Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of America Collectionby Dympna Callaghan

19: Performance

19.1. Pluralizing Performance

Diana E. Henderson

Over the decades since the SAA was founded, the field and variety of events studied as “performance” has expanded exponentially. In the excellent Shakespeare courses I took as an undergraduate English major, we neither attended nor attended to actual productions, though we gestured at the farce of The Comedy of Errors and the Grand Guignol of Titus Andronicus as indicative of Shakespeare’s less “mature” writing. Learning Shakespeare through performance had begun and ended in seventh grade, when I borrowed my sister’s ballet skirt to play Titania; by eighth grade, it was all about reading (granted, the play was The Taming of the Shrew and my most vivid memory involves our collective obsession with the line “with my tongue in your tail?” 2.1.219). Conversely, my theatre classes did not include Shakespeare scene work, understandably focusing on texts and techniques closer to home. In college, it was only through extracurricular involvement in theatre that I became immersed in The Spanish Tragedy, The Changeling, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—and what Stoppard’s Player deems the essentials of the early modern theatrical repertoire: “love, blood, and rhetoric …. But I can’t do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory—they’re all blood, you see.” There’s a fact which Michael Boyd’s 2014–15 production of Tamburlaine at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience nicely recalled for its viewers.
Even during my graduate studies with Bernard Beckerman, one of the founding generation of academicians who took stage practices in Shakespeare seriously, our theatre history seminar focused more on the blocking than the blood, and always in the service of better understanding the dramatist’s scripted artistry—a narrow lens, as W. B. Worthen elaborates. Outside that class and its interdisciplinary artistic community, I would frequently be frustrated by articles positing “text vs. performance”—often written by English professors whose experiences and credentials indicated that they must have known how simplistic a binary that was. As if there were one phenomenological experience for all readers and reading, all types of theatrical contexts and productions. Thirty years on, I still hear such debates, albeit inflected by more sophisticated attention to media, book history, and the legacies of postmodern theory. More hearteningly, the variety of approaches to performance now makes its study richer and more diverse than when our organization began. The phenomenology of objects, the gasps from auditors, and the vast possibilities of cross-cultural theatre and adaptation: all play their parts in Shakespeare performance, even as text-based traditions and interpretations fruitfully continue.
Of course, as Worthen also points out, this may bring a certain diffuseness to performance studies and in some cases mask traditionally limiting assumptions, such as the dogged primacy of an originary text—despite there being no such definitive beast, and Shakespeare’s primary art form always having been multimedial. Furthermore, even as theatre history sheds some of its empirical positivism and as digitization enlarges our experience of and access to archives, Tiffany Stern correctly notes that methodological challenges persist. The larger trends nevertheless seem exciting as well as long overdue. No longer do most scholars of Shakespeare performance narrow their attention to only a few canonical Anglo-American repertory companies; at the same time, those companies incorporate a much wider array of acting traditions and approaches. The results can illuminate both past and present—a goal worthy of scripted drama, which perforce always negotiates that same paradoxical temporality, that same double vision.
We have arrived at a moment that acknowledges the diversity of Shakespeare performances both past and present, rather than trying (primarily) to police “his” boundaries: work in many languages and media as well as variant texts and selections of text all have something to teach us. Recognizing this reality allows movement beyond critique alone, to contemplate a brighter future for performance as a key term for enhancing Shakespeare studies. I focus in what follows on an illustrative contemporary production that likely would not have counted as “Shakespeare performance” when the SAA began, but which epitomizes the possibilities and priorities now visible through the field’s redefinition. My choice and analysis of this example gestures at practices we might pursue more extensively, to the benefit of both artistic and scholarly endeavors. At the same time, irreducible challenges remain—including the variety of audiences, perceptions, and cultural values, and the evanescence of the event itself. These are not roadblocks but realities, ones that actually provide the impetus for scholarship’s continued vitality.
