Before I respond to Jacob Zimmer’s thoughtful and generous comments on my “5 Points of Contention,” I first have to give him, or rather his company, Small Wooden Shoe, massive kudos for staging a reading of, would you believe it, Kleist’s Prince of Homburg on Monday — by sheer coincidence, one of the very plays I used as examples of things no-one ever does in Toronto. Jacob and I don’t quite agree on where to go from there: I’d love to see a full staging of the piece even more now, he sees at least as great value in the spontaneity and playfulness of the staged reading format. But still: it was something like a production of a long-forgotten (around here) classic, and as such very cool. So: kudos.
There is much in Jacob’s response that I completely agree with: different kinds of performance require different rehearsal processes, and different time-frames, so it’s not necessarily true, as I had argued, that three weeks of rehearsal is never enough. Translations gather dust very quickly, and need updating. If not being timid means “a lot of yelling and serious meaningful faces” I, too, would rather stay at home than sit through those non-timid shows. And I’m happy to subscribe without reservation to this credo: “Because it can and must be a good night out. Good ideas are entertaining. The separation of pleasure and theatre is not helping anyone.”
Other points I would quibble with, but only lightly. Like this one: “But, no, don’t dream – You have a university worth of space. Who’s stopping us? The big bad System is a thing we made up and agree to keep making up the same boring way. Waiting for someone else (especially one doing ok in the current system) to change is a mugs game.”
In principle, yes, that’s true. Up to a point. But only up to a point. “We” did not make up the system, at least not those of us in our 20s or 30s. (Jacob: you did not make up the system. You may or may not have contributed to its continued existence, but you or I didn’t create it.) That said, of course nothing is going to change unless those of us unhappy with the state of things try to make a difference, even if that means working for free or on the fringes of the theatre world. The question to me, then, becomes at what point and how this sort of fringy, marginal activity gains leverage — how the system in place, the structures that control the flow of funds, get altered from the margins in a way that turns fringe activities into work that allows artists to lead a less than struggling existence. Because I at least do not think there’s anything inherently bad about earning a living, no matter how countercultural your work may be.
Secondly, while I may have a university with lots or resources (sort of) at my disposal (sort of), that doesn’t help change the professional system. Our college and university stages already draw on a much more diverse and capacious canon of drama than our professional theatres — just check out the seasons of any of the Ontario theatre departments. There is a massive divide between what we teach our acting students and what they get to do once we release them into the world, and I don’t think that’s a new thing. So staying within the walls of the academy to put on little-known plays from far-away places and times doesn’t really change much: we already do that. What needs to change is the theatre world beyond those walls. A lot would be gained if the perception could disappear that anything challenging or experimental smacks of “theatre school wankery.” I like theatre school wankery. I wish more non-students engaged in it.
And then there are some points on which I very much disagree with Jacob. Which is just fine. That, after all, is precisely the point of diversity: different ideas about theatre or performance coexisting, leading to a rich variety of productions. Before I get to the disagreement, though, I want to answer the “honest question” he asked me: “How does a Shakespeare scholar support longer rehearsal times, given the modes of production at the time? I don’t want to open the original practices can of worms (or maybe I do.)”
[Puts on wonky theatre history hat. Mumbles.]
I’ll keep the original practices c.o.w. firmly shut. I’ve dabbled in that area a bit, with great trepidation; for more on that, see this (and if you really want to know more, email me for the password).
Beyond that, the Shakespeare scholar me responds that we don’t have the modes of production of Shakespeare’s time at our disposal anymore; and more crucially, ours aren’t the same modes of reception as the 16th century’s. If we had acting companies that played together year in, year out, in varying configurations for decades, mostly on the same stage (as Shakespeare’s company did increasingly by the 1600s); companies used to memorizing vast quantities of text very quickly, and likely reproducing said text with less than perfect accuracy; companies drawing on a repertory that was diverse, but also somewhat repetitive, with themes and plotlines endlessly recycled with subtle and not-so-subtle variations; if our theatres used no tech to speak of, beyond a thunder sheet and perhaps the occasional pulley; if our performance styles could accommodate extremely rigorous (and to our eyes, monotonous) protocols for exits and entrances and blocking, again marked less by variation than by predictability; and if our stage could dispense with modern concepts of psychology or character and would return to a more rhetorical acting style; well — if all that were the case, then our actors wouldn’t need a lot of time to rehearse. Though what modern audiences would make of those shows is a different question altogether. It’s true that early modern staging practices required far less rehearsal (though how little exactly remains a matter of debate — certain highly choreographed scenes would presumably need more time, as would elaborate fights). But that’s because the very idea of exploration makes little to no sense in the context of Shakespeare’s time. What’s there to explore? You have your lines, you know your entrance, you know your cues, you go. Characters happens on stage, or rather: in the audience’s heads. (An approach still perfectly OK with, say, David Mamet.)
