“Original practices,” a phrase coined, apparently at Shakespeare’s Globe, in or around 2002, refers to concerted efforts to explore, in a theatrical setting, “certain stage conventions of late sixteenth-century theatre.”[1] As Megan McDonough elaborated on her now-defunct website www.originalpractices.com, “Original Practices is a term used as short-hand for the recreation of one or more aspects of Elizabethan staging techniques by modern day theatre practitioners, based on the discoveries and deductions of historians and textual scholars.”[2]

It is a deeply vexing phrase. “Practice” is a term that sounds as if it referred to something concrete, even purposive: a way of doing things adopted by a group of people. “Original,” on the other hand, is teasingly ambiguous, suggesting, as it seems to, that these practices are new – inventive, revolutionary, a break with the way things have been done – although it in fact means the opposite: that these practices are a return to the origins, a break with modern ways of doing things not under the dictate of originality, but with a desire to find a path back to the moment of origination of a certain kind of theatre. Being original here means being reactionary: finding the new in the very old. But though “original” may seem like the more slippery of the two terms, it is the reassuringly concreteness of “practice” that deserves closer scrutiny.

What is a Practice? And what’s “Original” about it?

It might be worth noting, first off, that the phrase as it is used by theatre practitioners and researchers seems to contains a silent third term. What scholars and practitioners engaged in OP projects are investigating and hoping to recover are original theatrical practices: not the way an Elizabethan Londoner may have gone about his or her daily routines, but the ways in which an Elizabethan actor may have gone about doing his job. The Globe is not The 1599 House, after all. This may be an obvious thing to say, but it has consequences. Theatrical practices, in 1599 or now, constitute a set of conventions and habits within a much larger system of cultural conventions and habits with which they partly, but only partly, overlap. And while some practices, theatrical or otherwise, are devised for a particular professional or aesthetic reason, others come about by chance or indifference, and others still by necessity or for lack of choice. Take the theatrical practice of actors’ parts. This does seem like a convention of the playhouse – I’m not aware of any non-actors in early modern England who habitually broke texts into their constituent parts and only read specific selections (commonplacing and excerpting are imprecise parallels). There may be practical advantages to the parts system, but in the main, it appears to have been a pragmatic solution to an economic challenge: copying full books would have been expensive, both because of the price of paper and because of the scribal labour required, and time intensive; copying only parts saved money. This is an excellent example of a professional convention – a way of doing things devised in the context of a specific system of production, in response to specific practical and economic pressures. That the practice may have had aesthetic and artistic consequences, may have affected how dramatists wrote and how players approached their performances, is interesting, but in a sense secondary. Acting companies did not start using parts instead of full scripts in order to bring about those effects. They devised or adopted the practice in response to time and money pressures, as a solution viable in their specific professional circumstances (the parts system would not have been a suitable answer to the same challenges as faced by, say, a notary or a court clerk).

Other theatrical practices are even further removed from extra-theatrical reality. The conventions of scene changes, for instance, don’t find many parallels in the world beyond the stage, then or now. Once a table has been set down in a real parlour, it is unlikely that an urgent need will arise for it to be moved within minutes; it is improbable that many Elizabethan householders regularly confronted the challenge of how to turn their hall into a battle field, a ship’s foredeck, or a prison cell. Likewise, actors’ use of clothing, while related to the extra-theatrical world’s, had to serve purposes irrelevant to most of their contemporaries. Making dress signify that a scene is set in the past or in a distant country is a stage convention largely incompatible with the functions of clothing in the real world. Using costume to suggest that the wearer is someone he clearly is not would have been mad, disorderly, fraudulent, or criminal outside of a theatre. Theatres may have kept a stock of items of furniture one could also have encountered in regular houses; they clearly did have many items of costume familiar (generically or specifically) from off-stage contexts. But the work those items had to do – the practices within which they were put to use – on stage had little to do with their purposes in the non-theatrical world and with the practices of which they were part there (such as eating dinner, keeping warm, or going to sleep).

That is to say, the theatre repurposed objects from the world surrounding it – objects made with the same tools and materials with which objects in the world at large were made. But what then is a theatrical practice? Is it the use of a wooden table, made by a carpenter, from, say, English oak? Or is it the placement of something that the world at large recognizes as a table on a stage with the intention of performing, say, a scene set during a meeting of the Privy Council? Similarly, is it a theatrical practice to put a boy in a set of women’s garments, elaborately layered, cut, sewn, and embroidered by hand? Or is the theatrical practice the dressing up of an adolescent male body in a costume that the word at large recognizes as a woman’s, with the intention of having that youth play a female character?

When is a Practice Theatrical?

