Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Audiences Writing Race in Shakespeare Performance

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Audiences Writing Race in Shakespeare Performance

Article excerpt

How do we know if an audience sees color? Sometimes, of course, the written record makes race-conscious reception explicit. When African American Ira Aldridge played Othello on the London stage, for example, his most critical reviews reflected nineteenth-century Britain's anti-black ideologies in largely the way that contemporary critics might expect. (1) Yet documented reactions are not always so clear. In 1833, the same year that Aldridge performed Othello at Covent Garden, actor-manager Charles Macready became one of the first to "brown up" the actress playing Cleopatra in his production of Antony and Cleopatra; but this racialized choice, Celia Daileader notes, did not provoke a strong reaction from reviewers. Nor did it change theatrical custom for representing the role, despite the fact that Edmund Kean's similarly "tawny face" had set a new trend for Othellos in 1814. (2) Similarly, when Roger Livesey became the first known actor to "black up" to play Caliban at the Old Vic in 1934, Trevor Griffiths notes that his choice of makeup excited "virtually no critical comment," even though representations of Caliban as black or indigenous were by this time widely available in cartoons and critical essays. (3)

Such curious moments, when spectators seem incurious about the meaning of race on stage, can pose problems for one of the dominant approaches to Shakespeare reception studies, which I think of as the "remaking Shakespeare in our own image" narrative. According to this theory, each age restages a Shakespeare play to represent its own particular preoccupations, so that there is a reflective relationship between cultural surroundings and theatrical performance. What happens offstage should register onstage, and the prevailing performance tradition of the moment should mirror its historical milieu. (4) This theory has helped produce many important studies of Shakespeare performance, because it is good at making certain things visible: namely, resemblances (places where stage signifiers seem similar to the signifiers used in other cultural contexts), parallel trajectories (places where shifts in performance practice seem to happen in tandem with other historical or aesthetic developments), and confirmation of predicted measurements (places where spectator response seems to provide corroborating evidence for existing historical narratives).

Yet this reflective approach to performance history can also make other things harder to see: especially those places where a Shakespeare production does not seem to have prompted the critical response that its social context would suggest. (5) If scholars begin by looking for a correspondence between a theater event and its time period, the performances that receive the most analysis will tend to be those that either comfortably fit or clearly contradict the historical narratives we expect to see mirrored on stage. If the reflection looks incoherent or opaque, that production may go unnoticed. Or, it may end up having its strangeness flattened by analytical filters aimed at enhancing visibility and symmetry.

In this essay, I gather some ongoing conceptual shifts in Shakespeare performance studies that I believe can help make sense of these opaque performances without trying to clear them up. While difficult to assimilate into traditional theater histories, productions that provoke unexpected audience responses can offer fruitful sites for analyzing a feature of stage Shakespeare that is itself inconsistent: the significance of race on stage. Indeed, "[t]he exact significance of an actor's race is perpetually in flux," Ayanna Thompson argues, "because we as a society have not been able to pinpoint a stable signification for race." (6) Given this fluctuation, I suggest that a reflective approach may not always be the best tool for understanding the role of race in Shakespeare performance. Taking up Thompson's call to develop methodologies that address the intersection between reception studies and critical race studies, I track three current shifts in these fields that have the potential to turn spots of imperfect visibility from an obstacle into an opportunity. …

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