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Alan C. Dessen. Rescripting Shakespeare: the Text, the Director, and Modern Productions.

Alan C. Dessen. Rescripting Shakespeare: The Text, the Director, and Modern Productions.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xii + 268 pp. index, append. $65. ISBN: 0-521-81029-9.

Courtney Lehmann. Shakespeare Remains: Theater to Film, Early Modern to Postmodern.

Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. xiv + 265 pp. + 10 b/w pls. index, illus. bibl. $42.50 (cl), $18.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8014-3974-4 (cl), 0-8014-8767-6 (pbk).

Alan C. Dessen's Rescripting Shakespeare exhaustively examines the different kinds of cuts, consolidations, alterations, insertions, and interpolations that today's directors regularly make to the received text when staging plays by Shakespeare. It provides an encyclopedic catalogue of such directorial choices made in hundreds of theatrical productions that the author has attended over the past twenty-five years. I envy him both his memory and whatever record keeping system he used to record and reference these choices. Dessen writes that he takes "much flak from theatrical professionals, academic colleagues, and fellow playgoers for my note-taking habits at intervals or after shows" (235). His persistence has been rewarded in this volume. This book offers particular value for directors working with American regional Shakespeare theaters and festivals because Dessen draws many of his examples from these productions.

Besides its great potential value to theater practitioners, Rescripting Shakespeare may also be of interest to scholars pursuing theoretical work in performance studies. Throughout the book, Dessen uses examples of specific choices made by directors in performance to frame and formulate questions of both practical and theoretical import: "Why privilege Shakespeare and his 'intentions' anyway" (5)? "At what point does the director take over the function of the playwright? Wherein lies the line between adjustment-improvement and adaptation-translation?" (93), and "Who is to decide?" (135). Dessen asks these questions but does not attempt to answer them. In lamenting this absence of a unified theory, Dessen writes "I lack the insights that would enable me to descend from Mount Sinai to deliver the reader of these plays to the promised land" (167). Rather, the reader of this book, whether scholar or theater practitioner, must find his or her own answers, a task made easier, however, by the author's carefully considered formulation of these questions.

The potential value of Rescripting Shakespeare at times becomes limited by an awkward organization of its material. Chapters 1-6 are organized not by the plays or productions discussed but rather by categories of indicated directorial changes. Unfortunately, the distinctions between these categories are sometimes murky, leading to an occasional redundancy. For example, the issue of what should be done with swords and other antique weaponry in productions of Othello set in later time periods (an issue of great interest to both directors and fight choreographers) is addressed three times. While discussed in chapter 1 under the heading of" ... price tags, trade-offs, and economies," in chapter 5 it appears under "Rescripting final scenes," and in chapter 6 under "Rescripting stage directions and actions" (11,120, 137). These segments, while not identical, are similar enough to give the reader an unwelcome sense of deja vu. It might have been better to organize the copious material of this book into chapters dealing with individual plays or groups of plays. The potential efficacy of this approach becomes apparent in chapters 7-8 where Dessen details, respectively, the perils and process of condensing the three parts of Henry VI, as well as the textual choices faced by directors attempting to reconcile material from the 1594 Taming of a Shrew and the 1623 Taming of the Shrew into a single performance text. These two chapters are much more neatly organized than those cited above, allowing the reader to understand better Desseo's theoretical arguments, as well as to appreciate the specific examples he cites from various productions.

While the organization of its material remains at times less than user-friendly, Rescripting Shakespeare constitutes a valuable resource for theater practitioners and may aid scholars pursuing theoretical work in performance studies.

In Shakespeare Remains, Courtney Lehman establishes a connection between Shakespeare as an early modern dramatist and contemporary filmmakers adapting his plays for the cinema through an examination of their respective historical relationships to the postmodern notion of the "Death of the Author" (2). Lehman argues that while Shakespeare lived and worked before the development of the critical notion of a single "author" for a given work of literature (a development Lehman dates to the eighteenth century), today's filmmakers live and work after the death of this same concept at the hands of Roland Barthes in 1968. Shakespeare therefore wrote as today's filmmakers do, within a creative paradigm that refuses to privilege a single "author" of a work, instead acknowledging an inherently collaborative mode of production that embraces the tensions between "authors and apparatuses" (16). Lehman relates this shared mode of production to the film theory notion of the "auteur." This notion constitutes a "third term" between "The Author" and "The Text" that emerges from the "fortuitous collision" between writers and performance practitioners (17, 237). The conditions of authorship or "auteurship" for an early modern playmaker thereby involved tensions similar to those faced by contemporary filmmakers creating cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare Remains clearly states this intriguing thesis, first exploring it through a series of chapters that examine notions of authorship represented within the received texts of Shakespeare's plays. The first of these examines Romeo and Juliet's obsession with metaphors and references to "the book" (28). Lehman credits this obsession to Romeo and Juliet's uncommon debt among Shakespeare's plays to a single literary source, Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. This chapter is perhaps best appreciated when read alongside a later chapter that discusses the resurfacing of material in Baz Luhrman's film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet from Brooke's verse narrative, which was omitted from Shakespeare's play. These chapters should be required reading for anyone concerned with the textual "authenticity" of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare.

Another chapter discusses the manner in which alternating scenes in A Mid-summer Night's Dream create a "montage," which juxtaposes two conflicting Elizabethan paradigms of theatrical authorship: the "players' theatre" of Bottom and the "author's theatre" of Oberon (69). In what I found to be the least convincing chapter in an otherwise excellent work, Lehman reads Hamlet as a precursor to cinematic theory by identifying what she perceives as expressions within the received text of the playwright's desire to transcend the conventions of the Elizabethan stage and create a more cinematic narrative form.

Shakespeare Remains' concluding chapters examine the tensions and influences that impact postmodern "auteurship" by addressing the efforts of contemporary filmmakers in adapting the life and works of Shakespeare to the screen. Two of these chapters focus on the work of Kenneth Branagh. In the first, Lehman develops an ingenious postcolonial interpretation of Branagh's films based on what she reads as the filmmaker's desire to transcend his colonial northern Irish birth identity by recreating himself as a "quintessentially English" Shakespeare icon (173). The second chapter devoted to Branagh further explores this vision of the filmmaker as a self-loathing Irishman by examining Branagh's shabby treatment of the Irish captain Macmorris in his film adaptation of Henry V. Shakespeare Remains' final chapter presents an unabashedly Marxist critique of Shakespeare in Love, exposing the late-capitalist celebration of consumption and the exploitation of women as sexual labor, as an ongoing social subtext running below the surface of this Hollywood love story.

While written in the language of theory, Shakespeare Remains nonetheless provides readers of Shakespeare and performance practitioners with an accessible critical perspective that links the literary body of Shakespeare's received texts to contemporary film adaptations of his plays.


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Author:Falocco, Joe
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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