These aren’t trivial questions or distinctions if we want to get closer to identifying what were specifically theatrical “original” practices in Shakespeare’s England. Making furniture or costumes by hand was not a theatrical practice at all: it was simply a cultural practice, and one without real alternatives. If one wanted a new shirt, in the absence of sewing machines, one had to have it made by hand, typically by a local tailor or seamstress. Consequently, dressing an actor in a hand-made costume, built exclusively from materials available in 1590s London, is not in fact following an original theatrical practice: it is following an Elizabethan practice.[3] More sharply put, sixteenth-century costumes tailored by sixteenth-century means do not bring us a single step closer to sixteenth-century theatrical conventions, even if they might bring us into some sort of proximity with sixteenth-century social, cultural, or artisanal conventions. The theatrical practice (much more elusive though it may be) was the use of those costumes on a stage – and with regard to that practice, how the costumes were made, out of what cloth, by what means, and in line with what specific, and changing, dictates of fashion, style, and sumptuary regulations, was (and is) largely arbitrary, if not irrelevant. What is more, how costumes were made was not a matter of choice: an Elizabethan would-be buyer of a shirt could not have demanded something made from polyester, or cut and sewn by a machine. The use to which a shirt, or a dress, was put on stage, however, was a choice, even if its signification depended on what shirts and dresses meant in the culture at large. Stage practices, then, took the limitations of the non-theatrical world (a world in which furniture and costume could only be made from a certain number of materials, and in a certain number of ways), and redefined them: a table could turn an empty outdoor stage into a crowded council chamber; a dress could turn a young man into a woman. The theatrical practice in these transactions consists of the use of widely recognized, not in themselves remarkable or exotic items for a purpose that is remarkable and unusual (the transformation of a space or a person), and only makes sense within the boundaries of the theatre.

The challenge for any exploration of original theatrical practices, it seems to me, is maintaining this essential distinction between those elements that the culture at large either determined for or offered to the theatre, and those that the theatre developed for its own goals. In that sense, what a woman’s dress looks like is arbitrary, and mostly extra-theatrical; that a male youth is put into that dress to turn him into a woman on stage is what matters, and what constitutes the original practice. What a king looks like is irrelevant; that an actor can become a king by looking like one is the point. By the same token, I think that a productive engagement with “original practices” requires a clear sense of what the goal of the exercise is meant to be: something is to be learned about early modern performance conventions – but does that mean learning something about early modern conventions of daily life? To stick with dress for a moment, wearing Elizabethan clothes is an unusual experience for most modern actors. Even those who frequently perform in period costume change out of doublet and hose and into modern-day trousers and shirts after the show. No matter how used a contemporary actor might get to his or her costume, it will always remain that: a set of stage clothes, markedly unlike “regular” clothes. The experience of the modern actor, then, is categorically removed from that of the Elizabethan or Jacobean performer, who mostly changed from one set of “early modern” garments into another: the distinction between everyday life and stage life is significantly sharper for a 21st-century player in an “original” costume (more so for male actors playing male parts than for their cross-dressed colleagues).[4] Performers regularly attest to the physical difference early modern dress makes: it affects how they bear themselves, how they move, how they breathe, and therefore how they speak. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of their testimony, but that difference, experienced as a difference, is a modern perception. Actors used to wearing early modern dress every day, on stage and off, may or may not have been physically affected the same way by their clothes, but they would not have experienced those effects as special, or even remarkable – in fact, they probably did not notice them at all, no more than we notice the presence of a belt around our waist, of tights on our legs, or of a collar around our neck. The regular, common influence of costume on the body simply marks the difference between being naked and being clothed. But how that difference manifests itself is culturally specific – not particular to theatrical practices and conventions. If actors in early modern garb move differently from modern performers, so did non-actors in early modern garb. The differences contemporary actors experience when wearing Elizabethan costume are not differences in theatrical practice between then and now; they are differences between everyday life then and now, and differences experienced in a heightened manner to boot.

If that is true, though, what exactly are performers engaged in an original practices project exploring? With much experience, the sensation that their early modern clothes are “different” might disappear, at which point the actors may begin to approximate one small aspect of how an Elizabethan person might have felt – but will they have come any closer to what an Elizabethan actor might have experienced? More problematically, if the sensation of difference vanishes, if the early modern costume starts to feel like everyday clothes, in what sense has anything been achieved at all? Would it not be easier to bring about that effect of familiarity by wearing today’s everyday clothes?

Then again, one might argue that the physical effects performers often ascribe to costume are a goal in and of themselves: that early modern actors used their bodies differently because of their clothes, and that early modern playwrights wrote for bodies that wore early modern clothes – so that the way in which human bodies move and sound when wearing a particular kind of costume can only be reproduced under similar sartorial conditions. That may well be true. Of course, a modern actor in “original” costume can still only be heard by modern ears, but there may be a value all the same in presenting those ears with sounds that come closer to those that emanated from an Elizabethan actor. A curmudgeon could note that the effects of diet, air quality, surrounding soundscapes, general physical fitness, and upbringing on one’s habits of movement and speech probably outweigh those of the clothes one wears – but still: clothes do something to a body, and it may be possible, even desirable, to recapture that something. But even if that mission were successful, it wouldn’t be an exercise in exploring theatrical practices. It would be an exercise in reconstructing a cultural given, a condition shared between the theatre and the world. And to that extent, the effort would be as likely to obscure what distinguished the theatre from the everyday as to achieve its ostensible goal of exploring specifically theatrical practices.

Talk like Shakespeare (really?)

Perhaps the most extreme instances of confusing the general for the specific are the occasional “original pronunciation” (OP) projects that have been staged at the Globe and elsewhere. On the one hand, these are fascinating exercises, and in their recorded form, they make for delightful teaching tools: this is what Shakespeare would have sounded like in 1600. Or at least, this is what historical linguists think Shakespeare may have sounded like. Or, perhaps most accurately, this is what it sounds like when a modern performer attempts to sound like someone speaking Shakespeare in 1600. Still: good enough. A potentially interesting verbal demonstration. But what exactly can we learn from it? As an aural experience, listening to “original pronunciation” is an encounter with strangeness – the sound of the past. The linguist David Crystal, whose work informs many recent OP efforts, reports that for some audience members, it can also lead to an erasure of a social or cultural difference they expected to encounter:

