In a piece published on, John Kurzynowski portrays Shakespeare as the founding father of a tradition of collaborative play-making that still thrives in experimental theatre. I don’t think he’s right, and in some ways he’s quite clearly wrong, but at least what he’s saying isn’t anywhere near as silly as what Simon Schama and Mark Rylance have recently been peddling.

Here’s his core historical claim:

William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a team player, writing his greatest plays for and with a company of actors, working as an ensemble to present new and exciting works of poetry and art.

As statements about Shakespeare go, this isn’t bad. The pedestal it puts him on is relatively modest, and located more or less clearly in a particular place and time. There are no wild claims about universalism, and the language of genius is refreshingly absent. I would quibble with the idea that either the Chamberlain’s Men or any of their colleagues would have thought of themselves as producing “works of poetry and art” — the need to entertain and rake in cash would almost certainly have taken priority. And the notion that Shakespeare was writing plays “with” the company has no clear basis in reality either: collaborations between playwrights have been traced across the field of early modern drama, and quite a few of Shakespeare’s plays bear clear traces of more or less involved co-writers, but it’s entirely uncertain whether any of the actors had much input in the writing. Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern have recently analyzed at great length how the system of learning parts in isolation worked, a system that left actors largely ignorant of what other characters are saying or doing until the first of few rehearsals. This process suggests a rather more complicated mix of individual and collective endeavour, and makes it unlikely that players would be involved intimately in the crafting of the play text.

So one of Kurzynowski’s central contentions seems a little hamstrung by what we think we know about the realities of early modern performance. It’s not that there wasn’t a “sense of collaboration and exploration,” but the collaborators were more likely dramatists, working together on a script in relative isolation from the company, and often selling their works to actors in near-finished form (or, for an advance, in draft, with a promise to finish the text). What Kurzynowski describes as the contemporary scenario, in which “more often than not the script is presented to a company of actors and designers as a near-finished product, with the hope that the company involved will help the playwright finalize the piece” almost certainly applies to 16th- and 17th-century practice as well. The major difference between now and then — though I may be being too positive about contemporary theatre — is that in 1600, once a playwright had sold a piece, he (and as far as we know, it always was a he) instantly lost all control over it. The players could do with it as they pleased. That said, I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head of actors substantially rewriting a play. What dramatists occasionally complained about were lacklustre or indifferent performances, or stagings that implied a different meaning than the one the writer claimed to have intended (Ben Jonson ran into that problem more than once). Of course, it doesn’t help that the majority of such anecdotes arise out of moments of conflict, making the relationship between playwright and actors appear less friendly than marred by acrimonious dispute.

Kurzynowski goes on to speculate about the connection between what he imagines to have been the Shakespearean mode of composition and the conditions of the early modern stage. Again, what he says strikes me as interesting, even if, again, I also think he’s got it exactly the wrong way around. Shakespeare, he argues, wrote “not with the goal of an elaborate final production, but instead for a theater that physically requires little to no set, costumes, props and requires certain parameters to be set.” I think he’s trying to link the bare stage of Renaissance theatres to modern site-specific performances. It’s a connection that makes some sense — but only some. A modern production that chooses a particular space (and then proceeds as deliberately limited and challenged by that space) goes against convention — it seeks out sites that aren’t institutionally primed for performance. None of this was true of early modern stages, though it may have been true of some touring venues. The Globe, say, may have all sorts of limits when compared to a modern theatre, but those limits were simply the conventional conditions of theatrical performance in Shakespeare’s time. One thing we do know is that elements of Renaissance staging were elaborate and fanciful, despite the empty stage: costumes were a major cost-factor and one of the attractions of the theatre, and we know that special outfits were made for specific plays. Such investments would presumably curb a spirit of free experimentation. But more crucially, the very bareness of the stage created a vacuum that needed to be filled — and filled precisely and carefully — through language, often highly wrought language, metrically structured, metaphorically dense, allusive and slippery language; and language that had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels for approval before any play could be staged. None of this sounds to me like an ideal scenario for collective play-making.

