Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 4, No. 68. Monday, 8 February 1993.
Date: Sunday, 07 Feb 1993 23:18:50 -0400 (AST)
Subject: Performance Criticism
I've only posted to this list once before, so I hope that my message gets
through. I am, incidentally, only an undergraduate, so if you think I'm wrong,
you're probably right. In any case, finding out where I'm wrong will help me
to at least see the issue in a more informed light.
It seems to me that accusations of performance criticism being essentialist are
*themselves* essentialist. I'm not absolutely sure of the term "performance
criticism," but if it means viewing individual performances as valid
interpretations, their exclusion would be the exclusion of one of the world's
most valid interpretational tools.
If, as Aristotle averred, a play (usually broadened by his appreciators to
include all sorts of art) is "the mimesis of an action" one can only assess it
by at least *imagining* a performance. This does not, of course, mean that the
approach should be realist in any reductionist sense, but that the
verisimilitude of a passage can best be confronted by seeing it on stage or in
the (metaphorical) stage of the mind.
Take, for instance, a production of Hamlet 1.1 that I've been fantasizing about
for a while. Some day I might put it on, but if not, I don't care. All the
characters (except Horatio) are dressed in winter-weight combat fatigues or
watch jackets. Francisco is discovered on stage, warming his gloved hands over
a brazier. When he hears Barnardo's "Who's there?" he grabs a business-like
machine-gun and hits the ground, shouting "Stand and unfold yourself,"
obviously meaning to kill anyone who doesn't.
Now, this has almost nothing to do with some sort of "pure" production we have
grown to expect, with period costuming and so on. It does (I flatter myself to
think) tell us something about the text itself (whatever that means). The play
opens with people obviously preparing for war, full of suspicion and living in
a very cold place, both physically and (the level of suspicion would imply)
metaphorically. There is a quality of verisimilitude in how the characters
react to their situation, which realistically builds the atmosphere needed for
Hamlet (senior) to enter the picture.
I've been running on somewhat longer than is perhaps appropriate, but my point
(finally) is that all criticism involves some sort of reference to the "real
world." We compare Picasso's *Guernica* to what we know of "real" suffering,
and Richard III's motivation to what we know of "real" bitterness, ambition,
and joyous cruelty. The difference is that, in criticizing dramatic texts, we
have a chance to try out various possibilities, to compare them to productions
we've seen or can imagine. If this is "performance criticism" and the same is
impossible, I too wonder what I have been up to.
Sean Kevin Lawrence