Comments on the Pages
I think you’ve hit on one of the odder things about reviewing, especially in academic journals (publications that can really pick and choose what gets reviewed): the highlights get covered, not the ordinary. I can of course understand why this happens. Do we really want to read about the mediocre? And why wouldn’t we want to know about the extraordinary? But it certainly doesn’t reflect the more common experience of the run-of-the-mill. Maybe we should be writing about the ordinary more often, though maybe the genre of reviews is a hard place to accommodate that. But your question makes me wonder what the field of performance scholarship would look like if we wrote more often about the average middle. I’d love to hear others thoughts on what we might gain from that attention–or whether there’s anything to be gained!
A few thoughts:
- We could push the taxonomy of mediocrity further. Sam Mendes’ Old Vic production of As You Like It isn’t just “average middle.” It’s average middle … on hallowed ground … by a world-famous director … as part of a “transatlantic partnership” (as the Bridge Project website says). It is self-consciously an event. In a sense, the event of this review is the non-event-ness of a potential, wished-for theatrical and critical event.
- Another entry in the taxonomy, then, might be the production-you-can’t-not-review. I’m thinking of Stephen Greenblatt’s NYRB review of the Pacino Shylock. No fan of the performance, Greenblatt quickly dismissed it an pivoted to readings of Merchant and Othello. Granted: the NYRB is a different review economy from academic journals.
- What would it feel like to focus one’s attention on the banal? The review mentions a blank second page of notes and the mind wandering to other theaters and other conversations. When I find myself watching another MND In The Park, I find myself visited with intimations of mortality, thinking how many more MND’s I will see before I die.
Which is not to oppose writing about the ordinary. Rather to say that it seems like a different genre (both of experience and writing). More about the reviewer’s experience of reviewing, as this review is, and less about the event.
(Of course, that’s only if I’m trying to make the review interesting . . . which is exactly missing the point!)
I’ll have to look up my notes to see what struck me at the time about the production. But I wonder if the Bob Dylan gag played differently in Brooklyn, where I saw it. There was a lot of laughter, and I laughed too. I’m not sure what it had to do with the rest of the production–it didn’t seem sustained at all–but it didn’t feel irrelevant to me in the way that you describe here. Dylan might not be as omnipresent as he used to be, but he’s still pretty strongly visible and audible here, and there’s been a steady stream of releases that are regularly discussed.
FWIW, I remember the Dylan gag went over very well in Brooklyn, no doubt because it was playing to an audience of 60-somethings or a set of slightly younger folk who’d been wowed recently by I’m Not There. I couldn’t tell you the Dylan gag’s thematic point though.
I didn’t mean to imply that nobody in London remembers who Bob Dylan is or recognized what this Jaques was doing (Dylan’s concerts here sell out even more rapidly now than they did in the days when people shouted ‘Judas’ when he switched on an electric guitar); my point is just that a Dylan gag now is a very different thing to what a Dylan gag might have been in 1964 or so. Rather cosier, for one thing.
ps and I *do* know that the cry of ‘Judas’ in 1965 was taped in Manchester, not London, despite the misleading title of the bootleg LP, before anyone writes in…
Gotcha. The “cozier” point is a good one. And it was a cozy production, wasn’t it? All about love and getting along. Not so Dylanesque in all of his prickly glory.
Given that you’ve earlier said ” any night at the theatre is not just a multi-media artistic event but a social one too” you shouldn’t be able to sharply differentiate here (“the show itself”) between the size of the audience and the show on stage.
No, that’s true; though I suspect that at least 98% of what happened on the stage would have been exactly the same regardless of who did or did not turn up in the auditorium or in what quantities — it was that sort of show.
I’m not entirely convinced by this impressionistic account of bad business. How were other comparable shows doing that evening? How have shows been doing at the Old Vic of late? What evening were you there?
July 2nd. I didn’t conduct in-depth research into the theatre’s accounts; I just went to see a production and described what I found.
I saw AYLI on July 10th, a week after Michael Dobson apparently did. It was thus a week further into the run (and from its press night and subsequent reviews) and I, too, was moved from the immense height of the cheap seats to a very nice seat in the stalls. The Old Vic was practically empty, which has not been its natural state as it has been on an extremely decent run of form the past two or three years (After a few false starts and some catastrophic choices that had the British press crooning in their discouragement, Kevin Spacey’s tenure as artistic director has revitalized the theatre.) When I saw The Tempest a few weeks later, I was not moved from the nosebleed section. To try to put this into perspective, the previous year when I attended The Winter’s Tale at the Old Vic on multiple occasions, they did not close the gallery once – there was no need, it was basically full. The show that was running prior to AYLI, a revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” was virtually sold out, as was the show the Old Vic put on after the Mendes Shakespeares had closed. Out of the other 21 shows I saw in London in July 2010, no other performance had closed its uppermost auditorium level and many of the plays I saw were sold out and the other early modern plays in the capital have been doing very nice business indeed last year – at least on the nights I have been to the theatre. For AYLI, London’s theatre audiences were voting with their feet and appear to have gone elsewhere.
I wonder if you can say here or earlier what you thought Mendes was trying to accomplish. It may be that you’ve decided that he didn’t have a vision of the whole production, which is fine, but I think it’s more likely that Mendes thought he was up to something. Regardless of its awfulness, what do you suppose it was?
I have written elsewhere about my increasing distrust of productions which harness a play to a single definitive vision — as though the audience were supposed to come out at the end all knowing the Right Answer, ‘Ah, this director thinks this play is all about X!’. If Mendes was trying to impose an interpretation or even an agenda of particular questions on As You Like It, I can I only say that I didn’t feel inspired to do his job for him by spending any time guessing what he might have thought they were. The question of how conscious audiences are or should be of directors as opposed to actors, playwrights, fellow audience members or whoever else is of course a familiar one.
Something quite disastrous happened to some of the syntax in that comment and I can’t find a way of revising it — so sorry.
One of the things I value about reviews, and particularly this review, is that the format allows for a more personal, impressionistic response to a performance than, for example, an article about a production. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to this, and were I writing an article about this production, I would be reluctant to take one reviewer’s description of how well a show sold. But I think this paragraph contributes to the strength of this review as a whole: it conveys one viewer’s response to one viewing.
(I should add that the review did originally include information on when Michael saw the show: July 2, 2010. I’m sorry that information got dropped out when we put it online.)
This review and some of the comments below tempt me to open a question that I (as a non-performance type) have puzzled about:
So: what is an academic review for and who are its imagined audiences?
I’ll confess that I rarely feel addressed by academic reviews; I rarely see my own interests in a performance, (or boredom in a performance), addressed by them. This review is a welcome exception to that rule, but perhaps precisely for the ways in which it violates unspoken conventions.
So, from those who do have a really strong sense of what an academic review should be for, some further riffs would be very welcome here.
Michael’s whole article seems to me to open an extremely important area of work that we have undervalued. Most analysis is devoted to the exceptional, the innovative, the brilliant. But for most regular Shakespeare performance scholars, most performances are dull. So how do we work on the normative? It can’t just be by sharply critical comments. It must be through a recognition of our own perceptions of the context of mediocrity. (As Somerset Maugham once said, ‘Only the mediocre are always at their best’.) Dobson’s point about the shifting of the audience is important – compared with, say, the scramble for tickets for Jude Law as Hamlet or Kevin Spacey as R3 or Tennant and Tate as Ben and Bea, the fact that Mendes’ show led the management to close the gallery for the night is a sign of poor business.
There are many ways we could extend D’s analysis, e.g. by taking that common case (for me at any rate) of going to a show with students, being totally bored but finding them thrilled by the experience – and then trying to make discussion in class helpfully critical without patronising them for their inexperience – ‘Tis new to them… I wonder what would happen if a bunch of us went to a production expecting it to be poor (e.g. my experience pretty much every time at the Globe) but committed to writing about it. What might we learn?
I don’t think I quite see Kathy’s problem. I know, e.g., when I read a piece exploring, say, a psychoanalytic approach to King Lear that it is intended for those working in that (sub-)field. So academic theatre reviews are directed to others working on Shakespeare and perfromance. In the same way that Kathy has brilliantly shown that most writing about Shakespeare and film would be laughed at by people in film studies (I overstate but only slightly), so our analysis of theatre performance is often amateurish to those in theatre studies. Too much reviewing still has a coziness of its own (see other comments on the significance of the ‘cozy’ in relation to this piece). What Dobson valuably opens up is a new way of engaging with the normative rather than the lure of the exceptional.
Point taken, Peter. Oh the hazards of being permanently archived asking dumb questions…
I have wondered for a while whether we ought to publish the jottings some of us make in the dark – I recall Robert Shaughnessy using them in a conference paper a year or three ago. Why do we write what we write? And what aide-memoire function are we achieving?
Peter, I spent some very happy hours with Robert Hamilton Ball’s jottings (collected now at the Folger) on the first screening of Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Paris theater in NYC. I find the notes tremendously illuminating of the moment to moment experience of audition before DVD and spent some time working out the patterns of things he observes (including other audience members). I’ve never known exactly what to do with this material but I’m very glad it’s there to be consulted when someone figures that out.
Re. “how merry are my spirits” – the F reading actually is “merry.” The Arden editions give “weary” and note that their emendation comes from Theobald. The Pelican gives “merry” and has a note about how it’s often emended, and might be meant ironically. So what’s being described here might be a problem of acting more than text.
This is not really an answer to, so much as “inspired by” Peter’s questions…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the *majority* of my Shx viewing and reviewing–and, I would guess, the majority of that of most N. American academics (maybe British too? I assume circumstances are a bit different with London in reach)–takes place with, or in connection with, students. One thing that might drive what sometimes seems (to me) like the compulsion to record, in printed-review form, Shx productions great & small is our awareness that most people who read these reviews are, like us, involved in a kind of contest with the theatre for the minds (probably only a small part of the minds) of our students. If a production seems (for example), in seeking a certain kind of emotional & theatrical effect by making the play unrelentingly gloomy, to get a number of things vitally *wrong*, indeed to manifest a kind of obtuse method of reading, our first & best recourse is perhaps simply to write about it. One effect of the writing is surely wholly self-serving: we explain to ourselves a way of explaining, dialectically, something to our students the next time we teach AYL’s act 2. There might be a longer-range effect as well: perhaps one function of the review of the “ordinary” production is to provide an example of creative & productive methods of intervention at points where theatrical experience might encourage obtuse habits of reading. (If theatre reviews do/can have this effect, my view is that, where AYL is concerned, they have not been intervening enough in recent years–bumping off old Adam is now so conventional, and accepted as conventional, that one could be forgiven for imagining that Shx provided a stage direction for it.)
I do think you’re right, Peter, that academic theatre reviews are directed to others working on Shakespeare and performance (although I’m pretty sure that they’re read by people who do not think of themselves as falling into that category). But I also think it’s worthwhile lingering on Kathy’s question. That group of people who work on Shakespeare and performance is, as you know, a widely diverse group, with a range of interests and motives: there are folks interested in Shk & perf primarily for tracking a play’s performance history; others might be interested in studying performative languages; and there are some who still want to think about productions in terms of whether they adhere to a particular interpretation of a play. I don’t think academic theatre reviews speak to all of them the same way. Indeed I sometimes read reviews with that same nagging question that Kathy feels, wondering what’s in it for me: why am I supposed to find this interesting? I suppose that might have something to do with my occasional impatience as a reader and as a theatre viewer–an impatience that is wonderfully illuminated in this review–but I do think more reviews could tackle head-on why they should be read.
Robert did write a wonderful piece about the type of notes we take when we watch a performance–his conference talk was published in an issue of Shakespeare Bulletin and you can find it in the collection I edited, New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies. (There’s also a relevant piece in there from Jeremy Lopez about academic theatre reviewing and what he sees as its proselytizing impulse.) I find my notes from productions full of those odd asides, before they often trail off into silence either because I’ve gotten bored or because I’ve become so absorbed I forget to write. It’d be great to reveal what we do actually do when we watch shows. There’s so much labor and revision and thought process that goes into the reviews and articles we publish, and all this interesting by-product that gets left out.
This reminds me of the end-of-year book review that Sam Anderson did that consisted of photos of his marginalia. It’s such an evocative trace of reading that we don’t often get to glimpse. (You can see it at http://www.themillions.com/2010/12/a-year-in-marginalia-sam-anderson.html) Maybe we need a project like that for watching performances.
One of the books I most covet (and this has nothing to do with Shakespeare) is Tom Phillips’ book of agendas from meetings of the Royal Academy’s Executive Committee – needless to say, his doodling on the agendas is breathtaking.
So let’s imagine a future collection in which not the me of reviewing but the you of readership is formally addressed. I could imagine, for instance, writing a review three times over as if for different audiences. Certainly I require my students to define in their reviews what kind of outlet they are imagining (online blog, NYTimes, theatre magazine, campus newspaper, etc). So perhaps this is a good example of my not doing what I ask others to do…
The way in which certain pieces of stage business, even when they aren’t any good, seem to become mandatory, with successive directors adopting them even without having seen one another’s productions, is something which fascinates me. There was a time when you couldn’t stage As You Like It without Audrey being given a turnip to hold, and we still live in the era of the onstage execution of Bardolph in Henry V. I hope Adam’s chances of survival will improve from the current mortality figures; if it’s any comfort, he was fine in Stephen Unwin’s recent production at the Rose in Kingston, which was in every respect more memorable (for the right reasons too) than Mendes’.
Very puzzled by the idea that you only see Shakespeare in the company of students; that certainly wasn’t my experience when I worked in the US. An anxiety about whether any given production is going to be something I am seeing for pleasure or another dreary day at the office, however, is very familiar.
By the way, the genuinely invisible normative productions of Shakespeare, the ones which *really* represent how most people understand the plays and what pleasures and duties they offer, but which very few academics ever write about, are of course the amateur ones. Now there’s an important field of inquiry — somebody should publish a book about it, which all readers of Shakespeare Quarterly should buy.
Oops. I wonder if anyone involved in the show had been to one of those ‘First Folio acting classes’, where actors are told that in order to be truly authentic they should only ever learn Shakespearean roles from xeroxes of the Norton facsimile and should pronounce every last misprint?
I fear that any attempt at publishing *all* the jottings that are just about legible from the period when I was reviewing for Shakespeare Survey would fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act.
Thanks to Michael for his thought-provoking review and to everyone who has already contributed comments to this discussion. The conversation that has taken place raises a number of important issues concerning the purpose of the academic theatre review, including: target audience(s), the significance of the archival imperative (as a resource for both scholars and theatre practitioners of the future), the relevance of personal judgement and evaluation (is it a kind of appellation d’origine controlee, or quality assurance mark, for the theatre profession – to be awarded or withheld by Shakespearean scholars via complimentary or condemnatory academic reviews, and, if so, who is qualified to bestow it, and on what grounds?), the role of the mundane in performance history (I am amused and bemused here in equal measure!), the technical competences of individual reviewers (a thorny issue), and, lastly, some possible alternative formats for informed scholarly responses to Shakespeare in performance, including the response cluster (which I think we can and should explore more).
I preface my general response to this discussion (which will touch on some of the points above, but not all of them) with one caveat and two confessions:
Caveat: My first posting is rather long and constitutes a synthesised response to what I consider to be the most important issues raised by Michael’s article and the comments on it (as of 30/03/11). Shorter responses, more directly addressed to specific points in his review, follow below. They are nothing like as detailed as this first posting, nor are there that many. Skip to those if you wish.
Confession one: I did not see the production that acted as the stimulus for Michael’s piece (which would normally stop me from responding to a review article). However, as the conversation surrounding this piece is much more to be about the practice of reviewing than it is a response to a review of a particular production, and because theatre reviews are a type of academic writing with which I do engage as both a researcher and an author (and I often find them inadequate) I want to comment.
Confession two: the comments in this initial response are heartfelt, but generic and theoretical. They are not addressed ad hominem to Michael. Many of the faults I perceive in reviewing I am probably guilty of myself (that’s the second confession), Michael is most probably not so guilty. I am speaking here about a general issue, and my observations are more prompted by Michael’s piece than caused by it.
I am afraid that this piece and the responses to it have reminded me just how uncomfortable I am with the use of the word ‘academic’ in conjunction with the phrase ‘theatre review’ – largely because it seems to me that the combined term claims (or in certain constituencies is perceived as claiming) a degree of authority for judgemental evaluations of performance that many reviews of this type quite simply do not have (the authority, not the judgementalism, which they have in spades…). Sadly, this fact has a detrimental effect not only on the quality of our archive of performance reviews (which often constitute ill-informed value judgements, rather than sustained analysis of theatrical events), but also, when the former of these two types is offered, on potential inter-disciplinary collaboration between Shakespearean performance scholars and theatre professionals (who very often do not trust ‘us’ because of the way ‘we’ have responded to what they have produced, and do not understand from whence Shakespearean academics derive authority when talking about theatrical production).
