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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Distinctions
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0147  Tuesday, 22 January 2002

[1]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Monday, 21 Jan 2002 17:38:07 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Monday, 21 Jan 2002 11:45:39 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

[3]     From:   Karen Peterson <
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        Date:   Monday, 21 Jan 2002 14:04:07 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

[4]     From:   Stuart Manger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 22 Jan 2002 00:01:53 +0000
        Subj:   SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

[5]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 22 Jan 2002 10:10:30 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Monday, 21 Jan 2002 17:38:07 -0000
Subject: 13.0125 Distinctions
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

Charles Weinstein harangues - "Whatever the parallels or equivalencies
drawn by postmodern criticism, in the theater Caliban is not Prospero,
Pistol is not Henry V, the Porter is not Macbeth, and Osric is not
Hamlet; nor do we want them to be". But what is it Prospero says about
that "thing of darkness"? Above all, it has always seemed to me,
Shakespeare is the playwright who finds false "distinctions" to be most
offensive. I thought that this was one of the problems that "postmodern
criticism" had with his work, not one of its own contributions.

Weinstein must get very upset whenever he sits down to read King Lear
once again - indeed, I am sure we all do, but few of us would want to
react to the experience in the way that Nahum Tate or Samuel Johnson
did, or Weinstein himself appears to. It is indicative of the perfect
muddle Tate made for himself that he should have eradicated the Fool
while emphasizing the comic-romantic elements of the play. It is
indicative of Johnson's one-sided view of the play that he could salvage
nothing positive from it at all. And it seems indicative of Weinstein's
view of the entire Shakespearean corpus that he should misunderstand it
so utterly by understanding it only on his own, self-consciously
monolithic terms.

m

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Monday, 21 Jan 2002 11:45:39 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0125 Distinctions
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

> Charles Weinstein says,
>
> No one in Shakespeare's company would have dreamed
> of casting Will Kempe
> or Robert Armin as Hamlet, Lear, Othello or Macbeth;
> but ours is an age
> that confounds vital distinctions, including those
> between low comedy
> and high tragedy, the bourgeois and the royal,
> character actors and
> heroic agonists.

In that case, what can we make of the mixture of low comedy and high
tragedy in Measure For Measure, All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and
Cressida, Cymbeline and even Antony and Cleopatra to name a few?
Shakespeare himself did not make rigid distinctions between comedy and
tragedy. Only purists who believe the two should not be mixed would cut
the Porter from Macbeth.

As for acting, we have to remember that Shakespeare's age was
reinventing theatre as we know it. Actors did perform as either broad
comic characters or as heroic antagonists. But there are growing
exceptions, Falstaff being the largest.  Falstaff is broadly comic but
he can also be devastatingly serious, poignant and on the mark. Hal
slips into comedy in his company. Hamlet himself puts on "the antic
disposition", which I don't take to be an absurd form of madness but a
biting comic wit that comes across as madness to the other characters.

I think that today's actors have taken on a bit of that chameleonic
quality and can be agile at both. In fact, the best actors are able to
turn from one to the other with pinpoint accuracy when called to. It is
certainly unwise to say that things were better when we knew what to
expect from our actors and our plays.  I find it thrilling when comedy
is mixed in with tragedy and the only way to make comedy effective, as
Shakespeare knew well himself, is to take the action of the play as
close to tragedy as it can possibly go.

A great example of modern day success in "tragi-comedy" if you will is
Billy Wilder. Satiric and sharp, but howlingly funny. The actor who best
embodies that mixture and expertise between comedy and drama - God bless
him, Jack Lemmon. See "The Apartment", "Some Like It Hot", "Glengarry
Glen Ross" and even "The Odd Couple"" for this mixture. He was far from
"confounding vital distinctions". He clarified exactly what it means to
be a human being with wit and flaws.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Karen Peterson <
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Date:           Monday, 21 Jan 2002 14:04:07 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0125 Distinctions
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

Charles Weinstein wrote,

> No one in Shakespeare's company would have dreamed
> of casting Will Kempe
> or Robert Armin as Hamlet, Lear, Othello or Macbeth

If this had been phrased, "Shakespeare's company did not cast Will
Kempe...", it would be verifiable.  We really don't know what companies
of that time did or did not consider in the way of casting, or of what
casting innovations they might have dreamt.

> but ours is an age
> that confounds vital distinctions, including those
> between low comedy
> and high tragedy, the bourgeois and the royal,
> character actors and
> heroic agonists.

