The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0435 Thursday, 6 March 2003
Date: Sunday, 2 Mar 2003 14:22:42 -0800
Subject: Shakespeare at Stratford
The Shakespeare at Stratford series, published by Arden, provides
detailed performance studies of individual plays during the period from
1945 to the present. Four entries have appeared to date: Richard III,
The Winter's Tale, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice.
Collectively and individually, these volumes suffer from two glaring
methodological flaws which severely qualify their usefulness and
interest: (1) They study only Stratford stagings of a given play,
ignoring other modern English productions of equal or greater
significance. (2) They study every Stratford staging of a given play,
affording equal time to the memorable and the properly obscure.
1) The most influential (many would say the best) modern productions of
the four plays listed above had nothing to do with Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Olivier's Richard III (1944-49) was staged by The Old Vic Company at
London's New Theatre; the Brook-Gielgud Winter's Tale (1951) was mounted
by Tennent Productions in the West End; Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet
(1960) was an Old Vic production; and the Miller-Olivier Merchant (1970)
was produced by The National Theatre at the Old Vic. The Shakespeare at
Stratford authors gaze yearningly towards these landmark productions,
but because of their Stratford-only mandate they are unable to discuss
them in detail. Consequently, these volumes do not begin to be adequate
studies of the plays in performance during the postwar English period.
And if they aren't that, one wonders why they were written at all, other
than as the result of some commercial undertaking between the Arden and
Stratford interests. The editors of this series may have felt that an
exclusive Stratford focus was intellectually justifiable: it is not.
(2) During a sixty-year period a theatre, with luck, will do some
interesting and important work. It will also produce a certain amount
of rubbish: derivative, uninspired, modish, time-serving or frankly
horrendous stuff that is quickly forgotten after closing night. The
only sensible (and decent) thing to do with such productions is to let
them rest in condign oblivion. But no: the Shakespeare at Stratford
authors exhume them, apply artificial respiration, administer
electroconvulsive therapy, and massage their dusty, silent hearts, all
in a quixotic effort to raise the misbegotten and the insignificant.
Promptbooks are pored over, production records examined, newspaper
clippings scrutinized and lengthy analyses developed; and all this
scholarly industry is lavished without distinction on the bad and the
indifferent as well as the good. The feeling of pointlessness which
this engenders in a sentient reader can be very strong. Why won't the
authors acknowledge that some productions have no claim on the interest
of posterity? Why do they publish work that only Stratford archivists
and people devoid of standards will find consistently absorbing?
(Co-option may have something to do with it: these authors received
their commissions from Arden-Stratford after all). One may be
fascinated with a Shakespeare play and its performance history, and
still be bored witless by the lack of discrimination, the dutiful
facelessness with which the Shakespeare at Stratford authors fulfill
their appointed tasks. "The study of mediocrity breeds mediocrity" in
Herewith a concrete example, which will efficiently sum up both of my
objections. I suffered through David Leveaux's (1992) and Adrian
Noble's (1995) stagings of Romeo and Juliet. Neither created ripples in
its own day, and neither is much talked about in ours. They will not be
remembered as important or even good productions; one doubts that they
will be remembered at all. An intelligent and well-proportioned stage
history would give them no more than a paragraph apiece, probably less.
Why, then, do we have a series which studies both of these mediocre
stagings in detail while ignoring a truly influential production like
Zeffirelli's? Why force the premature canonization of two very recent
productions, neither of which is a plausible candidate for permanence?
There are answers to these questions, some suggested above or in my
earlier posts, but none that makes aesthetic or intellectual sense.
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