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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: August ::
Re: Character and Huff-Sommr
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0679.  Monday, 15 August 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Tom Dale Keever <
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        Date:   Sunday, 14 Aug 94 21:52:35 EDT
        Subj:   Re: Character
 
(2)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH.BITNET>
        Date:   Monday, 15 Aug 1994 02:30:22 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Apologies
 
(3)     From:   Jean Peterson <
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        Date:   Monday, 15-AUG-1994 10:03:16.42
        Subj:   *Who Stole Feminism*
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tom Dale Keever <
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Date:           Sunday, 14 Aug 94 21:52:35 EDT
Subject:        Re: Character
 
I left on a European tour in May and just returned to find a few score SHAKSPER
posts, including the entire "Great 'Character' Massacre." (The only posts in
the lot that were as entertaining were the ones from Terence Hawkes, et al,
advising anyone coming to London this summer to bring an umbrella and expect it
to get a work-out.  I spent three weeks in London last month and saw only one
brief light shower.)  It looks like the "Character" furor has died down, but
I'd like to make a belated entrance to the fray.
 
A few years back a director who had cast me in a major role in an Early Modern
play Off-Off-Broadway assigned the company a common rehearsal exercise.  She
told us all to write short biographies of our characters laying out whatever in
their pasts we thought relevant to understanding their actions.  Armed with the
insights I had gathered as a Lit Crit major I pounced as eagerly as Terance
Hawkes did on the unsuspecting Ms. Bunn. I won't rehash what I wrote for her -
you've read it all if you've been following this thread.  I laid out L.C.
Knights' line though I don't recall citing him by  name. Once I felt I'd
sufficiently intimidated her, though, I showed myself a good conscientious
craftsman and did just what my director told me to.   The exercise was amusing
enough, though I didn't for a moment think it would help my performance, and
resulted in quite a steamy little opus which, but for recent legal decisions
regarding pornography on the Net, I'd be happy to share with you.   The role I
was rehearsing was Lussurioso in Middleton's REVENGERS TRAGEDY ( oops, don't
want to get cast into "Authorship" limbo! ), as "emblematic" a character as any
since the York Mystery Cycle.
 
The director inserted other modern rehearsal techniques as the work went on.  I
participated gamely in all the character and situation improvs, but worked in
my own way on my role, concentrating on language of the text. Because the
relevance of modern approaches had come up at the beginning of the process I
thought about it as I did my work and was more than usually conscious of how
"modern" questions of past life and character motivation affected the way I
thought about my role.  Despite my conviction that questions like "How many
sexual conquests had Lussurioso?" were not relevant to the play, I found I
could not work out my relations with the other fictional beings I shared the
stage with, be they "characters" or "emblems," without creating some sort of
imagined past to make sense of our present actions.  I finally accepted my
dependence on the techniques in which I had been trained, entangled as they
were with concepts of personal identity and theatrical mimesis I knew were
alien to Middleton, Shakespeare and their contemporaries.
 
I rethought the approach I had always taken to renaissance plays and the next
time I was cast in one, playing several small roles in CYMBELINE for the NY
Shakespeare Festival, I created a fictional past for each "character" I was
portraying, though I had little more to do than fight as a soldier and fill out
 the crowd scenes.  I found the exercise personally satisfying - it made the
effort of being a bit player more rewarding than it might have been - but
doubted it made any difference to anyone else until I was accosted in the wings
after I had carried Iachimo on for the bedroom scene by the actor who lugged
the other end of the trunk.  "Hey," he said, "you're IN CHARACTER out there,
aren't you!"   He was astonished that I had gone to the trouble to create a
character for this palace servant and assured me that it really showed.  I
wasn't mugging or playing an exagerated attitude toward what I was doing and
would have done nothing to upstage Joan Cussack, but my fellow player got the
distinct sense that I was playing a "character" in the scene, not just
signifying an "emblem" of a menial social role or carrying out a bit of
necessary practical business.
 
And why not?  What else should an actor on a twentieth century stage do,
regardless of the age of the text he is bringing to life?  Though I still
regard verse texts as special problems with vocal requirements foreign to
modern plays and would not tell an actor to play a Shakespeare role just as if
it were something by Tennessee Williams, I no longer think that current
approaches to "character" are inappropriate to work on an Early Modern text.
Those approaches are often attributed willy nilly to Stanislavsky and his
disciples but they arise inevitably out of what Goodfield and Toulmin called
"The Discovery of Time," the nineteenth century's major legacy to our age. The
Russian director, like the Viennese doctor, or the French novelists, was only
reflecting his own age when he insisted that we understand a "self" as a being
with a formative individual past, not just an assigned social role.  As
citizens of our age we cannot help but play "selves" as we understand them when
we go onstage.  We're not doing Shakespeare or his text any service by
forbidding a modern actor the use of whatever tools he may have when he
constructs a role.
 
