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Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance.

W. B. Worthen. Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. x +255. $49.95 casebound, $17.95 paperbound.

Thirty odd years ago or so, English departments across this green and pleasant land discovered that Shakespeare was a playwright. This revelation, coming as it did after centuries of philological commentary in various guises, shapes, and forms, produced a new breed of scholar-commentators known as performance critics. And they wrote, or so it seemed, something called performance criticism. Those of the lower orders, suspicious souls who had labored in the pragmatic world of the theater itself, regarded this activity with much misgiving, if not downright contempt. Was not all this clever word-making no more than armchair directing? How could you possibly write a how-to-do-it handbook about something you had never done yourself? Who told you that such and such a scene went in such and such a place on that notoriously hidden, mysterious world known as the open stage of the Elizabethan theater? But no matter: these intrepid types, ever au courant in the quixotic world of much, if not all of the hypertrophically politicized, massively egocentric world of contemporary scholarship, somehow knew the absolute truth about what went where, or who did what in Act 3, scene 2 of Twelfth Night. And those brave souls who dared ask the simple-minded, perhaps simplistic questions about this questionable activity were silenced with book after book that flowed unceasingly into the great delta-like world of Shakespearean studies. Fortunately, a goodly number of these still-born exercises have moved into their own richly deserved obscurity, languishing on those famous dust-filled library shelves, presumably or hopefully forgotten. And no sensible theater-worker would give them more than a passing nod, as he or she walked off to rehearsal ready to confront a cast with the day's job. Skeptics or the ancient, remaining, hard-nosed, traditionally-minded churls who still inhabit the academic landscape (hopefully ever conscious of the wild, free world which is the creative genius of the playhouse, a place that will never change and yet, paradoxically, is always changing) can take some relish in the partial diminution of these matters. The distinguished work of J.L. Styan or Bernard Beckerman, for example, (both of whom owe a great deal to their magnificent predecessor, Granville-Barker) never trapped itself in the dead-end chatter that sustained the daffy life of the performance critics, as they tenaciously marked out their turf with their Babel-like mutterings.

Now the admittedly truncated, hasty, exceedingly opinionated, and probably overstated remarks above barely hint at the plethora of approaches underway these days in the richly fertile land of Shakespearean studies. Everyone knows that Shakespeare has been subjected to approaches that often defy description, and suggest instead desecration, in the name of dramatic art, criticism, or scholarship. And the book here under review is but another tendentious foray intended to be "about theatrical performance [of Shakespearean plays] at the end of the twentieth century (2), or a summation of "an important theoretical advance in the performance criticism of Shakespeare," or so the encomiastic tribute of the publisher trumpets on the back cover.

Four chapters comprise this offering, treating in some kind of ascending order of importance, the text, director, actor, and the current state of the tired, tiring, and tiresome battle of the page vs. the stage, a survey of the history and development of performance criticism, a matter very much in need of a prompt burial. But if nothing else, this exercise is, ostensibly, up-to-date, laced with all the pertinent, timely terminology now in use: for instance, plays no longer have performances, but "iterations, or "surrogations." And the stage is not a "natural" site for drama to take place, but one of many venues in which contemporary culture affords all kinds of spaces, as the 60s taught us so well. Portmanteau words are ever the business of such undertakings, and the author has his basket full of them. Many are never defined precisely for the weary reader, but that is the least of the problems with this overweighted undertaking.

Chapter One is really a series of over-stated book reports on the provisionality of the Shakespearean text (its instability, to use the trendy word these days), and before the interested student gives up after a heady swim through these troubled waters, a bracing dose of common sense is very much in order. Which is to say that any bright sophomore in a beginning directing class is probably very much aware of the textual difficulties presented by any given play (Shakespearean, or otherwise) about to be produced. In fact, any director anywhere, anytime, anyplace makes his own play from various editions of the text, if necessary or possible. For those who still cling to the hoary notion of drama as drama, and not literature, and words, while surely the stuff of drama, as one of the many levels of the dramatic experience, much in this section is in no way novel, but merely an overarticulated, self-conscious, self-aggrandizing tour of an old battleground much in need of a good peace conference.

