This is a set of thoughts and questions I produced for a workshop on (performance) Practice-as-Research (organized by Andy Kesson and Stephen Purcell) at next week’s Shakespeare Association of America conference in St Louis. Nothing I say in here applies, really, to the kind of research-as-practice undertaken by scholar-practitioners engaged in the making of new work — new plays, devised productions, etc. I’m strictly concerned with the place of performance practice within the quite narrowly defined field of early modern studies — though I think much of what I say would apply to any scholarly engagement with practice that takes as its focus the performance of “older” plays (woollily defined).


Take a well-known and worn-out example: “Take this from this if this be otherwise” (Hamlet 2.2.157). How does theatre practice illuminate Polonius’s line in ways critical practice cannot? It’s a challenge for actor and reader alike: both might wonder what it means, what all those free-floating demonstrative pronouns refer to; the reader might, if she is so inclined, try to picture Polonius in her mind, and struggle to match his words to imaginary gestures; the actor, probably keen to make the line “read,” might think of what actions the words prompt him to perform. Either way, it’s a lacuna, both textually and as a performance direction: the line seems to call for some sort of action, some kind of choice, but it does not specify what exactly it wants the actor to do, or the reader to picture. Scholars and editors have produced, over the years, a lengthy list of suggestions: the most common interpretation is “my head from my shoulders” (indicated with appropriate gestures), but Polonius may also be talking about his staff of office and his hand, or his chain of office and his neck, or something else. G. R. Hibbard is one editor who finds the line so deficient on its own that he marvels at the lack of an explicit stage direction in all texts up to Pope’s second edition of 1728: “without this direction,” he writes, the line “is unintelligible.”[1]

It’s tempting to say that such unintelligibility only exists on the page—that a writer can write a line like that and a printer can typeset it apparently without knowing what exactly it means, forcing a reader to make up his own mind or just ignore the problem altogether—whereas on stage, an actor would have to make a choice, would have to know what Polonius means in order to be able to perform that line. Acting, in that view, is an act of interpretation that is coercive in two directions: it forces the actor to make a near-endless number of interpretative choices, to decide what the words he says mean and how his body needs to behave to suit those meanings; and it forces a set of interpretations on the audience, who are less free to make up their own minds about the texts’ meanings than they would be as readers. When Polonius, on stage, defines the first “this” as his staff of office and the second as his hand, he is in effect turning Edward Dowden’s annotations to the first Arden edition of 1899 into a stage direction (as Dowden was the first to suggest that reading); but whereas an editor’s note proposes a possible interpretation, the actor’s choices don’t propose—they establish a particular reading as normative, at least within the context of a given performance. (In a sense, even an actor who doesn’t make a choice on that line and simply says it without giving the pronouns referents makes a decision, consciously or not: if nothing else, such an actor implies that the line makes sense as it stands.) An audience member who responds, silently or vocally, by disagreeing with the actor, by insisting, say, that Polonius should instead point to his head and neck, would claim an interpretative authority she doesn’t possess.

This is where the example of Polonius’s line is helpfully uncomplicated: as a genuine lacuna, a moment where the text simply doesn’t say enough, it opens up a field of possibilities. In that sense, it escapes the usual debates over the relative authorities of page or stage, and should make it impossible for a viewer to dismiss a particular acting choice as “wrong” (because it runs counter to a reader’s expectations). An audience member may not like what the actor decided to do, but that’s a different matter.

Or is it? Is the subjective response of a viewer who dismisses an actor’s choice simply because it doesn’t work for her really substantially different from the decision making process that might have led an actor to make that particular choice? It’s easy to imagine the moment in rehearsal. John, who’s playing Polonius, has read all the footnotes; he’s thought about the various things he might do with those pronouns; and he’s trying a few of them out, from the obvious and traditional (head/neck) to something he cooked up himself—he just finished a run of King Lear in which he played Gloucester, and he thinks it would be a neat metatheatrical gesture, in line with Polonius’s memories of playing Julius Caesar, if he gestured to his eyes instead. The director likes it; it seems to “work” in the scene as it’s emerging in rehearsal; it’s the choice they decide to adopt. Perhaps it’ll stay in the show; perhaps, as the process continues, it’ll stop “working,” and John will make a different choice, maybe reverting to tradition. But is any of those decisions any more “authoritative” than an audience member’s subjective dislike of a specific decision? Given the range of options the text leaves open, how is the conviction, on the company’s or director’s part, that something “works” any less subjective than a viewer’s sense that it doesn’t, at least for her?

