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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Harbage and the Postmodern
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0080  Tuesday, 15 January 2002

[1]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jan 2002 12:31:45 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 13.0062 Alfred Harbage

[2]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jan 2002 15:22:00 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0066 Re: Postmodern Shakespearean Performance

[3]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jan 2002 16:16:54 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0062 Alfred Harbage

[4]     From:   Charles Weinstein <
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        Date:   Monday, 14 Jan 2002 18:59:22 -0500
        Subj:   Postmodern Shakespearean Performance


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jan 2002 12:31:45 -0500
Subject: Alfred Harbage
Comment:        SHK 13.0062 Alfred Harbage

Of course, Harbage also wrote crime novels. In a sense, there were two
of him; Harbage In and Harbage Out.

Terence Hawkes

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jan 2002 15:22:00 -0500
Subject: 13.0066 Re: Postmodern Shakespearean Performance
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0066 Re: Postmodern Shakespearean Performance

I have to thank David Evett for sending me back to Harbage's Reader's
Guide to Shakespeare. Harbage clearly was opposed to the Kott-Brook
trend of production in the 60s, and I suspect that he conspicuously
addresses the "reader" partly for this reason. To be against a
particular fashion, though, is not the same as being against all
productions of Shakespeare. If Harbage told David Evett that he didn't
go to see Shakespeare because the productions didn't match the play he
had "constructed in his mind"--words I must doubt Harbage used--he was
evidently referring to productions David Evett admired but Harbage did
not. Even if he didn't see all of them himself, he no doubt had his
sources of information.

On page 87, Harbage says that the issue of reading vs. seeing
Shakespeare "is a false issue; first, because we are rarely offered the
choice; and second, because it ignores the factor of quality. That
theatres are wonderful places, that actors are life-givers to dramatic
conceptions, that dramatic experience is richest when shared with an
assembly of fellow human beings, and that Shakespeare properly produced
in the right theatre by the right actors before the right audience is a
grand artistic experience, are all so self-evident as to make argument
superfluous. Nevertheless, just as lovers of classical music prefer
silence to hearing their classics butchered, so a lover of drama has a
right to prefer reading to seeing bad productions."

Harbage saw his guide partly as a contribution to educating theater
audiences about Shakespeare, so that they would demand better
productions:

"What we want is both better reading and better productions, and the two
things are related. Readers of Shakespeare are apt to apply higher
standards than non-readers....The present guide is designed not to take
business away from the Shakespearean theatre but to send it there."

In his essay "Shakespeare Without Words" Harbage again, maybe a little
intemperately, bucks the trend: "The evidence of [Shakespeare's] living
quality is not supplied in our theatres. The present orthodoxy among
Shakespearean directors is that the plays must be boldly reinterpreted
so as to seem 'relevant to our times.' In practice this seems to mean
that they must be falsified."

Before David Evett again brings up the Plato-Aristotle distinction,
seeing Plato in Harbage's "right" productions and in "falsified", let me
ask whether David might say that an "essentially operatic" production
would be one he'd avoid because in his view it falsified Shakespeare,
and did not correspond to the image of the play that he had constructed
in his mind?  It seems to me that Harbage is right: the issue is not
reading versus seeing, but the question of quality--of production and of
criticism.

David Evett's criticism, for example, shows the abstracting trend that
has afflicted so much recent "theory". His descriptions of the
characters in this Othello don't match the images of the characters I've
constructed in my mind. For example, Emilia explodes "when she must try
to incorporate into her vision of the world as a place where people do
rational, practical things in order to achieve rational, practical goals
her recognition of the total irrationality of her husband's betrayals.
Othello goes mad (John Douglas Thompson is impressively contained,
disciplined, coherent before 3.3, and impressively loony afterward) when
his sense of himself as a man who can predict and hence control the
behavior of those over whom he has formal precedence is undermined."
Emilia explodes over "irrationality"?  This might suggest that Iago had
put an antic disposition on. Iago's villainy may be insufficiently
motivated and therefore "irrational", but then isn't calling something
evil a way of saying you don't understand it? Yet there can be
irrationality that isn't evil.

Irrationality overlaps with evil but it isn't the same thing. Speaking
on this abstract plane, about rationality vs irrationality, seems to me
to misrepresent the play.

Othello's sense of himself as a man who can "predict and hence control
the behavior of those over whom he has formal precedence" is undermined?
So it's a power game.

This production insightfully shows not the betrayal of a trust, not
unfaithfulness, not jealousy; it gets to the core of Othello's problem:
his self-image as a commander. Couldn't this just as well describe Lear,
among others?