Robert Lepage is known for innovative multimedia work that includes, but is not delimited by, his Shakespeare productions. Based in Quebec City, his production company Ex Machina serves as both construction site and archive for the dazzling array of performance events that he has spearheaded, ranging from Cirque du Soleil’s (installed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and seen live by more than a million people) and film (such as his 2003 remediated theatre piece La face cachée de la lune / The Far Side of the Moon) to the profound theatrical epic The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle produced at the Metropolitan Opera (2010–12). As the company’s name implies, it is “from the machine” or technical possibilities of theatre that “the god” arises: not—despite the sly possibility conjured by its name and marketing—Lepage himself. Nevertheless, while his productions are often noted for their spectacular visual and technical effects, story, text, and politics remain fundamental parts of the theatrical whole. Thus it is not surprising that Lepage has repeatedly returned to both magical and political Shakespeare: to Hamlet, The Tempest, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.
His production of the 2004 opera The Tempest captures the narrative and history of Shakespeare’s play while immersing its audience in this theatrical moment and the new. Conducted by its composer, Englishman Thomas Adès, Lepage’s production debuted at Quebec City’s Festival d’Opéra (July 2012) and was subsequently performed at the two cosponsors’ theatres: the Metropolitan Opera (October 2012), and the Wiener Staatsoper (June 2015). Dramaturgically, however, Lepage chose to set the action within the mythically resonant eighteenth-century Teatro alla Scala. La Scala, founded “under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria,” opened in 1778 with Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta and in 1842 premiered Verdi’s Nabucco, whose “strong patriotic feelings … founded the ‘popularity’ of opera seria and identified its image with the Scala” ( That Milanese theatre provided a congenial background for this Tempest’s cast of aristocratic Italian characters—notably enlarged by the opera’s requisite chorus, an elegant, shipwrecked “audience” of finely dressed Neapolitan courtiers. Indeed, one could hardly conjure a more politically and culturally rich European frame than this in which to retell the Shakespearean story of a displaced Duke of Milan—a story which has, at the same time, become a foundational text for postcolonial studies. That latter heritage was also very much part of the Lepage production, shaping its costuming of Prospero and its final tableau.
It was not (only) the high art and political associations of La Scala, however, that captured Lepage’s imagination. As he recounted during the rehearsal process in Quebec, he was fascinated by one specific of its theatrical materiality: the nautical origins of the knotting that sustained its elaborate rope-and-pulley systems. Former mariners, who became La Scala’s original stagehands, had carried their technical knowledge from ship to shore, from the seas back to Milan. What could be more serendipitously appropriate for The Tempest than this history? Those once-innovative rope systems enabled La Scala’s elaborate stage sets to be revealed as curtains opened and closed, trapdoors rose and fell. Surrounding and interwoven into Shakespeare’s fiction, then, Lepage’s staging added the machinery and cultural resonance of a particularized performance space.
Reinforcing this attention to the (materially) performative, each of the production’s three acts placed the actual theatre audience in a different perspectival relationship to the interior of the reproduced opera house. In the first act, we looked outward from an imagined perspective point at the rear of the stage space to gaze at those performing on it, sometimes seeing—past the prompter’s box and occasionally blinding footlights—the shadowy rows of balcony boxes beyond. In the second act, we looked full on in a more conventional relationship to the proscenium stage. And in the final act the audience saw a bisected view of the orchestra and performance spaces, including the offstage ropes and trap machinery as well as the acting stage with prompter’s box at stage right; the raked orchestra with moveable chairs stage left; and across the upstage area, first bare multilevel scaffolding and then the elaborate ornamentation of tiered audience boxes overlaid on that frame. Surprisingly, most accounts of the production barely remarked upon the set’s metatheatricality, few mentioning the scene shifts and some mischaracterizing them. None that I found explored their specific function, or cited Ex Machina’s website description of the mise en abyme nature of the play’s structure (with the shipwrecked characters “acting” within Prospero’s plot, which in turn …). Nor did they consider the thematic or characterological resonances—for example, in allowing Miranda’s independent view of a “brave new world” its full import as the unabashedly romantic culmination of Act 2, before the opera’s reinterpretation of the Shakespearean narrative returned to a more complex clash of perspectives in Act 3. Here, then, is one role for Shakespeare performance scholarship: using our interpretive skills and research (including interviews with artistic practitioners and involvement with theatrical processes as well as archival and scholarly reading) to delve into the potential meanings and effects of specific choices in modern adaptations, moving beyond descriptive summaries or sweeping evaluations alone. Of course, implicit in detailing any performance lie questions of value, putting pressure on our selection to demonstrate why it should warrant others’ attention—a parallel process to that experienced by artistic producers.
