Sunday, December 01, 2019

Answers to Reader's Questions

Andrew Stevens writes: 


But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors. This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.


I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics.


I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.


....I am also not here commenting much on Jonathan Miller, about whom I know next to nothing, though I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work (probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works.


I am going to respond to this in some detail, at risk of my blog comments spiraling out of control again:

  
Productions become mummified. Not texts; productions.

Some people think that you can "do" Hamlet in the way that Shakespeare "originally intended" or that you can and should retain the original Victorian production style of Pirates of Penzance on a 20th century stage.

The claim being made is that this is like working very hard to preserve a person in the condition they were in when they died. It is possible. But you don't end up with a still-living Chairman Mao. You end up with a more or less well-preserved corpse.

You can't go and see the first night of the Pirates of Penzance. The best you can have is a copy of a copy of a copy of that First Night at the Savoy Theater; becoming more out-dated and stylized with each copy. You can honestly try to re-imagine and recreate a Victorian show: which is to say, give the audience a 2019 producer's impression of what an 1878 production might have been like. Which might be very interesting, but it would still be an interpretation. 

Interesting fact: The Pirates of Penzance was first staged 5 years before the publication of Treasure Island. No-one in the original audience knew that pirates said "arrrr."

"But it's still a mummy. That's true of anything that lasts long enough. He's just spray-painted the mummy in Day-Glo colors."

You have misunderstood the metaphor. When you say that a new production is merely "spray painting the mummy" you imply that the play is the mummy -- irredeemably dead -- and the "new production" is something interposed on top of the corpse to make it seem fresh. But this is not the claim. The claim is that the text is alive, but that some kinds of production make it appear dead.

You can have an embalmed, dead, fossilized preservation of what someone imagines Shakespeare's Hamlet must have been like; or you can have a sequence of living reinterpretations of the play, some good, some bad, many indifferent.

What you can't have, ever, is Hamlet, pure and unmediated, with no pesky actors and producers coming between you and the Holy Idea. Dear dear Sir Larry's version of Hamlet, tights and ruffs and posh voices and all, is just as much an interpretation as the recent National Theater production set in a post-Orwell surveillance society. (And the National used Shakespeare's text which is more than dear, dear Sir Larry did.) 

There were people in the early 20th century who thought that you could avoid letting nasty production ideas into the Bard's plays by only permitting amateurs to stage Shakespeare, or by performing his works with a cast of very young children who could be coached in verse speaking without understanding the words. And there was a Victorian idea that no-one but qualified experts ought to be allowed to even read Shakespeare's plays, in case they found out that along with the Great Speeches there were also a lot of dick jokes.

This is great, I suppose, for people who have seen the mummy twenty times already and love the mummy. It gives them variety and interest. But there are still people who might love to see the actual mummy.

This is very interesting. You imply that there is a real thing -- "an actual mummy" -- to be got at. You imply that modern conceptual productions somehow obscure the "actual mummy". But that there is a kind of production available which allows us to see the "actual mummy" shorn of additions.

But this is not the case. Again, it is certain received ideas -- certain styles of production -- which are said to be like embalmed corpses. No-one is saying that the plays themselves have  been embalmed. And the idea that you can have a text without any production ideas is the same as saying that you can have 50 miles per hour without a car.  

That said; I think there are people who, in your words "love the mummy". That is, they like a particular kind of production, and think that any other kind of production is Not Really Shakespeare. There were D'Oyly Carte geeks who positively liked highly mannered and stylized productions. There were opera fans for whom part of the magic was not understanding the words and watching very fat singers who couldn't act being showered with flowers and taking endless curtain calls. And there is no particular reason not to keep those styles of production going as a sort of heritage event. The Mousetrap survives as a kind of historical reenactment of what theatre was like a hundred years ago. I myself enjoy the occasional panto. 

You are implying that it was the cognoscenti, the people who had seen many productions over many years and who craved variety and innovation and maybe something a little shocking who enjoy new productions of familiar works. The vast and overwhelming success of Miller's Rigoletto demonstrates that this is not the case. It wasn't only opera buffs who made it a sell-out. It was people who hadn't been to the opera before and didn't think they would like it.

The famous Broadway Pirates wasn't a hit because of all the G&S geeks flocking to it; it stood on its own two feet as a piece of contemporary musical theater. (It would now look very dated and dare I say it, mummified.) 