One fifteen-year-old lad, in a strong south London accent, piped up. ‘Well, they’re talking like us.’ They weren’t, of course. None of the actors had anything remotely like a Cockney accent. But I knew what he meant. The actors were talking in a way that they could identify with. Had they been to other theatre shows before? Yes. And what did they think of the voices then? ‘Actors always sound posh’, said one. There was a chorus of assent. ‘But not here’, chipped in another. RP nil, OP one.[5]

Not hearing the alienating accent they associated with actors, the non-RP audience members mis-identify another kind of alterity (the sound of 1600) as a familiar sound: that of non-RP English. Presumably, a similar sample of audience members would have responded similarly to a Northern Broadsides production, though, so the effect the encounter with OP had on their experience had little to do with the “original” aspects of the performance, and everything to do with the “pronunciation” part – or more specifically, the non-received sound of that pronunciation. So, again: what precisely can we learn about early modern plays and early modern theatre by staging original pronunciation productions? If the only other testimony I’m aware of, the sorts of things actors report, is anything to go on, the answer appears to be: “virtually nothing.”

Audiences, Crystal notes, found the OP performances of Romeo and Juliet more “down to earth;” the “rustic” quality of the accents translated into an “honest,” “open,” or “direct” affect (142). It should be obvious, I would think, that such statements have everything to do with ears, and nothing with sounds: they describe how a particular accent feels to a particular group of 21st-century British listeners. OP only sounds “rustic,” let alone “open,” “honest,” or “direct” because it doesn’t sound like RP – but without RP, OP simply sounds like English. This is to be expected, though: how, after all, could a modern audience respond to an aural experience but with their own ears? We might perhaps hope for something more complex from the producers of the sounds, but far from it: the same dialect-essentialism governs the actors’ responses Crystal records. Jimmy Garnon, playing Mercutio, notes that “The OP … suddenly made it very difficult to retain posture. It has so many rural associations in the vowels that a courtly bearing starts to feel strange. I felt myself coarsening in facial expression slightly too. RP’s stiff upper lip dissolves away” (143). Bette Bourne says that when playing the Nurse, “OP toughened her up. … We were all suddenly ‘earthed’ in the play” (145). Kananu Kirimi felt that in OP, her Juliet became “bolder, more muscular. … Juliet’s word-play came to seem less intellectual and thought-based, more about pleasure than intelligence” (146). Garnon, again, registers the effects of the “earthier accent” on his performance and found that the Queen Mab speech was transformed: “In RP this always feels like poetry. In OP suddenly it felt real” (147). These may or may not be interesting reflections on the effects of accent on modern performance (I must admit that my own response is extreme skepticism), but whatever they are, they have quite evidently nothing at all to do with early modern England and its language. It may well be the case that speaking in OP “feels” un-courtly to a contemporary actor, but it would presumably not have struck OP-speaking Elizabethan courtiers (or their on-stage impersonators) as especially “strange,” let alone “rustic” or “earthy” – although perhaps we now have license to imagine those courtiers walking about Richmond or Greenwich with slightly coarser facial expressions than modern-day aristocrats. What actually emerges in these statements is an attitude towards received pronunciation rather than OP – associations of intellectualism, disembodiedness, joylessness. But as such, the actors’ reactions merely register the effect of not performing in RP in 2004. They reveal nothing about what it might have meant to perform Shakespeare in an “early modern” accent in 1596, when the sounds coming from the actors lacked any specific “earthy,” “rural,” or “rustic” resonances – lacked, in fact, all the class associations that dominate the actors’ and audiences’ reflections.

And yet, over and again, Crystal’s witnesses think they have found something in their encounters with OP that has revealed truths about Shakespeare that had previously been hidden – in other words, that the experiment had the effect that so much “original practices” work seems to strive for: the discovery of an insight into the true nature of early modern drama.[6] Tom Cornford, the Assistant Director on the production, reports that “what OP has revealed to me is the extent to which Shakespeare’s language ‘bodies forth’ his characters.” His evidence, encapsulated in the representative example of Capulet’s reference to Montague “flourish[ing] his blade in spite of me”: “In OP, blade sits lower and wider in the body than the RP version, and in sounding dangerous (the RP equivalent sounds very correct and polite) it makes the actor look and feel dangerous” (144). Even as an account of modern acting, this seems – to me at least – to hand over an extraordinary amount of representational power to a single word: surely actors, even those hampered by the apparently inevitable bloodlessness of RP, have means other than the sound of the words they speak to convey a sense of danger? But as baffling as Cornford’s report may be as an analysis of what OP did to a modern performer and performance, it is far more problematic as an account of how Shakespeare’s language works in general (or “in its own time”). A particular vowel may have sat “lower and wider in the body” in the 16th century than now, but the difference in meaning between the two sounds derives entirely from a 21st-century perspective: for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, “blade” just sat wherever it always sat – and if it sounded dangerous there, so, troublingly, did “aid.”

I find it difficult to take this sort of linguistic essentialism seriously – does anyone really think that “blade” in RP always and necessarily sounds “correct and polite”? But it is a mode of thinking that utterly dominates the responses of actors and voice coaches to OP experiments. Charmian Hoare, the voice specialist working on the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet thought that “the accent had made everyone feel ‘more grounded’, and that the actors were ‘more in touch with their bodies.’” Cicely Berry, having seen one of the shows, “was struck by the way the speech seemed to be coming more ‘from within the actors.’” The director, Tim Carroll, believes the “rural resonances” of the accent “added a ‘simple sincerity.’” And the actors agreed: Callum Coates thought OP “brought vitality and removed pomposity,” and Bette Bourne felt that because “greater prominence was being given to the jaw” in speaking OP, the accent “pulled the emotions forward” (156-57). The same kinds of claims have recently been propagated by Crystal’s son Ben – most prominently, in an Open University video that went viral on YouTube.

