Special Issue: Reviewing Shakespeare || Shakespeare, the Reviewer, and the Theatre Historian

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    Shakespeare, the Reviewer, and the Theatre HistorianAuthor(s): Cary M. MazerSource: Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 5, Special Issue: Reviewing Shakespeare (1985), pp.648-661Published by: Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington UniversityStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2869781 .Accessed: 10/06/2014 06:02

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  • Shakespeare, the Reviewer, And the Theatre Historian


    I recommend the series of dramatic essays [collections of theatre reviews edited by William Archer and Robert Lowe] . . . to all actors who pretend to be indifferent to the opinion of such persons as myself; for it proves beyond contradiction that the actor who desires enduring fame must seek it at the hands of the critic, and not of the casual playgoer. Money and applause he may have in plenty from the contemporary mob; but posterity can only see him through the spectacles of the elect: if he displeases them, his credit will be interred with his bones. The world believes Edmund Kean to have been a much greater actor than Junius Brutus Booth solely because Hazlitt thought so. Its belief in the inferiority of Forrest to Macready is not its own opinion, but Forster's. The one failure of Charles Kean's life that matters now is his failure to impress Lewes in anything higher than melodrama. Some day they will reprint my articles; and then what will all your puffs and long runs and photographs and papered houses and cheap successes avail you, 0 lovely leading ladies and well-tailored actor-managers? The twentieth century, if it con- cerns itself about either of us, will see you as I see you. Therefore study my tastes, flatter me, bribe me, and see that your acting-managers are conscious of my ex- istence and impressed with my importance.1

    T HUS WROTE BERNARD SHAW IN HIS WEEKLY COLUMN of theatrical criticism in The Saturday Review on 20 June 1896, a theatre review reprinted, as

    Shaw predicted, along with the rest of his theatrical criticism, under the general title Our Theatres in the Nineties. Shaw was, of course, right: we do indeed see his theatrical contemporaries as he (and, if we are at all cautious, as Clement Scott, William Archer, J. T. Grein, A. B. Walkley, and a dozen or so critics who have not subsequently been anthologized) saw them. Whether the reviewer defines the task of criticism in relation to the immediate present, or addresses the immense grandstand of posterity (the "Ghosts of the Distant Future" whom Salieri addresses in Shaffer's Amadeus), the reviewer is a valuable bridge to the past, a source of both information and opinion, and one of the most com-

    1 Bernard Shaw, Our Theatres in the Nineties (London: Constable and Company, 1932), ii, 160- 61.

    CARY M. MAZER, Assistant Professor of English and Co-Chairman of the Theatre Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Shakespeare Refashioned: Elizabethan Plays on Edwardian Stages; he is currently working on a book on Edwardian Shakespearean acting.

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    pelling and indispensable documentary tools available to the theatre historian. And this has become even more true in recent decades, as the discipline of

    theatre history has entered the ranks of modern scholarship in both aim and methodology. Theatre historians have always drawn upon reviews, even at the turn of the century, when theatre history consisted primarily of laudatory bio- graphies of popular actors and straightforward chronicles, such as G.C.D. Odell's Annals of the New York Stage. In both cases, the historian would draw upon reviews as barometers of contemporary opinion. Reviews were valued because they were valuative: because critics, whether persons of letters or Fleet Street hacks, are more expressive than the anonymous theatregoer; and because their writings, however prejudiced or self-serving, are more durable than the applause of the audience, which is as evanescent as the actor's performance itself.

    Today, the theatre historian is interested not so much in recording the fact that a theatrical event took place, nor even solely in appraising its success, but in understanding and interpreting the aesthetic experience of that theatre event in its context: the context of the particular playhouse, the particular audience, in the particular town, at the particular cultural and historical moment. The scholarly process of placing the aesthetic event in its historical moment begins, of course, with the event itself, and the principal activity of the historian is thus one of reconstruction, of recreating the shape of the event from its doc- umentable details, and of recapturing the experience of the individuals in the audience, those people whose presence and participation complete the event itself. Reviews can often provide a source of precise detail about the perfor- mance, about text, picture, space, characterization, business, conception, and overall interpretation; and they can help us to recapture some sense of what it might have been like to have been in the theatre audience, participating in the theatre event.

    The reliability of theatre reviews as a source of factual details about the performance itself has become a continual and increasing source of frustration for the theatre historian. In the passage I quoted at the beginning of this essay, Shaw recognizes the importance that his reviews will have for historians in the future because of the sheer weight of his opinions; but he says little about the descriptive powers of the critic, or the interest that the theatre historian might have in the details of what actually transpired on stage. We are inclined to accept the opinions of Shaw and his contemporaries; but we may wish they had described more of what they witnessed in the playhouse. The needs of the modern theatre historian have tempered our expectations of theatrical criticism. Imagining that historians in the future will share our interests and methods, we have begun to encourage contemporary critics to serve historians in the future better than the critics in the past have served us. And we have begun to prescribe formats and formulae for theatrical reviewing which will serve this higher pur- pose.