I'm not at all sure it is only our age.  Complete consistency in these
issues *may* have existed in the classic Greek theatre, although
Aristotle's need to write at length about the desirability of such
distinctions might indicate that the lines were blurred even in his day.

By the late 16th and early 17th centuries in England, these lines of
distinction were beginning to show signs of permeation, not only in the
theatre but in the social world in which Shakespeare's theatre
operated.  Shakespeare was not averse to bending the rules of what
constituted "tragedy," and not all of his "tragic" characters would have
fit classical (i.e.  ancient Greek and Roman) standards.  As just one
example, Romeo and Juliet were probably not have been seen as
sufficiently noble in class, nor did they have notable "tragic flaws."
Othello does have a couple of "tragic flaws" but he would not meet the
other requirements simply by virtue of his ethnic origin.

I must admit it's been awhile since I heard anyone use the word
"bourgeois" seriously.  It almost makes me nostalgic.  I do not think
the appropriate term in an oppositional dichotomy is "royal."
Aristocratic, perhaps.  There are "degrees" (pace Ulysses, T&C) between
"bourgeois" (if the word is taken in its traditional, Marxist-inflected
usage) and "royal".

> Simon Russell Beale and Antony
> Sher are comic
> caricaturists with a special flair for the
> grotesque

In your opinion, Mr. Weinstein.

What, precisely, about them makes them seem to you "comic
caricaturists"?  Height?  Facial features?  Nose size?  Body shape?  In
other posts you have alluded to "classical acting" (about which, I
believe, we are to expect an exposition soon?).  I have yet to be
convinced that physical characteristics have *anything* to do with
acting, either good or bad.  Further, the question of which physical
characteristics are attractive, or appropriate, and which are
"repulsive" is so subjective as to be meaningless.  I happened to find
Simon Russel Beale as Hamlet quite sexy.  You did not.  This proves
nothing except that you and I have different ideas of what makes an
actor sexy.

> Unfortunately, they
> both aspire to be high tragedians....
> A generation
> ago, they would have
> been channeled to the roles for which their talents
> suit them

"Channeled?"  Isn't this just another way of saying "type-casting"?  You
mean in the same way that black actors for so many years were channeled
into comic-relief servants' parts?  As Jewish actors were channeled into
camp-Yiddish "oy-vey" comic relief parts?  As Marilyn Monroe and many
other attractive, and capable, female actors were channeled into
dumb-blonde comic relief parts?

Many very fine actors switch effortlessly from romantic lead to
"character" roles, from high tragedy to slapstick comedy.  Derek Jacobi,
Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Emma Thompson, AND Simon Russel Beale AND
Antony Sher come immediately to my mind, but I could go on for quite
some time as the list is a long one.

Theatre (and film, and television) in general, and Shakespearean
performance in particular, would be much impoverished were we to
"channel" actors "only to the roles for which their talents suit them."
And far, far less interesting.

Karen Peterson

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 22 Jan 2002 00:01:53 +0000
Subject: Distinctions
Comment:        SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

On the latest ITN 'Macbeth', Antony Sher was arguably the finest Macbeth
on film I have ever seen. Shot in the Round House, in London, the very
daunting Harriet Walter as Lady M.

Comics often (not always) have some indefinably exquisite senses of
timing, or the absolute absurd, or the surreal, or just the gift of not
taking everything terribly seriously thus maybe a little existentialist
in their approach, and often can be illuminating. Maybe not definitive,
but....?

Paul Scofield is not allowed to be sombrely / sardonically funny on
stage because he is a 'tragedian'? Is Hamlet always necessarily a sour
puss? Should not a Russell-Beale play him? I simply do not see where
Weinstein comes from on this. Maybe he could explain his categories?

Actors are simply not as type-cast / type-trained these days, and in my
view there is useful cross-fertilisation to be had in juxta-posing the
modes. That is not to say that the greatest performances are always or
necessarily given by these genre-jumpers, but they do testify, they
certainly do testify.

Stuart Manger

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Tuesday, 22 Jan 2002 10:10:30 -0800
Subject: 13.0125 Distinctions
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0125 Distinctions

Charles Weinstein pontificates,

>No one in Shakespeare's company would have dreamed of casting Will Kempe
>or Robert Armin as Hamlet, Lear, Othello or Macbeth; but ours is an age
>that confounds vital distinctions, including those between low comedy
>and high tragedy, the bourgeois and the royal, character actors and
>heroic agonists.

No-one in Sophocles's day would have dreamt of playing Oedipus out of a
mask, or in a production without a really solid dythrambic meter.  Who
cares?  Do the distinctions natural to Shakespeare's company necessarily
impinge upon us?

Se

 

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