The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0062 Monday, 14 January 2002
Date: Sunday, 13 Jan 2002 14:32:24 -0500
Subject: Alfred Harbage
I never met Harbage; he had long since retired by the time I entered
Harvard in 1972. However, I have read him and heard much of him, and
there are several things that I would like to report.
As a freshman, I took the Acting Seminar offered by George Hamlin, the
then-Artistic Director of the Loeb Drama Center. Hamlin told us of a
production of King Lear that he had directed at the Loeb about a decade
earlier starring Dan Seltzer as the King and a fresh-faced undergraduate
named John Lithgow as Edgar. Hamlin was a great admirer of Harbage, and
he invited him to a rehearsal to share his deep love and understanding
of the play with the actors. As part of his talk, Harbage offered
specific observations on each of the characters. When he came to Edgar,
he paused, sighed and said: "You know, I've never seen an actor get him
right." Of course, this discombobulated young Lithgow, who took Hamlin
aside after the session and said: "Thanks a lot, George--NOW what am I
supposed to do?" However, it appears that Lithgow survived and
Hamlin swore by Harbage's Reader's Guide and urged us to buy a copy and
keep it as a lifetime companion. I think it's the most useful, sensible
and beautifully-written introduction to the canon ever published. I
always consult it as a first step when preparing a Shakespearean role or
production. Although aimed at the beginner, it has much of value for
more advanced readers; and I am pleased to note that the latest entries
in the MLA's New Variorum project (namely, As You Like It, Measure for
Measure and Antony and Cleopatra) all draw heavily upon the Reader's
Guide. Harbage is by no means mindlessly celebratory: he has some
shrewd and interesting things to say about, e.g., the structural and
dramatic weaknesses of Othello, the peculiar sequence of Macbeth I.vii
and the popular overestimation of such speeches as Romeo's initial
apostrophe to the balconized Juliet. Yet Harbage's appreciative writing
is even better. He can make one see the beauty, power and freshness of
a passage that over-familiarity may have led one to discount; and his
Introduction to King Lear in the New Pelican Shakespeare (a volume for
which he served as General Editor, and which despite the vagaries of
textual theory is still very much in print) is the single most moving
essay on the play that I have ever read. Harbage's insight and acumen
on a host of issues have rarely been equaled in my reading of
Shakespearean criticism, and I still find him cited admiringly by
several modern scholars.
Finally, I note that Mr. Evett instances Harbage's dislike or avoidance
of Peter Brook's Lear as a obvious sign of critical narrow-mindedness.
Those of us who know this production only from the film that Brook made
of it in 1971 are unlikely to agree, for the film is an abomination.
Those who feel that this judgment attests to critical feebleness should
read Pauline Kael's equally harsh assessment in Deeper into Movies.
Those who insist that the stage production was better should read John
Simon's powerfully-argued contrary view in Uneasy Stages. As I say,
nothing is obvious.
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