It’s All Brecht to Me…

*(I am not sure if W refers to Helen Weigel or Carl Weber; B, I assume, is Brecht)

In Brecht’s ‘Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus‘ (1953, trans Willett, 1974), W asks ‘Can we amend Shakespeare?’ (259).  On one level the questioner is asking if *s/he and his/her colleagues in the Berliner Ensemble are capable of amending a Shakespeare play – do they have the translation skills or the subject knowledge? On another level, the are asking if they, as contemporary artists, have the ‘right’ to alter the works of an author of such canonical status.  B replies, ‘ I think we can amend Shakespeare if we can amend him’ (259), by which he means, if we are capable at the skills level of amending Shakespeare then, yes, of course we have the artistic right to so.

Like their early modern counterparts, Brecht and his contemporaries had no qualms about appropriating the classics.  Leopold Jessner, the German Expressionist theatre and film director, went so far as to claim that ‘basically there are neither classic nor modern authors.  From the point of view of the theatre the poet belongs to no generation… Shakespeare, Schiller, Wedekind must be thought of as representatives of this generation as much as the younger writers’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993: 84). He believed that a director must ‘split apart’ the source text and refashion it in the spirit of the times (84).

The avant-garde in early and mid twentieth-century Europe deconstructed classic texts in part because they were iconoclasts, but primarily because classic materials reconfigured were in themselves powerful examples of defamiliarization, or Verfremdung.  Jessner’s, Schiller’s and Brecht’s productions challenged the ways in which audiences responded to once familiar, now defamiliarised material.  Brecht argued against creating a simplistic universalising empathy in audiences towards individualised characters and situations, because according to his Marxist-influenced thinking, empathy supports the status quo.  He summed up this difference between empathetic (dramatic) theatre and defamiliarised (epic) theatre in his 1935 essay ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’:

The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change  – The sufferings of this man appal me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me because they are unnecessary – That’s great art; nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh. (Brecht in Willett, 1974: 71)


Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation: Eastern European Shakespeare

Dennis Kennedy (1993) Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

After the First World War, ‘[w]ithdrawn aestheticism was no longer an appropriate response to the art of the past; suddenly Shakespeare had a new meaning, which derived from the uses the present might have in him’ (82).

I like that word, verb and noun: use. My supervisor wrote a book called Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (William H. Sherman, 2008) about marginalia – the scribblings in books by their readers, which reveal to other readers how these books were ‘used’.

I like the idea that Shakespeare is ‘used’, both in the sense of being found to be of use, but also in the sense of being exploited, being soiled (as in a woman being ‘used goods’), being left carelessly outside in the metaphorical rain.

Kennedy cites Paul Klee, writing in 1915: ‘ the more terrible this world is (as it is today), the more abstract our art’ (83), and European Shakespeare of the mid-century reached heights of abstraction.  Germany, the birthplace of Expressionism, was fertile ground for directors to experiment, overtly bringing together politics and art.  Kennedy paraphrases the beliefs of the influential Jewish socialist theatre and cinema director Leopold Jessner, who worked with Brecht, that ‘the poet’s work is nothing but raw material for the director, who must split apart- today we might say deconstruct – the play and make a new ordering of its elements in staging’ (84).  He goes on to quote Jessner directly:

‘basically there are neither classic nor modern authors.  From the point of view of the theatre the poet belongs to no generation… Shakespeare, Schiller, Wedekind must be thought of as representatives of this generation as much as the younger writers’ (84).

These ideas recur again and again in the writings and performances of the avant-garde from early twentieth-century Europe to the late twentieth-century Far East. Likewise, Brecht favoured the abstract because pictorialism, he would argue, encouraged useless empathy rather than useful rage (see Mumford).

In productions such as Jessner’s 1920 Richard III, in which he worked with the designer Emil Prichan, Jessner used emblematic and deliberately obvious scenography: his enormous red staircase, now iconic, ‘disdained historical evocation in favour of symbol’ (Kennedy, 1993: 84).  They also relied on ‘strategy of colour’ and other scenographic devices, to carry the ‘burden of the production’ (85).

Jessner’s technique was called Motivtheater. Everything that didn’t support the central intellectual motif of his productions were reduced to “incidentals” to be discarded  (88). He wasn’t interested in ‘character development, psychological ambiguity, and narrative complexity’ because they didn’t contribute to his vision of ‘the abstract scene of mythic events’ (88) in which ‘the sensitive individual [was] crushed by the mindless machine of authority’ (92). He eventually had to flee Germany, of course.

