Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance.
For the past two decades W. B. Worthen has been the leading theorist of the contemporary performance of Shakespeare. Together with a handful of other scholars he has transformed the study of Shakespeare in the contemporary theater from the last bastion of Bradleyesque character criticism to one of the most sophisticated barometers of the relationship between "Shakespeare" and contemporary culture. He has done so in part by refusing to consider Shakespeare in performance in isolation from the material conditions through which meaning is produced in the theater and in cultural production more generally, and in part by refusing to accept traditional understandings of the theater as merely an interpretative tool for the realization of an idealized and authoritative text.
Worthen's earlier work in this area was primarily concerned with the question of the relative authority of "Shakespeare," "the text," the author function, and performance. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance concerns itself with issues of textuality defined more broadly, and with the performativity, or what Worthen calls the "force," of a broader range of contemporary performance practices that include the theatrical but extend into cultural tourism, film, video, e-mail, and the Internet.
Given these expanded definitional fields, it is surprising that Worthen's latest book's first sentence makes the modest and apparently retrogressive claim--within the field of performance studies--that "this is a book about a small slice of performance: the stage performance of scripted drama" (1). Indeed a central part of the book's stated project is the recuperation of "the stage performance of scripted drama"--particularly Shakespeare in the theater (focusing on the latter's conventions and regimes of behavior)--as performance, with performative force in the contemporary world. This recuperative project directly confronts what Worthen sees as a new anti-theatrical prejudice deriving from a perhaps surprising source: the emerging scholarly hegemony of performance studies grounded in a renewed interest in the work of J. L. Austin (How to Do Things With Words), and manifesting itself in that of Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick (Performativity and Performance), Judith Butler (Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, Excitable Speech, and Antigone's Claim), Sue-Ellen Case (The Domain-Matrix), and a host of other recent volumes.
In his introduction to Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance Worthen convincingly traces the ways in which "the extension of Austin's performativity has tended to rehabilitate the study of performance while reiterating a familiar antipathy toward dramatic theatre" (4). But perhaps surprisingly Worthen himself engages here in detailed analysis of only two theatrical performances, both at the new Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London in the summer of 2000, in the context of such things as the Plimoth Plantation, military reenactments, conference paper presentations, and Internet performativity--more familiar objects of study for performance studies scholars than for Shakespeareans. And Worthen's analysis benefits significantly from performance studies, especially when he turns his attention to the Globe Theatre itself, its citationality, and its regimes of behavior. This is entirely appropriate, since Worthen's fundamental argument is the materialist one that "dramatic performance is conditioned not only from within the theatre, requiring an understanding of the conventional performance practices of a given culture, but also from without: the institutions of performance arise in relation to social and cultural factors, other institutions which define the categories and meanings of performance" (1-2). Worthen is variously strong on conditions within the emerging professional theater and the emerging printing and publishing industries that conditioned the production and dissemination of Shakespeare's plays in his own age--he has discussed elsewhere the regimes of performance that produce meaning in the contemporary theater--but he is at his best here on the contemporary conditions and institutions that shape historical, (inter)cultural, and hypertextual performance and its meanings, or "force."
The book opens with a chapter-length introduction that critiques the literary bias of accounts of the performative, explores ways in which the performative might be refigured to account more adequately for theatrical performance, and argues for attention to the practices of performance and the divergence between the materiality of print and the ideologies of print culture. The first section of this introduction lays the groundwork for the remainder of the book by providing a brief and convincing critique of the ways in which theories of performativity deriving from Austin--like so much traditional literary and "dramatic" criticism before it--regard theatrical performance as the straightforward citation or interpretation of the dramatic text, and thereby discount the independent performative force of theater. The second makes excellent use of Judith Butler's work on hate speech and the don't-ask-don't-tell policy of the US military on homosexuality to rethink the force of writing in performance. The section focuses crucially on the ways in which the act of utterance in the theater exceeds the authority of the dramatic text and "calls into practice an available regime of social relationships" (12):
Dramatic performance is not determined by the text of the play: it strikes a much more interactive, performative relation between writing and the spaces, places, and behaviors that give it meaning, force, as theatrical action. Far from governing the shape and meaning of performance, writing is given its significance in performance by the range of its possible uses, by the various social and theatrical conventions that transform it from language into action, behavior. (12, emphases in original)
Thus understood, "a performance of Hamlet is not a citation of Shakespeare's text, but a transformation of it" (13).
