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).

One thought on “Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation: Eastern European Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Step by Step Richard III: from Jessner to Jonjo. « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

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