As a question about performance, I don’t actually find this is an especially interesting problem. The obvious answer seems to be that actors make choices relatively subjectively while often convincing themselves that what they are doing has some sort of authority or warrant; audiences often come to the theatre with expectations informed by critical and theatrical traditions and their own reading of a playtext, expectations that tend to take on the force of authority, of the power to divide right from wrong. What those on stage do probably makes sense to them; it’ll sometimes make a similar sort of sense to the audience; sometimes a different sort of sense; and sometimes no sense at all. But that doesn’t mean that either side has got it right—or has the right to tell the other that they got it wrong. But if it’s not a terribly intriguing question about the relative authority of performance, performers, audiences, and texts, it is a serious challenge, I think, for the very project of practice as research.

Let me stick with that single line, and re-imagine John’s rehearsal process as one attended by, or organized by, a practice-based researchers. What might that scholar learn in the rehearsal hall? We already know that “Take this from this if this be otherwise” is a profoundly ambiguous, one might even say meaningless, line. We know that actors have played it in a number of different ways, and it’s presumably no surprise to anyone to discover that actors can come up with yet other ways of playing the line. At the same time, depending on just how creative a performer John is, I can easily imagine a scholar responding to one of John’s choices by marveling “that this could be played like that” or “that this was possible”—with surprise, in other words, that the text, the script, the play contained or sustained a particular, unexpected actorly decision. I may be being uncharitable here, but if so, I will happily acknowledge that I have seen myself respond in such a way to rehearsals and performances: as if what actors choose to do invariably illuminates the text in some way (or as if a text that remains unilluminated is a bad thing, a missed opportunity at best). Why is this a problem? Because it suggests that actorly decisions are always interpretative rather than creative: that they teach us something about the play, rather than about a particular performance.

I think this is a problem both conceptually, in that it implies a particular understanding of the relationship between text and performance that seems to precede nearly twenty years of revisionist work in theatre studies; and methodologically, in that it seems to hold a narrow vision of what practice-as-research actually researches—and what practice is. Perhaps all of these are straw men. And pragmatically, it is certainly the case that performance can illuminate the text. An actor speaking a line with a particular inflection can suggest an interpretative angle a critic might adopt and develop into a full-fledged reading of a text. Just the other day, seeing Simon Russell Beale’s take on Lear (in an otherwise messy production) made me think about Shakespeare’s text as a morality play in a way I hadn’t before: Beale giggled and applauded when Burgundy rejects Cordelia, and that palpable if jarring sense of joy suggested, to me, that the play could be read as a study in worldly pride. I didn’t do anything with that thought, nor did I look into the critical literature on Lear to see if others had taken such an angle (I’m sure they have, though: it’s not a massively brilliant idea, after all). I also didn’t think the production really worked—or tried to work—as a morality play. But it was an interpretative perspective hinted at in a single actorly decision, a perspective I might not have considered if it hadn’t been for Beale’s performance. In that sense, his take on that isolated moment illuminated the play, and may have changed my understanding of what this play, as a text, is about. Even though this may not have been what Sam Mendes or Simon Russell Beale wanted to say about King Lear, and even though their show didn’t really “do” anything with this angle, what they made on stage sent me back to the text with fresh eyes (or rather, might still send me back to text). Practice—if only the practice of spectatorship—here, then, functioned as a sort of research, or a gesture in the direction of future research, about the play: it provided me with a conceptual, interpretative point of view, a sense of what the text might be trying to do, the starting point of a reading that I could now pursue through Shakespeare’s script and write up as a scholarly article (ideally, perhaps, backed up by some historical work).

But what troubles me is that this sort of approach (which, again, may be a straw man fiction) actually misconstrues what theatrical practice is. It may be true that a performance can often teach us things about the text that we didn’t see or hear before. But is that what performances should do (the ethical question) or what performances in fact do (the conceptual question)? Is it not a misuse of performance to appropriate acting choices as gestures of textual interpretation? And if practice-as-research goes beyond spectatorship into theatre-making, is the kind of practice it thrives on not likely to be focused, perhaps artificially, on producing precisely such interpretative moves?

