Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre .
Edited by Sarah Dustagheer and Gillian Woods
London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018
Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre is a well-conceived and timely book. The collection takes a fresh approach to a complex and contested area. Stage directions are important to editors, to directors, to actors, to theater historians, to readers, to audiences. Yet despite their ubiquity, they are seldom given sustained critical scrutiny. Sarah Dustagheer and Gillian Woods seek to fill this gap. In their introduction, Dustagheer and Woods call attention to the multiple agencies and temporalities that comprise stage directions, which are "fundamentally, mutable, enigmatic, and various" (2). Perhaps as a consequence, editors assume the license to alter, omit, and expand stage directions, in a way that they would hesitate to do with the dialogue.
In their introduction, Dustagheer and Woods introduce a motif that will be repeated, with variations, across the volume: "stage directions highlight the ways that a play is stretched between text and performance" (5). The ambiguities and problems that such liminalty creates are seen by the editors as an opportunity rather than a problem: "these complications of provenance and purpose are provocative starting points for investigation" (6). The shadows of Alan Dessen and Leslie Thomson, authors of the indispensable Dictionary of Stage Directions: 1580-1642 (Cambridge, 1999), loom large over the collection, as well they should. Dustagheer and Woods point out that Dessen and Thomson were well aware of the provisional nature of their work, and many of the essays expand upon, challenge, or contest this fundamental work of scholarship.
The book is organized very effectively, moving from general principles to specific applications, and examining the topic from a range of perspectives. Part I, "Taxonomy," engages first principles: what is a stage direction, anyway? Are stage directions natural kinds, or are they simply fabrications designed to paper over our sparse knowledge of what happens on stage? Are they text or paratext? What authority do they have? The collection opens with a characteristically acute chapter by Tiffany Stern: "Inventing Stage Directions; Demoting Dumb Shows." Stern notes that the term "stage direction" itself was coined by Lewis Theobald, and it was not meant as a compliment. In Theobald's view, stage directions were intrusions upon the authorial domain, produced either by "player-editors" for the reader or by prompters for the actor. Indeed, as Stern deftly shows, the term has always obscured the variety of labor and agencies lying behind the play: "It has hidden the varied people for whom these paratexts were intendedscribes, stage keepers, prompters (and perhaps, though that is less certain, actors); and hidden, too, the varied people by whom they may have been written" (41). This vivid and provocative opening chapter is followed hard upon by another methodological gem: Laurie Maguire's "The Boundaries of Stage Directions." Stage directions are always liminal, as befits the dramatic text itself, which is "about the mediation of boundaries" (46). Stage directions mediate between theater and fictional location, between reader and viewer, between actor and director. They police the edges of the play, juggling in and out, place and stage, actor and character, comedy and tragedy.
The final chapter in this section takes a surprising turn: Paul Menzer and Jess Hamlet examine "nonce" stage directions, often bizarre one-offs that resist categorization and systemization. Do such oddities as "Peter falls into the hole" challenge the idea of recovering a "common theatrical vocabulary," as Dessen describes it? What does attention to the idiosyncratic and the quirky tell us about the stage that dwelling only upon the typical does not? Written with wit and verve, this essay--and the other two in the introductory section--present a "taxonomy" that unsettles as much as it systematizes. And this is a good thing.
Part II takes up "Text," with two closely linked essays written by Emma Smith and Douglas Bruster, both of which take issue with the distinction between theatrical and literary (or fictional) directions. In "Reading Shakespeare's Stage Directions," Smith argues that the Quarto Othello shifts from the speech prefix of "Oth" to "Moore" at three junctures at which the play seems to "reinscribe [Othello] as the sexual or violent early modern racial generalization, 'Moor'" (95). Stage directions are not, as commonly thought, ways of invoking performance; instead, they are "the property of readers ... instances of a different mode of narration in printed playbooks" (97). Smith uses narratological theory to approach stage directions, arguing that they function as different types of narrative, marked off by variant typeface, just as black letter passages, indented texts, section headings, and the like signal different modes of reading in the prose fiction of the period. Compellingly, she suggests that we might think of stage directions as forms of "free indirect discourse," a form of focalization that mediates between action and representation. In "Shakespeare's Literary Stage Directions," Bruster also notices homologies between the language of dialogue and the language of stage directions in Shakespeare's plays. He too challenges Greg's distinction between "literary" and "theatrical" stage directions, arguing that they "are literary only to the extent that everything in a play is literary" (137).