In that clip, we find ideas that will sound familiar by now: “And it does something else to you as well, or to me, it drops my voice, I use my bottom register a lot more … it makes me sort of hunker down, it doesn’t sort of seem so cut off from the neck … it connects with the body a bit more, for some reason. It’s an earthier accent.” What the video really illustrates, though, is an actor adopting entirely different registers of voice and physical attitudes when “illustrating” what RP sounds like, and what OP supposedly “does.” It may in fact be true that Ben Crystal could only make his body and voice behave this way by employing a reconstructed 400-year-old accent, but I doubt it. And even if that were true, it still – once again – would not say anything about Shakespeare or his contemporaries. It only says something about the perceived difference between 21st-century RP and a different set of pronunciation rules. The same applies to the other essentializing statements about OP I quoted above: either they ascribe effects to the accent that are entirely ahistorical (Carroll’s perception of “rural resonances;” Coates’ sense that the accent is inherently less “pompous” than RP) or they rely on a strange kind of linguistic physiology: a belief that language shapes the body, a faith that particular jaw positions carry particular emotional qualities, that particular accents necessarily are more connected to the speaker’s body than others. I suspect it doesn’t need saying that even though Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly spoke “OP,” there is no evidence that they inhabited their bodies more fully, lived a verbal life less “cut off from the neck,” and were generally more in touch with their emotions than later generations. And even if all of those things were true, to return to my theme, staging OP productions would still not be an exploration of original theatrical practices: it would simply be a way of reintroducing a cultural given, a general condition of existence in early modern England, to the performance of early modern drama. It would teach us nothing about early modern theatre – or at least nothing beyond reaffirming the fact that Shakespeare and his colleagues used the language the people around them spoke.

Where is the Theatre in Original Practices?

As I’ve suggested throughout this paper, it seems to me that all too often, original practices projects lose sight of specifically theatrical conventions. In some ways, this lack of focus is quite stunning: to the best of my knowledge, the reconstructed Globe has never attempted a production without a director, and/or using parts only, and/or a very short rehearsal period, and/or casting actual male youths in female roles.[8] In other words, with the exception of a day-lit stage and the division of the audience into standees and those sitting in the galleries (though not the class divisions that perhaps could be mapped onto that architectural scheme in Shakespeare’s time), the reconstructed Globe has not actually made use of the majority of specifically theatrical practices that were common in the theatres of early modern England. But what might have happened if these conventions had been put to the test? As a former member of the Toronto-based “Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men” project, a large-scale effort to create an all-male temporary acting company organized somewhat like an early modern troupe, rehearsing with little time, relying primarily on parts, and without a conventional director, performing under touring conditions (and, naturally, in period costume and in daylight or its artificially produced equivalent), I’m not sure. One thing we “discovered” is that it’s perfectly possible to produce entertaining, coherent, theatrically functional performances this way. As Peter Cockett, who oversaw he preparation of the three shows we staged, writes, in the shortened rehearsal process (the final play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay was rehearsed for only 8 days before its first performance), “the process itself began to direct the plays, as actors’ choices were increasingly informed by their previous choices and one character bled into the next, and as elements of the new characters gave renewed life to the old. … The collective vision of the play was created by the actors playing their parts simply and making choices that kept their characters in line with familiar stereotypes.”[9] Is that a discovery? Perhaps. If it is, it might be expressed, as a theatre historical conclusion, as the proposition that early modern theatre depended on time pressure and fixed ensembles. But we already knew that, didn’t we?

What can we learn about the Past from the Present?

The other reason I am increasingly skeptical about the potential of “original practices” projects, even where they are focussed on actual theatrical practices, is what strikes me as a tendency to locate practices in the historical past that remain alive and well in theatrical cultures outside the English-speaking world. In Germany, for instance, it is still common for theatres, especially major houses, to operate in a repertory system that closely resembles that we find in Henslowe. Popular plays stay in rep for many years and often are staged once or twice a month, and actors find it perfectly normal, even preferable, to work this way. It’s not a particular challenge for Lars Eidinger at Berlin’s Schaubühne to break out his Hamlet at a moment’s notice, nor is it anything but professional routine for Martin Wuttke to serve up his landmark Arturo Ui at the Berliner Ensemble about once a month – a role he first played in the mid-90s and has kept playing since then in over 500 performances. It’s also commonplace for an actor to take on a role, even a leading role, in a rep production without very much rehearsal time at all – often performing in front of an audience after one or two full rehearsals with the entire company. We might be able to learn something about how early modern acting companies managed to sustain the kinds of repertories we find in Henslowe’s Diary by recreating an ensemble and reassembling a small-scale Elizabethan repertory for a few months – or we might talk to contemporary professionals who still operate in systems of this kind. My point is certainly not that we can find out how Alleyn and Burbage worked by talking to Eidinger and Wuttke, but rather that we are a little more likely to discover things about how a repertory company functioned in early modern England by talking to modern repertory company actors than by asking a group of modern actors unfamiliar with serious, multi-year repertory systems to pretend to be a repertory company.