As Peter Holland observes in this discussion thread with regards to Shakespeare on Film Scholars (versus Film Scholars), and Shakespeare in Performance Scholars (versus Performance Scholars), often the addition of the word ‘Shakespeare’ to the job title appears to dilute the quality of the work. Might I suggest that this is because scholars who are not trained in performance studies or film studies think that they are qualified to publish in these areas because ‘above all, it’s Shakespeare’? and that this fact is even more the case with scholars’ willingness to undertake theatre and film reviewing? The material realities of what’s going on in a theatre performance, or in a film (as well as the aesthetic, technical, social and economic processes that have led up to either product existing) are complex, and if one is to write about these meaningfully (in a review or elsewhere) one needs to have the tools so to do. Such tools are, I would argue, better learned through performance studies than literary or historical studies; yet many academics who publish theatre reviews in scholarly journals do not also publish elsewhere in the field of performance. There is a lot of very good work in Shakespeare in Performance studies, particularly in focussed theoretical articles, monographs and collections of essays (which are thoroughly peer reviewed); but the authors who are doing this excellent work do not always write theatre reviews (which are generally seen as much more low status affairs and not always subject to appropriate academic scrutiny). Consequently, reviews often lack the critical vocabularies and conceptual frameworks required by good theatre criticism. I understand that this will be a contentious point, but I believe it to be true – and the problem is a very serious one because to those outside the academy (including theatre makers) there is little way of discerning those who know what they are talking about in performative terms from those who don’t – and yet we all appear to have the same status and authority when commenting on Shakespeare. As Barbara Hodgdon once put it: ‘We are all looking. The question is who can see?’
Because reviews are quite prominent, often short, and are easy to digest, and because they appear to offer an informed opinion regarding current theatre practice, they carry a lot of weight with the profession; however so-called ‘academic’ reviews of Shakespeare in performance are often not objective analyses of a theatrical event set in a discursive context of relevant theatre practice, but rather subjective personal statements regarding one individual’s intellectual and emotional engagement with a single night in the theatre. This is perhaps why so many of us have difficulty in working out why we should engage with them afterwards. The writing is seldom in tune with theoretical models of how theatre functions (using semiotic, phenomenological, structural or technical analyses, amongst other approaches) and they even less frequently offer thick and detailed description of what has been seen, heard or felt to have taken place, which might be of use to subsequent scholars trying to consider past performances as part of more wide-ranging theoretical projects (relating to the performance history of a particular play, or the work of a particular director, scenographer, actor etc.). Instead, academic reviews most frequently offer a solipsistic evaluation of whether or not a particular mise-en-scene (briefly described and more often than not thought to be related to a unified directorial concept) has aligned the play with one of a number of established literary readings (known to the particular scholar writing the review), together with an account of how well the particular production has performed against that reviewer’s personal top 5 performances of the text – based either on personal experience (unlikely), much-quoted examples from the play’s production-history (such as Brook’s MND, Jessner’s RIII etc., which the reviewer has learned about from an Arden III or Cambridge edition) or ‘recent trends’ in production, whatever they might be. Reviews of this sort are much more about what a particular scholar thinks about a particular play (and whether or not the production in question confirmed this reading) than they are a detailed and accurate record of what actually happened in a particular theatre on a particular night. More’s the pity.
Why should we accept this sort of response? Is it because academic reviews are ever-so-slightly longer than the same sort of evaluative and judgemental response by a Billington, an Isherwood or a Brantley? Or is it because the knowledge of Shakespeare as dramatic text (and source of multiple critical interpretations) that lies behind them is deeper from an academic (read amateur) theatre reviewer than it is a journalistic (read lacking-in-up-to-date-scholarship) professional? Perhaps it is true that academic reviewers have a greater understanding of the wider field of current Shakespearean studies than professional theatre reviewers, but I do not think that this is how or why accounts of productions written by scholars should be of use to us. In fact I think that this is probably why so many of us don’t like them. Ultimately, I don’t care what you thought of the production, no matter who you are. If I can’t get to see it, what I want to know is what the production did with the play, and how: specifically and technically.
Evaluative, judgemental responses to professional theatre practice based on personal opinion (T was good as U, V’s accent was grating, W’s costumes hinted at X, but didn’t have his depth, Y’s scenography quoted the Czech tradition of Z but didn’t develop it… for a fuller list of the stereotypes see the conclusion to Hodgdon, B., ‘Viewing Acts’ Shakespeare Bulletin, Volume 25, Number 3 and Armstrong, A., ‘Romeo and Juliet Academic Theatre Review Kit’ SB Volume 26, Number 1) run the risk of falling between two stools: if they are snooty and dismissive of a production’s inability to bring vitality or a valid interpretation to a literary text that the academic reviewer thinks they know inside out (having read numerous essays on it and having seen, or more likely read about, a number of ‘great’ productions) there is resentment from the theatre industry because the reviewer assumes great performative possibilities without an understanding of any of the factors that may have militated against their emergence during process. There is also often, and this is key, little account given of the production on its own terms, or any acknowledgement that no production can ever do (or ever attempts to do) everything, no matter how good it is (and we often forget the omissions and failings of the better productions, especially once they have become canonised: those by Stein, Strehler, Taymor, Warner etc.). As an academic reader of academic reviews, I often wonder why the reviewer has bothered to write; because I am learning so very little about the production. There is all too often so little evidence presented – most frequently because the academic reviewer gets so caught up in providing a laundry list of things that were, in their opinion, ‘bad’ in the production or didn’t ‘work’ that there is little space to unpack the reasons why it was supposedly so awful, or (more importantly, I would argue) no room to provide detailed description of what was happening materially in such moments of failure or in other, more successful, theatrical events. Sometimes it even seems that the obviously disengaged response of the reviewer is simply due to ennui with Shakespeare per se: ‘Oh, I’m so bored of this! Did I really have to come? I’ve seen much better. It’s always better on the page. Why can’t you be as good as Brook, or Ninagawa? Haven’t you read Adelman? Why isn’t your reading of Lear as good as mine? Oh well, at least the students are getting something from it. Disturbingly, there is some evidence of this attitude of resigned and condescending dismissal in both Michael’s piece and in the discussion thread surrounding it.
Conversely, of course, if a personally-inflected review is unflaggingly positive and effusive in its praise, the response can seem down to the inexperience or naiveté of the reviewer, especially when a generation of scholars who actually saw the truly great productions (and whose old nostalgia is much less toxic than the ill-conceived New Nostalgia of the youngsters) compare the evidence of this poor production to their imaginative re-memberings of the ghosts of performances past. So it’s difficult to win when one gets personal.
In my experience of reading academic reviews, the slightly negative review is more common than the flattering one (which is possibly one reason why there has been so much interest in the concept of mundanity in relation to this posting). It seems that familiarity with Shakespeare breeds contempt of performances that do not hit every note they could (no production can). Yet this only helps to shore up an extremely unhelpful distinction between those of us whose primary engagement with Shakespeare is professional (but within the academy) and those of us whose work is equally professional (but as makers of Shakespeare in performance). Here’s a secret: Shakespeare makers also realise that the good only get it nearly right about once in every ten attempts, but they still think it’s worth trying and that the events that transpire along the way are both interesting and useful to future practice.
As I have hinted above, the mistrust (fear?) of academics on the part of theatre makers that is caused by poorly thought out academic appraisals of professional productions is a very real issue when it comes to other academics obtaining access to professional production processes that could greatly increase our understanding of Shakespeare in production and performance (including access to such events as pre-production meetings, auditions, rehearsals, scenographic meetings, directorial and technical note-giving sessions etc.). Some directors, actors and designers of Shakespeare have now become so uncomfortable with the idea of sharing with Shakespearean academics anything other than the ‘final’ product of their production (i.e. the play at a stage of its creative life in which they are happy also to let in paying members of the public) that they only let us in in the safely controlled reference-encyclopaedic roles of the literary dramaturge or historical expert. This is because certain other academics have made theatre professionals think that we know everything about the Shakespearean canon (including how, where and when it has best been performed) and now they (theatre makers) are unwilling to allow us (the academy per se) into the more creative and exploratory, risk-taking phases of performative meaning making, for fear of our supercilious derision. This is a great pity, as we might well have interesting things to say to each other. This is not true of all companies, of course, but it applies to some of the big ones, such as, increasingly, the RSC. We need to reverse this trend and finding a different way of reviewing will help this. Shakespeare Bulletin are proposing for the Spring issue of their 2012 issue: ‘reviews of the BEST and the WORST productions of Shakespeare and other early modern drama in the first decade of the twenty-first century’. Is this really helpful?
So, to cut to the chase, for me the primary duty of the scholarly reviewer is to record a production in as much detail as one can, rather than to judge or evaluate it. It is then up to those who come after us to use our well-written-up documentary records to write more theoretical responses to the work (these latter pieces may be synchronic or diachronic investigations of particular trends in performance, analyses of the work a particular actor, director, scenographer or company, or a whole host of other analytical projects – we do not yet know). It seems to me that this issue is very well summed up by Katherine Rowe’s comment in this discussion in relation to paragraph 9 (regarding Robert Hamilton Ball’s jottings on the first screening of Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Paris theater in NYC). Including her finding of the notes ‘tremendously illuminating’ and her confession that she has ‘never known exactly what to do with this material but [is] very glad it’s there to be consulted when someone figures that out.’
What I think we need is a wider archive of production material, in which properly informed description-rich and technically astute reviews form a key part. Academic journals can and should provide a forum for this type of writing. Increasingly also the web is a good place to do this (the ISE Performance Chronicle is one model: http://isechronicle.uvic.ca/). Scholars of Cinematic and Televisual Shakespeare have access to film prints, Video and DVD and, increasingly, online media. Whilst these are all products that imply different forms of mediation that need adequately to be theorised by the scholars attempting to use them as one of many forms of primary research material, they are unquestionably much more available than the notoriously ephemeral theatrical performance is to the performance scholar.
So how do we build a reliable historical record of Shakespeare theatre performances that is of use to other scholars? I don’t think I think that we should digitise individual notes scribbled on academic’s theatre programmes and make them available via the world wide web in some scholarly Review-Tube of navel gazing that is as much about the scribbler as the production; in fact I don’t think that we should write on theatre programmes at all, but rather that those of us who are adept at writing about performance should take (reasonably sized) notebooks into theatres and write essential aide memoire notes during performances, as well as making quick sketches and technical illustrations of sets, blocking, LX configurations etc. — things we might (would) otherwise forget (for a hint of this practice and its difficulties see the opening of Shaughnessy, R., ‘One Piece at a Time’ Shakespeare Bulletin Volume 25, Number 3, Fall 2007). But we should then take the time afterwards, using our skills as scholars of performance who happen to work in the field of Shakespearean drama, to unpack our more-extensive-than-mere-programme-graffiti-scribbles in order to provide a structured account of what we noticed taking place on stage, with a particular emphasis on the things that made it theatre rather than text: i.e. proxemics, kinaesthetics, acting analysis, scenography and the dramaturgy of the performance script (directing is more problematic as, without proper and sustained access to rehearsal it is much less apparent from whence the ideas of a particular mise en scene are derived). I will also concede at this point that some performance scholars would also want to take account of the auditorium, and the interplay between spectators and stage — although I am not personally all that interested in audiences.
All of this work takes time and space (in both the note taking and the writing up), and there are many reasons why it doesn’t often happen: the low status of theatre reviews as a form of academic output, the word counts implied by thick description of events lasting several hours, the costs to journals of the reproduction of production stills and other visual documents relating to the performance (such as set and lighting designs, costume renderings and other visualisations). However, all of this, taken together, would certainly provide a very useful repository of the kind that I hope one-day people will figure out how to use.
In my opinion, such an archive would be certainly much more valuable to the scholars and theatre makers of the future than my opinion. Or, to put it another way, I’m not all that interested in what Dudley Carlton, Thomas Platter or even the Venetian Ambassador thought of (and interpolated in) any of the performances they saw – I just wish that they had better known how to describe them.
One quick point: You suggest that theatre practitioners are reluctant to allow Shakespeare scholars access to their creative processes because scholars have written so thoughtlessly about productions, subjecting them to academic expectations rather than responding to the terms of the performances themselves. I don’t doubt that practitioners are reluctant to allow outsiders access to the process of creating a production. But what scholars like to share publicly the rough processes of making our work? Think about everything that goes into thinking about an issue and that gets discarded along the way. This is true even of conference papers: who really gives papers trying out a new idea that they aren’t yet sure they want to stand behind? (This is one of the things I find remarkable about this open review–the willingness of all the authors, including Michael Dobson, to share publicly what are still necessarily rough works and to reveal the processes that go into making them polished.)
Good point, Sarah, but I think that one of the key differences comes as a result of the fact that theatre making is a thoroughly collaborative process, whereas it’s relatively rare for scholars to collaborate with more than (at most) one or two other scholars on major projects. Theatre makers never make their cultural interventions in such relative isolation. Moreover, the modality of the rehearsal room is one much less insistent on what we might conceive of as the rigour or thought-through-ness of conventional academic inquiry. When one makes a fool of oneself in an academic context, one contemplates retiring and finding something else to do with one’s life (it’s devastating); when one makes a fool of oneself in a rehearsal room, everybody laughs and acknowledges ‘well, that didn’t work then, did it.’ It’s all about the cultural acceptance of risk taking and the understanding that (in the theatre at least) there’s no gain without putting oneself on the line in ways that, in other contexts, might prompt career-destroying derision or condemnation. I think that theatre practitioners should know that scholars can accommodate such ways of working and that they are able to participate in them, or at least observe them without being judgemental. Our hyper-critical, often cynical dismissal of our own work and that of others (often in the name of academic rigour) poses problems in this regard.
‘were it not for the notes and sketches and the copy of the programme which now lie in front of me, I might have forgotten the show entirely.’ Why are you compelled to write a review if the performance had so little impact on you? and how does this relate to the artificiality of many of our agendas for writing about performance? do we write more about what we can actually get to see, or have committed ourselves to seeing, or what we think relates to our professional research interests, rather that what we find genuinely arresting and worthwhile theatre (which we are more likely to stumble upon and may not happen to be Shakespeare)?
This isn’t quite a fair question to ask of this review. I imagine that Michael wrote this up because I asked him to: as part of the CFP I solicited reviews of this particular production, and since he is a member of SQ’s Editorial Board, it’s possible that Michael felt a particular obligation to try to make the imagined review cluster happen. As he indicates, if it weren’t for that exercise, he wouldn’t have written this up. It was a risky move, I think, and I’m glad he did, as it’s given us a chance to look directly at what we might normally skirt: what types of shows get reviewed in our journals and what do we hope for those reviews to do?
As I said in my long response. In general, I am not a fan of excessive dwelling on the audience, particularly by way of personal speculations from reviewers that are not backed up by evidence. You are very up-front about your suppositions and wonderings about the audiences, which stray into the realm of day-dreaming (or fantasy) with regards to the Leicester Square ticket booth or your Club Class upgrade. Had you had more to say about the production itself, would there be less of this writerly padding? and what’s at stake in that fact?
With regards to your comments about seeing Russ. I worry about the potentially distancing esoterism of comments like this. I have also been guilty of doing this when I see a collection of the great and the good in Shakespearean studies at a particular event. But what does it do to our wider readership? I am prompted to think of a potential headline in The Onion: ‘One London-based Professor of Shakespeare sees another London-based Shakespearean Academic at London Shakespeare Production.’ Why should anyone care?
I like this paragraph of performance analysis and contextual information about the company. And I also like the way that the trans-Atlantic cultural differences you map out (summed up by the RADA versus Julliard divide) are also played out in the responses, by you and by those who saw it in Brooklyn, to the Dylan caricature. Perhaps there is more that could be said about the different cultural registers that are appropriate to playing the ‘country’ characters in England and the USA. Is the trans-Atlantic casting and economic context of this production causing a retreat into stereotyping of this sort? and is this to the detriment of the production? You range quickly in your geographical comparisons from the imagined Floridian beachfront of a Billy Wilder film to the imagined location of an esoteric and quintessentially British Radio 4 drama. Can everyone do this? How are they expected to read the characters if they can’t? Is this common in productions of AYLI? Were there any instances when it was avoided?
Good points about the darkness, which might be explored with regards to its effect on, amongst other things, the emotive ambiance of the scenographic environment and how this related to a conceptual understanding of the emotional trajectory of the play (sophisticated or otherwise); but I think that your annoyance with the production is prompting you to criticise the lack of a unified picture of historical and technological reality (with regards to a world that had invented new fashion but not electric light etc.). Would you object in a production you thought less bad to a mixed historical period, because it did not provide a coherent and logical imagined world in this way? Would you apply such criticisms to, say, Taymor’s eclecrtic Rome in ‘Titus’? or does aesthetic beauty and directorial skill trump logical coherence and historical truth?
