Monday, October 12, 2015

The USP Book Review II

Another year of reading, research and performance has brought about another look at books that have influenced my thinking, or that I just find interesting. Finding books specifically that touch upon Historically Informed Practices can be difficult, but I am grateful to Kim Carrell who has pointed me in the direction of some new scholarship. Those books will get a look soon. For now, here are some other books that may be of interest to our fans, friends and followers. Enjoy, and as always, your thoughts are welcome as well.

Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, Tiffany Stern, Oxford, 2000
            Tiffany Stern earns her reputation as a leading light in theatre history with this book. It contains some of the most interesting scholarship and insight into the rehearsal practices of early modern English theatre. Her arguments seem stronger for the time after the interregnum, but of course there is more evidence and anecdotes for that period. Unlike Shakespeare in Parts, there is little practical information about how the environment that produced the plays could be reproduced, or simulated – and indeed (especially in the sections on the 18th century theatres) there seems to be a stronger argument for a rehearsal period and process more like the one theatres enjoy today.
            What struck me as most interesting is the extrapolation that can be made between the ways scripts were brought to stage in the Restoration and after and the way those of Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have been produced in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres. During the Restoration, there were obviously more hands involved in changing the script, most notably the theatre Managers and Prompters – even the literati of higher society were solicited for their advice by playwrights and the theatre producers. Changes were made after the first performance, and many times actors made their own improvements. However, through all this, the playwright’s name stayed intact on the script, despite the amount of input by others. Some prologues and epilogues brag about the additions or deletions as well as the names and titles of those who made them. Many of the texts that we have today are not the texts as they were performed on stage, but as the playwright intended. Others are the performance texts.
The way that Stern lays out the history, along with the fact that many producers claimed (correctly or not) at least some tradition from the earlier stage, it is possible to make the argument that the plays that we have from Shakespeare underwent the same kind or similar journey from pen to stage. It is possible that there is no “Ur-Hamlet” with a ghost shouting “Hamlet, Revenge” like a fish wife as the apocryphal tale has it. It may have come during the performance of the same texts that we read today, only it did not survive in print.
            This is an interesting read, but it is not the easiest book to go through unless you have a great interest in the depth of theatre history. This is not a book to gloss over, but would be an indispensable resource for any research paper. It is a great addition to any library, and the bibliography holds a vast of wealth for further reading.

Easy Guide to Shakespeare, Fall River Press, 2014
            This book is the exact opposite of Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan. This is a light book, an easy read, with a little breadth and even less depth, but this is a fun read. It is great for people to get an introduction or a quick refresher for certain plays or to the playwright and some of the stories and theories about him and his work. There are chapters entitled “Famous Shakespeare Haters,” and it prefaces its chapter about possible other writers with the advice that “[i]f you see anyone in real life making these arguments, do not try to argue with them. Back away, slowly.”

How to Teach your Children Shakespeare, by Ken Ludwig, Crown Publishers, 2013
            In this book, playwright Ken Ludwig goes over how he introduced his children to Shakespeare, and how he got them to memorize some well-known monologues. Glossing over the memorization lessons, he has some nice insight into the plays he introduces. This is the first, and so far only, convincing argument I have come across that sheds any light on any possible merits of Twelfth Night. I have never found this a particularly interesting play outside of the Malvolio storyline, neither deep and searching or very funny.  Ludwig’s book is an interesting read, and if you have children whom you would like to get interested in the language of the Bard, How to Teach your Children Shakespeare is a great place to start.

The Quality of Mercy, by Peter Brook, Nick Hern Books Ltd., 2013
            This short read is a collection of musings by one of the most influential theatre directors of the twentieth century, and one that I greatly admire. That being said, this falls short of everything I have read by Brook up until this point. It is a love letter to Shakespeare, Bardology -not at its worst (that will come a little farther down in this blog) but that does nothing to further understanding or appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays. We know that Peter Brook loves Shakespeare, and that he is very good at directing those plays. His other books ‘The Empty Space,’ ‘The Shifting Point’ and ‘The Open Door’ are much more moving, inspirational and important. It hurts to say, but you can give this one a miss. Its only real value is if you are a lover of Brook, or a lover of Shakespeare with the need of knowing how much other people love Shakespeare.

Shakespeare the Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, 1998
            The Bible of Bardology. The title of this tome says it all. This is a love fest, mostly between Bloom and his favorite characters: Hamlet and Falstaff. The premise of the book is that Hamlet and Falstaff are the pinnacle of creation, the greatest characters ever penned and the first time in the history of English literature (or to read Bloom, indeed, the history of the universe) that real, complex, soulful people –human beings- are represented in art. This argument can be made for Hamlet, but Falstaff?
            The only explanation is that Falstaff is a popular character, and the only way to explain his popularity to make out that some huge universal Truth lies somewhere in the character that defines us all as the human race. That is not the case, but Bloom tries his hardest to make it so. Falstaff is a great character, but he is far from perfect. His popularity at the time was due to timely lampooning, Shakespeare’s language, and the actor’s portrayal. Any insight that Falstaff makes can be found elsewhere in the cannon. Bloom seems to feel himself as a Falstaffian character and therefore makes much of him.
            Some useful insights peppered throughout this (literally) heavy book are scarred by the fact that there are unnecessary references throughout to Hamlet and Falstaff. Even his compliments to other characters are undercut and back-handed like a jealous high school cheerleader. (One of my favorite drinking games is to read about a play that has nothing to do with Hamlet or Falstaff and drink every time one of them is mentioned superfluously. There are few chapters that I can make it through in one go.)
            Unfortunately, the tone of this book and its unashamedly worshipful view of Shakespeare are popular conceits that need to be overcome. Because of his place in American literary society, Bloom’s book is read, and appreciated, and accepted as popular theory because it lionizes Shakespeare. When researching plays, I do read it to know what resistance I will face and how best to address it. While others may not have the unexplainable crush on Falstaff that Bloom does, the pillar upon which the author sets the plays, the characters and the words is one that many look up to. The book is one of opinions, and it is from a literary point of view. There is very little, if any, practical information for theatre practitioners, in the book –its value is literary, but everyone serious about Shakespeare’s plays must read this book if for no other reason than to understand why it is important to approach Shakespeare as a real person and his plays as things to be out of the hands of academics and put into the hands of players.
            Bloom makes a case for Shakespeare showing us what it is to be human, but is unable to do that for Shakespeare himself. More’s the pity.

- Andy Kirtland, Managing Director of The New Renaissance Theatre Company, which produces The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project