I strongly suspect the stagnation of the Moscow Theatre was caused, not because it was too true to Chekhov, but because it was too true to Stalin. After its degeneration in the 1950s and 1960s and subsequent liberalization, they reinstated Stanislavski's original acting methods (the ones used for the original performances) and, I think, Chekhov became popular again.

This could, for all I know, be true. But supposing the Moscow State Theater to be a poor example and a special case does not refute the central claim: that striving to reproduce some pure and original first-night version, unmediated by production ideas, is impossible, and undesirable even if it were possible. I saw Rupert Everett doing Uncle Vanya earlier this year; in a pretty modern, naturalistic production. It wasn't a piece of historical re-enactment, nor was it a radical reinterpretation. It was a play.

But then my sympathies are all with the old-fashioned theatre critics. I suppose some people will respond, "You just don't want anything new or fresh or interesting!" 


No. But we may be tempted to say "What you perceive as a neutral, unmediated production is in fact a very particular production style that you happen to prefer and want to privilege." 

I would respond A) for people not familiar with Shakespeare, he still is new, fresh, and interesting, perhaps even more than he was in his own time and B) by all means, let us have new, fresh, interesting art. You're not going to get that by doing Shakespeare though, no matter what you do.


Every production of Shakespeare is new, fresh and interesting. Some actors and a producer start with his words, and they work out how they are going to say the words and what they think the words mean. They come up with their own answers to a series of unanswerable questions. Why did Claudius kill his brother? why does Hamlet delay? is Hamlet really mad? does he love Ophelia or is he using her? where are the lines drawn between the personal and political? Every production has to find its own answer. Some answers may be bad or wrong: but there is no such thing as an answer-free-production; only a production which takes for granted the answers thought up by some other company fifty or a hundred years ago. 

I generally think actually changing the setting does violence to a work.


This is a metaphor. No-one is actually beating up the text. I do not know what violence in this context means. Does it mean "invariably produces a poor production"? But this is demonstrably not the case.

And anyway, what does poor mean? It isn't the case that audiences invariably have a bad time in shows which have changed the original setting of the piece; nor is it the case that critics invariably dislike them, nor is it true that they always lose the management money. What criteria are we using?

Or does it mean "the original text of Hamlet is violated if Elsinore becomes the White House or if the Prince played by a woman?" But what does violation mean? A production in which a punk Hamlet yells out "to be or fucking not to be" might be amusingly shocking or devastatingly boring or somewhere in between. I rather liked the nude Hamlet with Quentin Crisp. But at the end of the day, Hamlet is still there, un-violated in a nice neat Penguin edition, for some fellow in tights and a pudding basin haircut to read out genteelly, if that is really what you want.  

I start to wonder if what you are really saying is that Jonathan Miller was disrespectful to Sherlock Holmes.

(probable exception: works set in the artist's own present day culture can often be updated since they were meant to be contemporary when they were written). But it does not elucidate Die Walkure to show Wotan and Brunnhilde as inmates in an insane asylum (real production!). 




It might do; or it might not do. I would need to see the production.

If it was a production which did not work; then it was a production which did not work and not an argument against the whole idea of production.

I felt that Gotterdamerung was massively elucidated by drawing an analogy between Brunnhilde and a suicide bomber; I felt that Parsifal was hugely clarified by making the grail Knights modern/futuristic soldiers and the Pure Fool a native-American. I found Lohengrin re-imagined as an experiment with laboratory rats rather baffling; but in the end quite powerful. The Dutchman set in a disused telecommunications factory I could have done without. 

I would defy anyone who thinks that modern dress productions of Wagner cannot work to watch the footage of Act III of the Valkyrie being performed on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and to pay particular attention to the audience's reaction to it. 

As long as you're playing Wagner's music, it's probably going to do all right, but the production in such a case detracts and doesn't enhance. Adolphe Appia was a great and innovative director and designer without doing any of that nonsense. Wieland Wagner's minimalist stagings were acceptable; they were still true to the works. 



Distracts from what? Enhances what

This is the whole problem. You think that there is some magical pre-existent thing called "the work" and you can validly judge a production according to some standard of "truthfulness" about "the work". I would call that -- what was the word you used? -- nonsense.

There is no "work". There is only ever this group of actors in this theatre. with this audience; and what matters is what works, today, in this particular setting. A bad production is one that doesn't make sense or is contradictory or obscure or (the only unpardonable offence) boring. 