Is your alignment of yourself with Coriolanus here another instance of the foregrounding of the reviewer over the work? I’m not condemning this, particularly as it is obviously a joke; but would you be so inclined to do this (bring yourself in so visibly) if you had deemed the production to be better? As you observe, your stoicism WAS rewarded with a good performance. It seems that your identification with Phoebe was driven by something that characterises you both (and this review): your sense of humour. Moreover, the strength of Atkinson’s performance led you to reject the multiple longing for Orlando that characterises the end of many productions (and thereby potentially to question a recuperative and normative closure that expects us to accept our station, but still desire and admire our social betters). Isn’t that a good thing? and if you acknowledge that the production achieved this, isn’t that to be foregrounded. I guess I’m just sad that you note this fact, but do not explore in more detail how it was achieved but rather switch so quickly into a condemnation of Rylance’s inadequacies as Rosalind.
I wonder about the value of any account of a Shakespeare production that is only two or three sentences long, but I do understand the desire NOT to write about a production at all. I did, on one occasion, inform an editor that subsequent to seeing a show I was unwilling to review it. The reason was that it was a much celebrated show from an internationally-reputed director whose production had made me very angry and I did not feel that I could adequately distance my anger from my response, which would not in my opinion have been helpful. That was a personal decision. Total lack of engagement with a production might be another reason not to say anything. The question of reviewing mediocrity that has emerged in the discussion thread connected to this review article is an interesting one, because to be a useful resource to future scholars of performance, a review archive needs to be as complete as possible. But I worry that engaging with what we perceive as mediocrity can sometimes lead us into the esoteric, ironic, self-referential ‘game’ of theatre reviewing rather than inspire us to communicate in detail what we saw as new, vital and interesting about a production.
I am in complete sympathy with Michael Dobson’s response to Sam Mendes’ As You Like It as it was performed in the summer of 2010 at the Old Vic theatre in London. I saw the production twice, for I had purchased two pairs of tickets to the show, well in advance, with an eye to responding to Sarah Werner’s “call” for contributions to this special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. It was, however, clear to me, a mere half-an-hour in to my first viewing, that it was unlikely that, in an already packed writing schedule for the 2010-2011 academic year, I would be sufficiently inspired to pen a word about it. But given that Sarah has reiterated, in her preface here, that she is hoping Dobson’s review will furnish a “springboard” for discussion not only about the production but also the practice of academic reviewing, I would like, after all, to contribute something.
I especially wish to weigh in now (on the afternoon of March 31st) for I do not agree with the distinctions that Christian Billing has drawn, in the most recent contributions to the discussion, between the “academic” review (which is produced by “amateurs”) and the “journalistic” review (which is produced by “professionals”). Nor do I agree with the idea that those who write reviews of Shakespeare-in-performance inflict a “judgment” upon the work of “theatre makers” that they have neither the critical tools nor the proper authority to render. Surely thoughtful directors do care what Shakespeareans have to say about Shakespeare-in-performance, and read the views of Shakespeareans with an eye, as Billing notes, to “future practice.” To that end, let me contribute something to the conversation as it has been unfolding here, as a form of sociability that extends the sociability of play-going. If I’d had the pleasure of trotting, with Dobson, along the street to a pub in The Cut for a post-show pint, we could have commiserated over having had to watch a production of the play that deprived it of vitality, but I would then have wanted to push Dobson (perhaps when we were on to our second) on whether there were not something about the play he thought worth chewing over. For I think there was. Two things, actually, the first of which is a problem that no mainstream review is going to resolve.
The problem is not, as Billing suggests, that “familiarity with Shakespeare breeds contempt.” Many productions of Shakespeare bore — even hyped productions such as this one — because its director and actors do not rise to the challenge of imagining for themselves the heady mixture of entertainment, poetry, and politics that they might offer through bodies-on-stage when working with one of Shakespeare’s play texts. Mainstream reviews not only allow for generic reiterations of a given play, they often encourage them, as Michael Billington does, in his review of this production for The Guardian, when he writes that “[e]ven [Stephen] Dillane’s actorish Jaques cannot undermine a production . . . that is true to the spirit of the play” without in any way indicating what that “spirit” is. Too many “theater makers” operate from a lethal sense of duty not only to the play’s “spirit,” but to the dominant conventions that have emerged in relation to the play-in-performance, which make certain ways of handling it de rigueur.
As You Like It is particularly prone to this trap, not simply because, as Billington writes, the “play stands or falls by its Rosalind,” but because the performance tradition requires a very particular Rosalind: one who must do her damnedest to charm us. When I reviewed Michael Boyd’s thoughtful production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 2009 for Shakespeare Bulletin last year, I noted the anxiety that Boyd’s Rosalind, Katy Stephens, exhibited in her remarks in the program, where she claimed that she feared she might not be a “great Rosalind.” What she meant (I think) is that she could not be Rosalind on the terms usually available to a contemporary actress in the role because Boyd, who wrested much sense from the text’s many references to violent acts and objects, needed his Rosalind to work against the performance tradition. Stephens needed, in short, to be a little violent, and a little nasty. The problem with Mendes’ directorial approach, which saw him, by his own declaration, aiming to “unlock” the play for the “vast” audiences around the globe for whom the play might be entirely new, lay in its contentment to trot out a hackneyed idea of the play — and most particularly a hackneyed idea of Rosalind — and limiting his work as director to thinking through what he wanted from the set and lighting designers. Rylance’s Rosalind, as Dobson has already noted, overwhelmed audiences with an ebullience that was downright exhausting. This helped to make the production a bore, for me as well as Michael, not because we are predisposed, as “academics,” to be bored by Shakespeare-in-performance — quite the opposite, I dare to aver, on both our parts — but rather because there isn’t much excitement, intellectual or otherwise, in a production that is the equivalent of a “first read” assisted by Cole’s notes. “Make sure your Rosalind is a font of rollicking energy, and that your Touchstone comes across as amiable. And be sure to deprive Jaques of all political edge, cutting the text where necessary to do so.”
I could go on at length about the larger problem to which this is tied. To do that, I would need to speak about the constituency with which Billing declares he has no interest, audiences. Billing’s critical approach is as ironic as Mendes’ directorial approach, given that the title of the play suggests that it was, in its first performances, engaged in a negotiation with its audience about its theatrical taste, and what kind of theatrical fare it would or would not “like.” It is thus of some interest to me that my companion for the first viewing — someone who had never seen the play before — was as bored with its Rosalind as I was, and unimpressed by the whole, for the production involved a dumbing-down of the play that totally eviscerated its politics. Audiences, no matter how unfamiliar they may be with the text, sense when they are being sold something whose character has been diminished or toned down for them. The dumbing-down of this production is captured in part by the terms in which the Bridge Project’s other production, The Tempest, was advertised, at least in Singapore: “The Oscar-winning director of American Beauty turns Shakespeare’s Tempest into blockbuster theatre.” Blockbuster theatre? C’mon! But the attempt to create that took the production in a direction that meant that neither Rylance’s Rosalind nor the production as a whole could “unlock” anything of serious substance about the play. There was nevertheless a distinct point of interest in the production for me and my companion — the same point, as we discovered in our post-show chat. Both of us were drawn to a performance that ran against the grain of the performance tradition.
The performance in question came not, as one might expect, from Stephen Dillane, who was purportedly a respectable Hamlet earlier in the decade, though it is hard to see from this performance how he could have been so. It came, rather, from Christian Camargo, for whom (not having seen The Hurt Locker or watched any episodes of Dexter) I had no context. Clearly Dobson and I disagree on this. In my view, Camargo gave us an Orlando wrenched into a certain frame of mind by the death of Adam, which was, as Dobson has noted, staged as part of the feasting scene that closed the first half. In the second half, this Orlando agreed, wistfully it seemed, to take part in the boy Ganymede’s games, as if half-pained, half-pleased that there were still boys in the world who could be as carefree and imaginative as Ganymede. He, then, however, exhibited a declining interest in Ganymede’s games, displaying a distraction in relation to them that made him resemble the figure that Viola describes when she speaks of Patience on a monument smiling at grief. Sure, we could argue how wrong this is: Orlando should not present himself as a wannabe Hamlet. But I, for one, liked it: liked that Camargo contributed a fresh perspective on the dramatic fiction Shakespeare scripted by giving us an Orlando who resisted the overwhelming force that Rosalind-as-Ganymede was bringing to bear upon others, especially Phoebe. If Camargo happened to give us his mildly tortured Orlando because he was trapped in a production dominated by a female actor pitching her performance too high, all the better; in his performance, something new broke free from the old, and I saw his handling of the language as part of that. (Dobson writes that “Orlando seemed . . . catastrophically uncomfortable with Shakespeare’s syntax.”)
Perhaps Camargo reached his idea of Orlando because he was also playing a haunted Ariel almost entirely deprived of personality and spirituality in the Bridge Project’s companion play. A review that did justice to Mendes’ work last summer would want to think about the relationship between the two productions. Amongst other things, Mendes’ Tempest, though it was not as well received by the “professional” reviewers, possessed a collective energy that his As You Like It lacked. I can’t help but attribute this to Ron Cephas Jones (Caliban), whose talents were wasted in As You Like It, where he was cast only as Charles and one of the lords. In The Tempest, Thomas Sadoski (as Stephano) and Anthony O’Donnell (as Trinculo) joined Cephas Jones in creating a carnivalesque energy, most notably by singing and stomping their way through a rendition of “Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master, get a new man.” There might be some pleasure in thinking through the pairing that this Bridge Project gave us as it yoked a gloomy As You Like It to a Tempest brewing up subversion. But no mainstream review, in all its purported “professionalism,” is ever going to have the space or time, never mind the interest, in a sustained consideration of such an “impressionistic” observation. For that, you have to turn to “amateurs.”
Amateurs, Billing may want to recall, have one pretty important thing going for them, especially in our capitalistic world: they do what they do not for money, but for love. Sometimes that love makes you go see even a lousy production twice. And in this case I’m glad I did, for on a second viewing of As You Like It (and after having seen The Tempest), I found myself much more charitably inclined to Rylance — at least she was working hard! This made her quite the contrast to Dillane, who was so obviously letting down the ensemble in the case of both productions: he was a Jaques so jaded one couldn’t imagine that his Jaques had ever cared about anything, and as Prospero he made even his opening action of creating a magic circle by scattering handfuls of dirt seem like a daily chore. From his performance I have learned something that I suppose every actor knows: any production stands or falls on the commitment of all of its players. At any rate, let’s all raise an imaginary pint, shall we, to Michael Dobson, for spawning this discussion? To amateurs!
For Billington’s review: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/jun/24/review-tempest-as-you-like-it
For the theatrical trailer advertising The Bridge Project’s Tempest at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, see:
For video footage in which Mendes describes his aims:
For my review of Boyd’s 2009 As You Like It, see Shakespeare Bulletin 28.1 (2010): 145-150.
See some follow on thoughts to these postings (which I am finding illuminating and valuable) in the next comment set. I’ve located them down there just to keep the thread of exchanges (however long!) more intact.
I for one would love to hear your further thoughts, but for the life of me I can’t locate them . . . . Are April Fool’s Day gremlins at work?
Katherine’s response is below, or you can go directly to it here: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/shakespearequarterlyperformance/dobson/#comment-162
Thanks to all for a cogent and deeply engaging set of posts. As these exchanges have progressed I’ve been struck by how heterogeneous the interests seem to be, of the different groups who are described here as having stakes in academic theater reviewing (performance scholars, theater historians, theater historians of the future, directors and players in the productions in question,…). I think it’s important not to allow the concepts of amateur and professional to reduce this heterogeneity to two polar positions. What those terms register is precisely the different (divergent?) interests and expertise that converge on a performance of Shakespeare.
In this context, what I hear in Christian’s post is a call for two commitments in reviewing: first, to what the art historian Mary Ann Caws terms “complex viewing” (in this context, technically specific, concrete, detailed observations of theatrical undertakings); second to the performance of complex viewing as a way of recording those undertakings for others (now and in the future). I can’t speak to how valuable this vision of the genre is to those inside Shakespeare performance studies. For this outsider, reviews in this mode are the ones I find most compelling: because they provide rich information about a performance and because they teach me how and what to look for, helping me become modestly more complex as a viewer/auditor.
I agree, Katherine, and should perhaps have been clearer about my chief objection to Billing’s contribution, which is to his request that “academic” or “scholarly” reviewers offer “thick description” unadulterated by judgment or critical reflection: “Ultimately, I don’t care what you thought of the production, no matter who you are,” he writes, for “the primary duty of the scholarly reviewer is to record a production in as much detail as one can, rather than to judge or evaluate it.”
This demand involves a positivist fantasy which works against “complex viewing,” for any such review would simply provide facts with which others will later work; Billing wants the (future) reader, rather than the (current) reviewer, to be the person who filters a production through her consciousness. If we wrote such texts, we would be writing memoranda of performances, not reviews. The call for these memoranda worries me because such accounts or “documentation” erase the audience in two ways: not only, as Billing notes, because he has no interest in audiences, and therefore has no need for us to write any details about them, but because our critical reflections manifest the audience, or one constituency within it, at any rate.
Do I want reviews that include details about a production that help me envision, in my mind’s eye, performances that I did not get to see for myself? Of course I do. But let us consider what Billing would have us discard, or throw away, if we were to produce simply memoranda or “well-written-up documentary records” that would enable others, later “to write more theoretical responses to the work.” We lose, with the critical perspective and contextual details about the experience, evidence about the culture in and for whom the performance took place, especially where the reviewer’s rendering of his or her response carries information about other cultural practices and phenomena.
Let me offer a concrete example.
I, for one, love, and find much value in, this kind of detail from Jeremy Lopez’s review, in the Fall 2009 issue of SQ, of the RSC’s Hamlet directed by Gregory Doran and starring David Tennant:
Colleagues were quick to snarl at me when I suggested that watching this Hamlet was like watching television. At the surface level, the snarling arose, undoubtedly, in response to the deliberately controversialist way in which I presented the point, but I was always quick to add—as I will here—that in many cases I really like television, and I have irrational, deeply affective connections to television characters and plots that are entirely comparable to my irrational, deeply affective connections to characters and plots in early modern drama.
These two sentences point us outwards from the production itself, asking us to consider television as a cultural phenomenon in relation to (and potential tension with) play-going at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and contain much that Billing would find utterly irrelevant, including a confession about affective attachment to characters in both television and the theatre.
Consider too the two paragraphs that appear on page 358 of that review, the first of which gives us a description of the dumb show so effective that I won’t be surprised if twenty years my memory deceives me and I believe I saw it for myself, and the second of which sees Lopez wrestling with the implications of “a bare-chested black actor” wearing “tight red pants, the crotch festooned with a large heart” descending on a wire, as the poisoner. In the detailed wrestling with the implications of this choice in the next paragraph, Lopez asks, amongst other things, “Was this yet another example of ham-fisted racialized casting at the RSC?” Or was the RSC “sending up its own history of problems with racialized casting?”
Compelled to choose between these paragraphs, I would choose the latter. The choice is an artificial one, but Billing comes down so heavily on the side of a review that provides “technical detail” without analysis that it seems as if it’s a choice he’s asking us to make. It’s a choice he himself should not want to make, given his own emphasis on the practice of reviewing’s duty to the “archive.” To write reviews that give the future only the technical details of production and not critical wrestling with its implications would not enrich the archive. It would impoverish it.
One final note. The difference in our perspectives on the process of reviewing is reflected in our different responses to the “call” from Shakespeare Bulletin for a special 2012 issue on the “best” and “worst” productions of the last decade. Billing refers to the call dismissively. But before dismissing its aims, we should consider a line from the call after the one he quotes, that in which the editors write that they “encourage reviewers to find exciting ways of conveying the one or two things that made a given production linger in the memory.” When we are reviewing, are we not all contributing to an enterprise that no one of us could pull off on our own, that of assisting productions to “linger” in collective “memory”? And don’t we do that by demonstrating why certain aspects of a production meant so much to a particular consciousness at the time — or in the case of the review that has set off this discussion, why a production didn’t mean much? And don’t we want as many traces as possible of precisely this, the effects, both negative and positive, dull and inspiring, of such performances upon us? This is why Sarah Werner’s original call, which was for multiple perspectives on a single production, was so intriguing. It’s a shame that the particular production in question did not prove sufficiently exciting to enough critical imaginations for that to come to pass, but it may be an experiment worth repeating.
Carolyn, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I share your interest in cross-media reception (and television) — as well as your conviction that all acts of reception including scholarly ones are culturally situated. I’m interested in the kind of meta-reviewerly reflection Jeremy pursued, in which the sensibility of the scholar highlights some element of a production that non-scholarly auditors might miss.