By the last scene of this performance all the European characters had exited, leaving only the stunningly high-pitched tones of Ariel (who had climbed the ropes upward out of sight) and a delicately swaying Caliban, perched on the low dividing wall between La Scala’s auditorium and orchestra spaces as he relished the music of the spirit. This final image may serve as an emblem for much about contemporary performances of The Tempest more generally, despite the departure of Meredith Oakes’s libretto from its Shakespearean source. While remaining true to the characterization and retaining many textual lines of the two “natives” of the island, the last scene’s displacement of an irascible, emotionally limited Prospero by the aesthetically appreciative albeit bestial Caliban allowed a harmonious concluding counter-image. The operatic ending could be deemed a nostalgic reestablishment of an ecosystem freed of European intrusion and domination—although the triumph of such a peaceable kingdom was implicitly ephemeral. Lepage’s placement of it within that particular theatrical space overtly reinforced that this pastoral vision was already “framed” by the culture that the fiction would expel; moreover, as the period costumes of the Italian court had earlier made explicit, the fictional story was also located in an historically distanced moment when La Scala itself was “new” theatre, before the possibility of that New World dream was irrevocably foreclosed. The poignancy of Ariel’s heavenly song and Caliban’s dreamy delight thus became enmeshed with the haunting sense of a doubled European inheritance not so easily cast off as was Prospero’s temporary reign: of colonial subjugation and racial exterminations, and simultaneously of exquisite art forms enclosed within places of cultural privilege.
Within this Benjaminian historical frame, Prospero’s costuming as half European, half “gone native” (with feathers in his hair and a cape only half-covering his tattooed arms and trunk) resonated beyond the now-standard references to colonialism (standard among scholars and artists, at least; some reviewers were baffled by the body art). For Lepage as a French-Canadian with strong political consciousness, issues of cultural identification are always multiple and specific. His interest in Quebec’s First Nations was even more pronounced in a production of Shakespeare’s play he mounted in collaboration with the Huron-Wendat Nation, prior to directing Adès and Oakes’s opera. But as an internationally praised impresario both cosmopolitan and Quebecois, whose works are as “at home” in Paris—or, in this case, Vienna—as in New York or Quebec City, Lepage’s rendering of the European/native dichotomy is elusive, perhaps even illusive, as well as allusive. Here is an apt occasion if ever there were one for a deconstructive Derridean reading of that slash mark. As also the mise-en-scène—for not only does La Scala frame Lepage’s (modified version of) The Tempest, but the Scala set itself is an incongruously obsolete fiction within a modern “New World” theatre with cutting-edge digital as well as mechanical systems now creating its magic. Additionally, because the original production for Lepage as director was not Adès’s 2004 premiere at Covent Garden but rather the summer 2012 run at the Grand Théâtre de Québec, surtitled for a predominantly French-speaking audience and chorus, it doubly displaced—along with the shortened lines and interlocking rhymes of Oakes’s libretto—any definitive primacy of Shakespeare’s verse or native tongue. Yet its imminent transfer to the Met also constrained some of Lepage’s choices from the start, he acknowledged. Most simply put, there never was, and in the twenty-first century never is, one “pure” geographic origin or site of performance, one authentic location that can trump all others—even in an art form that vaunts its “liveness,” and even when the name “Shakespeare” is attached.
In Lepage’s Tempest, as in his self-authored compositions, one is made conscious of the ongoing multiple layers of a European imperial legacy as well as of performativity, within a wider world of global exchange. This seems an apt model for a twenty-first-century paradigm of Shakespeare performance, in that it indicates the problematic nature of prioritizing the historical origins of work that has in many ways become liberatory precisely by speaking back to and against those origins, critical of a narrowly conceived myth of Europe as the origin of cross-cultural enlightenment and superior cosmopolitan discernment.