I saw a gender-swapped production of Henry V last year, which conflated Princess Catherine and the Dauphin into a single figure. It didn't work, for me, on its own terms, because it asked me to believe in a world where women lead armies and serve alongside male soldiers, but can also be bartered by their fathers in dynastic marriages. The same company did a gender-swapped Dream a few months later, in which Hermia and Lysander are both men; and Helena and Demetrius are women; so the story became about two gay couples being unwillingly forced into straight marriages. This made sense; it added something to the humour of the piece. And it made it easier to keep track of who was meant to be in love with who. 

And it's always nice to see a female Bottom.

20 comments:

  1. What you can't have, ever, is Hamlet, pure and unmediated, with no pesky actors and producers coming between you and the Holy Idea. Dear dear Sir Larry's version of Hamlet, tights and ruffs and posh voices and all, is just as much an interpretation as the recent National Theater production set in a post-Orwell surveillance society.

    I am reminded of how true this also is in interpreting the Bible. However we read it, we interpret it — it's simply not possible not to do so. The great mistake that fundamentalists make is the belief that there is an unadultarated "uninterpreted" version of the text that we can simply accept without bringing any of our own ideas into it. I mean, I am sympathetic to their desire to do that; but not with their belief that it is possible.

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  2. You are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, yes, we're not mind-readers. Yes, yes, an interpretation is always going to bring biases into place. But it's not the case that any interpretation is as good as another. The author meant something when he wrote the text. We are trying to understand what he meant. It might be good fun to pretend that Mark Twain's purpose in writing Huck Finn was to write a great feminist book and it might be great fun to pretend that he wrote an evil anti-feminist book, but a much nearer interpretation of the text is that it doesn't have much to do with feminism at all. And, yes, lots of interpretations of Huck Finn are possible, but if you tell me it's set in medieval London, I'm not inclined to tell you, "Well, that's your interpretation," I'm inclined to say that you're wrong.

    Just because you can't be perfect doesn't mean there is no point in trying to be as good as possible and that anything goes.

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  3. Because man is inherently fallible does not mean he is inveterately so.

    This is all a form of:

    We can know things only

    - as they are related to us
    - under our forms of perception and understanding
    - insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes,
    etc.

    So,

    we cannot know things as they are in themselves.

    The conclusion does not follow from the premises. Your whole argument demonstrates that there may well be some difficulty in interpreting a text (because we can't read the mind of the author, because we have our own biases, etc.), and that part is fine. But you then go on to further claim that the problem is insoluble. Whether it is perfectly soluble, I don't know (I suspect it depends on how simple the text - how many ways can there be to interpret, say, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog"?. But I know for sure that there are better and worse interpretations of a work.

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  4. Or, I would say, the interpreter's job is to try to remove his own biases, as imperfect as he might be at doing so. Deciding that this is impossible and choosing instead to project one's own biases does not improve the interpretation. Though that might occasionally make an interesting new form. Hell, it's even possible I would have preferred Jonathan Miller's Hamlet to Shakespeare's Hamlet, though I'm pretty doubtful about that.

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  5. I think this class of arguments ("we cannot know things-as-they-are-in-themselves") begins with Kant, a truly great philosopher. It's probably his most popular argument and has gone on to be used in a dizzying variety of ways but it is not, in my opinion anyway, one of his better arguments. Alan Olding caricatured it as "We have eyes, so we cannot see." Or, for this one, "we have brains, so we cannot understand."

    Again, the problem isn't in describing the difficulties of how we can know the world as it is or how we can interpret a text. That there are difficulties, I am in whole-hearted agreement with you. The problem is with your deciding at the outset that it is not possible to see the world as it is or that there is no correct (or even better or worse, if I'm reading you properly) interpretation of a text. On that, we do disagree.

    Note that all of this is simply disagreeing with your last few paragraphs. In the many preceding paragraphs, you made a number of excellent points which I by and large agree with.

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  6. We are talking about plays and operas which have to be staged; with costumes and scenery, and the words spoken by actors. All productions are mediated. If you decided to put Hamlet on a bare stage, with actors in their own clothes, speaking the lines in monotone, that's still a production idea.

