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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: March ::
Re: Shakespeare at Stratford
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0492  Friday, 14 March 2003

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 18:16:16 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford

[2]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 17:30:54 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford

[3]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 22:56:48 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 18:16:16 -0000
Subject: 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford

>1.  My respondents' defense of a methodology that forces them to study
>bad, mediocre and unimportant productions while ignoring good,
>influential and brilliant ones is unpersuasive, since any such
>methodology is indefensible.

So, as far as Charles Weinstein is concerned, it is impossible to write
any book about Shakespeare in Performance that does not focus on the
same dozen or so "landmark" productions, and anybody who examines any
other production, or even tries to consider a subset of these
productions, is wasting their time?  Weinstein tells us that academics
are no good at reviewing theatre.  I wonder why he thinks that he, as a
minor actor, can tell academics about how they should write books?

Rather obviously, unless academic study is expected only to endlessly
retread the same ground, we have to have room for people to look at a
variety of things in a variety of ways.  Just because Charles Weinstein
doesn't like hearing about minor productions or failed productions
(although, as an actor, he seems to have taken part in at least one of
the latter, and presumably many of the former - I know of no "landmark"
nationally or internationally important production starring Charles
Weinstein) doesn't mean that nobody else wants to know about them, and
the fact that the Shakespeare at Stratford series sells and gets good
reviews is enough to justify its existence.

If it needs more justification than that, then it is easily justified as
a History of the Royal Shakespeare Company's performances in Stratford
(which, I would suspect, is what Professor Holland means when he says
that this series does what it says it will, and should be judged on
those grounds).  Weinstein wants to concentrate only on "landmark"
productions (although, since Weinstein hates just about every production
he sees, I am not sure how he would choose productions that fit this
category), but what about the fact that the RSC is a "landmark" company,
whose productions - including many of their critically or commercially
unsuccessful productions - have vast audiences and a great hand in,
positively or negatively, influencing the way in which theatrical
Shakespeare is perceived and performed, in Britain and even
internationally?

We might ask, what is the point of a history of Shakespearean production
(as idealised by Weinstein) that ignores the vast majority of the
productions by the most influential Shakespearean Company in the UK (and
possibly even in the world)?  My answer would be that a study that
ignores everything except RSC productions is just as valid as a study
that ignores the vast majority of the RSC productions.  Both offer a
selected slice of information from an impossibly large cake.  Weinstein
apparently just wants to eat the same slice over and over again, but
that would make most people sick.  Unless you have a very minor and
restricted interest in "Shakespeare in Performance" then it makes sense
to have an interest in a wide variety of different aspects of
performance history - including histories of particular companies,
histories of particular productions, histories of particular plays,
histories of particular actors, histories of productions by particular
types of Directors (French, Brechtian, female), and so on and on.

Weinstein demands that there only be one type of book (and judging by
his comments on the sufficiency of Brustein's three pages on Olivier's
filmic Lear, preferably only one book - ever) written about
Shakespearean performance history.  This is enough to show that he has a
purely amateur interest in performance history, and I don't just mean
that he isn't paid for it (neither am I), but that it rather obviously
has no important place in his life or his thinking.

>2.  Peter Holland professes to love my logic.  I would like to
>reciprocate, but I can't figure out what his logic is.  Does he suggest
>that a Stratford venue guarantees a production's quality and
>significance, making it automatically worthy of protracted academic
>analysis?  I suppose he does:  how else could he justify this foolish
>series?

The RSC is probably the most important and influential Shakespearean
production company in Britain, and possibly the world.  Any production
by the RSC is watched by thousands of people, and reviewed by just about
all of the major journals and newspapers.  These productions have an
influence, far beyond their scale, on British and international thinking
about Shakespearean production.  It makes just as much sense, therefore,
to publish histories of the RSC's productions, as it does in Elizabethan
History to publish individual biographies of major nobles.  A Biography
of the Earl of Essex, or even of Queen Elizabeth I, necessarily ignores
99.999999% of Elizabethan English history (including many major events
and just about the whole of the rest of the world, apart from the odd
sentence here or there), but this does not mean that such biographies
should not be written.

If we were to apply the "Weinstein method" (that Weinstein proposes for
histories of Shakespearean production) to Historical writings, then the
only history books that could be written about the Elizabethan world
would be general histories about "landmark" events.  There would be no
room for biographies, no detailed histories of particular events, and
certainly no familial or social history.  What, Weinstein would cry, is
the point of a book that examines the literacy levels of peasants and
the middle classes, but makes no mention of Elizabeth's response to the
Spanish Armada?