But to end here would not fully capture the production’s aesthetics, nor the ways performance studies includes but is not limited to a multimedial version of cultural studies. As his use of La Scala’s rope-and-pulley system may indicate, what characterizes Lepage’s peripatetic productions is a delight in the magic of the media, the interactions of technology and the senses to produce thought, emotion, and wonder. Often Lepage’s technological innovations produce radically split audience responses: the furor over his set of huge mobile wooden planks for Wagner’s Ring is one such instance. Most responses to his first widely reviewed Shakespeare production, the 1992 A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s National Theatre, focused on the immersive use of water and mud. In the Tempest, the effects called for by the script (the storm, Ariel’s transformation into a harpy) provided only the most obvious occasions for Lepage to exercise this dimension of sensory creativity: specifically, his mixture of high-tech and “low-tech” medium-conscious effects, which simultaneously enchanted the viewer and revealed their constructedness. From the opening sequence in which she hung from a rotating chandelier above billowing sheets, the vertical acrobatics of this production put the aerial back in Ariel. At the same time, the tempest-toss’d bodies of the Italians bobbed up and down through slits in the cloth, and later Ariel labored to turn the creaky mechanical wheel that lowered the trap door to dispose of Stephano and Trinculo. Although the spectacular nature of the high tech garners more journalistic attention, its interweaving with specifically theatrical magic-making—with the strings (and ropes) showing—is what has helped gain Lepage a mythic reputation in theatre circles. The final sequence, when Ariel climbed up the ropes at the side of the set frame into the fly space, displayed both the performer’s daring and an appropriateness to a libretto that stresses Ariel’s need to “be active / In higher spheres / Spirits must rise / Or atrophy” (Act 1, scene 5): “Oh let me rise … Oh let me go!” (Act 3, scene 2). And even as Caliban swayed as if in dreams, it was the actor/singer’s precarious balancing act on a thin beam as much as his concord with the music and sound of the sea that created an indelible, dynamic final tableau. The human body’s risk and vulnerability within a theatrical space as dangerous as Prospero’s “rough magic” melds the layers of performance and fiction, asking us to conjure our own visceral empathy across the boundary between stage and audience. To cite both scripts: “mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.20).
This Tempest—and I hope, too, this analysis of it—thus pushes the boundaries of what cultural institutions and audiences traditionally seek or value in (Shakespearean) performance, just as it blurs territorial boundaries. Lepage’s aesthetic and cultural perspectives engage mythmaking and theatrical magic, the conscious creation of an aura that need not constrain creativity or imply a dominant or dominating model of cultural production. Considering Shakespeare’s place within such a project provides a corrective to the tendency among Shakespeareans to judge and mythologize performances only within the bardic subgenre, or in relation to other versions of the source play. At the same time, contemporary remixes recall the future-oriented potential within Shakespeare’s plays. What better text than The Tempest to challenge the myth of European unity, given its unresolved fraternal discord? Viewing and discussing such performances—with bloggers, students, scholars, and Saturday night entertainment-seekers; online, in journals, and in person—makes the need for sensitivity and openness to audience diversity (of priorities, perceptions, and goals) self-evident. It also makes clear that the variability of performances—indeed, of each performance, given unique perspective lines as well as what one brings to the event perceptually, emotionally, and intellectually—will benefit from the same collaborative exchanges and sharing of ideas that the process of artistic creation itself requires … before it and we all vanish “into thin air” (4.1.150). While we give each production a local habitation and a name, performance, like Shakespeare, is now most assuredly a plural collective subject.

19.2. The Study of Historical Performance

Tiffany Stern

When the SAA came up with its system of seminars, two subjects were thought so fundamental to the study of Shakespeare that they were guaranteed a yearly slot: bibliography and the study of historical performance, “theatre history.” Over time the bibliography seminar lost its privileged position, though seminars on that crucial theme are proposed and run most years. The theatre history seminar, however, has remained a fixture ever since. What makes the history of performance of such permanent interest in the changing field of Shakespeare studies?
One reason for theatre history’s durability is that it isn’t exactly a subject. A collection of varied factual matter, “theatre history” can refer to any aspect of past performance—including the structure and nature of the physical playhouses, the governments and economics that brought them about, the companies that ran them, the actors that performed in them, and the props, lighting, costume, and music used by those actors. Given its reach and range, theatre history, or some aspect of theatre history, will always be modish.
