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)

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