Shakespeare wasn’t only big in Germany, however, but throughout central Europe.  My friend, Paweł Jędrzejko, from the University of Silesia, likes to (ex)claim that ‘Hamlet, my darlings, is a Polish play.’ I’ve written on this connection between the ‘use’ of Shakespeare and the assertion of national identity before.  Kennedy notes that ‘at various times the Czarist censor banned [Shakespeare’s] plays in Warsaw because they contained too many incidents of rebellion’ (96). Many of the papers at the Worldwide Hamlet conference in Craiova last year focussed on how ‘the first extended translation projects in [Romanian, Ukrainian], Czech, Hungarian and Polish were connected with the rise of indigenous drama’ (97).

Most interestingly for me, thinking of huaju although Kennedy is writing of Europe, is his assertion that ‘The independence granted by the Treaty of Versailles was seized by theatre artists as an unprecedented opportunity to apply avant-garde methods to the new nationalist stages, and in the years between the wars Shakespeare would become and important force in this larger movement’ (97).

Shakespeare performance/performance archives: what we (think) we see

Dennis Kennedy (1993) ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

There are several ideas in the opening chapter of this book which I have already thought about and written about – most obviously, of course, that ‘Visual fashions and gestural codes change swiftly, and are connected to place as well as time’ (Kennedy, 1993: 4). My case studies look specifically at how productions ‘have been manufactured for a specific geographical and sociopolitical audience’ (4).  In terms of revivals, I may explore how and why they may have needed ‘visual refreshening’ and whether or not ‘eventually they will lose their significant connections to the culture or the moment they invoke’ (4).

However, obvious as it now seems, I hadn’t really considerred the ‘authenticity’ or not of the production stills I have looked at, nor of the set designs! To what extent do visual records of performance convey information about the ‘original’ performance?

Drawings and paintings made ‘after the fact’ are, like memoirs and eyewitness accounts, fascinating but not necessarily ‘reliable’: ‘The eye brings with it what it sees’ (Allardyce Nicoll in Kennedy, 19) – and apparently, the eye doesn’t see half of what is there, blind to ‘certain conventionalized aspects of scenography’ (19). Yet photographs must tell the truth – mustn’t they? Photographs are particularly problematic for early to mid-twentieth century performances.  Kennedy tells the story of 1930s society photographer, Angus McBean, just before the end of his career.  He had been asked to photograph Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which was the opening production of the National Theatre (21). Due to circumstances beyond his control, he used a small camera ‘to shoot during dress rehearsals – common practice in most theatres today, but disturbing to [McBean’s] normal sense of composition. “Alas never properly photographed,” he wrote on an envelope containing the pictures’ (23).

Many production photographs actually tell us more about the conventions of the day for photography or advertising than for performance.  The photographers [artists in their own right] would create their own compositions, with their own lighting and their own ideas of what was ‘photogenic’ in terms of blocking, gesture etc etc (16-24). This is also true of contemporary shots: ‘Most theatre pictures have been made not for archives but for publicity’ (20), and again, publicity shots do not necessarily require ‘veracity’ in terms of poses or blocking arrangements.

‘Any moment a photo can show, even if it is an accurate moment, is necessarily a deception, for it is an image of time stopped. Photos, Sontag claims, cannot explain anything by themselves. This is why they are “inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”‘ (24).

Thus pictures need other corroborating evidence available to theatre researchers (17): films/videotapes/DVDs, set and costume designs, ‘eyewitness accounts, memoirs, promptbooks, manifestos’, programmes, reviews.  Designs, for example, ‘can convey through graphic technique some elements of staging that are poorly captured on film, like full stage views, or effects of changing scenes, or the dimensionality of non-proscenium acting spaces.  They have particular stature as costume records, where they can suggest characterization, indicate colour and tailoring details, and even show fabric samples’ (17).  In fact, there seems to be only one problem with them: ‘they are often not followed in production’!!!!

Kennedy notes that, in scholarship on Western theatre at least, the literary is privileged over the visual not only because writers (reviewers, historians) find interest primarily in words, but also because ‘there is perhaps a deeper anxiety in some minds about the visual, based on a fear that it can overcome the rational aspects of language and character with an appeal too direct and powerful to deny’ (5).  He dates this back to Aristotle:

‘The Greeks called the theatre a “seeing place”, but from Aristotle on there has been a critical suspicion about the visual qualities of performance […]The “spectacle” or visual aspect of production, Aristotle held, can have “strong emotional effect but is the least artitic element but is the least artistic element, the least connected with poetic art.”‘ (5)

Kennedy also cites Peter Hall: ‘The English suspect the visual delights of the theatre […] The puritan distrust of emblems, of representation by symbol and artifice, is a recurrent national neurosis’ (6).

