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February 11, 2010

The Shakespeare Code: The cult of Shakespeare's genius

Writing about web page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974729/

I've never been a Doctor Who fan (for my money, the rebooted version is just too arch and self-knowing - and, frankly, not very good). However, in the interests of performing cultural research into representations of Shakespeare, I finally got around to watching the episode "The Shakespeare Code" today.

The Shakespeare Code

It was, essentially, everything one would expect, right down to David Tennant's Doctor feeding Shakespeare most of his best-known lines ("All the world's a stage" "I'll use that!"). The essential plot was that the Doctor and his partner Martha arrive in London, 1599, and go to see a performance of Love's Labour's Lost. Under the influence of some witch-like aliens, Shakespeare then announces that Love's Labour's Won will be premiered the following night. He finishes the play while being controlled by the aliens, who also influenced the construction of the Globe to their specifications. These aliens, you see, operate through the power of words: the power of their words, penned by Shakespeare and delivered by the Chamberlain's Men in a 14-sided building that harnesses their power, will revive the rest of their people and allow them to take over the earth, eradicating humanity and turning it into a wasteland of bones and witchcraft.

I could be smug and point out all the flaws in chronology (such as that Francis Mere's references to Love's Labour's Won had been published the previous year), but that wouldn't be generous. Actually, I was impressed by the script's attention to scholarly consensus on chronology: situated in 1599, Shakespeare drew from the episode's events his inspiration for As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth and others, while recognising the Doctor's quote from the slightly earlier Henry V. There were a couple of nice nods for Shakespeare buffs too, especially the passing reference to a young scribe named Ralph (Crane) who was told to transcribe the pages of the new play. Considering that it was Saturday night family entertainment, they'd gone to a lot of effort.

No, what frustrated me was the insistence on Shakespeare's genius throughout. The production hinged around it: during the climax, Shakespeare's improvised words are needed in order to close the vortex (I can't believe I'm writing this), as only Shakespeare had the necessary power with words. Though, in an Oh-come-on moment, the magic word needed to close the void was "Expelliarmus".

Shakespeare and company

On what I assume must have been the real reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe stage, Shakespeare first appeared to us as a backstage writer, not an actor. The Doctor's companion Martha, yelled for "Author!", jokingly creating the cult of the Bard at this point as the audience took up her cry. As Shakespeare himself emerged and waved to the crowds, the episode threw away a great opportunity to undermine Bardolatrous attitudes: as the Doctor waited with bated breath to hear the great man's words, Shakespeare welcomed the crowd with "Shut your fat ugly faces!"

However, while the image of Shakespeare as gentleman and snob was pleasingly undercut (not a revolution, of course, after Shakespeare in Love popularised the image of Shakespeare as working dramatist), Shakespeare was instead cast as celebrity. As the Doctor and Martha went to his rooms to meet him, a weary writer told them he would be neither signing autographs nor posing for sketches. Relenting, he then dismissed his fellow actors imperiously before welcoming the visitors. Lapping up the Doctor's continual praise of his genius - the genius which, as previously said, went on to ultimately save the day - this was Shakespeare as contemporary celebrity, directing his company and arrogant in his talent.

Part of the fun of the episode was in the time travellers' unpricking of his balloon, particularly as Martha refused a kiss on account of his bad breath. I was reminded, though, of how much we project our modern day iconicisation of Shakespeare onto the historical figure. The arrogance and celebrity of Shakespeare is, of course, a posthumous construction, which can't effectively be undone or challenged except in isolation. Shakespeare, that is, is so pervasive that he can't be put down. By channelling the cultural dominance of Shakespeare, however, into a single individual figure - the historical Shakespeare - that dominance can be refigured as arrogance and presumption, which can then be easily put down.

What's the problem with this myth-making? Nothing really. It's all good fun, and obviously this episode didn't position itself as an academic contribution. What it did do, though, was reinforce the predominance of Shakespeare even in its gentle mockery of the same. Shakespeare was further universalised as a man out of time even in his own century: he could tell Martha and the Doctor were from the future, and finished the episode a little less arrogant, but more quietly accepting of the timeless significance and inutterable genius of his writing. Hell, the Doctor warned him not to rewrite Love's Labour's Won because it was so powerful it could destroy humanity. No-one comes close to Shakespeare, not even in Doctor Who.

Shakespeare and Martha

Last thing - the episode telegraphed from a million miles away, as he first gazed at her with open mouth, that Martha was to become the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets. A couple of nice touches here, particularly as she refused to let him kiss her (how's that for a classical Petrarchan mistress?!), but I still felt uncomfortable about so broad a brushstroke. As ever, though, if you're going to actually present Shakespeare, I suppose there's no option but to make the works autobiographical: it's far more interesting to watch.


