All entries for Saturday 25 April 2009

April 25, 2009

Shakespeare in the Archives

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Warwick's been a site of activity this week. I've been to talks by Jonathan Lamb of Vanderbilt University, by the lead architect on the transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and to a presentation of an academic experiment with Hamlet. The biggest event, though, has been the "Shakespeare in the Archives" conference hosted by the CAPITAL Centre, which I've been auditing over the last two days.

The key event of the conference has been the launch of the Re-Performing Performance website, the project which CAPITAL Research Associate Jonathan Heron has been heading up over the last few months. Tying in with the launch, this conference was concerned with theatre archives. What are they? How do we make them? How do we use them in research and teaching? Perhaps most importantly, how can we improve on all of these issues?

The issue of recording performance is a fascinating one. I remember having a great deal of anxiety in my early days of reviewing about the irrecoverability of performance, a constant nagging frustration that I was missing things, that there was no way to retain a piece of the theatrical moment. It was Tony Howard who removed this anxiety in a talk where he praised the ephemerality of the performed moment, that its immediate passing into the past made that present moment all the more unique and special, remaining only in memory.

While that meant I stopped panicking about forgetting things, it doesn't help with the practical question. The fact is that we discuss performance, that performance drives forward the study of theatre, and that there needs to be some way of recovering and reconstructing aspects of what has taken place. The papers at this conference addressed an enormous range of means of reconstruction; some practically, some theoretically, all fascinatingly.

Tom Cornford's work on versions of Hamlet, presented here in paper form, sought to literally re-perform performance by using actors to recreate the rehearsal techniques of earlier productions. Andrew Hartley focussed on the archive video (with everyone reminiscing about particularly bad versions they'd encountered), while Paul Prescott discussed the theatre review as archive, something which is of particular interest to me and discussed at greater length over on The Bardathon.

Other aspects of the conference concentrated more broadly on how archives can be used to teach us more about the field. Carol Rutter presented her work on early modern women's dress to think about the practicalities of the 'unpinning' scene in Othello on the early modern stage. Robert Shaughnessy provided a close look at early twentieth century theatre programmes, using them to map changing fashions in theatre-going over the war years. Tony Howard, meanwhile, raided FBI and CIA archives (legally!) to focus specifically on the politics surrounding Paul Robeson's performances of Othello.

Another strand running through the various papers was a recognition of what performers themselves can tell us about a text. Richard Rowland was particularly interesting in this regard, using the records of performances of A Woman Killed with Kindness to answer crucial textual problems. Reg Foakes, meanwhile, focussed more generally on how contemporary performance can help resolve textual issues, though his agenda was skewed in favour of conservative productions and experiments in original practice. Bridget Escolme also provided a particularly interesting paper that took a theoretical approach to approach the immediately practical question of how we can best obtain and use actor testimony. Michael Cordner took a slightly different tack, talking about the means by which theatre practitioners archive and disseminate their own practices. Cordner provided the theatre-academic equivalent of stand-up in his description of various practitioners' approaches to blank verse, showing how rigid adherence to particular schools ends up destroying speeches, but concluding with hope that, with the right medium and mediation, theatrical training can be more usefully used by the academy.

This is something of a whistle-stop through just some of the papers and issues raised, to give a flavour of the kinds of archive-related issues under discussion. A valuable aspect, too, was the invitation to several archivists to participate, contributing to the conversations over the weekend as well as in a dedicated panel discussion.

I don't have any specific conclusions, beyond the ones made regarding my own blog and that very small area of the archive world. It does strike me, though, that performance archives are uniquely interpretative and developmental in their own right. It was Peter Holland, I think, in his introductory paper, who applied the metaphor of blind men describing an elephant to the problem of archives. They are all, by necessity, partial. Artefacts, performer memory, audience memory, video, re-creation, review, prompt-book; all present only aspects of a communal moment of performance. We cannot hope for completeness, and I believe there can be a point at which we too obsessively try to re-capture something which is, inherently, gone. By recognising the limitations of archives, hopefully we can more usefully utilise them.


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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