The second chapter resurrects the embattled figure of the director as auteur approaching the play armed these days with the weapons of a multifarious technology, his "concept," hence his message as to the "meaning" of the piece, and the various baggages that come with that embattled territory. But this survey too is nothing new. When was the director not permitted this kind of freedom, as he emerged from the theatrical dust bins of the late nineteenth century to assert himself?. Worthen also spends far too much time discussing Peter Sellar's recent botched, ultimately silly treatment of The Merchant of Venice (1994) to demonstrate his notion of the director as author of the play, a version militantly determined to be relevant, to speak about contemporary race relations in America through this berserk statement. Many, the present reviewer included, regard Sellar's career and his assaults on the classics as nothing but a set of unfortunate efforts more appropriate to the history of publicity than to the history of theatrical production in our time. An unfortunate victim of his own directorial conceptions (or hubris), a disease common to those espousing novelty at any cost, Sellars is probably best regarded as the contemporary theater's most prominent example of how not to direct a play.

Chapter Three is least successful, offering summaries of books on the art of acting, accounts by some well-known actors of how they approached various Shakespearean roles, and a mini-history of actor training in various places and times. Often this portion is but a mere paraphrase of other texts, or Stanislavsky once removed. But none of this section is of any use whatsoever to any working actor, young or old, neophyte or veteran, though once again the faddish vocabulary of the moment is there in full force: the "body," "authority," and "meanings" sprouting throughout, and one begins to wonder precisely what these words are supposed to convey to the vexed actor or reader. Again, acting, the most personal, mysterious of the performing arts, is best left alone. This is not to sanctify or demonize this wondrous activity, but merely to give it the necessary and proper distance from those naive enough to assume you can write about acting, or bottle up its procedures in a textbook. A forgotten lesson: the great dramatic critics (names on request) are those who can write clearly about performances, but know perfectly well that what the actor does is a process of secretive self-exploration, a deeply self-inflected movement which does not easily yield to what is laughingly called analysis. Anything the actor decides to use as he builds his character is fair game: yesterday's headlines, his or her laundry list, old love letters, or whatever comes along is part of the deal. And the less said the better about the deeply creative work the actor does with himself and others as the rehearsal process goes forward.

The final chapter traces the development of performance criticism from the 1960s to the present day. The sacred names of this undertaking are invoked, their contributions noted, but in sum, the remarks are but repackaging of previous materials available elsewhere. There is a huffy criticism of J. L. Styan's pioneering study, The Shakespeare Revolution, a petty, and quite unnecessary argument. Styan's excellent, clearheaded discussion sets matters straight about what took place as the junk of the nineteenth century was swept from the stage, making way for the innovations of the twentieth, allowing iconic simplicity to replace the florid clutter gone beforehand.

And yet describing these chapters, noting their concerns, and presenting cavils along the way does not get at the major shortcoming of this book: the writing itself. Professor Worthen pens a kind of high-toned, jejune, academic blather that flits around, and occasionally lights or sits upon lexical meaning. Not for him the plain style, but instead, the weary common reader confronts a lit-crit-doggerel assault of such monumentally wearying proportions one begins to wonder if the editors at CUP are on strike, or all dead. Harsh words unquestionably, but they barely describe this veritable torrent of obscurantist lingo. Here is but one, outstandingly dogged example of this inchoate blizzard as just a flavor of what the discourse is often like:
 Precisely because performance is not an incarnation of the text (as vehicle
 of the work), but an iteration of the work, performance is necessarily
 traced by a gesture of difference. (25)

What can this gibberish mean? As they say on the street: go figure. But the above quotation is symptomatic, not to say symbolic of much of what passes for this book's discourse.

Finally, unhappily, it is a sign of these strange, dismal times in which we live that this book is what it is: theatrically naive, intellectually pretentious, frequently unintelligible, and yet presented as some sort of scholastic summa, rattling on in such a mindboggling fashion it soon threatens to overwhelm itself, drowning in its own feverish verbiage. Caveat lector!

JAMES COAKLEY Northwestern University
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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