Here I suppose some might stake out the boundaries of genre? I.e., the more critical reflection, the more the writing in question begins to look like a critical essay about a performance dynamic, rather than a review? I’m not invested in that distinction as such but observe that it does seem to be live in certain writerly practices among academic theater reviewers, at least in the general tendency not to cite other critics or theorists, in a review — as opposed to a critical essay. (I am at a loss to make that separation — I watched the Toneelgroep’s Roman Tragedies in a way that was entirely inflected by not only my own televisual practices but Philip Auslander’s and Dana Polan’s analysis of them.)
If one accepts Sarah’s thought (below) that there are simply very divergent interests in academic theater reviews now, and that the generic landscape of the academic theater review is less well-defined and more expansive — then I’m curious as to whether this changes the choices of scholars (to review or not) and journals (to publish reviews or not). Is reviewing different than blogging, if one is writing the kind of review one wants to read, for a niche audience of Shxns who share ones same predilections (techno pomo theater / media history)? Please know that I’m not meaning to diss/trivialize either blogging or reviewing by asking this. Just trying to get at how a changing vision of reviewing (already a genre pursued out of love or obligation rather than gain, as several posters here observe) sits in the (also changing) economy of scholarly publishing in Shakespeare studies.
As the one who first brought up the question of whether it would be valuable to write about the mediocre, I obviously do think there’s something there we could explore. I don’t worry about such an engagement would lead reviewers to an ironic distance from reviewing. To the converse, I worry that if we don’t engage with the experience of the ordinary then we might miss something about the effect of the extraordinary, both in the moment of watching it and in the effort of writing about it.
Reading Christian’s comment, and Kathy’s response, I’m struck by until Christian’s post, how little the discussion around reviewing had to do with a sense of obligation to future theatre historians. Especially in comparison to the special issue that Shakespeare Quarterly did in 1985 (vol. 36 no. 5) on theatre reviewing, in which there is repeated attention to the idea of “reviewing for the record”, there had not been much concern with that here. I’ve never been convinced that we can, in fact, knowingly meet the needs of future (even near-future) theatre scholars. How can we anticipate what they will want from us? Surely it is the things that seem most unremarkable to us that will be the most perplexing to them, because we never remarked on them. I don’t mean that we should try to objectively account for all possible details of how a production works in order to correct this. Rather, I would take this as freeing us from the obligation to the future and instead to write reviews that are of interest to us now.
Kathy here lists some of the categories of performance scholars that I mentioned above. We’re a big group, we’re interested in lots of different things. Maybe we should each focus on writing the types of reviews we’d like to read, rather than writing reviews we imagine other people would like to read. This isn’t an exercise in solipsism, though it might sound like it. It should free us from the expectation that we can all somehow produce a single form of reviews that will offer everything we need. Carolyn will write reviews of the type that she has outlined here; Christian will write reviews of the type he gestures toward here. I will probably continue to avoid writing reviews altogether, and I will continue to be grateful for the reviews that I read that I enjoy and I’ll continue to skip the ones that don’t speak to me.
(I do hope that SQ will be able to successfully do a cluster of reviews of a single show at some point. And I’d love to see the other types of experimental reviewing suggested here, too, such as Peter Holland’s thought of a group of scholars deliberately seeing and writing about a show they expect to be ordinary. Print space will, as Christian admits, always be at a premium, as will our time. But as we continue to explore new platforms for publication, SQ might find new ways of accommodating these experiments.)
Thanks to Katherine, Sarah and Carolyn for their comments in relation to my original posting. Carolyn’s comments, in particular, draw attention to the value of the academic elite viewer as one small, but potentially important, constituency of theatre audiences. The examples she gives of academic reviewers’ foregrounding of their own cognitive and emotional responses to a particular moment of theatre do indeed demonstrate some genuine thoughtfulness and insight on the part of those individuals; particularly Jeremy Lopez’ comments with regards to racial casting at the RSC (prompted by a moment in Gregory Doran’s ‘Hamlet’). I don’t have a problem with Jeremy’s (typically insightful) observations at all, and there are plenty of other moments in the back catalogue of Shakespearean theatre reviews in which reviewers say smart things about what the production has made them think as individuals. So please allow me to reiterate the point that I made towards the end of my original posting: although I am not personally interested in (or motivated by) work on audiences (and in particular by individual audience-member reactions) I do acknowledge that many other scholars are and that such engagement with the individualised point of reception occasionally produces interesting results. My one caveat in relation to this sort of personally-inflected reviewerly intervention is that such articulations always depend on the luck of who’s reviewing and, even then, they do not always appear to have moved us all that far from the problems of early Rezeptionsästhetik, with all of its neglect of the ideological plurality of the audience.
My major bone of contention is not instances of the sort that Carolyn cites (in which a piece of stage action is presented in detail and reflected upon by an individual reviewer), but rather instances in which precisely the kind of analytical detail of performance that Jeremy provides (detailed description of costuming prior to personal comments about racial casting) is lacking. In this regard, I think that it is very interesting to note that the moment to which Jeremy refers in Carolyn’s example is from the dumb show section of the play, during which, of necessity, even the most logocentric viewer’s attention is focussed on non-verbal elements of production. If more analysis of this sort (by which I mean re-presentation of and reflection upon details of performance that relate to the wider semiotic field of theatre, rather than an incessant focus on the words of the Shakespearean text and how it is delivered) went on in more reviews, then I think the discipline of the academic theatre review would improve greatly. For it’s precisely the set of spectatorial tools that Jeremy deploys (rather than logocentric, literary-critical, and essentially auditory ones of listening to the Shakespearean text and judging how it is delivered) that I see as lacking in many academic theatre reviews, which brings to the main point of this posting:
I want as actively as I can to suppress the notion that I am proposing a ‘positivist fantasy’ in which reviewers (merely) relate facts about a production for others to interpret at a later stage. And I see no tension at all between rejecting such a notion (as Carolyn does) and still wanting reviews that record meaningfully what a production was all about and how it worked, specifically and technically (as I want). As a researcher and a teacher who himself needs access to and frequently asks students to find out about particular productions I DO think, very strongly, that the best theatre reviews are those that contain substantial elements of thick description that elucidates a number of the key material realities of the production in question. I do, however, also acknowledge that providing what I can only think of in the light of Carolyn’s understanding of my initial posting as a ‘comprehensive forensic account’ of a production is an impossibility that we should neither attempt, nor expect.
All accounts are personal and subjective (even in actual forensic discourse, in which a witness might be lying, or have convinced themselves of a truth that does not exist, or simply not have seen what they might have had they occupied a different physical or subjective position). The problems surrounding this issue are very well expounded in Brecht’s ’Die Strassenszene, Grundmodell eines epischen Theaters’ (Versuche 10, 1950) known in English as the ‘Street Scene’ argument. More recently, the multiple strategies for and the difficulties inherent in re-presenting complex theatrical events with some useful degree of objectivity are outlined in Patrice Pavis’ accounts of the development of Perfomance Analysis as a discipline — particularly the differences between what Pavis terms ‘Reportage Analysis’ and ‘Reconstitution Analysis’ (the latter of which he describes as activity that: ‘restores the performance post festum with the help of all possible and imaginable documents, based on a systematic desire for studium [including the accumulation of] indexes, relics and documents, without always knowing how to use them or how to take them to clear and simple conclusions as to staging options and organizing principles…’).
Rather than attempting to defend a position that I don’t think I actually articulated (a pseudo-empirical fantasy of Formalist absolutism in which the totality of a past performance can be exhumed for the benefit of future scholars), I want to emphasise what I thought was my original call for the type of spectatorship (and performance analysis) that Pavis outlines and which is is typical in theatre and performance studies: a mode of experiencing and writing about theatre that draws on multiple ways of seeing and the pluralistic deployment of appropriate theoretical frameworks for analysis. Such instances (of what Katherine Rowe in this discussion rightly points to as ‘complex viewing’) regularly employ the theoretical perspectives of semiotics; structural analysis; frame analysis; gestic analysis; identity politics; proxemics and kinaesthetics; reception studies; reflexivity (and mise-en-abime); dramaturgical analysis; embodiment (including presence and absence); biomechanical analysis; ideological analysis; historical analysis and narratological analysis in accounts of productions that try to re-present performances without pinning them down to a rigid set of easily understandable signs and systems. In drawing from the various approaches listed above (and others) on a need-to-use basis (as prompted by the performance event), individual performance analysts do not try to reconstruct an entire event in a clinical or forensic manner (which activity would not only be impossible, but stultifyingly boring in the attempt) but rather they try to convey, through the use of concrete examples, the major principles of the performance event in question. Thus, whilst acknowledging (most often tacitly) the individual subjectivity of the reviewer or critic (which subjectivity cannot be avoided) they attempt to achieve a certain objectivity of analysis using clearly defined evidence mediated through particular theoretical approaches.
Whilst such attempts implicitly acknowledge that simply outlining the list of signs that were at play in the performance is a meaningless task, they accordingly still make use of those signs as part of a wider theoretical communication of what the production was trying to achieve. The use of evidence of this sort does not accordingly lead de facto to the kind of pseudo-scientific dismemberment of the theatrical event that post-Structuralist philosophers such as de Certeau and Merleau Ponty criticized from the phenomenological perspective of the primordial spectatorial experience (a point taken up admirably in Bert O. States’ ‘Great Reckonings in Little Rooms’); but, rather, it enables scholars to deploy evidence of what they see as constituting the essence of a production, re-presented from a variety of useful analytical perspectives.
The major points of my original posting were thus not about positivism, or formalism or Structuralism, but rather that: (i) it’s the evidence of performance that’s key to determining what a production is about (i.e. what a production has done in performative terms with the Shakespearean source text); (ii) that such evidence needs to come from somewhere other than quotations of the literary text (supposedly) being staged, or personal responses to generalized aspects of the production on behalf of individual audience members; (iii) that without a sound evidence base and adequately theorized modes of analysis, academic reviewers manifestly lack the authority to speak about Shakespeare as Performance and that (iv) this unfortunate fact can have significant detrimental effects on the potential collaboration of other scholars and theatre makers.
I really do think that one of the possible ways out of the difficulty that academic theatre reviewers have with writing about Shakespeare in performance could well be to cease seeing it as the staging of a play (and a canonical one at that), populated by known characters and divided into pre-determined scenes, speeches and thought impulses; but rather to consider the dramaturgy of the performance event as a radically different proposition to anything they have hitherto encountered bearing the name ‘Hamlet’, ‘Othello’ etc. If the production is any good, it will have radically different rhythms, repetitions, structures, divisions and linguistic and metaphorical registers than the source text it’s mediating — and we need to look for evidence of these interpretations in a variety of performative contexts. To turn to Pavis once again: ‘In analyzing the staging [of a classic text] we should think of it as an autonomous preserve that has no need to concretize, carry out or invalidate a pre-existing dramatic text or project of meaning’. To do this, to take the new performance text on its own terms and adequately to re-present it to others via a review, I think we really do need to watch in very different ways, and then give in our readers clear examples of the material practices of the performance in question, rather than what is so often done: the quoting of the literary source text and a glib remarking of how this textual relic was ‘interpreted’ as a version of ‘Shakespeare’.
I hope that this clarifies my point somewhat.
“on the stages”? Did you mean: The reception of the play in production as evidenced by theater reviews?
Yes, this sounds like a clearer way of putting it. Thanks. What I would like to express here is the quality of theatre reviews not merely as sources for the reconstruction of theatrical reception but also as acts of reception in their own right. This is actually a vexing problem in the analysis of historical productions: as the broad divergence of reviews on a single production shows, reviews say often more about the reviewer than they do about the production reviewed. In terms of general cultural impact, however, the review – which may reach a wider audience — may actually be more influential than the production itself.
There’s some truth in Moninger’s statement. The Merchant of Venice is often used as a parable for the Holocaust, then and now. “Jedem das Seine” hung at center stage in Hanan Snir’s 1995 production at Buchenwald. Snir insisted that remembering the Holocaust (and thereby coming to terms with it) has become the single most important task of the play even if Shakespeare had not intended these meanings.
I certainly agree. As the following paragraph in the essay points out, Moninger’s statement is strikingly pertinent. It seems to be important, though, to take into account the entire range of meanings conveyed by Moninger’s metaphor: Merchant has been “a stage for the drama of German postwar society’s dealings with Auschwitz” not only in the sense that productions have evoked the Holocaust (virtually regardless of the conscious intentions of directors and actors); Merchant has also – and often at the very same time — offered a “stage” for attempts at “coming to terms” with the past in that other sense of the phrase, i. e. in the sense of forgetting or, more precisely, of displacing the past. I would argue that Hanan Snir’s 1995 production (in some ways similar to Tabori’s famous Munich production) may be regarded as a self-conscious attempt to intervene into an established tradition of reception in which the play was used to simultaneously remember and displace the past. Moreover, the present article partly springs from a conviction that contemporary practices of dealing with the past (via the paradigm of “remembrance”) ought not to be confused with the approaches that characterized the period immediately after the war. It is the surprising difference of early postwar approaches that I find so interesting and meaningful.
Absolutely — canonical productions often become canonical only in retrospect, and the talking about them (e.g. among newspaper readers who never intended to go to the theatre) may be as important as the performances themselves. Do you have a statistic for the number of West German revivals of competing Shakespearean comedies during this period, by the way, such as Twelfth Night? (which I believe was the most frequently revived in Germany during the 1930s).
For the time up to 1945 it is relatively easy to grasp ratios and shifts in the Shakespeare canon of German theaters. This is mainly due to the detailed statistics published in the Shakespeare Jahrbuch. As these show very clearly, during the first third of the twentieth century Merchant was among the three or four most frequently performed plays by Shakespeare. Interestingly (and not inexplicably), performance numbers for Merchant can be seen to drop significantly after 1933.
For the time after 1945, it is more difficult to establish a clear sense of production and performance numbers. The following, however, can be stated with confidence: In the FRG, as opposed to the GDR, Merchant regained some, but not all, of its traditional presence, very quickly regaining a position as part of the standard repertoire but ranking behind the most popular plays. Between the end of the war and 1960 the most successful plays were Twelfth Night among the comedies and Hamlet among the tragedies. Midsummer Night’s Dream and Taming of the Shrew were also performed very frequently. Othello and Measure for Measure enjoyed intermittent spells of popularity.
While Hamlet (in some sense similar to Zuckmayer’s spectacularly successful The Devil’s General or even to Borchert’s The Man Outside) obviously was used to stage and to heroize a highly theatrical sense of problematic selfhood (cf. the comments on Carl Schmitt’s book on Hamlet below), the (ongoing) predilection for Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream betrays a need for romance and reconciliation. The Belmont scenes in Merchant were usually rendered in a way that catered to these needs.
cf. Carl Schmitt’s turn to writing a book about Hamlet after being removed from his chair in Berlin during the de-Nazification process?
Schmitt’s Hamlet oder Hekuba: Der Einbruch der Zeit in das Spiel (Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play) is indeed an interesting reference point in this context. There were two related strategies of using Shakespeare’s plays for managing and displacing the immediate past. Firstly, the continued performance of a largely unchanged Shakespearean canon might be used — unintentionally as well as intentionally — as a vehicle of pretending a theatrical continuity that could be taken to imply a general historical continuity, thus exorcizing National Socialism as a puzzling discontinuity in German history. Secondly, theater in general and Shakespeare’s plays in particular seemed to allow for strategic confusions between representation and figuration, immediacy and allegory, historicity and fabulation. Thus, the texts that emerged around productions of Merchant often switched back and forth between allegations that Shylock was a “typical Jew” and allegations that he was a highly specific individual who only happens to be Jewish (this, in fact, may be an ongoing tendency in the reception of the play). Similarly, Schmitt’s complicated argument in Hamlet or Hecuba – which has been read as an indirect “apologia pro vita sua” (Victoria Kahn) – insists on the dual character of Shakespeare’s text as both highly politicized and highly aestheticized, as both direct and elusive. Due to a discourse of indirection, which had been well established already before the war, Shakespeare’s work was an important reference point for covertly engaging the past.
If my information is correct, Schmitt’s 1956 book on Hamlet was based on the introduction he had penned for his own daughter’s 1952 translation of Lilian Winstanley’s Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1921). Interestingly, in the context of Sellner’s 1955 production of Merchant the Darmstadt theater published an extract from this introduction.
I think this is absolutely right, and superbly argued, and even the simultaneously explicit, damning and evasive tone of ‘those towards whom one had become guilty’ seems perfectly appropriate.