For the same reason, theatre history has retained its powerful position over time. Facts have a permanent usefulness in the way that interpretations do not; they can be reassessed period by period as fashions of thought change. So E. K. Chambers’s seminal work of theatre history, The Elizabethan Stage, published in four volumes in 1923, remains foundational, and most critics use it at some point; few people, however, read Chambers’s outdated literary criticism—Chambers’s least known book must be Shakespeare: A Survey (a collection of essays published together in 1925), the interpretation of Shakespeare towards which his other writing was directed.
Those of us who actually work on historical performance, then, have the privilege and burden of working in a fact-based discipline. The discoveries we make are likely to be of continual use to the field; the approaches we take to them, however, will speedily become dated. The ultimate value of our work is that it has an independence from the conclusions we put upon it—an independence from us as scholars.
It is presumably for this reason that many theatre historians have eschewed interpretation altogether. Worried about threatening the objectivity for which history has long been prized, and anxious not to muddy elegant new facts with “wrong” readings of them, theatre historians have often been content simply to organize and explain the discoveries they have made in archives. The result has been that theatre history has become the supplier of information for other, more adventurous approaches to Shakespeare.
That is, until recently. The theoretical questions that have shaped other aspects of the discipline have started to be taken up by theatre historians. Why? Perhaps the recognition that factual research is actually subjective, and that the questions we ask and the way we ask them are contingent on the time in which we live, has been freeing, allowing theatre historians to risk interpretation for themselves—what is there to lose? Or perhaps the varied theories that shaped the discipline in the 80s and 90s changed the attitude with which we approached the discipline in the first place. Whatever the reason, it is noticeable that theatre history has, like the rest of Shakespeare studies, moved away from the concept of the single author; it has instead championed gathering and grouping historical information around “collective” topics such as companies, playing spaces, or plays put on in certain crucial years. Likewise it has embraced ideas about fragmentation, deconstruction, and “unediting” plays, leading to books on the way plays were written, revised, and performed as a series of bits—prologues, actors’ parts, songs, and so forth. A contemporary interest in moving beyond the canon, meanwhile, has pointed in new directions, and led to startling and exciting discoveries about collaboration and coauthorship—including not only collaboration with other authors but with actors, theatrical personnel, and audiences.
Theatre history has thus anchored and given shape to theoretical approaches as much as vice versa; a lot of current work makes productive use of the two. Yet the subject has not changed its quintessential nature. It is still also devoted to historical detective work, and the study of particular details—props like “curtains” or concepts like “revivals”—still has its place, not least because theatre history now has more practical outlets than ever before.
A growing interest in “OP” (original performance) has led to the formation of theatrical companies dedicated to putting on plays in “early modern” ways, whether in terms of clothing, accents, music, performance style, or rehearsal practice. To house such companies, a number of reproduction early modern playhouses have been built—Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London, and the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, to name three. They depend upon, and also are laboratories for, theatre historians. As contemporary actors and directors engage with applied theatre history, there is ever more call for information about past practices—from the gestures, to the decoration of the theatres, to the storage of actors’ wigs. Theatre historians, then, continue to supply information about past performance—but have discovered that in doing so they are simultaneously supplying possibilities for future performance too.
Another boost to theatre history’s popularity is that it recently ceased to be a coterie subject and has become available to numbers of new scholars. For this, we must thank the Internet. With EEBO (Early English Books Online) and ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) available in most Anglophone universities, with LEME (Lexicons of Early Modern English) and DEEP (the Database of Early English Playbooks) a click away, and new manuscript sites like the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitization Project posted online by the month, theatre history is no longer the exclusive preserve of “rare book” academics with the time, money, and libraries to hand. For the first time ever, theatre history is open to scholars irrespective of location: a subject that was once archive-dependent can now also be studied from home—not least because visual aspects of the field, like pictorial images or archeological findings, are sometimes better represented online than in books, where picture reproduction continues to be awkwardly expensive.
The Internet, too, has added to the kind of research we are able to do. The archives to which we are devoted once shaped the questions we asked. They limited the number of books we could call up or look at simultaneously—with the result that we have traditionally focused on specific documents or small ranges of materials. The Internet has changed that. With EEBO, for instance, one can look at images of a huge number of rare books in a single day. Now projects that would have taken several libraries and many years—like examining the title page of every early modern play—can be undertaken in weeks or even days. Likewise it is now possible, using EEBO’s searchable data, to scan a wide range of rare books for a single word or concept. Though it should be remembered that EEBO is by no means fully transcribed and scannable, it can nevertheless supply in minutes what once would have taken a lifetime to find.
