So, since I am a bit of a Hamlet “nut,” did some touring while I was doing my Master’s work, and found the idea of a true “world” tour rather intriguing, I was surprised to find that this book was quite different from what I had expected. It is, of course, something of a journal of the tour, which Dromgoole apparently visited quite frequently during its travels, but it also includes a good deal of commentary about the countries visited, reactions of people encountered on the tour, and thoughts about a good many aspects of the modern theatre in general and ideas relating to productions of Shakespeare in general. As I AM rather interested in all of these things, I found many of these comments to be of special interest.
At the very end of the tour, as a part of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the company was visited by President Obama, who saw a special performance at the Globe back in London, and had a chance to meet the company (and Mr. Dromgoole). As a part of that performance the actor playing Hamlet delivered the famous “Advice to the Players” speech directly to Obama. After the performance, the President joined the company on stage and discussed Shakespeare with them. As Dromgoole says; “I ask him if he has ever acted, and he comes straight back with ‘Have I ever acted? I act every single day. Every time I go down to Congress, I’m acting. When I sit down with certain world leaders, I have to do a lot of acting.’” (p. 32) While I’m sure this is an honest statement, I found it quite refreshing that a President would be so straightforward about admitting that politicians have to act quite so much.
A bit later, Dromgoole goes on regarding the “Advice to the Players” speech; “These words, Hamlet’s celebrated advice to the Players, delivered before they perform his lamentable play, are, of course, lessons in acting rather than oratory. They are the prayer offered up by every playwright on the eve of each first night since. They can be brutally compressed into ‘Oh, please, stop acting and just say the f***ing lines.” (p. 33)
A couple of pages later, Drumgoole is talking about starting the rehearsal process; “Before anything else, you read the play, sit round a table and make sure of one thing: that everyone understands every single word of each scene they are in. There is nothing more depressing than a stage of actors who have no idea what is coming out of other people’s mouths, nor even sometimes their own.” (p. 34) Now, while I have to confess that I haven’t always done this myself, while acting as a director, I wish I had thought about this more when I was directing, especially when, as Dromgoole says just a bit later; “ If we are to have any theatre of meaning, we do not need to learn how to mime bottles into babies, how to monocycle, or how to scream and shout; we need to be precise and clear about language. Language is what is remarkable about us, language is what makes us and our world, not our ability to wave our arms around in the air.”(p. 35) He goes on; “When we start hearing that theatre is not about language, we are often dealing with people who secretly hate it.” (p. 35) I think there is a good deal of truth in this.
He continues, discussing how he feels that Hamlet (the production being discussed was, after all, of that play) is, and has been, in his opinion, frequently misconceived. So he states; “There is such a glut of ideas about how to present particular plays, it is sometimes most radical to have no idea. This is hard for many to negotiate, since without a concept, or an argument, they have nothing to talk of afterwards but the play itself, a nudity which they find embarrassing to look at. Our job at the Globe was always to tell the story cleanly, to judge the relationships impartially, and to let the language do the work.” (p. 38)
I would argue that, with some plays (Hamlet being one) there are so many possible meanings to some of the words (Does “nunnery,” for example, [in the “get thee to a nunnery” speech] refer to a convent or a brothel, or both?) that it’s quite difficult to be sure that we all completely understand (and agree on the meaning of) every word, so that we can just “be precise and clear” about the language, but I do suspect that it may be worth the effort to deal with questions about this sort of thing.
I’ve probably touched on the notion of “concepts” in contemporary theatre production before in these posts. It is a notion with which I have struggled for a fair number of years. I DO think it’s important for a director (and the rest of the production team) to have an overall focus in their approach to whatever play they are working on, but I think that it is also quite easy for the “concept” to distort the playwright’s creation into something quite different from that which was originally intended. The playwright has, after all, created the story and the characters, even when the events are historical and the characters have the names of real people. To me (and I know this has probably infuriated some of my colleagues and students at times) this suggests that theatre production is, essentially, an interpretive act. That, at least in my mind, does NOT mean that this work is not creative, but that production should endeavor to present the playwright’s ideas (the ones in the play) in a manner intended to be most effective for a particular audience at a particular time, not to impose our own, personal beliefs on the playwright’s creation. That manner MAY include traditional methods, or changes of time period, costume/scenic style or a number of other alterations of the methodology of the original production. To me, the important thing is to make sure that we are being faithful to the playwright’s creation and are not distorting it into something it is not.