However, for me, as an intercultural spectator looking at intercultural Shakespeare, what I see is (nearly) everything.

Contemporizing Shakespeare: 20th Century Trends

Dennis Kennedy (1993) Looking at Shakespeare: a visual history of twentieth-century performance Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

I have to confess that Dennis Kennedy, along with Li Ruru, is one of my favourite writers in this area, primarily because he writes beautifully.  His ‘thick description’ brings time and place and production into three dimensions, so much so that sometimes I feel as if I could have been there.

Kennedy’s book opens with a description of Michael Bogdanov’s 1978  RSC The Taming of the Shrew, in which a drunken, misogynistic Sly/Petruchio/Jonathan Pryce, in an historicist attack on ‘period’ interpretations and much to the alarm of the unsuspecting audience, tears down Chris Dyer’s uncharacteristically authentic painted backdrop of Renaissance Padua . ‘This production used scenography not only to establish environment and atmosphere but also to create a complicated theatrical signifier of its thematic approach’ (Kennedy, 1993: 3).  Kennedy argues that by forcing the audience to reject any ideas that this was a play about 15th Century Italy, they had to confront its ‘challenges for late twentieth-century society’ and ‘the more subtle sexism of the modern world’ (3):

‘This strategy required the audience to deconstruct the visual texts in their minds, for in order to understand the meaning of the production it was necessary to understand the oppositional meaning of the two sets.  The scenography, therefore, was a visualisation of Brecht’s “Not…but” process: not then but now, not illusion but truth, not painted perspective but hard iron railings, not Serlio but Dyer. And, a traditionalist might add, not Shakespeare but Bogdanov’ (3). 

Brecht’s ‘not…but’ means that the actor, or in this case the scenographer , expresses what is not happening/being said/being shown through what is happening/being said/being shown.  This means that the audience is always aware of an alternative: if an actor says ‘You’ll pay for that’ he is not saying ‘I forgive you’ (Brecht ed Willet, 1974: 137).

Kennedy is not a traditionalist, and this book often explores  how innovative twentieth-century directors, producers and designers made  the ‘connections between scenography and general performance style’ produce meaning for contemporary audiences (5), many of which were in the non-Anglophone world.  These connections were often highly politicised, particularly in the inter-war period or post-war Eastern Europe:

‘Unprecedented  slaughter, the dislocation of the old order, and the breakdown of traditional moral values, which brought political turmoil and revolution to much of middle and Eastern Europe, also brought extreme artistic experimentation and a  reevaluation of the classics. Withdrawn aestheticism was no longer an appropriate response to the art of the past; suddenly Shakespeare had new a meaning, which derived from the uses the present might find in him.’ (82)

From ‘unregenerately male’ German Expressionism during the rise of Fascism, in which ‘the anguished cry of the oppressed hero demanded a scenography of distortion, a subjective extension of his terrifying inner state’ (83), to the ‘proletarian utility’ (93) of Socialist Constructivism, which revised its scenography to reflect ‘its revised view of humanity’ as  ‘the machine assumed the status of great social force, the model of not only the new person, but of the new order itself’, Kennedy reflects on how the ‘original audience [may have] read and understood the visual signifiers’ in performance (5). This suggests, of course, that those visual signifiers alter meaning, or even cease to have meaning, when removed in time or place or both from these original circumstances.

Kennedy also emphasises the need not to ‘separate the consideration of Shakespeare’s plays from the general movements of theatre history’ (7) nor to detach it ‘from any aesthetic investigation of what the stage does and why’ (8).  This may seem unnecessary advice to today’s readers who are used to Arden 3’s performance analyses (with photos!), and to university students who are encouraged to think of ‘texts’ as performance:  ‘playgoing’ as a ‘non-literary manifestation of the text’ (9).  However, when I did my undergraduate degree at UCL in the late 80s/early 90s our approach to drama was almost entirely close textual analysis.

So what is the significance of this shift? Kennedy again makes a comparison with Brecht, this time his ‘practice of appropriation (Aneignung) of the classics for his own purposes, turning Shakespeare and other earlier dramatists into conveyors of new meanings for the present’ (9). Of course, Brecht’s practice is about overt appropriation, politicised re- writing, deliberate exploitation. However, Kennedy argues that all Shakespeare performances exploit and appropriate to a certain extent, whether this is because it’s been translated into colloquial German, or selected from a modernised edition, or cut by directors. He makes the somewhat debateable claim that ‘How and why this occurs is of small literary consequence’, however is less controversial when he states that these theatrical choices are of ‘great cultural resonace, offering insights about the theatre as a social institution and about the place of classic plays in the world of the present.’  (10)