Judith Buchanan. Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse.
Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse is Judith Buchanan's second monograph on Shakespeare film adaptations. Her previous work, Shakespeare on Film (2005), includes two chapters on silent Shakespeare, and these are radically revised and rewritten for a new delivery in a book dedicated exclusively to Shakespeare films made during the silent era (1899-1927). The book also serves as a companion piece to the British Film Institute Silent Shakespeare DVD (2004)--a collection of seven silent Shakespeare films with both introduction and commentary provided by Buchanan. There was an audience for silent Shakespeare: Buchanan counts between 250 to 300 films based on Shakespearean material during cinema's silent era, and over the course of seven chapters, she examines why Shakespeare was such an attractive source for silent film.
The idea of wordless Shakespeare productions might seem paradoxical on first conception, but as the subtitle of Buchanan's monograph reminds us, character muteness is a phenomenon already explored in Shakespearean drama. It is Alonso's dialogue from The Tempest that Buchanan borrows for her title on silent Shakespeare films, and through the use of a pleasurable incongruity, Shakespeare's words bridge us to the concept of a wordless Shakespeare. Later in the preface, Buchanan seizes another opportunity to recall Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, who, dismembered of her hands and tongue, is unable to communicate through voice, and as a result her "signs, winks, nods and kneelings" replace her verbal discourse (1). Upon remembering that wordlessness is an occurrence already explored in Shakespeare's plays, the feeling that we are being presented with a novel and incongruous idea is dispelled.
At the same time, the mere thought of Shakespeare without words has the potential to incite feelings of violation or to evoke sentiments of loss. This is not a book that laments the muting of Shakespeare. There are no expressions of bereavement, only articulations of gain. As foregrounded by Alonso and Lavinia, in the absence of the spoken word a variety of other expressions emerge that are equally Shakespearean in content. The book covers a range of British, American, Italian, and German productions, which are separated chronologically into the pioneering years of cinema (1805--1906), the transitional years of cinema (1907-13), the 1916 tercentenary, and the later silent films of the 1920s, with Buchanan's research offering exhaustive examinations into the marketing, distribution, exhibition, and reception of the films. In an endeavor to press us to rethink the ways in which we experience Shakespeare, Buchanan presents engaging, in-depth and lively analyses of the nonlinguistic dimensions of Shakespeare films of the silent era.
Opening with an account of the nineteenth-century legacy of magic lantern productions of Shakespeare plays, Buchanan notes that artistic nuances seemingly unique to silent cinema actually derive from and share many similarities with theater. Drawing on performance conventions associated with the nineteenth-century stage, actors are seen to perform words through stylized gestures and other acting codes that have become familiar through theater. Buchanan then recalls the speech act ban, which monitored the spoken word onstage during the Restoration, and she supplies examples of difficulties surrounding the delivery of dramatic dialogue prior to the arrival of silent film. In order to evade the policing of words during the speech act ban, innovative methods were required, and linen scrolls became an alternate way to supply dialogue. The use of linen scrolls can be seen to anticipate the cinematic intertitle, and as Buchanan notes, the effect of the dialogue scrolls in each case was remarkably similar:
In both instances, words were stripped of vocal inflection and performance emphasis, and became instead part of the visual scheme of the piece. Like the earlier stage scrolls, intertitles were similarly to impose a temporary interruption of the performed action in order to supply dialogue, plot, summary or location report in written form. The alternative suspension of action and dialogue that the intertitles of silent film brought in was not, therefore, a process of word/image desynchronisation entirely foreign to the nineteenth-century stage, nor even to Shakespearean performance. (45-46)
Critical reactions to plays after the speech act ban was lifted are again comparable to early twentieth-century criticisms on the use of intertitles in film. In each case, the presence of the word was viewed as an "appendage" and criticized for appearing more like a "running commentary" than a seamless expression (47). Interestingly, not only were the methods to convey dialogue alike, but audience expectations of the two media were also similar.
