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.

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