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Writing about Performance of Shakespeare

Writing about Performance of Shakespeare

As Pascale Aebischer recently reminded us, writing about performance can be likened to tap-dancing about architecture: it is hard to see how one way of making meaning can relate to the other. In a recent exchange, in the BSA's journal, W.B. Worthen and R.A. Foakes, coming from very different approaches, debated how discursive writing can describe, engage with, and critique performance, and this seminar will take the debate further. The seminar invites papers that consider all matters of how writing relates to performance, which might include: what theatre reviews ought to comment upon; how far can performance be theorised?; does the script 'contain' all the possible performances, or conversely does performance necessarily exceed the meaning in the script?; should insights about theatre practice in Shakespeare's time inform writing about his meaning?; what is theatre history for?; do we still think Shakespeare was essentially a man of the theatre and not a literary author?

This seminar was chaired by Gabriel Egan ( ). For more information about specific papers, please contact the participants individually. Contact details are listed at the bottom of each abstract.

Abstracts are published below.

Jennifer Drouin: "Text vs. Performance: The Politics of Empowerment and Economic Accessibility"

In a recent exchange in the journal Shakespeare, R.A. Foakes and W.B. Worthen weigh in on the text-performance debate. In this paper, I expand upon Foakes's argument that performance theorists today "claim a special authority for performance as generating new meanings", an authority which is "over-pitched". The cult of performance may be the current rage, yet there is much to be said in favour of viewing Shakespeare as a literary author whose texts contain a multiplicity of meanings that no number of performances could ever stage. As Foakes argues, "a performance of a Shakespearean play is 'fixed' because it can only reproduce one way of doing it, one set of meanings". While Worthen claims that a text-based approach to theatre "perfects a literary frustration with the incapacity of the stage", he never questions whether this frustration might, in fact, be justified and what might produce it--i.e., the fact that any performance of Shakespeare is the theatre company's reading, thereby circumscribing and frustrating the interpretations of audience members already familiar with the text, as many Shakespearean audiences are. While a particular performance can enrich the audience member's engagement with Shakespeare through new interpretations, it can also frustratingly disempower the audience member by invalidating her reading of the text (by cutting key lines, reinterpreting motive, and imposing gestures or costumes that don't fit the character). Performance substitutes the unbound imagination of each reader's mind's eye with the vision of a few theatre practitioners. Finally, I address an issue which both Foakes and Worthen neglect: the economics of the text-performance debate and the inherent classism of accessibility to the theatre compared to that of canonical texts. Not only does the theatre overrule an audience member's interpretation of the play by the vision of a limited few, but the theatre itself is an elitist institution accessible only to a privileged few.

McGill University

Tara E. Lynn: "Codes of Position: Shakespeare staging and social dynamics"

Viewing elevation as a key form of staging is essential to an understanding of Elizabethan drama as subversive medium, yet most studies on staging in the Elizabethan theatre focus on horizontal spacing. Though reconstruction of the initial stage practices and terminology for a particular Elizabethan text presents a challenge and proving audiences' exact expectations might be difficult, we can infer a great deal from the records we do have. The public theatres themselves were hierarchical, with society's elite seated at or above (and for the wealthiest patrons above and behind) stage level. Additionally, the privileged through history, including the Renaissance-vaunted Greeks and Romans, physically elevated themselves as a show of status, both on and off the dramatic stage. To suggest that staging, particularly that of elevation, was strictly limited by performance conditions at a particular space seems dubious when placed in the context of a society fixated by intentionally staged representations of power and placement in relation to that power.

Focusing on specific plays performed at the public theatres and using the context of an established system of codes of position, my paper will present a discussion of the notion of vertical staging on the Shakespearean stage. Vertically staged scenes, such as the orchard scenes of Romeo and Juliet, are fraught with the romantic expectations of a modern audience, but our understandings of placement and meaning is vastly different from an early modern audience's. Significant shifts of vertical placement and their impact on the relationships on stage and the relationships between the characters and the audience are an important part of Renaissance stage studies because of what these movements signified to the audience, a shorthand form of communication that we as modern scholars and audience frequently miss. My discussion of vertical staging extends Robert Weimann's fundamental concepts of locus and platea and staged meaning in Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theatre (1978), and uses the Elizabethan understanding of placement to argue Shakespeare's intentional uses of vertical staging in the public theatres. His use of the upper stage went beyond mere convenience or theatrical convention; under the lens of vertical signifiers and an appreciation of common Elizabethan theatre practice, Shakespeare's use of the upper stage and characters' vertical shifts represent an aspect of staging essential to our understanding of his plays.

University of Tennessee

Joel Benabu: "Shakespeare's Openings in Action: A Focus on Macbeth"

Regardless of genre, the openings of Shakespeare's plays function in many different ways on the stage. Some plays open by way of a prologue, others by way of an induction (some of which may be in the form of in medias res), and others by way of a framing dialogue. This paper strives to understand Shakespearean openings in terms of their theatricality: it attempts to gauge how an opening sets out to engage the receptive faculties of an audience, and determine to what extent the play-text may be considered as an extended stage direction. The paper is the product of research undertaken for my Ph.D. dissertation entitled: "Shakespeare's Openings in Action: The Play-Texts Considered as Extended Stage Directions", which examines how in texts written to be performed, not read, openings function on the stage by tracing their lines of composition; more specifically, analyzing the playwright's organization of the dramatic material, his dramaturgy, as reflected in the play-texts themselves.

University of Toronto

Clare Smout: "Whose Shakespeare? The Editorial Tradition versus Theatre Practice"

Editors go to great lengths to try to establish what Shakespeare actually wrote and to discriminate between competing versions of a text. Yet how far does their work impinge on what is actually seen in the theatre? This paper will use as a starting point the monograph published in 1993 Gary Taylor and John Jowett, Shakespeare Reshaped, in which they argue that sections of what we know as Shakespeare's Measure For Measure were actually written after his death by Thomas Middleton. The scholarly world has gradually adapted to this new information; the theatrical world continues resolutely to ignore it. Yet, unlike those passages written by other authors in Shakespeare's collaborative works, to which he presumably gave a least tacit approval, these posthumous changes have arguably no more validity than, say, Nahum Tate's ending to King Lear. Elsewhere directors repeatedly streamlining texts in search of that modern grail, the shorter running time, are responsible for certain scenes not integral to a play's plot virtually never appearing onstage. This paper will explore the tension between the Shakespeare we know from the study and that we know from the stage.

University of Birmingham