>3.  If given a free hand, would the Shakespeare at Stratford authors
>have chosen just these productions to study, and no others?  Of course
>not.  In fact, their desire to study superior productions from elsewhere
>is often so keen as to be poignant.  See, e.g., the following passage
>from Miriam Gilbert's volume on The Merchant of Venice:
>
>     "One non-Stratford production deserves special mention since it
>seems to me a ground-breaking interpretation in a number of ways.  When
>Jonathan Miller directed the play with Laurence Olivier as Shylock in
>1970 (National Theatre, London) he set the play in 1880 with outdoor
>scenes evoking a cafe society....[G]iven that the director of the
>National Theatre and one of England's greatest actors (Olivier became
>the first theatrical lord during the run of this production) was playing
>Shylock, this production continued to emphasize Shylock's centrality.
>The nineteenth-century setting, the problematic relationship between
>Antonio and Bassanio, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) criticism of
>both Belmont and Venice, and the continuing power of Shylock--all
>captured on videotape as well as on stage--make Miller's production one
>that haunts the imagination still."
>
>Which is all that she can say before dutifully turning to such matters
>as John Caird's failed 1984 production starring Ian MacDiarmid.

In just the same way, a History of Elizabethan England might make a
passing reference to the vastly superior technologies and governmental
bureaucracy operating in China at the time, but would then have to
return to the matter in hand.  Rather obviously in a history of RSC
productions there is not time or space to discuss every major production
outside the RSC in any detail.  Nor is there any reason why a History of
RSC productions should contain such references except where useful to
create context.  Weinstein is returning to his demand that only one type
of book ever be written.  As I suggested in my comparison with books on
Elizabethan History such a demand is unreasonable, restrictive, and
would lead to stultifyingly boring, repetitive, and consequently
uninformative books.

>4.  Martin Steward seeks to defend the study of bad productions on the
>grounds that someone associated with them might one day achieve
>greatness--that the productions might have tenuous future connections
>with something worthwhile somewhere.  That is rather too thin-spun for
>me.  It is also frivolous, since it would license academics to spend
>most or all of their time studying dreck.  Their calling, as I
>understand it, is to study the best.

Then you are stuck somewhere in the 19th Century.  Many modern academics
find value in the study of areas that previous generations would have
considered of little importance.  Histories of women or the working
classes are now considered just as useful as histories of the "great man
/ great battle" tradition.  Even before this happened, however, studies
were made of particular directors or particular actors, or particular
theatre companies, as well as general works about "landmark"
productions.

Do you think that the contemporary biographies of Henry Irving, Ellen
Terry, and the like, should be unwritten because they considered all of
the productions produced by a single person, whether good or bad, and
ignored other better productions that took place at the same time?
Assuming that you don't, what is the difference between a study of Henry
Irving and his productions, and a similar corporate "biography" of the
RSC?

>5.  The situation is even worse when the elucidators of garbage refuse
>to acknowledge what they're doing.  For the Shakespeare at Stratford
>authors never deem a production a failure and seek the reasons for its
>inadequacy. On the contrary, they carefully suppress all personal
>judgment, slathering every production in the same bland acceptance.
>That is one reason why their work is so flavorless and dull, and the
>chief reason why it is meretricious.

Having read a goodly number of Weinstein's own "reviews" on SHAKSPER, I
can only assume that he would rather that this sort of studious
impassionate writing be replaced with heavy helpings of bile,
bitterness, and deeply personal contempt.  While both methods can be
interesting at different times, I for one certainly prefer impassionate
academic reviews to anything written by Weinstein.

>6.  I care nothing for Stratford boosterism, and I can't imagine why any
>general reader should.

Again, what is the difference between a study based around Henry Irving
(whose Shakespearean productions received very mixed reviews in the 19th
Century, but nevertheless included many "landmark" productions by
Weinstein's apparent standards) and a study based around the RSC, which
is probably more dominant in the Shakespearean production of the 20th /
21st Centuries than Irving was in the 19th?  If you don't think that
Irving is worthy of study either, then who or what is?

>7.  One looks forward to "Shakespeare at Stratford: Hamlet," a book
>which will have to ignore the postwar productions starring Alec
>Guinness, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen,
>Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ian
>Charleson, Steven Berkoff, Ralph Fiennes, Stephen Dillane and Simon
>Russell Beale.  What a useful and interesting volume that should be!  Of
>course, not all of these productions were good, and some were dreadful,
>but what is the value of a performance study that fails to assess and
>discuss any of them?

And here we run into another problem with the "Weinstein method".
Weinstein suggests that the only productions worthy of study are the
"landmark" "influential" productions, but there is actually no real
method for deciding which productions those should be.  Having read
Weinstein's "reviews" for SHAKSPER, we can see that he generally rejects
productions as inconsequential or openly "bad", even if the critics have
generally acclaimed them.  Weinstein prefers "professional" critics to
academic critics, but dislikes Mendes' "Twelfth Night" which received a
wide range of rave reviews and some awards from the British press.
Weinstein finds occasional things to praise, but generally considers the
production shallow and disappointing.  Does Weinstein consider this a
"landmark" production?  Rather obviously not.  Does he think that it
should be considered in his ideal book on performances of "Twelfth
Night"?  Probably not, but he might (as he does with several productions
above) grudgingly allow it on the basis of the press responses.  Who or
what, then, is supposed to decide which productions to include in these
ideal texts?  Weinstein would probably answer "Common sense", but what
he actually means is "Me - or people who think like me".  This
egotistical rejection of everybody's opinions but his own seems to be
the major basis of all Weinstein's commentaries upon
performance criticism.