This is a tremendous essay, from which I have learned an enormous amount, and I’d be very interested to hear your views on the incident I discuss in my new book in which Allied prisoners performed Merchant at the instigation of their captors at Stalag 383 in Hohenfels. One thing I’d have liked from your last paragraph, though, would have been a suggestion as to what the history you have so brilliantly set out and reinterpreted has to say to the present moment.
I am very curious to learn about the incident at Hohenfels, which is entirely new to me. (In his Shylock in Germany, Andrew Bonnell mentions a 1944 production of Merchant by German POWs at Tatura, Camp 3, in Australia; and at the Ottawa conference on Wartime Shakespeare in 2009 I heard a paper by Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney on a 1943 production by Polish POWs at an Oflag in Murnau.)
As to your wish for a concluding comment that would indicate the implications of the argument for the present moment (which I would briefly describe as the moment of a fully established and mediatized “memory culture”), I completely take your point. A first general and perhaps sweeping answer would be that the reception of Merchant in the early FRG shows that it is necessary to always differentiate and interrogate the (more than ever ubiquitous) concept of “remembrance”. That any conceptual dichotomy of “forgetting” and “remembering” considerably reduces the real complexity of collective and individual engagements with the past may be a truism – but I think it is a truism that always ought to be kept in mind. On the one hand, “forgetting” is by necessity an effort by which that which is to be forgotten may come to be implied and thus re-presented. On the other hand, “remembrance” is bound to put the past at disposal and thus to displace the past (e. g. the current tendency to appropriate the Holocaust as a common reference point for the construction of a common European discourse of memory). At the present moment, when National Socialism and the Holocaust are slipping or have been slipping beyond the threshold defined by Walter Scott’s “‘Tis Sixty Years Since,” these problems are particularly pressing.
Secondly, the reception of Merchant in the early FRG reminds us of the strong affirmative tendencies of theatre as a cultural and social institution. Current productions of Merchant (in Germany and elsewhere) most often seem to be based on a tacit reliance on the potential of the stage to open up vexing discourses and legacies such as anti-Semitism to a seemingly open process of collective interrogation. I think there is good cause for more skepticism and for quite rigorous analytical engagements with such artistic interventions (or excursions) into the discourses of collectivity.
As to post-1945 productions of Merchant (especially in Germany), foregrounding the play’s invocation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust seems just as precarious a strategy as downsizing such implications (as for example Dieter Dorn’s much-discussed and brilliant 2001 production in Munich may have tried to do). However, exactly because Merchant is, as I actually would suggest, largely inadequate as a vehicle for remembrance of the Holocaust the play may also have the virtue of lying square to established discourses: the play – and especially the figure of Shylock – thus remains a potent provocation that may disturb the facile closures and easy appropriations that often seem to be inherent in contemporary “memory culture.”
I think it’s clear that what you’re suggesting here is not that Moninger is wrong, but that his characterization of the immediate postwar period is too simplistic. But I’m struck, in reading your response here, by your last few sentences on why it’s important to put the immediate postwar period in conversation with present productions. Might this be something you want to use in the conclusion of your paper?
This is a small point, but: As someone who is not as familiar with Adorno’s piece as I ought to be, I’m finding the second part of this paragraph a bit confusing. I’m not quite getting how the second Adorno quote is related to what comes before or after it. The larger general point of this paragraph is clear (and crucial to your ensuing argument) but I’m stumbling over connecting third sentence to the rest of the paragraph. Perhaps it needs to be set up differently so that the flow between the previous passage and this passage makes that connection clearer?
Interesting that the “economical” style is seen both as meeting current needs and as authorized by having been the original style. I wonder if there’s a sense of also wanting to relate the “playing on” after trauma to the Elizabethan period too? (This is really more of an idle query and response than a suggestion you incorporate this line of thought into your paper! But since I’m often curious about when and why practitioners reach back to the Elizabethan period to authorize their choices, I was struck by this.)
Wonderful example of what you’ve been discussing–the doubling up of meaning for “chaos” is really something!
Perhaps you ought to cut this paragraph’s final sentence? It adds one more name to keep track of (already potentially difficult for readers not familiar with German theatre) and I’m not sure what it’s adding that’s really significant. You might consider replacing this sentence with one summing up Pempelfort’s 1956 production so that it offers some sort of contrast to or alignment with the approach of his 1935 production: did the latter attempt to be philo-Semitic?
re “can be compared only to the debate about the atomic bomb”: what a loaded analogy! It really tries to turn the tables of moral failings on the Americans, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure this is the right way to end this section. It doesn’t quite recap what you’ve pointed out convincingly here: that the same theatre practitioners were involved in productions before and after the war, and that the same anti-Semitic responses continued to appear. With this list of dates in the late 1940s and 1950s, it seems to suggest exactly what you are arguing against: that there was a brief break before the play came back. This paragraph looks towards your next section, but I’d like to see you reinforce what you’ve just argued, and then start the next section w these new points. (This might be the place, if you move this text, to come back to some of the questions that Michael Dobson raised about the frequency of MV performances as compared to Shakespeare’s other plays. A quick footnote, perhaps.)
This last sentence–exclusion, not rehabilitation–is a key point of your argument. Could it be highlighted earlier? This section feels like it took a while to get to this, but it’s central to what you’re trying to argue.
Just echoing Michael Dobson here: that last phrase perfectly encapsulates what you’re arguing in terms of the German relationship to the past.
The opening sentence of this paragraph (and section) could be stronger: it’s not immediately clear to me what you’re conveying with it. The phrase “created significant relations and displacements” feels especially vague.
re “to simply ‘play on’ in order to secretly ‘play away’ the past”: I like this phrase–it’s very clear and evocative. I think it’s the first time it’s been used in this piece (the idea of “playing away” has come up before, but not quite as clearly put) and I wonder if it should be foregrounded earlier (especially given that the title of your paper highlights the idea of “playing on”, it would be good for that to be defined up front).
You mention in your first note that this stems out of a larger project on Shylock in Germany. I hope that as part of this larger project you consider at greater length the issues of reception. In a number of places in this paper, as you do at the end of this paragraph, you comment on a reviewer being torn between two responses, or as having a discrepancy between the articulated response and its subtext. Reception is hard to talk about, but I think it is an important window into the relationship between this play and its German stage history. How can a production do something other than what its audience is able to see? Again, I’m not suggesting that you incorporate this more fully into this paper, which has its own aims, but that you consider exploring this aspect further in your ongoing research. As your own comments above suggest, it really is central the questions the larger project is exploring.
Yes! See my comment early in the paper in which I, too, wish for a conclusion like this.
I’ve left a number of specific comments below, some of which are simply exclamations of wonder, others are suggestions for changes, and a third category of comments are musings that oughtn’t be seen as asking for changes to this paper. That last group of comments suggests how rich I find this paper. My overall thought is that I’d like to see some better signposting to guide the reader through your argument–highlighting earlier the importance of “playing away” and using your section breaks more effectively to signal shifts in the argument.
This is a fascinating essay that provides a cultural history for Merchant totally new to me, and excitingly revisionist in scope. It is beautifully researched and subtly argued. In the comments below I deal almost exclusively with small matters of phrasing. Here, though, let me ask a question about the productions with Pronto and Deutsch which, you suggest, rehabilitated Shylock, emphasized philo-Semitism, and therefore did a different sort of compensatory work from productions in the early 1950s. Rather than mark a break from tradition, however, I wonder whether these productions returned to a 19th century attempt to do something similar with Shylock (though without the specter of the Holocaust) — that is, to emphasize his heroic potential and to play him as a tragic figure. That was the case in the UK and (to a lesser degree in the US), when Victorian sensibilities turned Shylock into a noble Jew — most notably in Irving’s staging, which often concluded with Shylock’s tragic exit from trial scene; and this tradition was picked up in postwar productions in both the UK and the US. Might this have been true in Germany as well — that is, might directors Kraut and Stroux have in part attempted to rehabilitate Shylock by situate their productions in a longer cultural history, and stage history, sympathetic to the Jew?
I’ll add comments to specific paragraphs later.
Though the phrases “playing on” and “playing away” are central to your argument, I find the first, “playing on,” unclear. Your translation of Braun suggests that “playing on” means effecting a seamless continuity, but your use of it in this paragraph — “playing on…National Socialism” — is ambiguous at best. Might a clearer translation of that phrase be more helpful, despite the loss of the play on words (“playing away” is less problematic) that would result?
“uneerie artistic continuities” sounds very strange
I think I know what you mean by “imaginative social integration,” but could you be clearer?
Some awkwardness in the final sentence: “compensation in relation to” perhaps should be “compensation of”? And the phrase “instrumentalized with the intention of offering compensations” I’m certain could be made clearer. How is a play instrumentalized? I’m also a bit uncertain about the phrase “German majority society” which is used throughout. It has odd echoes of “the Arian race.” Is that what you mean?
Why are the rings “ominous”? Unclear.
Try “new social and moral beginning.”
For “accentuation.” read “emphasis”?
For “corpus,” read “number”?
Technically, “it is we” rather than “it is us.”
Quote should be quotations, passim. I think you can omit “As I would like to suggest” and just make the assertion. Some awkwardness in the final line of a paragraph: to become guilty towards somthing is not idiomatic. Perhaps something like “those for whose fates one had begun to accept the guilt”?
This paragraph seems to me the heart of your essay. It is wonderfully lucid.
I think there’s little to suggest irony here, especially given the context you have provided, so why even raise the possibility?
Just “bespeaks,” no “of.” Also, for “shunned from,” try “shied away from”?
I find the translated quotation confusing — again, becuase of the use of “play away”: how can one play away over dead bodies without playing them (the bodies?) away? I simply don’t understand what this is saying. See my earlier comment about play on and play away.
I agree with jbulman’s comments on the merits of this essay – it definitely adds to our knowledge and understanding of the reception of The Merchant of Venice in the post-war Federal Republic especially in the fraught period of the 1950s.
Yes, there were earlier traditions of philo-semitic readings of Shylock that could be appealed to within the German stage tradition: Rudolf Schildkraut’s portrayal was a famous example in the early 1900s, for example. Then there were portrayals of Shylock that avoided anti-Jewish stereotyping and strove for psychological verisimilitude and intensity, like Fritz Kortner’s versions. Kortner famoulsy reprised the role for television in the 1960s, which falls after the period discussed in this paper. Ackermann rightly points to the ambivalence of the concept of “philo-semitism”. Philosemitism did not always avoid the pitfalls of essentialism or politically ineffectual sentimentality. The allusion to the stage history of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise is germane here: many actors played both Nathan, the positive Jewish exemplar, and the villain Shylock, drawing on the same repertoire of costume, make-up, “Jewish” mannerisms.
There are many illuminating points in this paper – I found the references to the reception of the essay on the play by the Jewish communitarian socialist Gustav Landauer particularly interesting, for example. The title of the article perhaps makes clearer sense to a German reader – “playing away” has various extraneous connotations in English, but the occasional verbal tic should not detract from what is a very worthwhile contribution to the history of both Shakespeare reception and the cultural history of the Adenauer period in West Germany, that was always much more complex than we might assume.
Greetings Robert (if I may):
Since we’re both writing on Shakespeare in Japan, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a few comments on your riveting essay. The paper is a diligently researched and incisive discussion on the peculiar patriarchal, racial, and imperial resonances of an early Japanese adaptation of Othello – a production which has not been examined closely, to my knowledge, by other comparative drama studies in English. It’s not mentioned, for instance, in either Kishi and Bradshaw’s book (Shakespeare in Japan), or Fujita and Pronko’s Shakespeare East and West. As I recall, it receives only passing mentions in the collections Performing Shakespeare in Japan and Shakespeare and the Japanese Stage. Consequently, there’s a lot of rich material here about Kawakami’s Osero that has not been tapped with such thoroughness or acumen. I especially enjoyed its colorful portrait of Kawakami as a pivotal figure and savvy entrepreneur who promoted Japanese theatre to Europeans and European theatre to the Japanese. But the chief insight that emerges here is how astutely the Japanese could (despite their supposedly rather homogeneous society) appropriate Shakespeare’s Othello to dramatize some of their own uniquely Japanese anxieties/fantasies surrounding ethnic and national identity – i.e. striving to differentiate themselves from the rest of Asia (thereby justifying their right to occupy it).
That said, the article’s greatest asset (its expertly etched vignettes of Meiji Japan’s attitudes toward gender, its emergent anthropology of racial difference, and the nation’s geopolitical ambitions that sparked the Sino-Japanese war) may also be its principal liability. That is, the essay at times threatens to fragment into three different essays, as the transitions between the various topics could be articulated more seamlessly. The section on “Imperial Performance and the ‘House of Peoples’” does a superb and dexterous job of inter-weaving the various narrative threads. But gender, race, and imperialism are 3 hefty balls to be juggling simultaneously. To its credit, the essay manages this feat with surprising poise. Yet perhaps some of the voluminous historical material here (as fascinating as it is, especially to Asian historians) could be shunted to the endnotes, and a little more attention given to the adaptation itself (snippets of the text, the famed banquet scene) and the inter-sections between these discourses of identity and politics. Let me be clear: the essay does recognize these inter-sections but could – via a few choice revisions – announce its intent to chart them more clearly upfront. The final two sentences are golden – my main suggestion is merely that the paper foreshadow this conclusion sooner.
erasing and [insert space]
Bianca [not "Bianco"]
Unclear what the reference to “Currently” is…does it mean 21c. Japan?
Or does it refer to Takahashi’s Japan? I take it the latter, but it should be made clearer
This is a really excellent article. I have read pieces on this “Osero” adaptation before, but nothing resembling this for sheer density of contextualisation and clarity of argument. The case it makes seems irresistible. The only specific comments i have made on individual paragraphs concern typos and the like.
In Performing Shakespeare in Japan, Ninagawa confesses that his Othello was a “flop,” and claims “the racial tensions between white and black people makes the play wrong for a Japanese to produce” (217). This might be an interesting anecdote to mention at some point, since this article persuasively demonstrates the opposite – showing how effectively Kawakami and Emi Suiin managed to transplant the narrative into a Japanese context. Fidelity to the original text, this would suggest, can inhibit the cultural transmission of Shakespeare. Ninagawa’s lament, moreover, indicates that the unsavory history which this article recovers is at risk of being forgotten, even by the Japanese.
This is a great suggestion. In a sense, Ninagawa’s comment reflects the post-war Japan attitude toward Othello, while Kawakami/Emi illustrate an earlier engagement with the play during the imperial period (1895-1945). As you suggest, Osero shows that it was possible to transplant the story to a Japanese context by adapting it to a situation that made sense to Japanese at the time. I suspect that one of the reasons for this successful transmission of Shakespeare’s play is that most Japanese thought of their country as a multi-cultural and multi-racial empire until 1945. In the post-war period, this view was replaced by the notion that the Japanese were (and had always been) a homogeneous people. I am very appreciative of this comment because it gives me some ideas of how I might better integrate my discussion of race and empire in the article.
I wonder if Kawakami’s foreign experience on the world stage played a role in his success in these war plays? He seems to be the first Japanese to perform in the U.S. and Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Might it be useful to consult James Brandon’s new book, Kabuki’s Forgotten War?
The Lambs’ Tales had a major impact throughout turn-of-the-century East Asia. Various translations of the text influenced a decade of performance and understanding of Shakespeare in Korea, Japan, and China.
A minor point: For my money, the “blacken” pun distracts from the detailed arguments of this passage.
re the last sentence, “consideration for the Japanese spectator trumped eery other consideration”: I’m not sure I know how to assume what “consideration” means here. Do you mean that Shakespeare was adapted so as to conform as closely as possible to theatre familiar to Japanese audiences?
Why is Osero more of a real appropriation than Money Talks? Both seem to take Shakespeare’s play and turn it into a Japanese story, albeit through different theatrical languages.
This dance performance seems to contradict what you’ve described as Kawakami’s refusal to incorporate Japanese theatrical languages into his adaptation. So why did he include it here? Is there a contrdiction, or am I misunderstanding how you characterized the play?
I wonder if this whole section on gender could be tighter. The essential point, it seems to me, is that the ambivalence towards Tomone and the depiction of Biwako as a prostitute are conveyed through the social and historical context of the play. There’s a secondary point that the period’s shifting theatrical conventions are tied to shifting gender conventions offstage. But given the complexity of this paper, and what’s going to be the need to pare parts of it down (a point I’ll address in my general comments), this might be a place to consider doing some of that paring.
The last sentence of this paragraph establishes clearly why this context is necessary, but that isn’t necessarily clear leading up to that sentence. I think you could establish this importance at the start and condense the detailed example of other translations so that you can move on to your more important point: the importance of bringing race into the Othello story.
I would recommend moving the middle point of this paragraph (the second sentence and first clause of the third) into a footnote, and joining this idea to the first paragraph. The scholarly history of thinking about race in the early modern period is both more complicated than this and, in this brief form, would already be familiar to many SQ readers.