Part III on "Editing" features chapters by two editors of Shakespeare's plays who have taken very different approaches to stage directions: Suzanne Gossett and Terri Bourus. Suzanne Gossett's title itself poses her question: "When is a Missing Stage Direction Missing?" From the perspective both of an editor and a general editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Gossett notes the difficulties arising from even so seemingly simple a rule of thumb as ensuring that the characters are brought on and off the stage. On this point contemporary documents are often of little help: the extant plots rarely specify exits, surviving dramatic manuscripts are often spotty and inconsistent in the directions, and "massed entries" such as occur in some Folio texts leave much for the editor to supply. So if a stage direction is "missing," "what is it missing from and for whom is it missing?" (146). Gossett uses the helpful phrase "the logic of the action" (147) to describe moments at which an editor may decide to intervene; as she shows, however, often such decisions reflect critical and theoretical judgments that are not always fully disclosed. Terri Bourns, also writing from the perspective of editor and general editor, discusses the constraints of the space of the page, both in the 1623 Folio with its cramped double columns and in modern editions. Bourus reflects upon her own use of the margins of the pages of The New Oxford Shakespeare, where the space is deployed to describe performance choices as they have been taken up by past productions. While some may quibble about her individual choices, her invitation to use the marginal space "to ask questions and invite possibilities" (186) raises provocative and interesting questions about the role of the editor.
Part IV takes up "Space," particularly stage space. This section opens with a discussion by Martin White of his practice-led research at the University of Bristol and at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. White's extensive research into stage lighting shows the importance of understanding how lighting in indoor performances affected all other elements of staging. Stage directions for indoor performances must be read with an awareness of the importance of stage lighting. White concludes this chapter with a deft reading of the little-known Massinger play, The Guardian, that elucidates the range of lighting effects the play deploys.
Sarah Dustagheer's chapter is co-authored with Philip Bird, and this dialogic effect aptly fits the collaborative and questioning nature of the essay, and indeed of the volume as a whole. Dustagheer examines moments at which a dead body is "discovered" on stage, and the essay develops as a conversation between her discussion of the trope and Bird's reflections upon the practicalities of staging such moments on reconstructed stages. (I would note here that the bold type used for Bird's comments is not easy to distinguish from the roman font). This chapter is particularly noteworthy for its intertwining of historical, cultural, and theatrical perspectives on the ways that death is "reconceptualized and re-imagined" (236) in stage directions.
Part V, "Plays" concludes with three strong readings of stage directions in individual plays: Andrew Hiscock on Macbeth; Sarah Lewis on The Duchess of Malfi; and Gillian Woods on The White Devil. Hiscock begins by thinking about directions as a form of institutional memory. The chapter as a whole elucidates the sensory elements of stage directions: acoustic stage directions, for instance, can function as "memorial prompts" (254), creating patterns across the play. He concludes by arguing that scholars and practitioners should be alert not only to the lacunae stage directions represent, but also to their "textual and theatrical potentiality" (260). The middle chapter in this section, Lewis's essay on "'(From the Dutchesse Grave)': Echoic Liminalities in The Duchess of Maifi," explores the puzzling echo scene at the conclusion of the play, arguing that the stage direction's ambiguity evokes the "Duchess's contested subjective identity" (284). Gillian Woods rounds off the volume with a thorough discussion of the "contradictory function of dumb shows," an appropriate bookend to Stern's consideration of the subject in the opening chapter. Woods suggests that an apt analogy for the dumb show is "theatrical punctuation" (289), which both situates and discomfits the audience.
The final section left me wanting more, not from the individual essays, but more readings of stage directions responding to the provocations of this volume. This thoughtful and illuminating collection will no doubt inspire further work and spur scholars to integrate the stage direction into their consideration of early modern drama.
Reviewer: Evelyn Tribble
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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