There are dangers, of course, that come from Internet research. It is easy not to understand the nature of the book one is looking at: whether it is bound with others or stands alone; whether it is large or small; whether its paper and binding are grand or humble. As a result, one may not comprehend—or may misread—its context. Analyzing Internet research also requires certain sensitivities. Sometimes looking at huge quantities of data for patterns reveals telling habits yet hides the fact that these habits are not true of all theatres or all times. Nevertheless, these problems are the exciting consequence of learning how to use an incredible new research tool. The Internet has wonderfully expanded our field; we now need to learn how to analyze our “new” old material as shrewdly as we analyzed our “old” old material.
The aspect of theatre history that most needs addressing now, however, is neither method nor approach. It is use. Most of us originally chose to study Shakespeare’s theatrical context in order to understand his writing better. Yet these days we do not always tie our discoveries back to Shakespeare’s works; sometimes we neglect plays altogether. So over time, the close reader and the theatre historian have come to be seen as opposites, as though the “literature” of Shakespeare and the “performance” of Shakespeare are two different issues. Yet, of course, historical performance sheds crucial light on textual issues, textual referents, textual analogies. Theatre history shows how Shakespeare’s words affect, echo, and use not merely other words, but also space, people, place, objects, sounds, smells.
Now that theatre history is losing its safe, old-fashioned air, and engaging more fully in other aspects of the Shakespeare discipline, is the time to show why and how theatre history truly matters. Theatre history is a crucial aspect not simply of context—secondary, background information—but of text itself, with all the excitements, and all the interpretative possibilities, that that entails.

19.3. Shakespeare / Performance

W. B. Worthen

Although Shakespeare’s plays are wildly popular on world stages, in a more scholarly or theoretical sense I think “we” have come to a kind of standoff, crossroads, or impasse when it comes to understanding or modeling “Shakespeare performance.” I’m obliged to “scare quote” that “we,” but this is hardly a gesture of political correctness: the field—if there is a field, a conventionally demarcated space of shared (and therefore contested) values, practices, objects—is populated by a range of agents who gesture in one another’s direction (let’s bridge that theory/practice divide, find the dialogic space between scholars and performers, literature and theatre) and yet barely share a common language. Not signaling through the flames. Barely signaling at all.
How have a couple of generations of “performance-oriented criticism” framed that special genre, Shakespeare performance? In his widely and deservedly influential book Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist, Lukas Erne echoes a now-ritual complaint in some corners of Shakespeare studies, that the predominance of “Shakespeare, man of the theatre” is so powerful as to have obliterated that old-fashioned figure, Shakespeare the writer, the poet, the author. Yet despite this presumed overemphasis on the “performance” dimension (as though there were only one) of Shakespearean drama and pedagogy, the notion of performance animating much Shakespeare criticism and pedagogy (and much Shakespeare performance, too) is often a fully literary one: the theatre exists to express the innate will of the text. And when students complain about all that reading (Shakespeare wrote for the stage, and so the plays only have their meaning in performance), this apparently opposed position reciprocally proves the rule: here, too, “performance” is merely an embodied means to express the innate Will in the text.
Much contemporary “performance criticism”—arising from the work of J. L. Styan and John Russell Brown in the 1970s—models performance as a form of textual interpretation. In this widely shared view, the stage works to realize an organic reading of Shakespeare’s language—the “words” that John Barton celebrated in his BBC television series Playing Shakespeare—in a spatial and embodied rhetoric, offering something like a three-dimensional, processual essay on the play. This paradigm claims a more or less essential vision of theatre, seeing the evident changes in venue, architecture, technology, the entire socio-cultural-aesthetic-economic work of theatre separating early modern from late modern performance practice as mere window dressing to the presiding foundations of theatre practice. In so doing, a narrow conception of theatrical adequacy provides a doughty principle of interpretive regulation: no ideas that can’t be staged (which often becomes, naturally, no ideas at all).