This section on the idea of bad blood, beginning here and continuing through the next few paragraphs, is another place I would consider condensing.
I do like your point in the middle of this paragraph, that “In castigating his contemporaries … he anticipated later views … construction of new social barriers to render such ‘pollution’ impossible.”
And here I start to see the strong connection between the context you’re providing and its relationship toward understanding Osero.
But here I feel like I’m losing the thread of your argument.
I like the last point of this paragraph: you can’t use India as a model for understanding Japanese performances of Shakespeare because the two cultures had very different relationships toward England. But I again think that the first two paragraphs of this section are a place that you could cut back. The section might flow better if you were to jump into it at the start of the next paragraph.
I think you mentioned earlier in the paper that the banquet was staged in a more traditional style of Japanese theatre. Is that right? I’d love some more detail here about what was being performed. What was happening on stage? What did it look like? How did its style of theatre relate to what was happening in the rest of the play?
This is just a placeholder comment to say that I’m in the process of putting up individual comments and then will return with something more general up here!
This is fascinating. Are there any recorded responses to this production? As you say, it seems likely that they responded differently in Okinawa. In general the question of audience response seems curious to this production, given its use of new theatrical forms and its self-reflexivity on contemporary Japanese empire building.
In the paragraphs before this, it’s quite clear that much of Osero follow the story line of Othello. What’s much more interesting are the moments where it swerves, making the case–as you do here–that Osero is a play that is directly connected to Japanese culture at this moment. I think you could cut back on the account of the similarities between the two in favor of concentrating on the moments of difference, which are more telling. (Indeed, the recitation of the Osero plot can be distracting, since I keep finding myself thinking, “but this is just like in Othello, so what am I missing?”)
This last paragraph is wonderful in how it drives home your point that this production is specifically tied to turn-of-century Japan. But its power is diluted by the summaries that come before it, which make Osero sound much more like a run-of-the-mill Othello.
The information in this footnote is interesting and helpful for understanding how the play’s theatrical language worked and differed from traditional Japanese theatre. I’d encourage incorporating it into the main body of your paper.
I learned a lot from this paper, and there is a great deal here that is interesting. But, reading this in the context of an issue on Shakespeare and performance, I think it needs some reshaping, bringing the focus more clearly onto the performance aspects of this play and, more generally, pruning the length and breadth of this piece.
I would agree with Todd Borlik’s comment that there is a lot going on here, and that while the range of topics is mostly deftly handled, the range gets in the way of following the through-line of your argument. My primary desire is to learn more about the performance of this play–what did the banquet scene look like, for instance? I’ve signaled some of these moments in my comments below. But the general question to which I kept returning was, What was happening on stage? What did it look like? Subsidiary questions, like how did the audience react to the novelty of what they were seeing, are also of interest, but perhaps less crucial.
In other words, this piece in its current structure seems more focused on a reading of Shakespeare in a specific cultural context, rather than on a performance of Shakespeare in that context. There are some wonderful tidbits of information about performance here, including the great early material about Kawakami’s interest in creating a new theatrical form. But that tends to get lost in the larger picture, where the bulk of time is spent on cultural and historical context rather than that theatrical one. Given the length of the piece as it is, reshaping it towards a stronger performance angle would mean pruning it both to create a new emphasis and to trim the overall length. You clearly have a great mastery of this information, and I hesitate to recommend cutting it. But I do think the piece is too long and too dense as it is. I’ve made some specific trimming suggestions in my notes below that might help in identifying easily cut material,
There is much that is richly of interest here, if the general shape of the paper can make its argument more clearly marked and, for this special issue, more tied into theatrical practice.
Thank you very much for your many helpful comments, Sarah. I will be working my way through them and will write back to you if I have any specific questions. I did want to raise one issue that came up in your general comments where you mention that at times the paper reads more like a study of Japanese cultural context. To some extent, this is, of course, true but I believe that this paper does treat performance in a few different senses of the word: I look at theatrical practice in Japan in the early 20th century, and particularly in Osero, I study other types of performance such as the human showcases in the notorious House of Peoples, and lastly I talk about performance in a metaphoric sense in my section on Japan “performing” its empire. In fact, I devote a significant part of the paper to these latter two types of “performance.” Do you think it would be helpful to make this clearer at the beginning of the paper when I revise it?
Glad you found this helpful. FYI, I just heard there’s a new modern-dress production of Othello opening next month in Osaka in which the titular character will be portrayed as a half-Brazilian member of the yakuza….perhaps this might be prove more successful than Ninagawa’s “flop.”
Incidentally, I hope my earlier comments recommending a little bolt-tightening didn’t sound too critical. I learned a lot from this piece and think it is a stellar contribution to the scholarship on Shakespeare and Japan.
This is interesting. I always took the extended dance-like sequences of kabuki as an equivalent of soliloquy, since the performer is often alone on stage. No drama, I suppose, always requires a listener. It seems ironic that the Japanese theater was thinking of soliloquies as a sign of the superiority of English drama at the same time that the English-speaking theatre was having difficulty with precisely these non-naturalistic devices (see, e.g., William Archer’s The Old Drama and the New).
Fascinating. Does this mean that the soldiers were under-rehearsed extras or that they actually thought Washiro was the villain of the piece? From what I have read, many cultures find it impossible that a man who kills his wife can be anything except a villain.
This essay was of enormous interest to me, as it answered a lot of questions that I had when I was, long ago, trying to write on the play’s history in the theater. When I asked about it in Japan I was told that it was a hard play for Japanese to understand because they had no racism. Even at the time I knew about the Ainu (the American Karen Sunde uses an Ainu as protagonist of the Kabuki Othello) and about the 3 generations that it takes for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen. The point about different equivalents of racism is therefore very interesting, though, like a lot of other things in the essay, it could probably be made more briefly.
I can see the problem of this kind of essay, which needs so much background explanation for an audience largely unfamiliar with the subject matter, and I don’t want to make it longer than it is. At the same time, there were things that I thought needed further explanation: e.g., that the “realistic” style of the production didn’t appeal to audiences (why? or was it the play itself that they didn’t like?) and that soliloquies were apparently considered realistic, which was certainly not the case in western theatre at this period.
So I agree with Sarah that it would be helpful to know more about the theatrical side — though this may be hard to retrieve from such a distance. The adaptation itself, however, presumably shows whether there was a noticeable difference between the linguistic registers of the Othello and Iago characters. Does Iago seem more accessible to the audience and therefore more attractive, because he sounds like them, whereas Othello seems to belong to another world? I think that this point could be relevant to the essay’s main concern, which is the sense of national identity.
I’d say that a lot of cutting could be done in the footnotes. Readers who don’t know Japanese can’t really be told to “see” a work that is available only in that language; they’ll simply have to take the author’s word for it. Perhaps, also, some of the material on the perception of Japan in the west (say, over the Port Arthur massacre) isn’t strictly necessary for the discussion of the production. In other cases, I think we really do need the information but it could perhaps be put more briefly. But this is a very interesting essay with a lot of good material.
This paragraph seems to me to bring the notion of the “demand” a few paragraphs up into much clearer focus; possible to anticipate this earlier? Also in the following paragraph, the notion of who is the interlocutor of the audience–whether actor and/or character are actually “on the scene” strikes me as important. Surely this will be developed below.
This paragraph and the following two: I think I’m following the drift of the argument here, but the move from inquirer to candy unwrapper is a bit distracting: there’s a chain of resemblances here having to do with prophecy:more signification::scene of God’s presence:theatre. I can see the paradigm, but I think here we need to understand the larger claim more clearly–how/why Paul is apposite for the theatrical situation in general, rather than for (as it comes to feel) for the dynamics of Henry VIII.
This strikes me as an eyeopening essay, one that’s sure to be productive and provocative; I have two very minor thinking points with regard to an revisions that might be undertaken:
a. the necessity for the “more life” reading could be underlined a little more; I have the sense of what this adds to current ways of talking about spectatorship and theatre, but I’d like that to be claimed more urgently. What is it that we’re not able to say or know without this kind of analysis–a kind of analysis that might be retrained on other plays, performances, etc.?
b. the reading of Henry VIII is careful, detailed, persuasive; it might be useful from time to time to highlight the ways in which a kind of more-life-desiring spectatorial positon is produced, or in which the interface between more-signification and more-life is articulated as a feature of performance. This does happen, but I think it might happen more often.
“the integer of his politics”
This phrase clarifies a readerly challenge I’ve been grappling with through the opening paragraphs of this exciting but very dense essay. Here’s what’s exciting: to see a scholar subject a dominant critical metaphor of his field (haunting) to really careful scrutiny, and propose a new one (prophecy). When one set of metaphors comes heavily under scrutiny, however, the textual effect is to make the reader (this reader at least) hyper-alert to the others that may be in play. For example: roles (ghosts) imagined as a “community” (paragraph 1) and then as “theatrical citizens” (paragraph 2)… I’m aware now that political community is at stake in this essay, and not clear exactly how. But it’s comparably harder to table this question as I read, now that I’ve been directed to think about the scholarly use of metaphors.
Nearly every paragraph adds an additional metaphorical frame, much of it gorgeous and evocative. All of it is potentially in play for meta-critical analysis and only some of it has been flagged as “about to be under scrutiny”. “Speculative wager” (paragraph 3) particularly grabs me (see note above). And my eagerness to hear it fully mined is getting in the way of processing the next metaphor that comes on stage.
In an essay committed to re-examining critical metaphors, it helps (it helps this reader at least) to keep the rest of the prose scrupulously neutral and plain — unmetaphorized — except where the author really wants to dig deeply into a critical concept and draw me along with him.
“speculative wager”: a marvelous coinage that I hope will be unpacked fully later. Immediate questions that it evokes: there’s a market here? there are dynamics of risk being calculated? by whom and for whom?
I’m about to enter some threads of commentary and I’ll come back with a more global reading when I’m done, but I want to disclose at the start that I am not a performance specialist, (though I have always been interested in this particular gothic thread in performance studies). So my comments will instantiate both the opportunities and costs of an open scholarly review phase: which is to say, hearing back from generalist Shakespeareans, rather than only from those very close in field.
I see this as appropriate for SQ, a journal that serves a broad audience of Shakespeareans. But it does set a higher bar for an author to hurdle: to be responsible both to the comments of experts and in-field-generalists. So I want to acknowledge that at the outset of my commenting.
This section is fascinating as a reading of the performative logic of I Cor. 14. It does not yet sufficiently make clear the connection between more life on the scene and early modern understandings of prophecy, though. It sounds as if there’s a body of evidence that establishes this text as the influential source and gloss (that’s the assertion in the next paragraph). But without some sense of how the text circulates in the Renaissance and in what contexts, it feels like a digression at this point in the essay, with passing references to H8 interspersed.
At least according to the OED (prophecy 3 a&b), the direct influence of the passage was earlier in the 16th century with Tyndale and his apologists. I haven’t seen anyone do anything with the passage later in the century, but it would be possible to make a case for it as emblematic of broader practices. (Howard Dobin does something along these lines.)
I do have a great deal of affection for Paul’s passage … it’s so wonderfully cranky.
“Buckingham is figured as the King’s rival as much because he can be the subject of a perfectly effective prophecy…” — great point.
These readings across Buckingham’s reported and staged actions are very compelling. The one thing I’m wondering about is the sense that this sort of character fragmentation is a non-normative state for Shakespeare or for the play, and is the product of absolutist rhetoric. I’m thinking in this context of Alan Sinfield’s wonderful essay in Faultlines (“When is a Character not a Character?”) and the way in which the ability to read for this kind of heterogeneity enables dissident readings (enables political critique). In your argument, H8 associates such disarticulation iwith political hegemony (if I’m reading correctly)? Would that associate unified character (or unified subjectivity, for the audience), by contrast, with dissenting politics? Or do the political vectors not align with character modalities in a tidy way?
Yes, thanks for the reference. I’ll take a look back at that.
I think I’d say yes to your last question. Character fragmentation is common in Shakespeare. I’d say that H8 stages this particular instance as an effect of an absolutist dramaturgy (which is in contrast to later productions of character in the play). But, then again, the sheer incongruity of the Buckinhams seems to insist upon (something like) a dissident reading! Fragmentation may be more about vulnerability and potentiality than a determinate political outcome; it depends who takes it up and how. Wolsey produces and uses fragmentation one way; the play (and i!) use it another way.
Aha– this answers my previous question somewhat. Perhaps the two paragraphs might be integrated? Indeed, the first several paragraphs in this section might work well to conclude the previous, since surrogation doesn’t turn up until 5 paragraphs down…
“While we can understand…the analytic model of more life on the scene helps us understand the new, improvisatory emergence of the political technology of patience…” Feels like switching horses in mid-stream. My instinct here would be to let patience wait to enter the scene in the next section, and stay with the payoffs of “more life” as a complementary critical stance to surrogation, on the logic spelled out above.
“We have seen surrogation at work in…” For those who don’t know Roach’s work (i.e., those non-performance types, again) this sentence may be opaque. If the concept of surrogation is important to this argument (and I think it may be — see above) then this paragraph could be a place for fuller explication of what it brings to the discussion of Buckingham and what it cannot account for.
“the obvious court of appeal” sounds a little glib — as if this turn to surrogation is no more than a dutiful gesture. But if I’m reading correctly, this is a crucial section in the essay — an opportunity to demonstrate the significance and scope of what you are grappling with here. Those who know the concept of surrogation may want to hear you work out in some detail the differences with “more life on the scene”. (Those who don’t know the concept will value this explication just as much — see next comment.)
“Court of appeal” also seems slightly off because it implies a competing story. It seems to me (so far) that as an analytic framework “more life…” complements, rather than opposes, surrogation. My memory of Roach’s argument makes surrogation something more than “the iteration of disappointment” — since the repetition may be witting or unwitting of the inheritances that shape it. What i find valuable about the concept is the way it accounts for the agency of specific roles in social terms: roles carry forward because they have a specific social function, they serve to maintain certain networks of meaning. It’s the networks of meaning that require someone to play the role.
Would it be fair to say that “more life on the scene” names a prospective disposition of a similar kind? It’s not just that there are contingencies of interest, knowledge, meaning brought in by individual audience members (desire for candy). It’s that there will be future networks of meaning into which this action (and these roles) are absorbed and by means of which they will become meaningful. This fact both constrains and enables performance, according to specific mechanisms.
“More life…” calls attention to the indeterminacy of that prospective disposition and how (by what mechanisms) indeterminate future networks of meaning constrain/enable performance. (Conversely, surrogation calls attention to the mechanisms by which past networks of meaning constrain/enable performance.)
What you name “the perfect performative of the royal imagination” is an attempt to fix that indeterminacy by saying “make it so”. But there are other performance mechanisms besides this, that address “more life on the scene…” Anent which, draw curtains to discover Patience, on a monument, smiling at grief…?
“To return, at the end, to If…” missing phrase?
A phrase that I should have cut but didn’t. “To return, at the end, to” can be struck out.
“crowd…crowd”: repeated word?
“denies the possibility of “venturing at’ … as an archaism” — confusing sentence.
A compelling reading — wonderful paragraph.
This closing move returns me to a question I wondered about initially at paragraph 96, where you observe “counting too well intercepts the always-excessive, always-not-yet “more life…” Up there it seemed mostly out of the scope of this essay but the gesture to riot and the future fire makes me wonder if it is germane after all. To what degree is this analysis dependent in fact on hindsight — on knowing what happened and imagining prior audiences knowing what happened before their own moment of audition? Are there payoffs for this mode of reading for tonight’s performance? What performance mechanisms could it illuminate when we don’t have the advantage of hindsight? How much does this concept depend for its analytic purchase (like surrogation) on a series of retrospective historical frames?
Thanks for these questions. The fire, at the moment, is functioning more as a flourish than as part of the analysis. (And it is, of course, a fantasy flourish. But the coincidence is still too perfect to resist!) These questions help me think about how to integrate this moment (and, more broadly, to think about Prof. Worthen’s suggestion to make the reading more explicit in its relationship to more life).
In sum, I’d say that there’s always going to be a deferral. Here I’m looking for symptoms of tonight’s performance (of the dense and multiple potentiality of its life and liveness) in a text that’s out of joint with that moment–written before, purporting (at times) to respond to the audience at hand, and, also, a history. Rather than eliminating deferral (Artaud would be so happy!), I hope that the audience of tonight’s performance comes into focus. And that deferral / surrogation get generically shifted from the gothicism of ghosts that you note above.
So I’m setting up the fire as a (coincidental) analogue to the dramatic text that registers more life.