In comparing a number of recent experimental productions to “Shakespeare,” Kurzynowski writes that “these plays all seemed to find their own structures, especially within the confines of the space in which they were presented and the material they were engaging with.” I don’t know a single early modern play that can be shown to have been created this way. Spaces, especially in London, were largely purpose-built and offered few surprises or unexpected challenges, increasingly so during Shakespeare’s career. Plays routinely engaged with pre-existing material, but typically (again, particularly in Shakespeare’s case) were less shaped by those materials than prone to radically transform and refashion whatever sources they drew on. And structure is one of the more predictable aspects of early modern drama, more often conventional than not, and usually determined by generic imperatives.

To my mind, then, most of the apparent parallels between contemporary edgy theatre and Shakespeare don’t stand up to scrutiny. Worse, Kurzynowski ultimately collapses an entire culture of playwriting and acting into a single artist’s creation — the low point of breathless Bardolatry in the essay: “it’s important to recognize the tradition created by Shakespeare that exists in some of the more obscure theater happening under the radar.” Shakespeare didn’t create any “tradition.” He worked as a dramatist and an actor in an already well-developed theatre industry and his plays had no traceable influence on the way actors and writers went about their business (he may have inspired some playwrights to produce drama that in one way or another responds to his, but that’s a very different notion of influence). The things Kurzynowski wants to highlight in Shakespeare — the particular practices and ideas for which he seeks cultural capital support in the BARD — were, to the extent that they existed at all in the Renaissance, integral parts of the theatrical process. In other words, what the essay claims as Shakespearean is precisely all the stuff that can’t be associated with any one writer: it’s as Heywoodian or Marlovian or Middletonian as it is Shakespearean.

Now, this may all sound like I should be writing “People Being Stupid About Shakespeare III.” But I’m not. And here’s why. Writing about recent New York Shakespeare offerings, Kurzynowski complains that “while many of these productions have been solid presentations of Shakespeare’s plays, few have captured the sense of collaboration and experimentation that surrounded the initial stagings of his works.” And that, I think, is a very valid point. Not because the critic is right in his characterization of the author-actor relationship in the Renaissance, nor because his depiction of Shakespeare is especially interesting or accurate. But because he gets at the theatrical problem of the kind of Bardolatry about which I have whined in earlier posts. The description of these current shows as “presentations of Shakespeare’s plays” says it all, really: it makes the staging sound like a second-hand copy of the textual original, almost standing in the way between audience and genius author. We don’t present our production, our production presents Shakespeare’s play. That mode of thinking almost necessarily forces the stage to play second fiddle to the page, relegates the actor to the status of a mere transmitter of the bardic words (a vessel for the text, as the fatal Patsy Rodenburg might say), and allows a director to give up original thought and daring concepts in favour of an attitude of loyal service to the author, who’s always already gone wherever these theatre workers might timidly dare to tread.

In drawing a distinction between such modern productions and the plays’ early modern origins, Kurzynowski captures something crucial about Shakespearean performance. He seems to think he’s talking about playwrighting, but I believe he’s misapplying his insight. Where Renaissance theatre did become essentially collaborative, potentially experimental, sometimes genuinely dangerous, was in the moment of staging — the moment actors necessarily became something more than mere vessels for an author’s words. necessarily laid claim to an authority of their own, independent of that drawn from the playwright’s text. That Kurzynowski needs to find this collaborative energy in the ideal of a co-created play (rather than a co-creative performance of a play authored by someone else) says a lot about the abiding power of the authorial figure in contemporary culture and it says a lot about what is wrong with contemporary “classical” theatre. He clings to a model of collective artistic production that has little to do with the distribution of authority that structured early modern theatre (collective work is very different from work in which the different parties have more or less clearly demarcated roles and responsibilities). It seems that for him the very presence of an author and an authored play functions as an obstacle to a “sense of collaboration and experimentation” (although different models of collaboration can certainly be found elsewhere in modern theatre — the recent production of Andromache I wrote about here would be one such example).

Ultimately, then, the parallel Kurzynowski draws doesn’t exist: the modern experimental shows he describes are powerful because they eschew the domineering figure of the author; Shakespearean performances were powerful (says Syme) because they included an author, because they didn’t fully hand over authority to the collective. But if finding the present in the past somehow helps one overcome the lethal tendency in modern “classical” theatre to now hand over authority fully to the long-dead author, then please, by all means, misrecognize away.

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