I’ll have more to say on this later on, but here, for your consideration, two lengthy-ish quotations from not altogether recent works about what’s wrong with some approaches to staging the classics — approaches that remain, sadly, utterly dominant in Canada.
In chronological order, first, here’s Bertolt Brecht, from “Intimidation through Classicism” (1954), a short essay written as a program note for his production of Goethe’s Urfaust:
There is much standing in the way of lively productions of our classical works. The worst of all culprits is the intellectual and emotional laziness of the experienced practitioner. We have a tradition of staging that is often thoughtlessly counted as part of cultural heritage, when in fact it only damages the work, the actual heritage; in truth, this is a tradition of doing damage to classical works. One might say that through neglect, more and more dust is allowed to accumulate on the great old pictures, and that all the copyists more or less diligently reproduce all those dust stains along with the originals. The main thing that is lost in the process is the initial freshness of the classics, all that was once surprising, new, productive — one of the most important aspects of those works. Traditional approaches to staging serve the laziness of directors and actors as well as that of the audience. The passionate spirit of a great work is replaced by stage temperament, and the play’s effort to shape and educate the audience is tepid, timid, and superficial, free of the classics’ own combative spirit. Over time, this necessarily leads to a kind of boredom that is also entirely at odds with the classics. Struggling against this boredom, many, often talented directors and actors these days dream up new, hitherto unseen sensational effects, but those are purely formalist in nature — they are simply imposed, forced on the classical work, on its content and intentions, so that these stagings often do even worse damage than traditional productions, since this approach does not merely obscure or make banal the classics’ content and intentions, but actively distorts them. A formalist “renewal” of classical works is now the standard response to traditional methods, but it is the wrong response. We might say that all it does is render badly preserved meat palatable again by adding sharp spices and sauces.
And here’s Jonathan Miller, from Subsequent Performances (1986), writing initially against the viability of preserving an authentic, “canonical” 16th-century performance style:
The notion of performance would be altered if we were bound by the one canonical production, and plays would, like pictures, becomes autographic works of art. As a consequence the theatre would become rather like a museum or a church in which the audiences would be subtly changed into congregations, witnesses of a rite rather than spectators of a play. However interesting this might be from an archival point of view … the play itself would be imprisoned in its own orthodoxy and prevented from developing that emergent character which is constitutive of great drama. … It seems to me that it is precisely because subsequent performances of Shakespeare’s plays are interpretations, rather than copies, that they have survived. The amplitude of Shakespeare’s imagination admits so many possible interpretations that his work has enjoyed an extraordinary afterlife unforeseeable by the author at the time of writing. We overvalue the notion of identity of the work and search fruitlessly for some hypothetical feature that will act as a guarantee or a token of its identity. …
The role of precedent is very strong, and there is a tendency for performances to clone. Actors, and directors, like to preserve their originality and would feel very offended if anyone accused them of going by prototype, but I think there is a conspiracy in the theatre to perpetuate certain prototypes in the belief that they contain the secret truth of the characters in question. This collusion between actors and directors is broken only by successful innovation which interrupts the prevailing mode. Often, what exerts a peculiar and disabling influence over our imagination is not the precedent of the distant past, the original Tudor production, but of the recent past, which comes to assume the status of a canonical performance, although it (like its predecessors) is an interpretation of the play in question. The problem is that audiences who object to what they regard as frivolous departures from the prototype mistakenly take one particular, and favourite, production as their standard by which all subsequent performances stand or fall. (54-55; 109)
Keeping the “emergent character” alive — allowing the classics their actual freshness, their continued ability to surprise us, to do something unexpected, to emerge differently each time we encounter them — requires looking beyond established models and comfortable prototypes. It requires going back to the text and finding ways of making that text speak to a modern audience — to, in Brecht’s model, attack an audience with the same “combative spirit” that made these works classics in the first place.
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