Coming back to this section having read the whole essay carefully, I’m seeing more clearly the value of a short detour on the “dramaturgy of popular prophecy”, but I’m still not clear that I Cor 14 is the most effective way to source that for this essay. Might it make sense to look to medieval drama here, instead. There you would certainly find a performance tradition of vernacular theology that involves staging prophecy. Possibly useful in this context: Risden, Moranski, and Yandell, eds., Prophet Margins.
Coming back to this reaction having read the whole essay: I have the same questions still. This is a key verb for the whole argument, though its subject travels a bit (sometimes the play is wagering, sometimes the critic. Of course, any production is itself an act of financial speculation, sometimes disastrously so). Precisely because of this instability, the verb seemed unearned to me until the very end of the essay, where the Epilogue explains its importance. Two suggestions, then, for preventing such a response: 1) turn that interesting line into an epigraph (“Tis ten to one this play can never please / All that are here”); and 2) explicitly work out the value of “wager” as a critical rubric the first time it’s introduced.
This whole section resonated in wonderful ways for me with Linda Charnes’ study of proleptic and analeptic structures in the history plays (Notorious Identity), especially re the function of notoriety (Henry’s divorce-to-come and the executions-to-come). To the extent that Shakespeareans outside the performance-studies world are part of the desired audience for the essay, this might make a useful point of reference.
See also Linda Charnes, “Reading for the Wormholes: Micro-periods from the Future” in Early Modern Culture, copyright 2007
I found the language used here to be incredibly helpful in negotiating other instances where prophecy onstage must be related to historical record offstage; with the audience in between. One further point I’d find interesting: this article covers prophecy, what of cursing? It seems to me that might be another site to mine for instances of “more life”. Some curses are prophetic, to be sure, but what of the ones that aren’t? Are those different in their display of “more life” than prophecies? Like in my comments below, the examples I would reach for are in Richard III. Margaret’s curses function like prophecies, most of the time, and “more life” is a lovely way of handling her Elizabeth curse – that she die neither wife, mother, nor England’s queen, the one she gets “wrong” – but what about the phrases that are simple curses, like the ones she hurls at Richard (who then turns them back to her)?
The well-made, incredibly important point mid-way through this paragraph – that the audience is an inevitable scenic participant – is lovely; but having stated the primary text as Henry VIII, I wonder about references to candy-unwrapping and texting. Is it worth paying attention to the differences in sensual experiences within the theater throughout time? Henry VIII (and other Renaissance plays) are performed today where there would be candy-unwrappers; but those audiences exist in a post-Handke world – and Shakespeare’s would not have. Certainly there are Shakespeare analogues for candy-wrappers and texting; but the later references to language that would have resonated in specific ways for a Renaissance audience make me wonder about the relationship of this incredibly important component, the audience, to time.
I’m very much enjoying the reading of Henry VIII; but in the Macbeth example I see a potent illustration of this article’s strengths. Again, I find real explanatory power for similar language throughout the corpus is the application of this language throughout the corpus. In Richard III, for example, one might see the Richard/Anne seduction scene (1.2) as Richard “auditioning” the role of penitent Richard; Anne making a wager that that Richard could exist; and their subsequent marriage as her losing. This is a useful model for multiple plays.
Thanks, all (including commenters to come), for these comments. I’m going to respond specifically to some comments below, but these will surely weave together responses to the comments in general.
Yes, this will be a helpful place to clarify things, especially in terms of your comments at the top. Ultimately, Paul’s relevance to the theatrical situation in general is tied to his relationship to H8, since I find the play a particularly astute analysis of the theatrical situation in general.
On the candy-unwrapper: She’s been the subject of a couple of comments, and, while I’ve included her partly for fun, I also want her to do some work as a figure of populist potential. To repurpose her distraction as a positive metonymy for a broader set of audience potentialities and engagements. Which (in response to jbcook’s comment below) also lets her travel as a figure for different moments of sensuous theater (an incitement to the wormholes of which Prof. Charnes reminds me below). But that all may be drowned out by the crinkle of foil!
Spelling out a little more fully, this way — the degree to which what you are describing is specific to this play/characteristic of the corpus — is very helpful.
I read in this complex but fascinating essay a potential corrective to the specter of loss that hangs – or has hung – over performance criticism since the early 1990s. Particularly in the framing gesture at work in the opening, I was reminded of Will West’s recent piece in Sarah Werner’s collection New Directions in Ren. Drama and Performance Studies. There, in “Replaying Early Modern Performances,” Will positions the elegiac sense of theatrical loss as “our own inheritance from the Elizabethan stage by way of its Restoration critics and first historians.” In other words, loss might be understood as a “historically specific understanding of how performance works rather than…an ontological one” (34). Will proposes that performances do not “take place” so much as “take part” in a context and performance therefore “points out that every present is full of the past and full of the future” (35). I crib extensively from Will to put these two pieces in conversation with one another, since they’re both important interventions in the rhetorics of analysis that we commonly use to understand performance. I will take away from this essay – in my teaching and writing and playgoing – a heightened attention to the prophetic figure and, in particular, its potential as an analytical metaphor, and I’m grateful to the author for that
“We are never allowed to forget that prisoners are the players.”
As someone who hasn’t seen the film, I lose track in this paragraph which text is under analysis, the film or the documentary. Precisely because the argument is addressing the resonances that develop across these two texts, it’s helpful to keep them distinct for the reader who doesn’t have a primary experience of the film to go on.
On the question of aesthetic quality and the Graef award: Could you contextualize this claim (if it’s an important one?). Who were the judges and what were the criteria? If it’s one of the Koestler Trust awards, does it matter that the organization seems dedicated to precisely the narratives of individual transformation that this essay calls into question?
If so, might this award belong later in section IV, with the thoughtful analysis of the complex leverage provided by the choice of Shakespeare, the “double-edged construction” of the Bard. Along with US-based appreciation, perhaps also UK-based appreciation?
The general point made here — about the tendency of studies of prison Shakespeare to focus on narratives of personal transformation — is sound. But if I’m remembering what I’ve read of this scholarship correctly, there’s an important exception to the notion that participant claims of transformation “are rarely interrogated and tend to be taken at face value” — and that is that one audience — parole boards — has sometimes been very suspicious of these claims. (I think Scott-Douglass’s study addresses the way that charges of “good acting” may be marshaled as an objection to appeals for parole?) This might provide fruitful context for the foregrounding of “amateur” acting in Mickey B. The claim “I’m not a professional actor” warrants the authenticity (and as you say, the discomfiting) quality of the performance.
This is a good point and something that I have thought about but decided against including – although I do agree that it would be a fruitful context for the discussion of amateur acting. I suppose what struck me about previous studies is that the more cynical views of parole boards tend to be unproblematically constructed as ‘wrong’ – indeed, one of the issues involved in subscribing to the therapy model is a sense of defining yourself against the hardline views of the institution. Confronting this a little more fully would be unsettling, but, as you suggest here, probably the right thing to do.
I am finding this section very compelling — esp. in the way the analysis integrates what I’m beginning to think of as the “extended text of Mickey B.” Could an argument develop here around what a fictional mode brings to the table for this project? Why add Macbeth to this picture rather than, for example, just make a documentary or two? What kind(s) of leverage does a play offer to those grappling with the representation of traumatic history, post-ceasefire, during a peace process? Paragraph 33 works out some answers to this question but it doesn’t spell out what leverage the dual formats provide. When paragraph 34 gives the edge to (or rather, acknowledges the edge claimed by?) documentary, I can begin to see these modes in competition with each other. But by the end of that paragraph Mickey B (the film) is presented as confirming the work of the documentaries. So I’m left unsure: does this movement between modes matter as such, for that larger political work? Or how much?
Longer comment in the general comment referencing this paragraph.
Re: “realist genre” vs “fantasy template” (and above, “the perennial virtues of fantasy as a safety-valve and displacement mechanism”).
If I’m reading correctly, the “fantasy template” is the idea that staging a play will purge the prisoners (and the audience) of oppositional political impulses? Or make them less violent in prison? I can see how the documentary effects would counter the notion that pacification is what fiction (the play) is for in this setting. And/but I wonder if there are other ways the essay could get at the fictional work of the play? Are there other things that the fictional mode brings to the table in this very complex interaction of cinematic strategies? (I raise this question again below in a slightly different way.)
“low-angle perspectives” and later “360 turns of the camera”:
These two moments of close reading are deeply interesting. Since many readers may not have seen the film illustrations of some kind would be enormously valuable here. They would help me understand how the audience is being invited to align our gave and with whom, and how those alignments repeat or alter.
Marvelous section; very clear evocation of the formal strategies at work in the film and their effects.
Behind the phrase “self-awareness of the reverberations of past events”, is there a slight echo of the narratives of individual reformation that this essay seeks to critique (in prison Shakespeare films)? If so, is this a contradiction (or generic dip or swerve) worth calling out / addressing in some way? I wouldn’t mind hearing a key sentence or two from Terrorism: How to Respond, here that could contextualize this move in the film and in the essay itself.
“in the guise of an enforcer and enabler…”
It is likely my Shakespeare-centrism that makes me want to add “a canny expose of the strategies of political theater, accommodation and compromise” to this list. This may be over-stating the case, but the readings presented here would seem to back it up.
This essay builds a compelling argument for the payoffs of historical context — both for close readings of Mickey B and for rethinking a general tendency in the scholarship on prison Shakespeare. It is admirably economical and teacherly as it explores Mickey B’s use of the setting and iconography of a notorious Northern Ireland prison. It maintains a steady but light hand with its core political argument: that this film enlists Shakespeare not in the service of individual reformation and therapy but as part of (and also as a partial critique of) the reparative cultural work of a post-peace Ireland. As I understand the core argument: Macbeth is the vehicle for exposing historical complicities represented by and fostered in Ireland’s prisons. I find the moments in which the essay touches down in scholarly work on prison discourse in Ireland especially illuminating.
Three kinds of additions would deepen an analysis that is already quite strong.
The Shakespeare-centric suggestions:
• I’d like to hear more about the payoffs and / or challenges of this particular playtext. Is there more to be said about how Macbeth answers to or resists the film’s oppositional arguments? In the context of this special issue, are there things we can learn about Macbeth in performance, from this adaptation project? Or about that strangely heterogenous set of “performance within the film” films, of which Mickey B is also somehow a part?
The Shakespeare-eccentric suggestions:
• A plea for illustrations! The formal strategies described here are deeply interesting and readers would benefit from the chance to assess them for ourselves.
• Methodologically, I would like to see the essay engage more deeply with the generic interactions between the modes of fiction and documentary, as they come together and compete in these films. What does fiction bring to the table as a mode (if anything)? (Comments below elaborate on this question.)
• The crucial insight that underpins this argument is that documentaries mount different kinds of claims to “things as they are”. Moreover, the apparently similar formal gestures that documentaries share can serve a wide variety of ideological interests. As a subgenre, prison Shakespeare films illustrate this heterogeneity within the documentary tradition. With this in mind: would it be possible? (valuable?) to situate Mickey B within a particular tradition of documentary realism? I have two reference points to offer that may not be very helpful in themselves but I hope they will illustrate what I’m trying to get at.
First, recall the close association between early British nationalism and the wave of Griersonian, “kitchen sink” documentaries at the beginning of the 20th century. Crudely summarized: these documentaries sought to present “things as they are” using a mode of address that separated viewer and subject of the documentary, advancing an ideology of class difference. According to this essay, this set of Mickey B films works directly against that separation of documentary subject and the witness who knows. Is there a tradition of oppositional documentary in Ireland to which this particular blend of realist artifices belongs? If this were a US film, I would be tempted to look back to the oppositional film projects of the late 1960s / early 1970s, that grappled with the dual nature of prison spaces as both central to the state apparatus and socially marginalized. Jonathan Kahana has described this as a particularly compelling representational challenge for social documentary (Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary). Would Harvey O’Brien’s 2004 study (Real Ireland) offer the kind of contextualization I am seeking?
Something along these lines would strongly reinforce the essay’s larger point that we (Shakespeareans) need to be more alert to ideological work of different modes of documentary. Whenever we pursued sustained interdisciplinary work, it is the essays that really mine the non-Shakespearean fields our scholarship crosses into that are the most valuable to our field.
Minor suggestion: it would be great if the sub-headers did some interpretive work.
I’m very grateful for your comments and will use them actively to rethink and rewrite the essay. I like the suggestion that more might be said about Macbeth per se. This would work well in terms of the essay’s argument that a drama therapy model alone is insufficient. I’ll also integrate some work on documentary realism into the contexts that I am juggling here and think more carefully about the interaction between fiction and documentary which so animates the project as a whole. I will also reflect on how Mickey B fits into the ‘performance within the film’ genre. This isn’t straightforward but it’s certainly held in play in the film.
More broadly, your general points highlight ways in which my argument could be brought out more strongly. The comments make me realise that I have been slightly diffident in terms of some of my claims, an approach probably related to what I percieve to be the ‘sensitive’ nature of some of the materials. You have helpfully allowed me to ‘get over this’ and make these arguments (which, as you suggest, are embedded) more fully and clearly.
Finally, the points about sub-headings and illustrations are well taken – I will aim for both.
My initial inclination here was to wonder whether the prisoners weren’t simply delivering lines from a pretty standard Shakespeare-in-prison documentary script–lines from the scene where the underprepared and untrained actors are seen addressing the question of Shakespeare’s ensconced “difficulty” and greatness of reputation, as preparation for a later moment, where they’re then seen rising to the challenge. You note that cultural distance is downplayed in *Mickey B*, but I’m still wondering whether this scene is fundamentally analogous or fundamentally different.
The principal challenge to the reader here who wants to respond helpfully is the difficulty of accessing the film! I found your orienting / introductory remarks quite helpful, but having seen only the trailer, I’m left with only a provisional sense that the balance of Mickey B’s screen time (between performance and documentary moments) make it generically distinct from Rogerson’s film and *Hobart Shakespeareans* and even from, say, Amy Scott-Douglass’s book. In all of those of course, “documentary” sort of presides or dominates in terms of tenor and narrative arc. If the prisoner appropriation/adaptation of *Macbeth* is showcased in *Mickey B*, presumably the film can’t make the final argument that all the documentary accounts make: “this is really moving Shakespeare; against all odds, the misfit cast pulls off a great performance.” Since this is more a version of *Macbeth* than a story about prisoners doing Shakespeare, presumably it abandons the sort of guiding, mediating cues (such as swelling non-diegetic music) that tell the viewer how good the prison production is? Is it even capable of making such arguments? (does it make them in the accompanying documentary?)
I pose this question because while you establish clearly in paragraphs 3-6 that this film works differently, it’s not quite clear whether it effects a clean break. Can “the film, theatrical creation or discrete interpretation that emerges from the discursive process” (paragph 3) ever escape the gravitational pull of the therapy-oriented documentary? Those documentaries seem to me to go to work on their audiences with a particular set of manipulative pathos devices, most of which come from the dynamic you identify between interviewer and prisoner, and then from the cutting and arranging that happens in the editing process. But surely some of that pathos is a function of the “subject” (prison/prisoners) itself?
My name is Tom Magill and I was just looking at your thoughtful and insightful comments on Ramona Wray’s article.
I directed Mickey B and certainly one of my motivating factors in choosing Macbeth was to expose the historical complicities:
Macbeth is the vehicle for exposing historical complicities represented by and fostered in (Northern) Ireland’s prisons.
As someone who has not seen the film, you can access copies from the website below.
Roger Graef became a patron of ESC after he saw the film and the Koestler judges’ comments on the film are also on the website: www.esc-film.com
Thanks for your interest in our work,
(picking up on your final sentence here but pertaining to this paragraph as a whole) …also shaping such formulations is a complex set of narrative traditions and social/political positioning moves on the part of the documentary makers, the reviewers of or responders to the documentary, and maybe even the prisoners themselves. I think these things get talked about in terms of therapy because it’s easy and relatively safe to talk about them that way. It’s the least impeachable way to treat a politically and socially charged topic. Reading prisoners doing Shakespeare, whether by making documentaries about it or by watching those documentaries, requires assuming a position on penal systems (or maybe disclosing a position that’s already been assumed), and we retreat to the universalism / therapy argument (they’re ultimately the same) because we want to be seen to have the right position. But this retreat is not necessarily essentialist, and its politics are really intricate.
My sense is that therapy is unavoidably part of the discourse, not only because Shakespeare is typically thought to be good for the soul, but because the way we talk about prison is heavily invested in notions of rehabilitation. But I also wonder whether the attractiveness of the therapy angle isn’t actually best accepted and maybe even endorsed. Is it possible to maintain academic wariness about “essentialist underpinnings” and still allow for Shakespeare to be a space of redemption? Are our attempts to interrogate Shakespeare-as-therapy (I include myself here–see *Shakespeare Bulletin* 28:2) just academics being embarrassed by our humanist politics? The danger of allowing Shakespeare to be therapeutic is that its extreme form is oppressive, silencing, colonizing, etc., but unless we overturn the way we talk about Shakespeare in performance more broadly, won’t notions of therapy always be part of the discourse?