I wouldn’t say we’ve progressed beyond that (no teleology here) — but we, for the most part, think differently about what acting, what a performance, is and means. And if we don’t, we still recognize that there’s a range of ways of going about this playing business, and that some of those approaches take more time than others. All that said, I think it would be a mistake to think of early modern practices as more spontaneous, more playful, or more open to creative impulses. If anything, they require actors to be more dependable, more predictable, more stable in following protocol. Any given show may have looked and felt quite different each time it was played, but most shows, on another level, probably were more alike than different. So Tuesday’s and Friday’s Macbeth in 1606 may have been more different from each other than Tuesday’s and Friday’s Macbeth at Stratford in 2012, but all five or six shows staged at the Globe that week in 1606 almost certainly were much more similar to each other than any six shows on stage at Stratford last week — and not just on the level of playwrighting, but on that of how, where, and when actors move, how they speak, what they look like, and what they wear.
And finally, the Shakespeare scholar me would say that what worked for Shakespeare doesn’t really work for us anymore. This is true even for companies that more or less recreate early modern conditions, like the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. — or the Queen’s Men Project I linked to above. You can do something similar to what Shakespeare and Co. might have done (as far as we can tell), but you can’t do the same (because none of us have the necessary training or social, cultural, and physical background from birth on); and you never, ever can make an audience perceive what you do with 16th-century eyes, ears, and noses. Performance history does many things and is interesting for many reasons (it’s what I spend most of my research energies on these days). But it doesn’t have conclusive or even necessarily helpful answers to contemporary performance problems.
[Pauses, sadly. Takes off hat.]
So that’s my honest answer to Jacob’s honest question. Now for disagreement.
Jacob argues that I confuse stories and plays. I’ll quote him at length:
The story of Iphigenia was well known at the time. Known stories are helpful entry ways into being able to change stuff up. They can also provide structure, which can be super helpful. This is very different from staging the old play.
I love the story of the Oresteia – but I will buy a ticket for a Charles Mee way faster than for a translation of Aeschylus – even for some fancy new translation. We are in a different time. Story telling modes change. […]
I still think there’s a difference between a story and a play. Between a new treating of an old story and a new production of an old play.
The language has so changed and the way we hear language as people in the world, has changed. The way we understand pictures and what it means to be human has changed since the script first played. Never mind that the understanding is different between Halifax and Toronto. So something needs to be worked, to become local.
This is also true of translations – the Brecht translations (the ones I’m familiar with) need to be updated. They can play fast and with humour and they’re great that way – not the boring museum piece or an overwrought Müller rendition.
My Brecht is a Brecht for here and now. The translation I like and work on might not play in Germany, that’s fine, I’m not in Germany. All this to say, we need our classics. We’re also not all from one little white area of the globe anymore. Classics are going to be different now, if there’s to be any meaning in them.
I do have one principled objection: plays are not stories. Whatever a play may do, it does not tell a story. That’s a big point, though, and I’ll leave it for my next post.
Jacob’s right: re-working an old plot, writing a new play based on the same source story as an old one — that’s not the same as staging an old script. Charles Mee is a complicated example, since he recasts and reassembles old things, which is different from reviving them but not quite the same as writing a completely new play. Something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead might be closer to a straight-up rewriting. Or we could just take Romeo and Juliet. Or King Lear.
So that’s not the issue: new treatments of old plots are indeed very different from new productions of old plays. What I vehemently disagree with is the notion that simply because playwrighting and staging conventions change, because language and modes of reception change, old texts cannot communicate anymore. That differences — historical or geographical or philosophical — cannot be bridged unless we make our means of communication “local.” That’s a vision I find, to put it mildly, depressing — and I don’t think Jacob really means it. After all, my Germano-Anglo-Americo-Canadio-Torontonian understanding of things may differ from that of a differently constituted Haligonian, but we can still talk to each other: I can listen to her, and she can listen to me, and we can understand those differences even if we don’t resolve them. I might be shocked by them, or disgusted, or mildly displeased, or fascinated, or baffled — but that doesn’t mean that they’re simply not being communicated.