    Interpreting printed texts is a different matter. "I liked Rorschach; I think he was the hero of the piece" is a reading of Watchmen, and there is no point in Alan Moore coming along and saying "You are not allowed to like Rorschach: I didn't intend you to." "Rorschach never wore a mask" is more straightforwardly wrong.

    Are there are girls or women in Huckleberry Finn? How are they portrayed; what are they shown doing? How do the male characters treat them? Congratulations: you have just done a feminist reading of Huckleberry Finn.

    I could imagine an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn set in London. It is no sillier an idea than Romeo and Juliet set in New York or Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam or Throne of Blood set in medieval Scotland.

    Jonathan Miller's TV movie based on Alice in Wonderland didn't reproduce the drawings which Dodgson chose and approved. It was an experiment. The experiment was to make us attend to the dialogue and the characters by showing, e.g the mock turtle and the gryffon as two old men on the beach, not as two actors in animal suits. You don't have to like it, but "the only permissible screen adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is one that closely reproduces the original illustrations" is a political viewpoint, not an artistic one.

    I literally do not understand what you mean by "Shakespeare's Hamlet" as opposed to "Jonathan Miller's Hamlet". Is Shakespeare's Hamlet "the printed text" and nothing but? Or is it "whatever happened on the Globe Stage in 1603?" Or some consensus reading which has built up over 400 years? Or something which exists in Platonic Idea-Space? I genuinely don't know.



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  7. ”how many ways can there be to interpret, say, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog"?”

    To misquote David Lynch: “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Mentally you picture the dog, but I have not told you the type of dog which I have. Perhaps you even picture Toto, from The Wizard of Oz.”

    "Shakespeare's Hamlet" is, perhaps ironically, the singular worst example to pick to establish the authority of the text. We are pretty certain the text which has come down to us is a hodgepodge from several different versions. Yet all authentically coming from the great Bard’s hands. (The most commonly believed explanation is that several different actors played the lead over time, so the text needed accommodating to fit them. But I digress.)

    If the concern is ensuring ‘Shakespeare virgins’ get some ‘proper Shakespeare’ on first hit, I contend that this conceives the problem in the wrong way. There couldn’t be a clearer example of not starting with the text. His elevated cultural status means that people aren’t curious as to what this important writer might actually be saying, they have already made a whole bunch of assumptions about him. For example, the history plays are often taken to be summaries of British history, which is about the most useless way to look at them. So for a production to get anywhere it needs to knock those assumptions right out of people’s heads. Losing the tights and ruffs is a good place to start.

    However if I more agree with Andrew than Andrew, I don’t entirely agree with Andrew. The last production of ‘Othello’ I saw made a valiant attempt to update it by setting it in a modern military base. People sat at very modern desks before very modern monitors, looking very modern. Which makes the entire behaviour of, say, Desdemona suddenly inexplicable. How come she doesn’t say “if you’re going to be like this, you bloody weirdo, I’m off back to my Dad’s”?

    Shakespeare’s plays are normally set in an indeterminate other place, even when he uses real place names. Anyone who said “I’ve been to the Forest of Arden and didn’t run into any of these people” is well and truly missing the point. So modern productions should be set in an indeterminate other time. Not anywhere but everywhere. Clashes between swords and monitor screens should be played up, foregrounded until the audience stop trying to resolve them. The answer to “when did this all happen” should be “nowhen, this is a universal story you’re getting.”

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  8. You can update the setting of Much Ado About Nothing as much as you like, but when you get to the bit where Leonato tells Claudio "My daughter died because you falsely accused her at the altar of unfaithfulness, so marry my niece instead", you run into a brick wall. That simply isn't the way people because now, and setting the play in a modern office doesn't remotely help. Either you change the text itself (which I would not necessarily deplore) or you accept that the play was written in and about a culture that in many ways is alien to ours. This is why I am sceptical of most modern settings for Shakespeare. They set up cultural expectation that the text cannot meet.

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    1. I am not sure that is more of a problem in modern dress than in Elizabethan dress. I don't think that Shakespeare's audience would have looked at the scene and said "Oh, yes, that's quite the normal thing to have happened." I think they were more willing than we are to say "We accept for the sake of argument that this incredibly unlikely thing happened, because that's how plays work." But I agree that it's a problem a modern producer has to negotiate.

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    2. I don't think that Shakespeare's audience would have looked at the scene and said "Oh, yes, that's quite the normal thing to have happened."