Lastly, I am increasingly weary of a kind of spatial essentialism that seems to me to lie at the heart of the original practices movement – and its historical predecessors from Poel onwards. Ralph Cohen exemplifies this attitude when he concludes that performances at the Swan are “almost always better than the shows in the Festival Theatre” because “plays written for an Elizabethan theater work better in a place that resembles an Elizabethan theater than they do in a theater that resembles a Victorian music hall.” Or, more pithily: “It’s the Venue, Stupid.”[10] As I’ve argued at some length elsewhere, I simply don’t believe there’s any truth to this axiom. It is probably the case that it is more difficult for actors to ignore audiences, and for audiences to feel more directly addressed in a space such as the Globe (or even the Swan). But it is not the space that creates the connection. It’s the actor and the audience. An audience accustomed to passivity, actors trained to ignore the audience – those are factors that affect a performance, and developments that make for a different kind of theatrical environment than that Shakespeare wrote for. But reversing those developments does not require a particular space, doesn’t even require a thrust stage. It requires a change in expectations, and a change in behaviour. It requires, in other words, agency. And in that sense, I am as troubled by spatial essentialism as I am perplexed by the verbal or linguistic essentialism I critiqued at such length earlier: in both cases, what actors do and what audiences respond to, is ascribed to the effects of forces or spaces beyond their control – a body that behaves differently because it is made to make unfamiliar sounds, a connection that is created by architecture, and so on. I am increasingly convinced that this has things backwards: that if we want to explore the effects we think early modern theatre had on its audiences, we cannot start by imposing select early modern theatrical practices on modern performers and spectators. We need to ask how those effects can be produced now, by contemporary actors, for contemporary audiences, by contemporary means. Not least of all, I think those are more promising questions for performance-based theatre history because they are the kinds of questions Shakespeare and his colleagues would have asked themselves.


[1] Jenny Tiramani, “Exploring Early Modern Stage and Costume Design,” Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, ed. Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper, Cambridge: CUP, 2008, 57-65, 58.

[2] Quoted in Jeremy Lopez, “A Partial Theory of Original Practice,” Shakespeare Survey 61 (2008): 302-17, 307. Lopez’s essay offers the most detailed available account of the variety of ideas about original practices currently in circulation.

[3] For a detailed statement of the Globe’s approach to “‘original practices’ (OP) stage design and costume design during the first ten years” of its existence – an approach that in its focus on questions that lack particular theatrical specificity exactly exemplifies the attitude I am critiquing – see Tiramani, “Exploring,” 57.

[4] Some of my arguments here and elsewhere in this paper echo similar observations put forward by Abigail Rokinson in her discussion of the relative “authenticity” of the Globe’s and Propeller’s approaches to Shakespeare: “Authenticity in the Twenty-First Century: Propeller and Shakespeare’s Globe,” Shakespeare in Stages: New Theatre Histories, ed. Christine Dymkowski and Christie Carson, Cambridge: CUP, 2010, 71-90.

[5] Crystal, Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment, Cambridge: CUP, 2005, 137-38. “RP” is “received pronunciation,” the supposedly neutral form of “standard” English. Whether the majority of actors in contemporary UK Shakespeare productions do in fact use RP is a question open to debate, as is the question of whether there could possibly be such as thing as “OP,” given the wide variety of regional and local accents in Shakespeare’s England.

[6] To cite just one instance of this widespread attitude, here with reference to the theatre space Shakespeare wrote for, this is Andrew Gurr in 1989: “We lose or distort much of what is valuable in [Shakespeare’s] plays so long as we remain ignorant of the precise shape of [the] playhouse … the precise shape of the stage and the auditorium, the quality of the light” (quoted in Lopez, “Partial Theory,” 304). In other words, theatre history and its pragmatic realization in original practice experiments is the only means of accessing “much of what is valuable” in Shakespeare – things of value that will otherwise remain hidden or disappear.

[8] In an essay on the use of cosmetics at the Globe, Farah Karim-Cooper notes that “for obvious reasons there were key elements missing from the experiments: the white lead ingredient and boy actors” (“Cosmetics on the Globe Stage,” Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, 66-76, 68). It is obvious to me why lead-based make-up would no longer be acceptable, but the use of boy actors doesn’t strike me as a similarly toxic proposition.

[9] Cockett, “Performing the Queen’s Men: A Project in Theatre Historiography,” Locating the Queen’s Men, 1583-1603: Material Practices and Conditions of Playing, ed. Helen Ostovich, Holger Schott Syme, and Andrew Griffin, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, 229-242, 238

[10] Ralph Alan Cohen, “Original Staging and the Shakespeare Classroom,” Teaching Shakespeare through Performance, ed. Milla Cozart Riggio, New York: MLA, 1999, 78-101, 79. As will be quickly apparent to anyone reading up on the performance practices of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, reconnecting to the “Victorian music hall” tradition might not be a bad way for modern actors to discover a path back to Shakespeare’s own theatrical culture. Cohen’s spatial essentialism, however, seems to require those music halls and their lethal proscenium arches to serve as the diametrical opposite to the thrust-stage-dependent Elizabethan tradition.

10 Responses to Where is the Theatre in Original Practice?

  1. […] wartime context and at times blending into the surroundings. On the bare black stage a number of Original Practices strategies were at work: cross-gender casting, mixed period costume, continuous action for […]

  2. […] “foil” could be a woman?) In line with what we know of original practices (see a great recent blog post about the origin of the this term here), a carousing opening tune drew audiences attention to the action as they decided not to turn down […]

  3. Many thanks for this piece, Holger. Hugely insightful, to someone like me. Any ‘movement’ needs critiques of this kind, to keep itself on track.