Then we have the question of whether a bad or minor production is
necessarily historically inconsequential.  I mentioned "Ms-Directing
Shakespeare".  This has an interesting section on an RSC production of
"Taming of the Shrew" directed by Gale Edwards, which certainly seems to
have been a critical failure.  Edwards herself comments "Taming of the
Shrew got the most vicious reviews I've ever had in my life, they were
sexist, they were absolutely savage and it was like I'd pissed on sacred
ground or something.  The vitriol in them!"  Apparently for Charles
Weinstein such a production has no place in performance histories, but I
would ask whether any performance history of "Taming of the Shrew" that
does not mention such a production is complete.  There are obviously
some very deep-seated reasons behind the reviewers' wholesale rejection
of Edwards's take on the play - ideological issues that go beyond the
simple matter of poor performances or unimpressive direction - and it is
surely important to note that the play can provoke such extreme
passions.  A performance history of the kind that Weinstein dreams of,
which only looked at "major" productions which received rave reviews,
would therefore give a completely unbalanced account of the history of
the play.

Thomas Larque.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 17:30:54 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford

>1.  My respondents' defense of a methodology that
>forces them to study
>bad, mediocre and unimportant productions while
>ignoring good,
>influential and brilliant ones is unpersuasive,
>since any such
>methodology is indefensible.

Why don't you just plug your ear with your fingers and cry "Na nana na
nana"? I don't think you read your respondents, just hit reply and
categorically rejected all such arguments. No one "forces" anyone to
study these particular productions. Someone had the idea to base a study
on the numerous annual productions in Stratford and to take advantage of
the copious resources in Shakespeare's hometown. It doesn't reject (or
in fact if you look closer, nor does it completely ignore) other
manifestations. It wisely looks at one steady source of consistent (in
quantity) Shakespeare and examines the multiple approaches taken to the
text. Your viewpoint is the only indefensible one, since it, in fact, is
actually the viewpoint calling for exclusive engagement with only
certain productions and ignorance of others. Perhaps your should
reexamine your own particular methodology, rather than rail like a
puritan preacher outside an Elizabethan playhouse.

>2.  Peter Holland professes to love my logic.  I
>would like to
>reciprocate, but I can't figure out what his logic
>is.  Does he suggest
>that a Stratford venue guarantees a production's
>quality and
>significance, making it automatically worthy of
>protracted academic
>analysis?  I suppose he does:  how else could he
>justify this foolish
>series?

Not that Peter needs any defense. His numerous quality publications and
editions of plays all speak for themselves. If you look closer at his
post, you see your question answered. But I suppose Charles doesn't look
closely at what is a different viewpoint. What a bigoted approach to
scholarship. In fact, Peter wrote a book about English Shakespeares in
the 1990s.  Perhaps Charles should take a closer look at that quality
work. It is neither limited nor unsparing in its criticism.

Brian Willis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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 >
Date:           Thursday, 13 Mar 2003 22:56:48 -0500
Subject: 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.0487 Shakespeare at Stratford

Charles Weinstein <
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 > writes,

>1.  My respondents' defense of a methodology that forces them to study
>bad, mediocre and unimportant productions while ignoring good,
>influential and brilliant ones is unpersuasive, since any such
>methodology is indefensible.

Since you are neither Sir Joseph Porter making an official utterance,
nor the Pope speaking _ex_ _cathedra_, you will forgive me if I do not
bow down before this pronunciamento.

I have spoken before of the two competing models of theatrical criticism
-- the mode of traditional criticism as applied to other arts,and the
mode of "Consumer Reports".  But you seem to recognize only a _tertium_
_quid_, the mode of the cheer-leader.

I do not care for the critic as cheer-leader; it seems to me that it is
that very concept that has led to the divorce between Art and the People
that has done so much cultural damage to the West in the last century.
But let that be, for, though it is bad enough for a critic to have an
agenda, it is far worse for an academic to have one.

It is the business of the scholar, qua scholar, to study and accurately
describe that which is -- no more and no less.  And for that purpose,
the study of any theater, even amateur, even high-school, is as proper
as any other, so that it be reasonably thorough and systematic.

(Mind, some productions may be so slovenly, so thoughtless, that they
defy academic analysis, or any other.  But such are rare, outside of New
Jersey.)

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