Of course, much as there is no single critical practice, no single mode of reading, so too there is no essential theatre practice. The making of theatre has always been multiple and divergent. Dramatic performance clearly served a range of purposes in Shakespeare’s time: in London or on tour; at the Globe or at Blackfriars; for a theatrical audience or for the court; by adults or by adolescents. Given the multiplicity of performance in Shakespeare’s theatrical milieu, and the range of ways the documents of dramatic writing were generated, intercalated, adapted, emended, copied, used, and reused, there’s little warrant for seeing our own bookishly-inflected theatre as providing a privileged, performance-oriented insight into Shakespearean origins.
Shakespeare performance often instantiates a paradigm of performance that no historicist, old or new, materialist or otherwise, could readily accept. It proposes that unlike writing, which constantly changes in its practices, technologies, forms and instruments of materialization, its uses and social consequences, constantly performing its difference from a unified conception of “the work,” theatrical performance is, for all its historical and practical variety (boy actors, footlights, the star trap, a picture-frame proscenium, digital projection), fundamentally unchanged and unchanging in its essentially ministerial relation to writing. Given the richness, the variety, the massive cultural authority and nearly universal distribution of Shakespearean writing, it may be challenging to understand Shakespeare performance in any other way, even knowing, as we do, that in Shakespeare’s era the theatre was not, and could hardly have been, ministerial in this manner: performance can only be understood to minister to, to evoke, to replicate or interpret the literary value of texts that already have a literary presence, a culturally-acknowledged status and identity outside the theatre.
Historically, writing has functioned in a variety of ways within the scope of Western theatre and across the horizon of global performance. Like literature, performance or theatre hardly describes a single activity, nor can it be adequately conceived as having a proper or essential relation to writing, even, I think, in that familiar modern stage genre, Shakespeare performance (a theatrical genre unknown to Shakespeare and his audiences). Theatre is at once variably intermedial—using writing, bodies, space, and a range of technologies (manuscript, acting, costume, architecture, lighting) in a variety of ways—and is arguably conceived as an ongoing process of remediation: “the representation of one medium in another” as Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin put it in their influential study, Remediation. But theatre doesn’t merely represent other media (manuscript, print, social behavior); given the extraordinary variety of theatre as a medium, theatre often appears to remediate theatre, representing earlier or alternate modes of performance in the discourse of this theatre, here and now. The contemporary Original Practices movement, materialized in the beams and plaster of reconstructed or restored theatres like Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London and the American Shakespeare Center Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia, points precisely in this direction, suggesting the modern theatre’s capacity to remediate an earlier theatrical medium in the contemporary technologies—lighting, plumbing, seat numbers—of the stage.
To see theatre in this way, as a succession of related but distinctive technologies, a succession of related but distinctive media, draws our attention to the different kinds of work the human and nonhuman agents of theatre—bodies, texts, stages, costumes, props, instruments, architecture—do over time, the different kinds of performance they produce. We don’t really need Bruno Latour to tell us about the extent to which objects have agency in the human world; our pockets and handbags, to say nothing of our eyes and organs, are home to prostheses whose humming and pulsing extends, enables, and so perhaps defines, contemporary human agency. But dramatic action—whether learned from the mouth of the playwright, read from a papyrus scroll, from a paper cue-script, from a book, or while it scrolls across the device screening a Screen Partner side—takes place at the intersection of performance technologies. It’s precisely for this reason that contemporary performance is, finally, drawing so much attention to “alternative” ways of doing Shakespeare (as though there were a theatrical norm), or of “appropriating” Shakespeare (as though performance were a form of theft), and more generally to the implication of the drama in its technologies—original and otherwise—of performance. The incorporation of the “literary drama” into the structure of print tended to delegitimate the evanescent, actorly structure of performance as “the work”; “performance criticism,” for its part, confirmed this undoing, praising only performances for their provisionally appropriate evocation of the text, Shakespeare’s words. Today, the global commodity, Shakespeare, is no longer confined to English, no longer confined to realism, no longer confined to the modern proscenium (or the reconstructed oaken thrust, either), no longer confined to live performance, and no longer confined to that banal dichotomy, however much it may (or may not) have informed early modern theatre: Shakespeare/performance.
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