    I must say I was taken aback myself at the way the actors initially responded (in the way you describe) in the Romeo. I wasn’t expecting it. It was only when the director of movement at the Globe, sitting next to me in a rehearsal, said in a surprised tone ‘They’re holding themselves differently… they’re moving differently’ that I realised something was up. (For those who don’t know, the Romeo run was chiefly in modern English, with just a weekend devoted to an OP version.) Nobody had told them to behave in this way, is the point. I do have trouble sometimes understanding what actors are getting at, when they interpret OP to themselves, but hey, I’m just the linguist here. I respect their views. I simply wanted to record what went on, and not to judge it. And I’ve seen enough exciting and fresh productions in OP now to make me believe that something is indeed going on that might not have happened if the OP motivation hadn’t been there. I hope some of the actors who have used OP will explore that further with you. There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, any discussion of this kind.

    You don’t refer at all in your piece to the main reasons for developing an OP perspective. That’s a pity, as it’s nothing to do with the general sound of the accent or the way actors internalise and explicate it. That, as it were, is a bonus (or not!). OP makes rhymes work that don’t work in modern English. It brings to life wordplay and puns that don’t work in modern English. Every play I explore (I’ve only done a dozen so far) has shown me something new, and some of these new readings are gradually being recognised as valuable. Even Arden has discovered OP now (René Weiss’s 2012 Romeo edition).

    You ask ‘whether there could possibly be such a thing as “OP,” given the wide variety of regional and local accents in Shakespeare’s England’. You miss the point here. OP is a sound system – a phonology – not a phonetics. Regardless of the accents used, ‘wars’ must have rhymed with ‘stars’, ‘love’ with ‘prove’, and so on for hundreds of cases. Of course there were just as many accents in England then as now. But, just as today, most people would have understood each other, and it is that which OP represents and which differentiates it from modern English phonology – pronouncing ‘musician’ as ‘mu-zi-see-an’, for instance. So, in every production I’ve been associated with, we’ve allowed regional colourings – most recently this month at the Globe, where Ben’s ensemble did the ‘four captains’ Henry V scene in strong Welsh, Scots, Irish, and English accents, on top of the OP. This was a cheat, of course. We have no idea how Welsh intonation would have sounded 400 years ago, or, for that matter, London intonation. But I don’t think it was a serious cheat, as all the information we do have about historical change in prosody suggests that it is very slow to change. We have audio recordings from the 1890s where there are several differences in the vowels, but none in the intonation.

    I would never use the word ‘authentic’ in relation to OP, by the way. All I ever say is that it is ‘plausible’, given the evidence of the spellings, the descriptions by contemporay orthoepists, and, as I say, deductions from the rhymes and puns. There’s a huge amount of evidence. And incidentally, the OP movement isn’t especially modern. It long predates the Globe’s interest in original practices. I have an article on this on my website (go to Books and Articles, filter on Shakespeare and Publication Date and it’s at the top) recording interest in OP since the 1860s.

    Talking about ensembles… ‘We might be able to learn something about how early modern acting companies managed to sustain the kinds of repertories we find in Henslowe’s Diary by recreating an ensemble and reassembling a small-scale Elizabethan repertory for a few months…’ Absolutely. And this is exactly what Ben’s been doing with his Passion in Practice ensemble. The OP Macbeth just performed (as a one-off) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was done with minimal rehearsal, cue-scripts, and so on. And his plans are to develop this approach, just as it seems you did a few years ago. I find all this hugely enthralling, and I hope the dose of reality in your critique does’t put companies off exploring OP further.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Dear David,

      thank you very much for the gracious comment and for taking the time to respond.

      I’m quite happy to believe that actors respond to performing in OP in interesting ways. Personally, I can’t say that I’ve been thrilled by any of the OP productions I’ve seen (mostly in excerpts) on video, but that’s an unfair perspective, and in any case just an aesthetic judgement. I do buy that something happens to modern actors when they speak in OP. But that was never the point of my critique. I would imagine that you would probably agree that OP did not have the associations it now seems to carry in Shakespeare’s time — if everyone rhymed love and prove, for instance, then that’s just what “love” and “prove” sounded like; their sound had no rural, earthy, or “honest” qualities at all. No? So in a sense, in a modern setting, the sound of OP and its associations are just as likely to distort an audience’s perception of Shakespeare as they are to give them a newly direct access to his words.

      I’m a bit puzzled by your contention that OP readings are only now being recognized as valuable by editors. Surely pointing out that certain words would have been puns in Shakespeare’s English has been a staple of editorial commentary for a very long time? To use the example from As You Like It in your YouTube video (the hour/whore pun), that is discussed at great length, for instance, in the notes to Alan Brissenden’s 1993 OUP As You Like It, where he also points out that the pun was resurrected “in Terry Hands’s 1980 RSC production” (and reports that Kökeritz’s assertion that this is in fact a pun has been doubted by other scholars, in particular Fausto Cercignani). I am sure you are finding more examples of rhymes and wordplay that modern pronunciation has lost than those previously noted by scholars and editors, but the principle is hardly news to the world of scholarly and critical editing. I am a bit troubled by what strikes me as the potential circularity of arguments based on rhyme, though: the concept of half-rhymes and eye-rhymes was not unknown in Shakespeare’s time (as you note yourself in Pronouncing Shakespeare. If, then, we can’t actually be certain of what rhymed with what, and how perfectly, is it not a bit of a stretch to say that OP discovers new rhymes? And even if it does: what does that do or mean? In what sense does the realization that “proved” and “loved” might have been a full rhyme in early modern English make Sonnet 116 work — or rather, in what sense did the poem, one of Shakespeare’s most famous after all, not work without that realization? That’s just a counterfactual, as far as I’m concerned: the poem obviously continues to “work” in modern English.

