and appreciated across cultures.

Agree, disagree, question! I’d love to debate this a bit. More to follow when I’m a little less exhausted. 🙂