Extend the argument beyond the theatre, and it immediately falls apart: who would ever read anything if this insistence on local perspectives held true? As an English professor, I’m obviously invested in the continued relevance of old texts; but that relevance is also just an empirical fact. The BBC may produce brilliant (if problematic) 21st-century versions of Sherlock Holmes stories, but people still read and enjoy the originals as well. Our students can’t get enough of Jane Austen. Or Chaucer, for that matter. And on and on — which is not to say that modern readers see, hear, and imagine the same things a Victorian Sherlockian would have seen, heard, and imagined, far less that Austen or Chaucer speak to some sort of universal human condition and thus appeal to us in the same way or for the same reasons that they appealed to their contemporaries and the many intervening generations. Of course our Doyle(s), our Austen(s), our Chaucer(s) are different. But that’s precisely what makes them classics: that they remain available that way, that they have an extraordinarily elusive quality that allows them to stay alive, shapeshiftingly and unpredictably, but vividly. This isn’t true of all, or even most, old texts. It’s certainly not true of most old plays. But most texts don’t become classics.
Crucially, whatever it is that allows some poems, some novels, some plays to stay alive has little to do with story. It’s not the story of Pride and Prejudice that’s unique; it’s not the contents of Hamlet. Survival is a matter of structure, of emphasis, of perspective, and of language. There are many version of the Don Juan story, but only a handful that have remained powerful — and not because of what they say, but because of how they say it.
Of course old plays are recalcitrant. They’re difficult. They’re very, very different: in their methods, in their ideas, in their language. But none of those things make them museum pieces. We do that.
Translated texts have the added problem that translations age much more quickly and less interestingly than originals. Don’t ask me why: it seems to be the case. But the solution can’t be, to my mind, to simply update a translation; to render, say, Molière’s 17th-century French in 21st-century English. Not that that’s not allowed — it’s fine. But it’s also a subterfuge, a sly shirking of the challenge. The tougher task, though probably also potentially the more rewarding one, would be to come up with a fresh but historically sensitive version and then try to make that work.
Sure, classics need to be different now than they were when they were first staged. But that doesn’t mean they need to be like us. It’s Hamlet who says that thing about holding the mirror up to nature, not Shakespeare — and neither of them was right about everything. I don’t mind looking in a theatrical mirror from time to time (for the narcissistic pleasure or horror if nothing else) but I’m much, much more interested in paintings and photos of other people.
To take Jacob’s point about pictures: yes, we look at images very differently now than people did in the past. But what does that mean? Does it mean that we should repaint all the van Eycks and Rembrandts, the Manets and Monets, the Picassos and Matisses? Worse, does it mean that in the AGO, say, the only rooms that may hold any meaning for us are the Canadian ones? Because that, frankly, is largely what the Toronto theatre scene is like: it’s like the AGO with all the old masters and European modernist galleries shut down. A few Henry Moore sculptures dotted around the place. Fine, perhaps a Frank Stella or Robert Rauschenberg in a corner. A really nice room with some Rothkos and Jackson Pollocks, and every few years, a Rubens. But mostly, it’s the Canadian collection and little else.
I agree that we need “our” classics (too). But even those can’t be “ours” completely, otherwise they’re not classics. Otherwise, they’re just us. It’s the very nature of a classic that’s it’s both totally other, totally strange and unlike us, and at the same time remains connected, or still allows us to connect to it. (And yes, I realize that this “us” is a hugely problematic term and that not all classics transcend cultural differences — though many, amazingly, do.)
No culture can be made up entirely of old things. But no culture can function without a rich store of old things either. That’s why we have libraries. That’s why we have art galleries. That’s why we have institutions like the TIFF Cinemateque — or our local video store. Not as repositories of dead objects, but as places where we can go to rediscover, to be enchanted anew, to be thrilled or terrified or amused again, if differently, by the works of the past. Our theatres should be more like those places.
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
- Three Sisters (Chekhov/Stone; dir. Simon Stone) Theater Basel/Theatertreffen, May 2017
- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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