Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Re-Viewing Acts

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Re-Viewing Acts

Article excerpt

How is't possible to suffice So many Ears, so many Eyes? ... How is't possible to please Opinion tos'd in such wilde Seas? Thomas Middleton, 1613 (Field 43)

You have discovered a perishable treasure, and it is imperative to share it with other people before it fades.... You have only one chance to get it right ... and there is nothing more important in the world than finding words to fix the image that has disclosed the hidden life of the text.

Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism, 1992 (79-80)

What is entailed in re-viewing a play, re-performing a performance past? How does one make the disappeared performance reappear in print? And how do we think about our roles as reviewers of Shakespearean performances? The essays in this issue are deeply concerned with such questions, whether that means re-membering past performances from documentary evidence, examining the reviewer's dilemma, meditating on watching a rehearsal, querying the dynamics of sight and sound, or looking (back) at a critical text.

The contributors all were participants at "Watching Ourselves Watching Shakespeare"--an international conference on performance and spectatorship held at the University of Michigan, 10-11 November 2006, planned to coincide with the final weekend of a three-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which staged three productions: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest) Open to the public, the conference drew some 400 auditors over two days. This was not a "one-off" event but one that built on and continued conversations begun at "Shakespeare: Remembering Performance," the Inaugural Conference for the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Notre Dame (4-5 November 2004), which resulted in a book, Shakespeare, Memory and Performance, edited by the conference organizer, Peter Holland (Cambridge University Press, 2006). A third conference, to be held at the University of Warwick in conjunction with the CAPITAL Centre, will continue the series.

The brief circulated to conference speakers posed the following questions: How do we process performance? To what are we attentive? How do we record what we hear and see? What matters? How do we use such documents? What is the place of performance memory as written discourse in the project of Shakespeare performance studies? And how might we go about putting the eye/I back into the analysis and theorization of performance? Participants were invited to address--or ignore--these questions in whatever ways were of particular interest to them. Like the papers published in the previous issue of Shakespeare Bulletin, these build into an ongoing conversation about histories of Shakespearean looking (Barthes 16).

To frame that conversation, I want to think about review discourse itself--perhaps the most predictable, rigidly formulaic genre of writing about theatre, and a foundational discourse of "performance criticism"--the tried and true beginnings of what we now are beginning to rethink more expansively as Shakespeare performance studies. Glance at the section of any journal that prints theatre reviews, and a pattern begins to emerge: describe the set and costumes; praise/damn central performers; assess directorial concept; single out one, possible two, moments that seem especially memorable--and you've done your job. You're not given much space, so you have to compress the performance to index-card size, slotting it away for all time. If you're lucky, you may hear about the reviewer's penchant for certain kinds of performed Shakespeare, her or his take on textual fidelity or/and on this performance in relation to other performances of the play. And if you're really lucky, what you'll get is a snapshot portrait of time and space, a slice through culture.

How does a performance "work" on us? If we have seen the performance, we can, of course, speak for ourselves, but for the "unseen" staging, our knowledge of how that performance "hit" its original auditors and spectators depends entirely on what the theatre critic says--it is to his or her voice we turn, as historians, hoping to find one, perhaps two or three, pieces that tell us what it was like to be there. …

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