Here’s another example. I was recently working with a group of theatre students on Hamlet’s closet scene. We explored the features of the text that I expected to prove challenging or at least interesting, from “leave wringing of thy hands” (3.4.32) to the ghost’s appearance and Gertrude’s reaction to it; we tried to work through the rapid shifts in her and in Hamlet’s attitudes; and without me prompting them (against my personal preferences even), the students quickly brought a vaguely Stanislavskian vocabulary of subtexts and objectives to bear on the scene. How much of that came “out of” the text is obviously debatable, but formally at least, the discussion, the sorts of questions that arose during the rehearsal, more often than not had to do with what exactly the text or a particular character “is saying.” So far, so good: the work we were doing could quite easily fit into a straightforward practice-as-research scheme, as we were after all using performance in order to explore the text (if from a perspective more informed by psychology than most contemporary criticism tends to be). But then something interesting happened. The actor playing Gertrude had injured her knee and could only walk with difficulty. Soon, her discomfort became acute enough that she sat down on a desk chair that happened to be in the rehearsal room, and played the rest of the scene sitting down, wheeling herself about. Once Gertrude’s confinement to that chair had been established, though, it didn’t take long for the actor playing Hamlet to turn this confinement into a fact in the world of the play as well—Gertrude was now wheelchair-bound. Thus, Hamlet’s “Come, come, and sit you down” (3.4.17) became a nasty joke, to which Gertrude reacted with shock; and his “You shall not budge” (17) was followed by him engaging the breaks on the imaginary wheelchair, an action so threatening that it quickly led to Gertrude’s cry for help. As a theatrical choice, it was easily the most thrilling moment of the entire rehearsal: totally unpredictable, entirely born of the moment and its specific, arbitrary limitations and possibilities, without real textual warrant or basis, and yet ultimately the exchange out of which developed the actors’ entire take on the rest of the scene.

From there, the process could have gone in any number of directions. There would have been ethical questions to ask: is it a problem for a non-disabled actor to play a wheelchair-bound character? If the production made this choice for Gertrude, would it call for a casting change? There might have been questions about the character, if the actor and the production were that way inclined: who is Gertrude? Is she permanently disabled? Has she just broken her leg, and isn’t used to her wheelchair yet? How long has she been in it? Has Hamlet grown up with his mother in a wheelchair? How might that have affected their relationship? (For the record, I find most of these questions totally irrelevant and not especially interesting, but for a certain kind of actor, they will be of supreme importance.) There might be interpretative questions: although Shakespeare’s Gertrude is obviously not confined to a wheelchair, does presenting her thus function as a metaphor for other kinds of confinement that the character might be subject to in the play “as written”? Is using a wheelchair as an image of confinement not badly reductive? (Interpretative question can quickly become ethical questions….) It is the latter set of questions that seem to me most directly linked to a possible practice-as-research project. Our rehearsal process might have foregrounded a thematic strand in the text that addresses Gertrude’s lack of agency, or the ways her agency is limited; something that happened quite organically while working with actors under specific but fairly coincidental conditions might prove to be a way back into the text, might open up interpretative perspectives that may not have occurred to me in the silence of the study.

But, and that is my point, it may also prove to be no such thing. Our decision to confine Gertrude physically may construct that character, and its dramatic and/or theatrical functions and effects, in a way that has nothing to do with the text, or may even be at odds with it. The choice did not, after all, arise from an engagement with Shakespeare’s words. Quite the contrary. It emerged in response to a particular actor’s physical predicament (an injured knee) and another actor’s decision to play with rather than suppress his knowledge of his scene partner’s injury. Hamlet’s “Come, come, and sit you down” is obviously not a sardonic joke in Shakespeare—how could it be? In other words, what happened in this rehearsal and what became interesting about the scene had very little to do with the text, and everything to do with what happened to the words when spoken in a way and in a context dictated by the conditions of our rehearsal room in January 2014. And whether what emerged in this process “works” is not a question one can answer with recourse to the text, but only, if at all, with recourse to the production that this scene might eventually be part of. Which is to say, the process and its outcome can tell us many things about this particular production of Hamlet, but it isn’t meant to tell us anything about Hamlet itself—-about the early seventeenth-century play rather than one particular 21st-century staging of it.

Conceptually, this really isn’t all that surprising a conclusion. It’s simply a version of what scholars such as W. B. Worthen and Andrew Hartley have written about at great length: that, in Hartley’s words, “the text is not the production ‘in potential,’ it does not predict or even direct the performance, and it cannot somehow contain or restrict the number of ‘correct’ stagings of the play, since too much of the production is determined by its own genre of communication (the theatre). In short, the production does not move from page to stage. A play (text) and a production are fundamentally different things, and while they are interconnected, the former does not dictate or originate the latter.”[2] If Worthen is right that drama lives two lives, attempting to reconcile the two or bring them into a meaningful dialogue always threatens one of those lives.[3] And if Hans-Thies Lehmann’s analysis is correct, that there is a “fundamental difference (and competition) between the perspective of the text … and the entirely distinct perspective of the theatre, for which the text is raw material,”[4] and that text and stage have always been in conflict and never in a harmonious relationship in Western theatre—well, then the project of practice-as-research may be trying to create a dialogue where none should or can exist.