Engaging these questions at any length would be a distraction, but I think the larger conversation of which this article is a part–the work Shakespeare does / can do for various non-traditional performers today–can only be enriched by thinking openly and honestly about the sometimes contradictory impulses that drive academic inquiry on appropriation. The very valuable work you do here to call attention to the gaps and absences in the way we respond to prison Shakespeare I think stands quite well. And it’s probably necessary to bracket off the “therapy” component in order to show how effectively it smothers other potential modes of response. I think we lose something, however, if we let the association between therapy and essentialism slide toward an equation.
I suppose the important thing here is not only the prize (and here you are quite correct on its source and the criteria – I will contextualise both further) but the panel’s comments – the notion that the film ‘deserves to be seen and on its own merits’. This is an unusual comment for the Trust, as it suggests that the work has an integrity and power which transcend the prison context and which allow the production to stand on its own merits. I’ll make this emphasis clearer when I rewrite (perhaps even employing some judicious italics).
Many thanks for this thoughtful response. I think I agree with nearly all that you say above, although I am probably more wary of the essentialist nature of the retreat into therapy (which, as you suggest, happens for all the best of reasons). Therapy will always be – and needs to be – part of the equation, but it can’t be the only part (and too often, again for valid reasons, it becomes the dominant – sometimes the single – discourse of criticism). Key here is your sense of the intricacy of the politics involved – for me, any therapeutic component is most profitably assessed inside a localized understanding of particular conditions of production and reception.
The idea of the echo is very interesting and connects neatly with Matt Kozusho’s earlier comment – the moment suggests the difficulty of detaching individual responses (the therapy model) from larger cultural responses (as conceptualised in Terrorism: How to Respond).
I’m afraid I’ve confused you here. The ‘fantasy template’ is Birnam, the fictional prison location insisted on by the prison authorities (in the censorship episode). My argument is that the film’s insistance on ‘Birnam’ is undermined by the specifics of its prison discourse (the examples of interpretive intertextuality related to NI’s particular prison history) which work, finally, to evade the fantasy setting and reinstate the real Magahberry as setting. I will rework these passages!
There are several interesting points here, for which I’m grateful. I’ll address in turn.
The lines from Mickey B quoted in this paragraph seem to me to be quite different to what you rightly identify as the ‘standard’ scenes familiar from much prison Shakespeare. In particular, I don’t see inhibition or reverence here, or any sense that a perceived ’difficulty’ or ‘reputation’ puts the players off. In short, while the scene itself may be familiar in its broadest contours, the way in which it is played makes it, for me, fundamentally different in its effects.
The film can be purchased from the ESC website (see my final footnote for details). As you suggest, and I say in paragraph 6, the film is fundamentally different in terms of the balance of its screen time – and this is precisely what allows the kind of argument I make here.
I wouldn’t – and hope I don’t! – argue that the film can ever escape the pull of the documentary. For me, the two are bound together, although crucially not in any straightforward way. This essay moves between both throughout – and reads both against each other – to produce its analysis.
The documentary offers a corrective to the ending of Macbeth, but the themes of circularity and collusion mean that the corrective is a complementary one. More generally, the answer to your question is that the film and the documentary work in complementary, competing and contradictory ways. What is very useful about the above comment is that it has prompted me to think more about the texts’ relations with each other in a more explicit way. I will consider this more carefully in the revision.
I like this a lot and probably wouldn’t have dared to say it myself! Thank you.
Thanks! That sorts this out very clearly.
I found this exchange very illuminating — Matt identifies a set of dramatic expectations that it sounds as if Mickey B adjusts significantly — it would be great to add a few sentences above elaborating on the balance of screen time in relation to the “plucky amateurs pull off improbable Shakespearean success” stories that often cut across “institutional Shakespeare” documentaries (Shakespeare in prisons, schools, “the projects”, etc.).
I like this attempt to connect to the historically specific. But a film like Steve McQueen’s HUNGER mounts a very different, and considerably more powerful connection to “the real” that makes what’s being staged at Maghaberry seem doubly fictive and arguably post “troubles” in orientation. The very act of staging/playing at MACBETH indicates the existence of a “safe space” set at a some remove from the “troubles”.
I am well aware that intra-prison conflict may make itself felt in the personal lives of friends and family extramurally, I was put off/distracted by the filming of the Lady Macduff murder, which seemed inconsistent with the replotting of the play. It betrayed a kind of emulative dependency on the Shakespeare-MACBETH template that the rest of the script successfully avoided.
Jason Thompson’s comment about ambition is one of the many things that distinguishes Mickey B. from other examples of “prison Shakespeare.” Among other things, it brings the character of Macbeth inside the orbit of convict life. Macbeth is a familiar commodity here, not the fatal exception he may be for other audiences, other actors. Like the convicts, there are many things Macbeth cannot “hope to have” in exchange for his commitment to ambition. By contrast, a recent RTA stage production of MACBETH at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, NY took so traditionalist and cautionary an approach to the play that one could hardly imagine the extent to which the prisoners had to identify with him.
This is surely a useful framing of the problem, though the tone of “something rotten in Tokyo” is perhaps a bit misleading. It strikes me, though, that the notion that Shakespeare is being “appropriated” already implies the notion of proper, appropriate use, as does the phrasing of Shakeseare as export commodity–that is, the implication that in this “intercultural” performance economy there is nonetheless a stable ground of value here or there. I don’t think the essay means to come across this way, and perhaps this could be phrased a bit more carefully?
this is picky but I don’t think “deconstruct” is really earned here…though the description of the scene and how the reflection operates is really great. Again, though Brechtian: I don’t think the kind of ideological analysis of theatre’s implication in the contemporary modes of social production is really intended here.
you say above you can’t read the program notes, so are the director’s notes something different?
I’m very interested in the reading of embodiment here, the notion of Western realism as an identifiable style both encoded within Ninagawa’s production and also in a sense distanciated, through a range of “flourishes” that claim “the work for Japanese performers and audiences.” This dimension of the performance is asserted but not really made very visible in the prose; could it be described more explicitly?
It also seems to me that the music here suggests a more stylistically various and discontinuous production–right?
is “effeminate young man” the right phrase?
the idea that the erotically appealing, if confusing, elements o the production are aligned with those that satirize (comically, and so involve us) the Vatican are cumulatively reviving Puritan notions of the theatre’s moral peril might be framed a little more carefully?
I think the notion of Elizabethan text-centered culture suspicious of the show might be reframed via Robert Weimann’s work, which suggestively challenges this notion: for Weimann, the textual or discursive elements are often in a kind of critical asymmetry with the ritual, oral, performative elements; perhaps there’s a different kind of friction going on here?
Is there a way to qualify Lan’s sense of the intercultural as a kind of festival commodity for the “internationalized audience community,” as part of this reading? Or is this kind or zone of theatre simply one of our options/opportunities today, one to which Ninagawa’s work appeals?
This is a very interesting account of the production: so interesting that I’m left really wanting more, especially of:
a. the production; as much detail as possible of the process. Some of this comes through, but often intermingled with analysis in ways that makes it occasionally difficult to know exactly what was happening onstage.
b. the critical framework. It strikes me that two of the key interpretive frameworks here need more foregrounding and qualification. One of those is “intercultural performance” which is treated with some suspicion here but the suspicion might be grounded in a clearer sense of the limits of the project. The second is a sense of Elizabethan theatricality, its cultural tensions, largely here phrased as puritain antitheatricalism. I’m not sure that quite works, as I’ve suggested a couple of times below. The notion that Ninagawa’s work somehow parallels or analogizes early modern attitudes through a very different theatricality seems to me to need much more ballast, and perhaps skepticism. But it’s great to come away from the reading wanting to think more about this production.
Greetings Bill (if I may):
Thanks for the encouraging feedback on the Ninagawa piece. It will be much appreciated and mulled over as I proceed with the revisions. This paper is, admittedly, something of an odd duck in that it is more ambitious than a straight-forward performance review, yet shorter than a full-blown and exhaustive academic monograph. The aim was to use this production as a gazing ball to crystalize some of the liberating energies unleashed in inter-cultural Shakespeare, as well as its unavoidable vagaries. Though long for a review, the paper is considerably shorter than most of the other entries, so I’m assuming the editors won’t begrudge my expanding it to pursue your fully warranted suggestion to clarify some of the limitations of intercultural performance. My first thought would be to insert a paragraph or two (studded with a few endnotes) to engage with more criticism of the inter-cultural, such as Ania Loomba’s work, or your pointed concern in your “Shakespearean Geographies” chapter that intercultural Shakespeare is always already a “product of post-colonial globalization,” and that these performances construct an implied viewer or “metropolitan global subject” that is little more than a passive consumer. I do touch on this briefly via Lan, but am happy to develop and qualify this point. Ninagawa’s work, at least in my mind, cannot simply be pegged as an unapologetic celebration of globalization. Rather he employs Alienation effects and metatheatrical gestures to make the viewers aware that Japanese and English theatre can cross-pollinate without fully disappearing into each other…..
As for your second caveat about the theatricality vs. puritanism agon, perhaps my rhetoric does push the historical analogy too hard. My point simply was that Ninagawa’s wishes to remind us that theatre has been and should be a morally perilous venue where we flock to have our collective sensibilities about decorum goosed and shocked. Though contemporary viewers are not likely to respond with the same venom as early modern Puritans (though having recently moved to rural PA I can say that Puritanism is alive and well), Marlowe allows Ninagawa to articulate this more powerfully because his atheism and homosexuality are still somewhat risque. To ballast this analogy, I’ll probably have to look more closely at Marlowe’s text and how it ironically validates the Puritans’ fear that theatre presents a moral hazard (as in the Masque of the 7 Deadly Sins), and then delights in succumbing to that hazard. Alternatively, my revisions might explore how Ninagawa’s flagrant spectacle, his sense that the translated text alone is not enough for non-English audiences, places some Western viewers in the uncomfortable position of Puritans who have been conditioned by literary training to privilege text over “show.”
The rhetorical question – Who determines, and on what grounds, if Shakespeare has been appropriated properly? – was meant to activate precisely the suspicions you mention here: i.e. there is no stable ground of value for determining what makes an adaptation legit. This might be my own creative etymology, but I tend to associate the verb “appropriate” with the french propre (self) or property, rather than proper as in fitting or apt. But I agree that the wording could be easily refined here to avoid any potential confusion.
The program notes and director’s notes are the same. I mention in an endnote that my wife translated them for me after the show. But I can see how this could confuse given the earlier admission and would be all too happy to credit her in the body of the essay instead, since I couldn’t have written this piece without her help.
Considering that the B-text is more spectacle-driven, this might be an opportune moment to describe certain scenes from the production in greater detail. The review’s approach to the piece as a specimen of inter-cultural theatre dictates to some extent what scenes and trappings of the production get foregrounded, but I could certainly elaborate further on some of the more memorable moments and stunning tableaux.
‘exported abroad’ is a pleonasm – a niggly point, I know!
The criticisms of Ninagawa you cite in paragraph two are mostly from the 1990s – yet here you say that Ninagawa anticipated them in ‘the past decade or so’. Isn’t it rather that he is now beginning to respond to these criticisms?
Also: is there perhaps a fundamental difference between export products, such as Ninagawa’s productions for the RSC, and this production for Theatre Cocoon in Tokyo, that is more likely to be aimed at a Japanese audience?
I’m wondering whether you could ‘unpack the last 3-4 sentences in this paragraph more. How exactly do flickering appearances of Kabuki actors end up being ‘an English-play-within-a-Japanese-play(house)’? One level seems to be missing here, since what you’re describing is a traditional Japanese art form embedded in (or concealed behind?) a Western acting mode for an English Renaissance play in a present-day Japanese playhouse. There are not only issues of metadrama here, then, but also of a play with periods and modes that make this production yet more complex.
What do you mean by Sturm und Drang (which should be in upper case)? Is there really a reference to German Romanticism in Ninagawa’s production? If so, it could do with being followed up more.
I, too, am not too happy about the term ‘effeminate’ – how about ‘feminine’?
At this point, I’m wondering a) whether you could have described more specific scenes to convey a sense of the spectacle (you already do this, but I’d like to hear yet more about the comic scenes) and b) whether you could say something about why Ninagawa chose Marlowe ratehr than Shakespeare for this production. How familiar are Japanese audiences with Faustus? What is the relationship between Shakespeare and Marlowe for Japanese spectators? What does Marlowe mean in Japanese culture?
One of the tricky things about this piece is one of the things that I find exciting about it–you are, as you note, trying out a form that is something of a hybrid of what is usually divided between review and article. You want to provide more of an interpretative framework than is often given for a purely descriptive review, yet you’re not aiming for a fully-fledged critical working-out of these issues. One temptation might be to pull this piece into something that is more article-like. But I’m not convinced you need to do that in order to address the questions that the other commentators raise. Like Bill, I’m less persuaded by the Elizabethan or puritan context and more interested in an intercultural one. That’s partly my own viewing preferences: I’m generally not looking to read reviews of current productions to reflect on historical practices. But I also wonder if most readers would be more curious about the intercultural, and would find your interrogation of that more timely than reading this performance through the lens of early modern practice.
But I’d also like to echo a point that Pascale makes in her comments below: What does Shakespeare have to do with this? I know that in the issue’s call for papers I did express an interest in seeing attention paid to non-Shakespearean drama. But given that this is being read alongside pieces that are explicitly about Shakespeare–and given that you raise this point yourself below–I do think that addressing the issue outright would have some payoff. How might staging Marlowe instead of Shakespeare allow Ninagawa to approach japonisme differently? This question, as you bring it up in your penultimate paragraph, touches on the problems of interculturalism that Bill inquires about. It also gives you an opportunity to reflect even more fully on what is actually happening on stage.
(One final, related stylistic note about a point that Bill raises above: I do agree that it is tricky in this type of writing to distinguish between what might be objective accounts of what is happening on stage and subjective analysis of the event. I didn’t particularly worry about that in this piece, but I think that it’s possible for the two angles to be mixed as long as they are continually signaled as such.)
Thanks for your incisive comments Sarah. Your suggestions chime nicely with my own thoughts about how to improve the piece in the wake of Bill and Pascale’s remarks. I’ve decided to downplay Ninagawa’s identification with Marlowe’s assault on the Puritan sensibility and focus more on the inter-cultural dynamics of the production. The revisions will reflect on how Ninagawa seizes on Faustus’ predicament (poised between the medieval and the modern) to comment on the predicament of the post-modern metropolitan subject (torn between national and globalized identities). In following your and Pascale’s advice to emphasize Marlowe’s differences from Shakespeare, could I perhaps delve into Marlowe’s biography as a double or triple(?) agent who was trapped between Protestant/Catholic & English/Continental-Cosmopolitan identities in a way that resonates Ninagawa’s plight?
Thanks for pointing out the fuzzy chronology. Since Ninagawa was aware of these criticisms by the mid-90s, I’ll definitely straighten out the trajectory in my revisions. As for the second point, I agree completely and say virtually the same thing later on in the piece. But perhaps I could foreground the difference between Ninagawa’s domestic and international festival circuit Shakespeare sooner.
This is a shrewd observation that parses out the metatheatrical layers more neatly than I managed in my first go. I will certainly unpack this as you’ve suggested….
What does Marlowe mean in Japanese culture?
The answer is, sadly, not much. The program featured a detailed biography on Marlowe paraphrasing Nichols’ The Reckoning – but the necessity of this underscores how unfamiliar he is in Japan. Anecdotally, I don’t think many Japanese beyond those with advanced degrees in English literature have heard of Marlowe – my guess would be probably around the same number of English or Americans who know of Chikamatsu or Zeami. I have not been able to unearth any reviews on Japanese productions of Faustus. If anyone knows of any, please (!) do let me know. My sense is that in Japan, like in most of the non-English speaking world, Marlowe’s tragedy plays second fiddle to Goethe’s verse drama.
That in itself is interesting and worth probing more, I think. If Ninagawa is stepping so far outside the repertoire of Western theatre known in Japan (what you say confirms what I assumed), then that’s an intriguing move worthy of reflection.
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April 7, 2011 at 10:46 pm
I’m intrigued by how little Elizabethan censorship seems to be have been considered by Boyd as part of Shakespeare’s creative process. His “pathological inability” to resolve such debates seems an unnecessary simplification/complication of the problem of state-run (or at least Master of the Revels-approved) media.
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April 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm
I think this is an interesting and necessary point to make–that there is something to the “cycleness” of the cycle. That is, in Boyd’s mind, there is at least some connection to the almost liturgical role of pre-Tudor playgoing that he is seeking to extrapolate from, if not draw upon.
April 7, 2011 at 9:20 am
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