I wonder how Derrah's Iago can discover that "both his onstage- and his
off-stage audiences will accept increasingly outrageous implausibilities
as the truth". Charles Weinstein felt the outrageous implausibility but
not the simultaneous truth.  Weinstein also mentions specific lines that
Derrah mangled. I would have been interested to know if he was still
making those same mistakes, but David Evett does not say.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jan 2002 16:16:54 -0500
Subject: 13.0062 Alfred Harbage
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0062 Alfred Harbage

Charles Weinstein avers that "Mr. Evett instances Harbage's dislike or
avoidance of Peter Brook's Lear as a obvious sign of critical
narrow-mindedness."  That was not my intention at all--he was, by the
standards of the time, a generous and flexible reader.  My real point is
underscored by Mr. Weinstein's second-hand report of a talk by Harbage
to some Harvard actors about to do Lear, including John Lithgow about to
undertake Edgar  " 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."  That is, no actor could ever satisfy his ideal image of Edgar,
which, I am certain, was full of suspended contradictions-an Edgar who
could be appropriately gullible when exhorted by Edmund to fly from his
father's anger and yet anticipate the iron revenger of Act 5, or whose
iron revenger could still convey the innocence and openness of the Edgar
of 1.2.  By contrast, I can imagine David Bevington-also Harbage's
student and admirer-telling a similar group that such-and-such a
performer took such-and-such an approach effectively, whereas another
did something else equally effectively, while a third fell on his face
by trying something out of key with the production or inherently
impossible to pull off: that is, reporting what he as critic had learned
from the specific choices made by particular performers rather than
working solely from the text.

David Evett

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Monday, 14 Jan 2002 18:59:22 -0500
Subject:        Postmodern Shakespearean Performance

In response to Ms. Kranz' post, I would like to quote from two reviews
of Beale's Hamlet, both of which appeared after mine.  The first is John
Simon's review, which was published in the June 18, 2001 issue of New
York Magazine:

"What can you make of a Hamlet lacking a Hamlet and an Ophelia?

Simon Russell Beale is an able actor in character parts (I especially
enjoyed his London Thersites), but can the princely Dane be short,
stout, homely, and overage?  Can he, unlike some fat men, move without
nimbleness, chop his verse-speaking into jagged fragments, have a
strident voice that in the higher registers becomes a squeal, and not
display the least smidgen of charm?  And can the Ophelia of Cathryn
Bradshaw be a plodding, buxom milk- or barmaid with a smarmy voice and
no sense of her role...?

"[This was] a watchable Hamlet if you could get past the catastrophic
lovers, seemingly turned into Pandarus and As You Like It's Audrey."

The second is Robert Brustein's review, which appeared in The New
Republic at roughly the same time:

"While always clear-spoken and intelligent, Beale is obviously too
portly for the role (yes, Gertrude mentions that Hamlet is 'fat, and
scant of breath,' but this is ridiculous).  He is also too short, too
middle-aged, and too epicene to be the scholar, soldier, and courtier
that Ophelia admires--well, maybe he could pass for a courtier and
double as Osric.  It is true that a good actor can make you forget about
his physical appearance.  What Beale never lets you forget is his
superior sense of scornfulness, as if he were confusing his character
with the caustic Addison de Witt in All About Eve.  And underneath the
upper-class disdain you can just perceive a credit-card-carrying member
of the consumer classes.  As a result, while Beale captures the
cuttingly ironic and quotidian aspects of the role, he never touches its
tragic side.

In this he is well-matched by the well-bred Cathryn Bradshaw, whose
Ophelia, always clutching her pocketbook even in the mad scenes,
resembles a chubby debutante driven around the bend by the frustrations
of a bad perm, a bad diet, and too much time spent in department
stores.  As for sex appeal, there is not a corpuscle of chemistry
between them, and I cannot say that it is all Beale's fault....If the
purpose of acting, as Hamlet says, is to show 'the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure,' to judge by this production our time is
afflicted with considerable sexual uncertainty and a lot of class
pretention."

Simon's and Brustein's opinions are very close to my own.  Indeed,
Brustein goes me one better by calling Beale "too epicene" and sexually
unsuited to his role.  My review said nothing of such matters.  (I did
say that Beale's "congested voice and plummy diction suggest a fop with
catarrh," but that was a comment on his vocal quality).  In truth, Beale
did not strike me as particularly gay or particularly straight; he
merely struck me as short, fat, ugly, turgid, sluggish and boring.
Nevertheless, I support Brustein's right to comment on Beale's sexual
presence.  I also support his and Simon's right to comment on any
actor's face, physique, age, voice and personality, the suitability of
these attributes to the role he or she is playing, and their
contribution to (or detraction from) the ultimate artistic effect.  And
of course I claim the same right for myself.

For more on these issues, see Simon's essays "The Aesthetics of the
Actor's Appearance" in his collection Singularities (1975) and
"Shakespeare and the Modern Critic" in Volume III of William
Shakespeare:  His Life, His Work, His Influence (ed. John F, Andrews,
1985).

--Charles Weinstein

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