      I’m interested in the notion of “cheating.” Surely the entire exercise of putting on “OP” productions is, in a sense, a cheat — no? I don’t mean to say (at all!) that your own reconstructive work is in any way fraudulent, but the idea that an ensemble of modern actors, trained in modern acting techniques, performing in a modern setting, in a sociolinguistic context totally different from that of Shakespeare’s time, and for an audience equally far removed from the sixteenth century (if not more so), can access something in Shakespeare simply by changing pronunciation patterns does strike me as fanciful. I don’t doubt that they can access something that way, but I am quite certain that this something is a modern actor’s something, not an early modern playwright’s. (And this is where I think there is a categorical difference between, say, a philologist’s experience of a discovery and an actor’s or a theatregoer’s: an editor might be momentarily excited by the realization that two lines rhyme. In performance, I remain unconvinced that such a “discovery” makes much of a difference — though I realize that certain Anglophone schools of acting will disagree). As for the Henry V “cheat,” though, that seems to me more than legitimate: it’s obviously the text’s intention to have those characters speak in recognizable regional accents. If in performance they can’t be identified by an audience, the scene loses a good deal of its point. So even if we knew what Welsh or Scottish intonation in Shakespeare’s time sounded like, I don’t think reproducing that on a modern stage would be “being true” to the play. For what that’s worth.

      • I’m really enjoying this conversation, Holger! I hope there’ll be more of them. Taking up a few of your points, therefore…

        ‘if everyone rhymed love and prove, for instance, then that’s just what “love” and “prove” sounded like’

        Indeed. And the point would have been precisely that: people wouldn’t have noticed anything anomalous in the pronunciation. What modern English has done is introduce anomalies: people notice the rhymes that don’t work. They jar. What OP does is reintroduce the original qualities so that people can listen without the pronunciation interfering in this way. To do that, they have to buy into the OP experience as a whole, of course. But having done that, aren’t they actually now reacting in the same way as Elizabethan listeners would – by not noticing anything anomalous?

        The sound symbolic qualities (earthiness etc) mentioned by the modern actors are, I agree, derived from the contrast between their present-day perceptions of rural accents and (chiefly) posh RP. Attributing phonaesthetic values to sounds is a universal phenomenon, though, and Elizabethans would have made value-judgements about accents just as people do today. There was no RP, but there was certainly some sort of contrast between country and city speech, as we know from the observations of people like Puttenham, and of course by Orlando, who nearly catches out disguised Rosalind by her accent. So I can’t rule out the possibility that Elizabethan actors made similar comments to those made by their modern counterparts.

        ‘I’m a bit puzzled by your contention that OP readings are only now being recognized as valuable by editors.’
        All I meant was that the present-day OP movement was being given some reference for the first time, to my knowledge. I didn’t mean that previous editors weren’t aware of puns, or of pronunciation differences! I know very well that the hour/whore pun has been recognized for a long time – at least since the 1950s. But there are lots of editions where the relevance of an OP perspective isn’t recognized, and the point isn’t made in the notes. And for every production that acknowledges the existence of an OP pun, there are dozens that don’t. (I don’t want to go into the Kökeritz/Cercignani rows here. There was truth on both sides, and many of the issues depended on a philological view of pronunciation that is outmoded now.)

        ‘I am a bit troubled by what strikes me as the potential circularity of arguments based on rhyme, though: the concept of half-rhymes and eye-rhymes was not unknown in Shakespeare’s time’
        True, but it wasn’t the dominant ethos. Eye-rhymes can’t work systematically until a spelling system settles done, and we know from contemporary sources (eg Hart, Mulcaster) how much English spelling was in a state of ‘confusion and disorder’. I’ve written a paper on this (on my website: ‘Sounding out Shakespeare: sonnet rhymes in original pronunciation’). I trawled through sources such as Samuel Daniel’s ‘A Defence of Rhyme’ (1603) and found no mention of eye-rhymes. On the contrary, there is a totally auditory perspective, all to do with the ‘agreement of sound’. So although I allow in some cases of visual rhymes, I don’t see them very often, and I certainly don’t see them as a guiding principle. (I’m currently working on a complete guide to the rhymes in the canon, as part of an OP Dictionary that will come out in – guess when – 2016.)

        Re Sonnet 116, ‘in what sense did the poem, one of Shakespeare’s most famous after all, not work without that realization?’

        I’ve never suggested that a sonnet, or any old text, doesn’t ‘work’ in modern English. Of course it does. All OP does is offer an alternative. I leave it to others to evaluate the different effects. That’s what I’d really like to see from literary critics: a systematic comparison of a chunk of text in OP and non-OP. There surely has to be something interesting to say about a sonnet like 154, for instance, where four of the couplets are different in OP. I’m out of my comfort zone here. Shouldn’t literary critics be curious about exploring this possibility? I’ve never seen such a discussion. Have you?

  4. Did you see the latest OP production at the SWP? Have you ever seen an OP production? Are you annoyed that the Globe and its staging of OP productions has taken precedence over your attempts in theatrical historiography? How long since you took a voice class to discover different nuances within your own registers?