January 11, 2010

Localising The "Yorkshire" Tragedy

Writing about A Yorkshire Tragedy (Tough Theatre) @ The White Bear Theatre from The Bardathon

As a follow-up to my review of the Tough Theatre/ White Bear Theatre Company production of The Yorkshire Tragedy, there were a couple of problems raised by the production that I considered would be better discussed here for the relevance they have to my own writing on the play.

The introduction to the play gave us a few "facts" which were, for the most part, correct. The play was attributed to William Shakespeare; it probably was one of a group of four plays, which may well account for the differences between the opening scene and the rest of the play; and it was based on recent events. I was slightly surprised that the company made no reference to the current overwhelming consensus that the play is by Thomas Middleton, which I thought would have been of interest even to a non-academic audience considering the currency of Middleton in the London theatre at the moment (Revenger's Tragedy and Timon in 2008; Women Beware Women this year etc.). The production was advertised as "Part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha", however, and it is this connection they re-emphasised, while commendably not advancing any arguments to support Pavier's ascription.

No, the bit of the introduction that bothered me, and which had serious repercussions for the remainder of the performance, was that the play is divided into ten scenes. No, actually, it's not. The 1608 quarto of the play, as is standard for the period, includes no act or scene divisions whatsoever. It wasn't until Malone's edition of the play in 1788, almost two hundred years after the play's first publication, that it was finally divided into ten scenes, on the neoclassical criteria of new scenes beginning every time the stage is (even momentarily) cleared.

This might sound like academic pedantry, but it's crucially important to an understanding of the play. Firstly, more recent editors have divided the play into eight scenes, realising that the action of the old scenes V to VII is actually continuous. There is a brief shift to an imagined 'outside' for a conversation between the Husband and the Master, but after a few lines it reverts immediately back to the bodies of the fallen, demonstrating that there is no clearing of the stage and no pause in the action.

Secondly, the play is dependent on its pace. The division into scenes is in itself not really a problem; the problem occurs if significance is attached to these divisions - which, I reiterate, are a product of the 18th century, not the play's own time. Yesterday's production not only adopted the ten scene model, but was slavishly adherent to it. Each scene ended with a choreographed scene change, complete with a different lighting state and incidental music playing over the speakers, as well as a placard to indicate the new location. Playing 17th century plays in this 18th century fashion is out of date, both in terms of current theatrical practice and in terms of the demands of the play itself.

The beauty of the unlocalised stage that The Yorkshire Tragedy calls for is that it allows for a consistent and heady pace to build up. The Husband's frenzy becomes an unchecked rampage that moves from victim to victim with no time to pause or reflect, building up in the viewer or reader a breathless impression of insanity and inconceivable violence. Playing space becomes fluid: we don't need to physically be shown the move between different rooms because the bodies of the players demonstrate that move. By having set changes to physically reconfigure the stage between each very short scene, this production had to entirely reimagine the play's pace and thrust. Here, the Husband was necessarily a more reflective figure (discussed more in the review), a move which worked sometimes but didn't fit with the roaring madness of much of his dialogue.

It also played havoc with the play's double-time scheme. While the play as written must logically take place over a period of at least some hours (including the Wife's departure and return; the Husband's flight; and the trial), the conversations of the play continue as if a barely-interrupted stream of dialogue, the overriding impression being that events are taking place in real-time. By emphasising the scene changes, an impression of substantial periods of time passing is necessarily given, slowing down the action to a longer-term and drawn-out period. This is fine in the earlier and later scenes, but has the effect of throwing down the action-focussed centre of the play to a series of artificially-divided vignettes, interrupting the Husband's trail of carnage and undermining much of the dramatic effect of the text.

Attempting to precisely localise the scene demonstrates more clearly the weaknesses of doing so. Take Scene II, which according to this production took place in "an apartment in Calverley Hall." This location is appropriate for parts of the scene between the Husband and Wife; but then, groups of Gentlemen walk in unannounced and begin to upbraid, and even fight with, the Husband. In any logical sense, it is clear that these scenes cannot take place in an apartment, but in a more public space. The answer is, of course, that on the unlocalised 17th century stage it didn't matter - characters were understood to be wherever they narratively needed to be. With a location emphasised, however, the audience are asked to simultaneously imagine both a 'real' localised scene and an imaginative, unlocalised one, as the only way of maintaining any kind of theatrical logic. This begs the question: why bother localising the scene in the first place?

Finally, the first scene was set in "a pub in Calverley." The first scene is notoriously difficult, but emphasising a made-up setting for it makes these difficulties very clear to an audience who would otherwise not have noticed them. Ralph, Oliver and Sam are the servants of a woman (unseen in the play) who the Husband had previously been in love with, and who is now pining away for the lack of her lover. Sam then arrives with news that the Husband has married someone (the Wife of the play) and had children with her, although he abuses them all.