Worthen proceeds brilliantly to interrogate the interrelationships among print, performativity, and the ideology of print culture, using the performative as a way to understand dramatic performance without "pulling performance back into a print-inflected understanding of drama and theatre" (13). Drawing productively on Sue-Ellen Case's The Domain-Matrix and defining performativity as "the lived, behavioral ethics and practices of a conventionalized regime of performance" (17), Worthen traces the history of the variable relationship between forms of textuality and modes of embodiment, and between the institutions of publishing and professional theater, arguing that "the ways we use writing 'performatively' are changing," but "have always been changing," and that "[t]he performative dimension of the theatre's work ... is the condition of drama" (21): "Far from guiding, controlling, authorizing the performance, writing is subject in critical ways to its labor" (23).
From this introduction, Worthen proceeds in each of the book's subsequent chapters to trace the performative dialogue between writing and enactment in a different way. The first asks in what sense a contemporary production of a Shakespeare play might be understood to be meaningfully engaged with Shakespeare, with Shakespeare's "characters," or with history: it asks, "can performance enable a text's past meanings to speak?" (38). Worthen begins with Michael Bristol's efforts in Big Time Shakespeare to ground the ongoing historicity of Shakespeare's work in material continuities linking the professions of printing and theatrical production of Shakespeare's day to those of our own, but finds in Bristol's thinking a residual dependence on an understanding of theatrical production as "derivative creativity" (37), evoking a force that is somehow understood to be intrinsic to a dramatic text.
Worthen goes on to assess the historcizing capacity of dramatic performance in two ways. First, he tackles the relationships, the relative authorities, and the problematically traditional dualism of orality and literacy, writing and the performative, in the histories of dramatic literature and the theatricality of Western theater (deconstructing these binaries through considerations of the uses of texts and the practices of literacy). Worthen exposes some of the ways in which early print culture was reliant on oral transmission, on reading aloud, on memory, and on other interpretative practices that stand outside of the iterative logic of print. He examines literary practices that are embedded in oral uses, including such things as the history of punctuation and rhetorical "pointing," and he moves toward an analysis of theatrical practice as something that does not, like print (for which memory is a corrupting influence), claim to transmit texts, but uses memory (the memorization of lines) to transform texts into behavior. "Texts," he observes, "are subject to the tactics of their readers, tactics that necessarily obey a discursive, instrumental logic that lies well outside the text" (53). In the case of the theater that logic lies in the institutions of the theater itself, its practices and its traditions. "Rather than expressing a 'derivative creativity,'" Worthen argues, "performance registers the application of a pragmatic reading strategy, a 'performative' literacy that uses the text for its own systematic purposes" (57).
Worthen's second strategy for the assessment of the historicizing capacity of performance takes him to a discussion of a hot topic: the nature of "the subject" in early modern drama, and its relationship to the regimes of contemporary filmic and theatrical constructions of "character"--"where the behavioral citationality of performance most directly challenges the theatre's ability to recover or restore historicity" (59). Worthen takes us from Bloom (Shakespeare invented the human as we know it) through Frances Barker (the privacy of the bourgeois subject is an invention of the revolution of capital following the revolutionary war) to Hugh O'Grady, Bruce Smith, and finally Joseph Roach, and sensibly concludes that "acting responds more directly to changing social behavior than to changing ways of reading classical texts" (65). He proceeds, in a subsection entitled "Enter Will Kemp" (evoking a stage direction in Romeo and Juliet that perhaps revealingly calls forth the actor rather than the role he played), to survey the performative frames of some contemporary "Shakespeare" films, focusing on the ways in which their acting styles and period settings played themselves out in the representation of the historical continuities, articulated by Bristol, with which the chapter began. Thus, for example, Branagh's Henry V conflates realistic period design with "present-tense realism" in its acting (69), while Julie Taymor's Titus, insisting on the interchangeable significance of material histories, "'assimilates' history itself to the signifier 'Shakespeare'" (73). "If we want the speak with the dead," the chapter concludes (citing Stephen Greenblatt, whose work it engages), "we can only do so through the recalcitrant behavior of the living" (78).
In his second chapter Worthen focuses on a specific site, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, as at once a factory with unique claims to authority for the exploration of the performances presumed to be implicit in Shakespeare's text, and as a tourist destination that participates in and evokes cognate regimes of performance ranging from living-history museums through battlefield reenactments to theme parks, all of which Worthen explores well and in some detail. The Globe most resembles each of these, Worthen says, "in what it sells: a mediated experience of the past in the present" (96): "It is sort of authentic, sort of theme park, tourist dependent, mediated, a Polonian early modern-modernist-postmodern event. In other words, it is our Globe, necessarily part of how we imagine the great (w)hole of history" (103). This established, Worthen sets the Giles Block production of Hamlet at the Globe in 2000, featuring the theater's artistic director, Mark Rylance, against Michael Almereyda's film version of the same year, featuring Ethan Hawke, in a revealing comparative analysis. The "metatheming" experience of Shakespeare's most metatheatrical play at the Globe reconstructs "liveness" and "themes" the space as both theater and living history, making the audience complicit in the performative restoration of "Shakespeare." That is its "force." Almereyda's metafilmic reconstruction of Hamlet, on the other hand, its text heavily cut, rearranged, and filtered through video, implies that "theatre is no longer ... our master trope for interrogating acting, action, and performance" (113).