    Where’s your sense of discovery Holger? It’s all a bit; ‘been there, done that’ sounding.

    I quite agree that OP will never re-create the conditions of an Elizabethan actor for ALL the reasons you stated. Be it the Queen’s men or the Globe’s. Linguistic and spatial essentialism are new to me, though they seem to confine monarchical concepts in a tiny room.

    Your post smacks of reductionism across the different fields. In acting you deny the voice of response to the practice. In directing you belittle the pretenders that dare to bring that which never was. In practice you squeeze any form of discovery into a faulty template for past causality.

    And yet the essential aspect of Original Practice is simply theatrical exploration. Original Pronunciation offers a sound system approximating Early Modern English. This sound system united a disparate group of actors with very different regional and national accents. It was a very exciting and visceral experience for those of us who took part because of that alterity.

    But hey maybe we’re all fooling ourselves right? The exigencies of theatrical practice in Elizabethan times were dictated by the societal conditions. The fact that actors used cue-scripts had no effect on the writers who knew they did because time, money, lack of paper is the over-riding factor here. Those writers never married their instruction of character into such a part, which then tied back into the whole.

    The idea of OP isn’t fixed. There are no rules to go by. Otherwise Renaissance Fairs would have done this work years ago. What we explored was how to create an ensemble working within the strictures of cue-script and the new-old accent of OP to see what the results would be. Those results surprised us and the audience. And in the Q&A afterwards objections like your own were addressed. However that does not negate the experience no matter how much you may pooh-pooh it.

    Ahistorical nonsense or no. You are the one claiming equivalence. As a practitioner my feet are firmly planted on that stage giving the best damn performance i can under the conditions that present themselves that night in that place and time. And the next night whether those conditions of place and type of venue have changed or not. Proscenium arch, or thrust, or living room, or bar, or wherever it be. Actors don’t get to choose too often the concepts that are forced on them. And the amount of rubbish I’ve heard about RP and Shakespeare, willst du nicht wissen. I’m not in any kind of denial about OP, or RP, oder Buhne-Sprache. Bring back the repertory system if we can.

    But deny OP? Deny the world of theatre. And box it to be poked at and compartmentalised and scorned. You are not alone Holger. Many scholars think the way you do. Let’s hope the actors and directors don’t.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Will: hey, let a thousand flowers bloom, as far as I’m concerned. I take no issue whatsoever with actors doing whatsoever they want. If you’ve read my blog at all, you’ll know that I find “authenticity” a deeply troublesome concept and that I am far, far more interested in the authority of performance than in any demands to be “true” to the text, an author, or (least of all) a historical context.

      I’m not at all troubled by the notion of “OP” performances. If that’s what rings your bell, go ahead. I haven’t seen any live OP performances; the canned ones I have seen and listened to — well, they’re not my cup of tea. But that’s me. Your mileage obviously varies.

      What I am concerned about is the feedback loop that turns experiments in performance into claims about the text or its author, or transforms an exercise that may or may not yield interesting or powerful stage experiences into a means of accessing historical insights or truths. That’s what I’ve written about here.

      What I really don’t understand in your comment are the strange ad-hominems. “Are you annoyed that the Globe and its staging of OP productions has taken precedence over your attempts in theatrical historiography?” What do you mean by that? And why would you think that? I am generally annoyed by shoddy scholarship and bad historiography, yes. But not because I find my own work threatened by them. I’m OK. Really.

      “The fact that actors used cue-scripts had no effect on the writers” — that’s the opposite of what I wrote in my post. Reread.

      “In directing you belittle the pretenders that dare to bring that which never was” — where do I do that? It’s pretty much the opposite to how I think about what theatre is and what it’s for, so I rather doubt I said it.

      Lastly, “It was a very exciting and visceral experience for those of us who took part because of that alterity.” I don’t doubt that. I wouldn’t be surprised if the experience was exciting for your audience as well. I’m sure working with OP can be a fruitful exercise in contemporary performance, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But the very experience of “alterity” you mention also means that its value as a theatre historical practical exercise is extremely limited: that alterity wouldn’t have existed for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Although Shakespeare may sound more “like himself” when performed in OP now, therefore, the experience of acting in and listening to OP is necessarily further removed from what that experience would have been like in 1600 — it’s an encounter with strangeness, not a coming home. (That was my overarching point in this post: that engaging with social or cultural givens, such as tailoring or pronunciation patterns, doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about Shakespeare’s theatre, and how its specifically theatrical practices worked. Obviously engaging with those things will do something to modern actors, but that “something” has nothing to do with history.)

  5. What an incredibly disappointing and boring post from a valuable scholar. Seriously? You cannot take the linguistic contribution to theatre *seriously*? That’s sad.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Annie — I don’t really know what makes a scholar “valuable,” but I am sorry you feel this way about this post. I would, however, encourage you to have another look. I never said I didn’t take linguistics seriously.

      I have my doubts about the value of historical linguistics in performance, but that doesn’t mean at all that I would dispute the important contributions of linguists to the study of early modern drama and its language — that would be foolish.

      What I wrote is that I find it hard to take linguistic essentialism seriously, and I stand by that. The idea that a particular accent is more “dangerous” or “earthy” than another, in and of itself, strikes me as utterly ludicrous; and to imply that because to some modern ears, OP words have a particular quality or are associated with particular characteristics, it is therefore the case that those words would have had the same associations or values in Shakespeare’s English is just ahistorical nonsense.

      • Martin Julien says:

        I found your post surprisingly energizing and most interesting. A valuable addition to the discussion.

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