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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Symbolic Interpretation (was Pregant Gertrude)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0113  Friday, 18 January 2002

From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Friday, 18 Jan 2002 10:06:45 -0000
Subject: 13.0099 Re: Pregnant Gertrude
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0099 Re: Pregnant Gertrude

Alan Dessen recalls,

"In the 1980s I saw a production of *Henry VIII* in which an actor I
much admire played Cranmer in distinctive white make-up, applied so
heavily that it called attention to itself.  When I queried him after
the show, he said that he had two explanations.  The first was for the
general public: that Cranmer was a scholar who rarely saw the light of
day, etc.  The other explanation was for me alone: that after over
twenty years of playing a wide assortment of roles, in the series of
performances that summer he finally had the opportunity to use up the
white make-up he had accumulated.  What then happens to my instant
symbolic interpretation?"

Why, nothing. That interpretation is your own, based upon your
experience of the text / performance / lighting / set / make-up which
was put before you.  To think that the actor's admission (assuming that
the admission was not, in itself, a joke) pre-empts all interpretative
criticism of his make-up is to reduce the audience's entire, diverse
experience to a slavish dependence on the supposed "intent" of the
play's producers.

The same fallacy is used to undermine interpretation of Lindsay
Anderson's surrealist fantasty, "If..." Some of it is black-and-white,
most of it is colour. The editing of certain sequences strongly suggests
that some kind of symbolic significance is available, and many critics
have offered their interpretations. Clever-dicks like to lampoon the
critical mentality (the film's star, Malcolm Macdowell, is prominent
among these clever-dicks) by pointing out that Anderson only used
black-and-white film stock because he had run out of money for colour.
Well, yes, maybe so (and maybe not...) The point is that, were I a
Marxist critic, this might be of significance to my interpretation.
Otherwise, I am left with this artifact which includes some sequences in
colour and some in monochrome, and it is this, rather than anything
else, to which I am expected to respond. The director's "intentions"
might provide some peripheral interest, but they are not the

Of course, there are arguments against this anti-materialist approach -
arguments with which I have more sympathy, as it happens. The
foolishness inheres in offering one approach as a common-sense
invalidation of the others...


P.S. Who was the French novelist who bought himself a flea-market
with the "e" missing?

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