If chapter 2 examines "Globe performativity" on the south bank, chapter 3 takes a look at different (though not unrelated) contemporary globalizations. The shift from history to geography here is instructive, as Worthen moves from temporal (dis)continuities and the performative appropriation of history to consider the tensions, continuities, contradictions, and appropriations involved in globalization and interculturalism in performance. Taking the broad and accommodating category of "intercultural Shakespeare" as his theme, and as "the signal commodity-form of globalized live dramatic performance today" (25), Worthen here explores "some of the ways in which this kind of performance situates Shakespearean drama in the transnational discourses of travel, tourism, and (post)colonial representation" (25-26). This may be the best chapter in a very good book, both for its theorization of such things as "owning Shakespeare" and for its case studies.
Worthen opens the chapter with an introductory consideration of the constructed category of "race" and the questions of casting, discussing "unmarked" ("colorblind casting") and "marked" ("thematized") stagings of race, and concluding that "much as 'race' is a consequence of global economic, political, and cultural systems, so "race" is a crucial signifier in an increasingly globalized discourse of Shakespearean performance" (121). The first section of the chapter, noting Shakespeare's participation in "the commodity universalism of global capital, explores the relationships among "three related terms: the globalized market for Shakespeare, the intercultural performance that is its dominant commodity form, and the colonial and post-colonial history that is its animating critical and political context" (123, emphases in original). Worthen brilliantly teases out the complexities of these relationships. He notes the tensions between productive postcolonial critique of the colonizing roles of literature, Shakespeare, and the educational apparatus in postcolonial societies, and the homogenizing problematics of a kind of generalized, or globalized condition of postcoloniality. He similarly notes the challenges involved in intercultural performance, focusing on the familiar controversies over Peter Brook's appropriative interculturalism in The Mahabharata, in which the potential for dialogic understanding dissolves into a familiarly accommodating (Western) universalism. Finally he turns to the cultural logic of globalization and its equally appropriative transformation of culturally specific style, ritual, and working methods into saleable commodities. In spite of his cautionary critiques, however, Worthen wants to hold on to the possibilities for a productive interculturalism, one that is neither "a Disneyfied appropriation of the local nor a festive utopia of world theatre" (132). But the terms in which he expresses this desire begin to reveal the difficulty and tentative provisionality of the enterprise: "I think we want to retain the possibility that performance forms and practices can, on some occasions, retain their history, a critical ability to re-member a past that is sometimes outside the script of dominant "history" (132-33, my emphases). Note the problematic work performed in this sentence by that potentially appropriative "we": who is this "we" anyway, and how did I get included in it?
Worthen proceeds down the only avenue open to such inquiry: the analysis of specific case studies. The two he chooses are apt: Baz Luhrman's interracial, intercultural, global/local 1996 Shakespearean film William Shakespeare's Romeo +Juliet, and Romeu e Julieta, performed by the rural Brazilian company from the Minas Gerais, Grupo Galpao, at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in July 2000 as part of the Globe's "Globe-to-Globe" season designed "to explore the impact of Shakespeare on other cultures" (151). The brilliant and appreciative analyses of the two productions are too detailed and complex to rehearse in detail here, but Worthen's sensitivity to place, race, culture, and colonialism (not to mention the global circulation of performance techniques and vocabularies) is exemplary. The short version is that "[w]hile Romeo + Juliet allegorizes the commodification of Shakespearean drama on the global market, Romeu e Julieta at the Globe exemplifies the multiple, often contradictory force of intercultural performance in fashioning a global Shakespeare" (149). And after a great deal of careful teasing out of meanings-in-context, Worthen concludes that "[f]or all their inability to reflect an authentic Shakespeare, these productions do point to something out there" (168, emphasis in original):
They point to most immediately to the alienated character of "universal" Shakespeare, to the necessary loss of an ineffable Shakespeare in the power of the performative to reveal, rewrite, and reembody new meanings, new "Shakespearean" force. They point, that is, to "other" Shakespeares.... (168)
