Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 1916-2016.
By Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead, with Ailsa
Grant Ferguson, Kate Flaherty, and Mark Houlahan
London and New York: Bloomsbury Arden
Timeliness is a difficult goal to achieve in academic publishing, although it is one that would seem to rarely apply in Shakespeare studies, where the mantra of our subject's timelessness usually inures scholars against some of the harsh realities of the publishing marketplace. An obvious exception to this is publishing books that may be made marketable on the basis of their ability to capitalize on one of the occasional milestones in commemoration of the life and death of Shakespeare. Antipodal Shakespeare appears to set itself up as a book that will consider not just one, but two, such milestones, as it announces its interest in commemoration across the century spanning from the tercentenary celebrations of 1916 to the quatercentenary or worldwide "Shakespeare 400" celebrations of 2016. Yet readers expecting that the book is banking on its timeliness in relation to the Shakespeare 400 milestone will be disappointed. The introduction does include some discussion of 2016, but the editors Gordon McMullan and Philip Mead answer the question of how the Quatercentenary remembrance compared with the events of a century earlier by conceding: "It is, in many ways, too soon to say" (17). With the book being finished in February 2017, the editors claim the events of 2016 are still "too close ... for any adequate perspective" (17). The book had, of course, been some time in the making: it had its origins in an Australia Research Council Discovery project "Monumental Shakespeares: a transcultural investigation of commemoration in twentieth-century England and Australia" (2010 to 2012). It is thus hard to imagine why, when the book was conceived, or when the publishing contract for a 2018 release was secured, or during 2016 as the book was in preparation, neither editors nor publisher recognized that a contributor might be tasked with offering the adequate perspective on 2016 that the book's title would seem to demand.
Despite being curiously untimely, Antipodal Shakespeare does reward the reader prepared to join with the contributors in forgetting 2016 in order to better remember a more distant past. The book posits an "antipodal" framework to focus on the interdependent relationship of local interests in British and Australasian societies, reminding us that there would have been no imperial project constituting Britain's place in the world without its antipodean outposts. This antipodal framework is well fitted to the study of the Tercentenary commemorations of 1916, coinciding as they did with the Great War in which the ANZAC legend was formed.
McMullan and Mead begin their introduction by reminding readers that in the Tercentenary year, Australian and New Zealand soldiers serving in the European circuit marked April 25 as the first ANZAC day in memory of the beginning of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign on that date a year earlier. The editors compare two very different crowds that poured into London's Waterloo Station on that day, "each of which had that afternoon attended commemorative events of national and cultural significance, one responding to the death of a playwright three hundred years earlier, the other to a military debacle that had taken place only twelve months previously" (2). While the two crowds they describe might seem to be only coincidentally in the same location, their presence becomes emblematic of numerous points of convergence that the following chapters are intended to trace. Antipodal Shakespeare is thus "a relatively brief and focused book, deliberately so" (9), built around "presenting a specific case study, one that connects Shakespeare, war, commemoration, monumentalization, myth-making and nationhood at a precise historical moment, and that follows some of the outworkings of that moment across the past century" (8).
For the most part, the book succeeds in this ambition, as the chronological reach of the five chapters differs only by virtue of what each contributor considers to be the "outworkings" of that precise historical moment. McMullan's opening chapter may not be so evidently invested in the "antipodal" framework of the collection, but it provides a very clear statement of how the Tercentenary "moment" serves to highlight the themes of Shakespeare commemoration, war, and nationhood. He studies the forgotten role played by Israel Gollancz in Tercentenary planning, including the plan to relocate the epicenter of Shakespeare commemoration from Stratford-upon-Avon to London. As back story, McMullan notes the "ongoing, unresolved struggle" between these two locations "for ownership of the Shakespeare industry" (32) had been waged ever since Stratford's two-week festival dominated the 1864 Tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. Gollancz's role in the events of 1916 is shown to have played a major part also in shaping the future of the institutions of Shakespeare commemoration--without Gollancz, he argues, "the histories of the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and even Shakespeare's Globe would have been very different" (32). McMullan argues that the histories of such institutions tend to forget Gollancz in particular and the 1916 events in general because of the intervention of the war, which forestalled Gollancz's plans to build a Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre. Lacking the funds and resources for such a grand venture during wartime, Gollancz instead threw his support behind the construction of the Shakespeare Hut, erected to provide some comfort and a little culture for the soldiers so far away from their homes throughout the Empire. In the grandiose scheme from which the RSC and other such institutions are usually seen to have sprung, the "Hut" would never normally rate a mention.
Only at the end of McMullan's chapter does the antipodal framework make an appearance, in what is perhaps an unnecessary afterthought attempting to position his argument as a natural fit with the broader theme of the collection. At this moment, the singular personal pronoun that had accompanied McMullan's claims throughout is replaced in the final instance by the plural, when he concludes that Gollancz's project "may have been a national one, yet it was always already, we suggest, antipodal--that is, by 1916 Shakespeare had long been the poet not only of nation but also of empire" (60). Such retrofitting of chapter content to book theme seems a little too arbitrary, and in this instance I suggest the chapter had already done a fine job at setting the scene for what follows in the collection. In describing the background to the Shakespeare Hut, McMullan provides valuable context on which the chapters by Ailsa Grant Ferguson and Mark Houlahan build explicitly, and in elaborating in detail on some of the key local ambitions, plans, and disputes behind the Tercentenary commemorations in Britain, the chapter establishes the personal and institutional politics defining one pole of the antipodal relationship, to which the chapters by Kate Flaherty and Philip Mead provide the necessary counterpoint.