If Ralph and Sam are in a pub in Calverley, and the Husband and Wife are the lord and lady of Calverley Hall, why does Sam arrive FROM LONDON with news of a marriage - and a marriage that has, by report, been celebrated some years since? By any kind of logic, Ralph and Sam can't be just down the road from the Calverleys. The answer, of course, is that they are in a different town. Part of my thesis argues (following earlier critics) that the entire point of the first scene is to locate the play in London, not in Yorkshire: if Sam arrives with news from London of the Husband's marriage, then the implication is that the Husband and Wife are in London, which then allows Sam to take his news back to Ralph and Sam, wherever they are (and why not in Calverley?). This would, in my argument, have been to satisfy the censors: with the Calverley trial still in progress, the location of the real crime was changed, and the characters anonymised, in order to not incur the wrath of Calverley's powerful family. It's difficult to explain the first scene any other way: however, even if you don't agree with this argument, it still stands that Ralph, Oliver and Sam must be somewhere that is not Calverley, in order that the news of the marriage can be, indeed, news. Again, this is a problem that would normally not even be noticed by audiences; but, by emphasising specific locations for scenes, the incompatibility of this unlocalised play with conventions of literal scenography is exposed.

What this production has done for my understanding, then, is to emphasise the importance of the play's lack of sense of 'place'. This is true both in the immediately domestic sense, that movement between areas of the Husband's homestead needs to be fluid and uninterrupted, and in the wider sense, that the dialogue does not support a strict geographical location for the action but is instead deliberately removed away from the historical location of the Calverley estate.


December 13, 2009

The Apocrypha in Performance

It's turning into a good year for the apocryphal plays on stage. In January, Tough Theatre present A Yorkshire Tragedy at the White Bear in London. Here's the website info:

A Yorkshire Tragedy: not so new as lamentable and true
Part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha

5th – 24th January 2010
Tues - Sat @ 7:30pm, Sunday 5:30pm
Presented by Tough Theatre

Tough Theatre continues in the White Bear tradition of bringing lost classics to the London stage with this production. Part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, most scholars now attribute the authorship of 'A Yorkshire Tragedy' to Thomas Middleton...

A man on the brink of financial and, subsequently, social ruin resorts to tragic means to defend the honour of his family.

The play is based on a real life scandal of the day. On 5 August 1605 Walter Calverley was executed for murdering two of his children and stabbing his wife. Similar tragedies have occured throughout historyright up to present day. Are these people just plain evil or products of society?

The play will be brought to life with an ensemble of nine performers creating a disturbing, visceral experience which is not for the light hearted. The production is not suitable for U-16s

"Surely 'tis want of money makes men weak"

A Yorkshire Tragedy publicity art

All sounds very promising!

Then, in February, Terry Hands is putting on a full-scale Arden of Faversham at Theatr Clwyd. Hands is one of the most significant directors in the play's stage history, having done a version with the RSC some years ago, so this is something to particularly look forward to.

Arden of Faversham, an Elizabethan drama by an anonymous author, is based on a true story in which desire, envy and greed inexorably lead to death. The play is an early example of Elizabethan tragic-comedy. Blackly funny, it is not so much ‘whodunnit’ but ‘how’ and ‘when’…

Arden of Faversham publicity art


September 04, 2008

The Cultural Olympiad

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7597460.stm

Not much detail yet, but this news storyis the first mention I've found online of the Shakespeare Festival that is going to form part of the Cultural Olympiad. I don't know huge amounts about this yet, but the RSC are heavily involved in (if not actually running) the event, which is going to consist of performance of Shakespeare plays all over the country on some astronomical scale.

I'm reporting this on this blog (as opposed to my theatre review blog) because this Festival is actually related to my PhD. One of the main purposes of the new edition of the Apocrypha is to create performable playtexts of the apocryphal plays. Several of them only exist in old-spelling versions, and most are impractical to obtain unless you're an academic (or really committed). One of the outcomes of the edition, then, is planned to be a series of the apocryphal plays as part of the Shakespeare Festival, simultaneously celebrating the new edition and bringing the plays, at long last, to an audience.

All of which is very laudable. I'm waiting to hear more details about the Festival itself, though, as I'm not completely sold on the idea. Shakespeare is one of the international images, if you like, of Britain, and it's understandable that, with the world's eyes on the country in the run up to the Olympics, the authorities want to remind the world of our most popular exports. However, there ARE other writers (gasp, horror), not to mention dramatists, and if this festival is as large-scale as it threatens to be then I think there's a huge danger of overkill. We have, after all, only just finished one Complete Works Festival.

Nonetheless, as long as it's got some artistic merit I'm sure I'll enjoy it, and if the work done by our project contributes tangibly to the Festival then it'll be a wonderful (and hopefully fun) outcome.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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