Dromgoole does mention this idea, at least in passing, in a couple of places. He says; “There’s a fashion in theatre now for creative elements to dub themselves theatre-makers. ‘I’m not an interpreter of plays; I’m a theatre-maker,’ they tell you rather shrilly. Fundamentally, this seems to mean they tell other people what to do, while they furrow their brows earnestly behind fashionable spectacles and practice some happening hand movements. Give them something to actually make – to sew, to clip together, to lift, to light, to attach – and they will break down in tears.” (p. 63)
In discussing a radio interview related to Shakespearean production, Dromgoole explains; “Producing Shakespeare has always relied more than anything on joy, on innocence and on enthusiasm. But try arguing for those three at a congress of Shakespeare scholars. Without looking like a blithering Pollyanna. For many of the academic community, but not all, these beautiful words left flimsily on paper cannot be just that – beautiful words on flimsy paper. They have got to be about territorialism and control and ownership, fundamentally because those arguing the case want more than anything else to be the owners. They want to be the hieratically ordained priest caste, who can tell others how to enjoy them. The circumstances of the play’s productions have to be about power and influence and negotiation, so that they can be the arbiters of how such transactions take place.” (p. 193)
If these ideas sounds a bit like those I tried to express in my post #52, it’s probably because there are pretty similar, at least I think so, but I also think they are worth repeating. Certainly there are aspects of many of the plays which do (or might) make one think about ideas which are current in contemporary society. If they make us think about them, I don’t see any problem with that, but I don’t think that The Tempest was written as a commentary on imperialism and slavery, even though the Prospero’s treatment of Caliban and Ariel is presented as achieved by his magic and does involve them as, essentially, his slaves. So, the idea IS present in the script, but I have grave doubts that it was Shakespeare’s intention to make the play ABOUT these ideas. I strongly suspect that Shakespeare wouldn’t have considered it improper in any way for educated, Christian, Europeans to subjugate other (non-educated, non-Christian, non-European) people. I’d even go so far as to suggest that he wouldn’t even think about such an idea. After all, British colonials settling in North America not many years later didn’t. Do you think it’s likely that a man who earned his living by creating stories for a popular audience would create a work which would so fly in the face of common opinion? The “Manifest Destiny” of the US, less than 200 years later, was an expression of justification for the conquest of the First Peoples of North America. It was just a basic part of accepted thought. Such things might well be worth thinking about today, but they are NOT what Shakespeare intended in creating the play.
Once again, I think it’s important to remove the plays (especially the plays) from being the property of English professors and “Shakespeare scholars.” One can make a strong argument that Shakespeare’s poetry WAS intended to be serious works of ART and let them be viewed as such. But the plays were written to be performed by actors and to put “butts in seats.” Such stuff was NOT considered to be “works of art at the time, although Ben Jonson did publish a folio of his “Workes” in 1616, the year Shakespeare died, which contained masques and plays as if they were serious work, but it was quite controversial. It may well have helped ease the way for general acceptance the First Folio of Shakespeare, however, which contains only plays.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that Shakespeare’s plays don’t contain a wide variety of ideas, but were they intended to be philosophical, religious, political treatises? I don’t think so. IF that had been the case and, IF they had made it past the censor, I doubt they would have been likely to have attracted much of an audience to the theatre, which I certainly believe was their purpose. Why else would someone write a play, as opposed to an essay, or even a novel? After all, a play requires all sorts of people and stuff which are NOT required by a poem, essay, or novel. But it’s unlikely that I can convince some people, and probably most of those who would agree with me, already do, so I won’t belabor the point.
In any case, I found these ideas, and MANY more worth thinking about and so I found the book very much worth the effort to read. It’s not always a light, easy read, but I did find it worthwhile. You might find it worth taking a look at as well. I’d encourage it.