    I do not wish to add to this list of prescriptions. Indeed, I believe that we have, in many ways, prescribed too much. Instead, I wish to describe the new format of scholarly theatre reviewing which has evolved in the last decade, and to trace its origins in the revolution in stage-centered Shakespeare criticism and Shakespeare performance history. This new format of theatrical reviewing has its distinct uses; but I would like to maintain that much has been lost, both to reviewing and to those historians in the future whom we are most directly aiming to serve.

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    Shakespeare performance history began, as a field, at the turn of the century, with the works of a theatre historian of the old school, G.C.D. Odell, and a theatrical critic-belletrist, William Winter.2 But the field as we know it is of far more recent origin, beginning with Arthur Colby Sprague, J. C. Trewin, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, Robert Speaight, and, of course, Charles Shattuck.3 Modern Shakespeare performance history is really more a branch of stage-cen- tered criticism than it is a sub-specialty of theatre history. Its tools, method- ology, and areas of exploration are historical, but its principal aims have been dramatic interpretation and not theatre history. Whether the script is a precisely notated and strictly delimited score, or else a pretext for an infinite range of possible realizations (the truth, of course, lies somewhere in between), the very assumption that Shakespeare's plays are scripts implies that the scripts them- selves are somehow incomplete, or at least unrealized, until they exist in the act of performance. This assumption in turn acknowledges the contribution of the artists of the theatre-the actors, directors, and designers-as agents or collaborators in the play's completion or realization in performance. And this in turn leads to the ultimate recognition, either celebrated or begrudged, that the theatrical artist is an interpreter, that the process of preparing a play for presentation before an audience is, consciously or subliminally, an act of inter- pretation, on a par with, if in several ways different from, the interpretive act of literary criticism. Literary critics leave behind a record of their interpretation, in the form of their published books and essays. But the theatrical interpreter's interpretation is the performance itself, which, like everything in the theatre, disappears in all but the memory of the spectator the moment the performance is over.

    The historian of Shakespeare in performance acts on the conviction that these interpretations are valuable only if they can be preserved and made available in more durable form to the scholarly community at large. The task of the performance historian, then, is like that of the archivist, one of preservation, and like that of the critical historian, one of collation and presentation. It is historical insofar as it is interested in the changes in interpretation over time, and the possible significance of such changes; but it is essentially interpretive, in that it seeks, by accumulating theatrical "interpretations" through the cen- turies, to add to the aggregate of our own interpretive understanding of the plays themselves.

    The shift in the presentational format in the books of that most encyclopedic of Shakespeare performance historians, Marvin Rosenberg, is indicative of this goal. The Masks of Othello (Berkeley:. Univ. of California Press, 1961) pre- sents, in a chronological narrative, the fortunes of the play's interpretation in

    2 G.C.D. Odell, Shakespeare from Betterton to Irving (1920; rpt. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966); William Winter, Shakespeare on the Stage, 3 vols. (New York: Moffat, 1911-16).

    3Arthur Colby Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1944); J. C. Trewin, Shakespeare on the English Stage, 1900-1964 (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1964); Arthur Colby Sprague and J. C. Trewin, Shakespeare's Plays Today (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1970); Muriel St. Clare Byrne, "Fifty Years of Shakespearean Production: 1898-1948," Shakespeare Survey, 2 (1949), 1-20; Robert Speaight, Shakespeare on the Stage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973); Charles Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1965), The Hamlet of Edwin Booth (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1969), Shakespeare on the American Stage (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976).

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    performance throughout history. But, first in The Masks of King Lear (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1972), and then in The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), the chronological narrative is scrapped. De- tails of the individual performances are divided into little bits and, like so many file cards, reshuffled. The interpretations of performances in the past become data for an aggregate interpretation in the present. As Rosenberg notes in The Masks of Macbeth (p. xii), "I am essentially concerned with the interpretation, only secondarily the history." The entrance of each character, the physical business, the emotional flow of the speeches, the ebb and flow of character interaction, are discussed in order, as the audience would experience them. Rosenberg describes the drama of each interpretive moment by describing how that moment was interpreted in any and every documentable performance from the past. By showing the full range of theatrical readings arrived at to date, Rosenberg builds a prototype for all possible theatrical performances. The blue- print for the play's human vitality in performance, according to this school of scholarship, lies in the aggregate of all its human embodiments in the theatre through history.4 Admittedly, other Shakespeare performance historians, such as John Ripley, Margaret Lamb, and Dennis Bartholomeusz, have not chosen to follow Rosenberg's example.5 But their purpose has essentially been the same: by presenting the history of the play in performance, they can test, mea- sure, and delimit the range of possibilities for performance today. If "meaning" lies only in performance, then by assembling the data of performance the Shakespeare performance historian creates, in effect, a variorum of the play's theatrical meanings.

    Such an enterprise makes very special use of the documents of theatre history, and so makes a very particular demand on the theatrical reviewer as purveyor of documentary evidence. Reviews are, of course, only one of several potential sources of documentary evidence for the purposes of reconstructing the details of the theatrical event. If the historian is fortunate, there is the promptbook, the director's, or more often the stage-manager's, annotated working text of the play, developed during the rehearsal period, and used by the stage-manager as the cueing and prompting script of the play while the production is "run- ning." A director like Glen Byam Shaw will keep his own "preparation" copy, which includes not only the cuts in the script...


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