If the shift from chapter 2 to 3 was from history to geography (or space), that from chapter 3 to 4 is from space to cyberspace, though that shift marks a return to the question of drama's position at the intersection of writing and performance. Here Worthen considers the very different ways in which hypertext and hypermedia might intervene (and so far have intervened) in the text/performance paradigm to alter the conditions of Shakespearean textuality and performativity. "How," he asks, "is 'Shakespeare' situated on the [computer] screen, as at once a body of texts and as something you do with texts, to texts, a kind of performance?" (26). To answer this Worthen first takes the reader through a kind of close reading of the technologies of hypertext and its relationships to print, performance, and performativity. The premise of his first section, "Embodying Hypertext," is that "to the extent that dramatic performance arises between writing and enactment, any transformation of the technologies of writing holds the potential to alter our understanding of dramatic performativity" (175). Working from this premise, and from his argument in earlier chapters that the uses, and the materializing and interpretative practices of print (including theatrical ones), are often at odds with the legitimating claims of print ideology (durability, repeatability, and authority), Worthen analyzes the various legitimating (and liberating) claims that have been made for hyptertext, which is often said to emphasize the impermanence and changeablility of text. Acknowledging that hypertext is certainly a new way of writing, he asks whether it is really a new way of reading. He finds that, in many cases, in demystifying print's operations and the god-like authority of the author, hypertext can operate, like television, as a site of illusory choice, (re)mystifying the networks of authority that are betrayed by its own industrial and military origins. While many claims have been made for the computer's resistance to capitalist forms of production and subjection, computer technology, as Worthen demonstrates, is fully implicated in the dispersion of global capital today. "The internet," he notes, is "a gated community" (198).
But as he did with the technologies of print culture, Worthen distinguishes here between the properties of hypertext and the uses that we make of if, considering "reading" to be a performative practice that operates outside of the text itself, even outside of hypertext. When he turns to his case study, "cyber-Shakespeare," asking "what does cyber-Shakespeare do?" (196), Worthen finds himself confronted with the fact that, although "online there are millions and millions of Shakespeare's served," the electronic media have had "a surprisingly conservative effect" on the understanding of scripted drama" (197): "to encounter Shakespeare online is to encounter a densely textualized object" (198). For anyone who has surfed the Shakespearean net it takes no ghost from cyperspace to tell us this. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that he discovers that most internet Shakespeare represents performance, including Internet performance "less as a means of constituting meaning than as a means of realizing it" (208), Worthen's walk through About Shakespeare, Internet Shakespeare Editions, and The Interactive Shakespeare Project is instructive, offering insights, for example, into the ways in which internet postings of primary documents tend to flatten out the material life of writing and printing (such as the texture of the paper, the size of the book, and the quality of the binding), and noting some of the ways in which hotlinked annotation, participating in the interactive economy of hyperlinked relations, differs from, say, the subordinate relationship of footnotes to text in print editions. In the end he comes to the conclusion that,
Much as even reading involves a number of disintegrative practices ... theatrical performance necessarily multiplies and disperses the text; it requires actors to move through the writing, decompose and recompose the play in the register of speech and movement, psychology and motive, the elaborate evanescent textuality of a meaningful social action, a theatrical performance. Rather than rendering the text less stable and coherent, hypertext in this sense perhaps approaches the performative by more openly situating the text on the permeable horizon of performance, where meanings arise from what we do to texts in order to make something from them. (212-13, emphasis in original)
This is an important book, one that moves the theorizing of "Shakespeare in performance" forward in very significant ways. Reviewers, of course, always have wish lists, and I have mine: given his opening promise to write about "the stage performance of scripted drama" I would love to have seen Worthen model more close readings of specific scenes, moments, or aspects of particular Shakespearean scripts in specific theatrical productions, demonstrating how specific meanings are produced in the process of the performative transformation of scripted moments through the invocation of the contemporary regimes of performance about which he writes. Exactly what cultural work might a particular performative moment do? And I would love to have seen him take on a slightly wider range of contemporary regimes of performance--especially those of television and video, which strike me as even more significant than those of, say, historical reenactment.
But there is no question that Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance succeeds brilliantly in its larger purposes--the consideration of how attitudes and behaviors outside the text shape what that text does as performance, and specifically the exploration of the ways in which particular contemporary regimes of performance (the performative practices of history and historiography, of public entertainments, of globalized interculturalism, and of the Internet) model different ways of making texts meaningful. This is the most significant contribution to the combined fields of Shakespeare and performance studies since Worthen's own Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. It should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the field.
Reviewer: RIC KNOWLES