The chapters by Ferguson and Houlahan represent, to my mind at least, the highlights of the collection, with their work (and McMullan's) on the Shakespeare Hut arguably providing enough data on which to build an entire book. This alone would have been a commendable project of recovery given that these chapters demonstrate the value of remembering the site. Contrary to the speed with which it was erased from the institutional memory of ANZAC experience and of Shakespeare commemoration, Ferguson provides the broader background story of the creation of the Shakespeare Hut and explains the way it operated as recreation house and performance space that managed to align Shakespeare "for both the wider British public and for its Anzac users, much more with the 'fighting man', its user (son), and the 'caring woman', its volunteer (mother and sister), than with the government or commanding officer (father)" (102). The site represented a strong link to homeland for soldiers serving on foreign soil rather than a site that only encapsulated either imperial or military authority. Houlahan's chapter offers a fascinating insight into the recollections of the Shakespeare Hut by New Zealand servicemen who had been in London during their tours of duty from 1916 to 1919, strengthened in no small part by his opening account of his maternal grandfather's own experiences of service in the war. This account helps to reinforce the tyranny of distance that the European conflict presented to soldiers from the southern hemisphere.
Houlahan's chapter offers a brief "Coda" to bring readers back to the Shakespeare 400 year by discussing the Pop-up Globe that was erected in Auckland from February to May 2016 (140-43). In terms of the antipodal framework of the book, the "Coda" is a valuable addition but must have been a very late one, so late that the index fails to include it in the references to "antipodal" even though it explicitly offers an analysis of the New Zealand productions using the Pop-up Globe as "antipodal Shakespeares" (142) that continue to exist ephemerally and then be forgotten just as quickly. Yet as a coda to Houlahan's fascinating reading of soldiers' experiences and memories of the Shakespeare Hut, I fear the late intrusion of the discussion of the Pop-up Globe risks repeating the problem he had already diagnosed, moving our eyes away from the past just as the project of recovery appeared to have our gaze transfixed on its rich but fading textures. It is a tension felt throughout the collection, and not one I suspect that could or should be easily overcome.
Apart from the shift in that "Coda" to a temporary structure in New Zealand, Mead's and Flaherty's chapters perform the bulk of the work in shifting the geographical focus to acts of commemoration in the southern hemisphere. Mead's chapter deals with the Shakespeare monument first touted by the President of the New South Wales Shakespeare Society, Henry Gullett, in 1909 but not unveiled until 1926. As with the British Tercentenary plans, the war was a significant obstacle to the monument's being finished earlier. This chapter provides a neat counterpoint to McMullan's analysis of those British plans, since the same debate about whether to focus commemorations on a theater or a monument was played out on both sides of the planet. While London had opted to build a national theater instead of erecting a statue for the Tercentenary of 1916, Sydney would opt for a monument, although, as Mead argues, the city settled on this option once the war prevented many other plans from being realized. A highlight of this chapter, for me, is the realization that the story of the monument and of its relocation to Shakespeare Place provide the back story to one of the more intriguing elements of Jeffrey Smart's famous painting of the Cahill Expressway, 1962: the built environment in this image seems all but deserted save for the menacing presence of one of the "fat men" of Australian social history, but the monument haunts the background of the image, turned away from the viewer as a stark parable "of the ruins of memory and the renovation of monumental history" (83).
Flaherty's chapter looks at how Australians have repeatedly reworked that most militaristic of Shakespeare's plays, Henry V, to renegotiate their antipodal relationship with Britain and its cultural heritage. The chapter provides a dizzying local performance history of the play from the Sydney Shakespeare Festival of 1916 to the program of the Bell Shakespeare Company in the twenty-first century. It is thus also--Houlahan's "Coda" on 2016 notwithstanding--the most far reaching of the chapters in terms of how it traces the "outworkings" of the historical moment of 1916; yet I suggest its focus on a single play makes this chapter the least able to maintain its connection to that precise historical moment on which the collection purports to fix its gaze. Flaherty devotes the opening section to describing the work of Gullett ahead of the Tercentenary, thereby situating the Sydney Shakespeare Festival performance of Henry V within that moment, but the effect within this collection is to merely revisit material Mead had already covered, and Flaherty certainly acknowledges her debt to Mead's work in this book and elsewhere in setting this scene. The chapter becomes stronger, though, once it sets its sights on what comes after that moment. As always, Flaherty's scholarship is impeccable and the history of how Shakespeare's play has been reimagined for an Australian context makes an impressive statement about the "antipodal" nature of Shakespeare performance in this country.
Just as McMullan's and Mead's chapters present contrasting perspectives on Tercentenary plans on either side of the antipodal divide, and then as Ferguson's and Houlahan's chapters present detailed studies of the Shakespeare Hut, it might have served the tail end of the book well to have a sixth chapter that provides a neat pairing with Flaherty's performance history. Catherine Moriarty's "Afterword"--which at fifteen pages seems more substantial than this epithet suggests and yet which the editors have decided is not sufficient to warrant including her name on the cover as one of the book's "authors"--does not quite fit the bill for such a pairing. Instead, the "Afterword" engages at length with the arguments made in the other chapters about the Tercentenary and monumental commemoration, with only a brief nod toward Flaherty's chapter on the penultimate page. To the question of whether the book succeeds, in the end, in delivering the focus promised in the introduction, the answer in my mind is: no, or at least, not quite. A number of decisions made late in the book's preparation seem to undermine that focus. To the more pressing question of whether the contributors to this collection offer valuable insights into the commemoration of Shakespeare across British and Australasian contexts, the answer is a firm "yes" albeit with the caveat that the reader should not be expecting these insights to encompass Shakespeare 400 in any detailed or cohesive way.
Reviewer: Laurie Johnson
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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