There is much more to say, obviously. Personally, I’m troubled by all of this precisely because I am intellectually committed to the idea of building practice into my own research, and have invested some energy into integrating theatrical explorations of historical staging practices into theatre-historical research. Perhaps the whole field of “original practices” (that multiply vexed and vexing phrase) needs to be considered a separate topic from the question of the scholarly utility of other kinds of practical work. But as far as those other kinds of work are concerned, I will end with a fairly straightforward question. If practice-as-research can only incidentally be research about a play (the point I’ve been trying to make), then what else might it be? What does practice-as-research research? Is it practice? And if its actual topic is practice, but if it doesn’t and can’t approach practice from a historical perspective (since it is not itself scholarship but practice), then what does it do or say? (Practice-as-research does not, after all, aim to tell the history of modern Shakespeare performance; on the contrary, it is part of that history.) In other words, how is practice-as-research not primarily, well, simply a version of practice—and as such, as self-authorized and self-contained as all practice, finding its own rules and objectives, and ultimately concerned with nothing beyond itself, its interest to non-practitioners a desirable but non-essential side-product of the work?

[1] G. R. Hibbard, ed., Hamlet (Oxford: OUP, 1987), 211.

[2] Andrew James Hartley, The Shakespearean Dramaturg: A Theoretical and Practical Guide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 42.

[3] See, most recently, Worthen, Drama: Between Poetry and Performance (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

[4] Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater, 5th ed. (Frankfurt: Verlag der Autoren, 2011), 261.

3 Responses to My Trouble with Practice-as-Research

  1. Brice Stratford says:

    Excellent, throught-provoking piece. A lot to chew on, but with one question that it raised for me in particular.

    Repeatedly this post associates the Text with the Play, and the consequent Performance as something else.

    “about the early seventeenth-century play rather than one particular 21st-century staging of it.”

    “A play (text) and a production are fundamentally different things”

    Could this not just as easily, and just as validly, be written: “A play (in production) and a text are fundamentally different things” ? Conflating either production or text as being The Play and any other aspect as being somehow less than or distanced from The Play betrays a misleading bias, I think.

    Bearing in mind that the texts were certainly written for performance, and due to the meandering journey from writing, through the censor, through performance (or not), and on to publication the texts themselves can rarely be given a true authorial authority. Not to mention that only a minority of plays were ever published. Were they defined by their texts rather than their productions? The texts that were only read to facilitate performance?

    If Text=Play, then if variant texts exist are they different plays? If Text = Play then they must be, and I’m inclined to believe that even the most ardent textual promoter would be hard-pushed to justify treating Romeo and Juliet Q1 and Romeo and Juliet F1 as independent plays (though The shrew and A Shrew are worth considering here also). If the same play can have variant texts then surely the Play proper is something more than just Text, just as it is something more than a single Production.

    If Text=Play then how is editing a text to make it digestible for a modern reader any different from staging a production to make it effective for a modern audience member? How is a modern audience more divorced from an Early Modern audience than a modern academic is from an Early Modern reader?

    This might seem like an argument on semantics, but I’m not sure it is. To speak as if Text/Play are interchangeable gives an instinctual authority to Textual study over Performance which I’m really not sure is entirely justified, and which is certainly no better/no more justified than giving authority to Performance over Textual study.

    I’m not at all criticising textual study, but I am criticising the idea that textual study is study of the Play as any kind of whole – rather I contend that the texts as we have them are just as distant from The Play (whatever that might be) as performances are, and just as close to The Play as performances are.

    “If practice-as-research can only incidentally be research about a play (the point I’ve been trying to make), then what else might it be? ”

    How do we consider the question when inverted?

    If textual analysis can only incidentally be research about a play (the point I’ve been trying to make) then what else might it be?

  2. […] My Trouble with Practice-as-Research – Holger Syme discusses his enthusiasm for performance research in Early Modern scholarship, alongside his unease with its philosophical basis and its effects. […]

  3. Neil Howlett says:

    The example of the performance and interpretation of text which came into existence because of unpredicted characteristics of the performers raises the the issue of what could have been written into the text to suit the personal characteristics of the first performers by the author when these were known to him, but are not known to us. Some, we know were clowns and we may guess at certain physical characteristics from known roles. However, other textual adaptions to personalities may not be recoverable (or now explicable).

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