Drawing our attention to a broader range of sources that go beyond the spoken word, Buchanan argues that paintings depicting scenes from Shakespeare's plays such as the iconic Lear and the Fool have become part of our visual experience and knowledge of King Lear. These visual intertexts trade upon the spectator's literacy in the visual arts and become part of the viewing pleasure of the films. She argues that these recognizable images also have the potential to trigger associated dialogue from the plays. The image of Hamlet holding a skull, Macbeth with bloody daggers, or Juliet on the balcony serve as verbal prompts for spectators familiar with Shakespeare's words. Ergo, the exclusion of the word does not necessarily mean that it is altogether absent, and through the richness of the visuals Shakespearean dramatic force is maintained.
Chapter 2 is devoted to Biograph's pioneering King John (1899), which began the story of silent Shakespeare on screen. Buchanan argues that Biograph developed a campaign to elevate the reputation of the nascent film industry by adapting reputable literary sources. Despite the fact that only one scene from King John survives, the chapter makes a valuable contribution in its account of the commercial and cultural imperatives that drove the production decisions of the Biograph Company. It is the sense of "conflicted allegiances" that occupy her analysis of The Tempest (1908) and Otello (1909) in chapter 3. Observing that film could achieve greater expressive freedom with location shots by offering real beaches, real castles, real architecture, and scenery, she notes that many of the productions of the early transitional years (1908-9) used backdrops that were deliberately artificial in appearance. In
favor of reference to theater and theatricality, early silent Shakespeare films oscillate between their cinematic attractions and their theatrical beginnings.
Chapter 4 is informed by a discussion of the "corporate authorship" of Shakespeare film adaptations as Buchanan examines the marketing and reception of all twelve Shakespeare-based films produced by the Vitagraph Company of America between 1908 and 1912. Buchanan argues that Shakespeare was Americanized via the identity of the company, as "the ever-present Vitagraph logo" (121), an eagle with raised wings, remained visible on all the title cards, and Shakespearean quotations were literally stamped with a recognizable American brand.
Chapter 5 offers a comparison of the silent film adaptations of two high-profile stage productions of Hamlet, the British Hamlet (1913) and the Italian Amleto (1917). Chapter 6 covers Shakespeare films of the 1916 tercentenary, this time comparing a British and an American production of Macbeth and a British and an American production of Romeo and Juliet. Moving into 1920s Weimar Germany, chapter 7 offers an in-depth account of the careers and performances of the silent Shakespearean film stars Asta Nielsen and Emil Jannings from the German Shakespeare films. These later chapters trace how narrative, performance, and national marketing demands differed in each case. The chapters also account for the commercial and cultural factors that influenced the production decisions of the silent film industry. Further, the book supplies a generous number of stills from a range of different silent Shakespeare films as well as images of the various publicity materials that were connected with the release of the films.
Buchanan concludes her book by returning to the seemingly paradoxical concept that opens it--"No tongue, all eyes! Be silent"--and by providing a transcript of an interview she held with contemporary artists who perform wordless Shakespeare. At book's end, we are reminded that silent Shakespeare is not anachronistic, but continues to be innovative and original.
Throughout Shakespeare on Silent Film: An Excellent Dumb Discourse, Buchanan repeatedly positions silent Shakespeare films as part of an established tradition. Her discussions of film's relation to other cultural and artistic forms posits silent Shakespeare films as interconnecting and interdependent works of art. This position also builds a critical blockade against creeping discourses of hierarchy that too often mar the study of film adaptations of canonical material. Although title cards are not unacknowledged, they are underexplored, and given the book's emphasis on the "wordlessness" of silent Shakespeare films, a closer analysis of the worded intertitles would have been beneficial. However, this is a minor criticism and certainly does not detract from what is a tremendously accomplished piece of film scholarship invaluable to both the film scholar and the researcher in Shakespeare productions and performance.
Sheffield Hallam University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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