For critics to insist that modern artists must reconstruct Shakespearean roles
as "emblems" and eschew the techniques that have grown out of centuries of
theater practice since The Globe burned down, rooted as they are in eighteenth
and nineteenth century concepts of  "self" or "character,"  is to adopt an
ahistorical stance many of these same critics would deplore.  As one of my
favorite critics has pointed out, "What can never be reconstructed is the major
ingredient of all Shakespeare's plays, the factor that completed them and made
them work: their original audience."  The denizens of The Globe or The Rose may
well have defined a "self" in terms of relatively rigid concepts of social role
and consequently reacted to an actor playing a role on stage in ways far
removed from ours,  but I don't expect to play to such an audience any time
soon.  A modern playgoer comes to the theater with attitudes formed by, among
other things, a lifetime of reading novels or absorbing the novel's progeny,
films, TV drama, etc.,  media that mold and enforce the concepts of
individuality and self that are part of our times and material culture.   It is
the modern audience that completes a modern stage production and makes it work,
not Shakespeare's.  That audience expects a degree of realism, however
heightened and embellished, in fictional characters and that degree of realism
is best achieved by the post-Meinegen acting techniques of our own century.
 
The valuable insight that Knights, Hawkes, the New Historicists and others have
had into Early Modern texts, that they are inevitably rooted in the material
culture from which they arose, has a concomitant implication - every staging of
those texts is an artifact of its own age and that period's material culture,
not a re-creation of Shakespeare's.  If it is a mistake, as Knights said, for
Bradley to force a ninteenth century novel's concept of "character" onto the
work of Shakespeare, it is no less a misunderstanding of a twentieth century
theater artist's work to insist, as Terence Hawkes did in his response to Ms.
Bunn, that an actor working on a post industrial production of Lear must adopt
the attitude toward a dramatic role proper to an early seventeenth century
Londoner.  If Hawkes is insisting that Ms. Bunn recognize that the lines she is
to speak were written to delineate an "emblem," not create a "character," adopt
the appropriate attitude and not imagine Cordelia has any extra-textual life,
must she not go further - acknowledge that the lines were not written for a
woman to speak at all, and insist that the director allow her to abdicate in
favor of a boy soprano? If not then we are approving the projection onto
Shakespeare's play of the post-Restoration convention of casting women but
forbidding post-Stanislavsky techniques for building a character and ignoring
the audience's post-Romantic expectations defining one.  Why does one
anachronism have favored standing over others?
 
Tom Dale Keever

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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH.BITNET>
Date:           Monday, 15 Aug 1994 02:30:22 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Apologies
 
I would like to apologize to Christine Gilmore for suggesting that her
criticism was "mean spirited," and for raising the spectre of "political
correctness." As I admit, I know nothing about the immediate subject, and my
concerns are general and abstract.
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jean Peterson <
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Date:           Monday, 15-AUG-1994 10:03:16.42
Subject:        *Who Stole Feminism*
 
Anyone interested in an evaluation of Hoff-Sommers' book might want to check
out Nina Auerbach's review in *The NY Times Book Review* (June 12).  In a
review that seemed to me not particularly acrimonious or "mean-spirited,
Auerbach characterized the book as sloppily researched, inaccurate, and
depending on unfounded generalizations and tunnel vision ("all's right with me,
as a white, fairly successful professional, so why do women complain about
injustice?");this generated a number of responses the following week, led by La
Paglia, deploring the "shamefully inept and biased tactics" of "radical
feminist academics" (an inaccurate definition of Auerbach by any standards, as
she notes in a rebuttal.)
 
Barbara Ehrenreich says pretty much the same thing about H-S in  *Time* (Aug
1), citing a number of inaccuracies, errors, and "unsisterly smugness" about
the problems of women less fortunate than middle-class professionals. And
according to Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Cady Stanton "spoke out passionately"
against "the rule  of thumb" as wife-discipline in 19th-century
America--another tidbit on the trail, though it may take some searching to
track down.
 
Cruising on the info-mation highway...
Jean Peterson
Bucknell University
 

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