Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Actor as Archeologist: Aspects of the Dramaturgy of the Restoration Stage Rediscovered in Performance

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Actor as Archeologist: Aspects of the Dramaturgy of the Restoration Stage Rediscovered in Performance

Article excerpt

In planning our production of William Wycherley's The Country Wife at the State University of West Georgia (directed by Dr. Steven Earnest, sets and lights by Assistant Professor Joel Eis, sumptuous costumes and wigs by Ms. Melanie Evans Parris) our desire was to try to capture something like the rich and bawdy communal performance experience of the Restoration theatre in its own day. This was not as easy to achieve as it might seem because "the evidence for the style of acting in comedy in the Restoration is limited. There is a long history of caricatured acting that modem productions think appropriate to Restoration comedy: their style is based on a misunderstanding of the balance between natural acting and the forms of social artifice" (Holland 57).

Discussions concerning the production needs for a Restoration period play will inevitably move into two major areas: 1) Finding a method for vitalizing the language for both the actor and the audience, and 2) Transposing the manners of a very unique historical period to the manners of our own. It all boils down to the question. "How was Restoration drama actually played and how can we find a method for playing it successfully today?"

Somebody tossed out the idea that in order to give the actors and the audience the feel of the play in its original form perhaps we could design boxes on the stage. The audience could sit in them and we could keep the lights in the auditorium on as they were in theatres of the seventeenth century. This chance remark in our early discussions on staging the play led to a fully realized production concept that was successful beyond our wildest dreams. This idea had a firm basis in dramaturgical practice, particularly for this period because

The physical shape of the theatres, the use of scenery, the casting of the actors and other such details of playhouse activities are the basis from which a concept of a larger "text." a text that has performance as part of its own meaning, rather than a necessary evil, can be understood. ... Conditions of performance affect both the author and the audience. By focusing on the moment of performance, we can rediscover the contact between playwright and audience. (Holland preface, x)

It is therefore possible to view the actors as the true "authors" of the performance experience as whole as they confirmed the tropes of the audience mind set.

We are no longer privy to the crucial information on exactly how the texts of these works were shared with the audience. The published texts of these plays were generated after several performances and so woven into the lines are tropes of presentation/interaction known to the actors who were familiar with the style but not distilled for us as separate stage directions. It is therefore up to actors and directors to find contemporary choices that will make the plays come alive for a modern audience. Yet there is treasure to be found in what dramaturgy can be mined from the texts in terms of the original performance, especially when an approximate performance environment employed for the original text is regenerated for contemporary actors.

In responding to this central concern of translating the text for a modern performance. Dr. Stephen Earnest said. "The thrust of our production had to be establishing the direct relationship betueen the performers and the audience. In a larger sense the show/experience had to be about connecting" (Earnest interview). Key to achieving this emphasis was an attempt to recreate the close relationship between actors and spectators in a different period and within the confines of a proscenium stage with little or no forestage. Dr. Earnest said:

The real challenge of staging a work in this period is capturing the immediacy and frank presentational intent, which were characteristic of pre-fourth wall theatre. The Country Wife was written before the discoveries of Saxe-Meiningen, Stanislavski, and Copeau firmly entrenched realistic acting as the favored style. …

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