      Oh, that's interesting. I wonder if you're right. My gut (which no-one should trust) says you are not: that Shakespeare's plays were likely just as mired in the prevalent moral atmosphere of their time as, say, Adamson's LW&W modifications are mired in the modern moral atmosphere where Nothing Is More Important Than Family. And if our present moral fashions are no more set-in-stone than those of the Elizabethan era, then when people watch the film versin in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 400 years, they too will wonder at the odd morality of the early 21st Century.

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    3. I think that there are assumptions about shame and guilt and honour which Shakespeare's audiences accepted and which we don't. But I think that Elizabethan theater was much more artificial than ours. I think that the audience wanted to see "how would a man react if the stranger he was marrying turned out to be the lover whose death he thought he had killed?" and were prepared to put up with all kinds of far-fetched plot machinery to get to that point.

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    4. Maaaybe, except he hardly does react. His line when she is unmaked is just "Another Hero!" He speaks only twice more in the whole remainder of the play, both times to comment on Beatrice and Benedick's (admittedly much more interesting) relationship. In fact, going the by text, he seems almost entirely unmoved by the discovery that his dead beloved is alive.

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    5. I think they were more willing than we are to say "We accept for the sake of argument that this incredibly unlikely thing happened, because that's how plays work."

      I’m not sure that doesn’t confuse two things. I could believe contemporary audiences were more accepting of unlikely plot contrivances, in the same way they were accepting of someone not recognising his brother because he was wearing a different hat. After all, in my youth I accepted an awful lot of hairdryers as ray guns. But their ideas of sexual morality, to name one, were vastly different from ours.

      There is probably some intriguing tension between this and my other statement that we need to treat historic dramas as universal. I would be telling you all about that if I was clever.

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  9. My understanding is that you "do violence to a work" if you prevent it from functioning in the way it was designed to. So if it was intended to act as a metaphor for something, and does so because of its setting, then changing the setting and giving the actions a different context means it no longer functions in that way.

    (I disagree that this is usually the case.)

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    1. I suppose the question here is "How do we know what the play was originally designed to do?" and "Why should we care, particularly?" I think that the artistic question "does this make sense?" is important; but the moral one "would Shakespeare have approved of this?" is silly.

      I am pretty sure that the received A level version of most texts goes against what Shakespeare designed them to say. I am pretty sure they were in most cases about contemporary political and moral questions: MacBeth is about succession and heirs and James I's family tree and the existence of witches, not about Greatness and Evil. (I think that this is why, say, King John doesn't get performed very much: it is too clearly about questions of Legitimacy which are simply not interesting to modern audiences.)

      If by "function" you mean "function as a coherent piece of stage craft" then I agree with you: if a production idea stops a play from working as a piece of theater, then it's a bad production idea.

      The bad production ideas are ones that are boring ("what if everyone wore white tunics and stood totally still through the whole scene") unintentionally ridiculous ("he's wearing football kit but holding a spear") obscure ("but why is the dragon sitting in a bath") or which draw attention to themselves unduly (nearly anything involving nudity.)

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  10. Thank you for these posts (and discussions). Very interesting.

    I don't have a strong opinion but I'm curious if you've seen the excellent documentary on Cicely Berry, Voice Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, _Where Words Prevail_

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1053947/

    It offers a number of illustrations of the different ways an actor can prepare for a given role and lines -- from more theatrical to more naturalistic. It very much goes along with your contention that a given production of a play has to have some idea about what it's producing. The text does not speak for itself.

    There's also a discussion about naturalism in theater in _Tea With The Dames_ in which they note that each generation tends to look at the previous generation as deeply mannered and stagey and decides that they want to be more naturalistic (and then becomes the next generation of manners to be rebelled against).

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  12. I hope I can articulate this well, but for me the issue is that is hard to truly set a play in a place and time that contradicts the text. If Hamlet is truly the son of a CEO rather than of a king, then big sections of the text have to be cut, laboriously justified (e.g., Sword as a brand of gun in the Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet), or spoken by the characters yet ignored by them. I guess I concede that in many cases you can choose option 3 and the audience will accept it, but I think sometimes an overly drastic setting change can make nonsense of the text.

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    1. The West Side Story/Throne of Blood method of rewriting the text from scratch can also often fail (not least because most adapters can hardly touch Kurosawa or Sondheim, let alone Shakespeare), but I think I prefer it.

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