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Shakespeare Without Tears
A Modern Guide for Directors, Actors and Playgoers
By Margaret Webster
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1955 The World Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
First Person Singular
IN THE FORTY-SECOND STREET LIBRARY of New York City there is a room whose walls are lined solid with trays of filed index cards. The labels on these trays indicate, as a rule, such orderly progressions as "Guinea to Guitry" or "Providence to Prune." But among them are fourteen on which no progress whatever is noted; they are marked, quite simply, "Shakespeare." It would seem that the addition of even one small card to this massive array of scholarship would require an explanation and an apology.
Let us assume, to begin with, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. This new card will have no place under "Bacon, Sir Francis," nor under "Oxford, 17th Earl of." Fashions in Shakespearean pretenders change, and, at the time when all playwrights and historical novelists favored Lord Leicester as the hero of Queen Elizabeth's secret love life, Shakespearean mystics pinned their faith to the dry and mighty Lord Bacon. Nowadays the Earl of Essex has won the allegiance of the historical romanticists, and the Earl of Oxford has secured an ardent and formidable following of literary disciples. In the meantime, however, painstaking scholarship has unearthed and codified a numberless array of tiny records which taken together form an impressive, one would almost say an impregnable, case for the despised player from Stratford-on-Avon. But there is no arguing with a Baconian or an Oxford devotee. You cannot dispute logically with an act of faith nor tear down a religion with puny extracts from the tangled records of minor litigation around the year 1600. Nevertheless, people of the theatrical profession find it next to impossible to believe that the writer of the thirty-seven plays was an amateur to whom the drama was a side line only; and the majority of mankind is content with the assumption that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. Let us proceed on the basis that he was.
My second assumption, one upon which alone this book may be justified, is that the plays can be kept alive, in the fullest and most vivid sense, only through the medium of the living theater, of whose inheritance they constitute so rich a part. They were written to be acted, to be seen and heard. "The onely grace and setting of a tragedy," wrote one of Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights, "is a full and understanding Auditory." The living theater, too, has an obligation to keep before its public the work of the greatest dramatist who ever wrote in English, not as an academic chore, but as vital entertainment which will enrich the theater-going lives of many thousands of people. Any theater with blood in its veins will produce its own playwrights, deal with the problems of its day, provide a commentary, and weave a pattern around the events of its own time. But as long as the English language is loved and freely spoken, as long as the imaginations of men can be caught up and glorified by great dramatic power, Shakespeare will remain a living playwright.
I can make no pretension to deep Shakespearean scholarship. I first made his acquaintance many years ago, just about the time when I first learned to master in print such a sentence as "The cat sat on the mat." My mother was then moved to observe that "To be or not to be" should lie equally within my power and indignantly repudiated on my behalf any such intermediaries as Lamb's Tales. Nevertheless, I did acquire a volume of stories from the plays, illustrated in color with pictures of vaguely medieval beings, all highly affable and apparently boneless. I remember particularly Rosalind, with a Robin Hood cap and a boar spear that would certainly have snapped if it had struck any antagonist more formidable than a chicken; Beatrice, emerging from behind a hedge like a large pink pincushion, and Leat, with a slightly depressed expression and the longest and whitest of beards blown in every direction at once. The fascination these stories held for me has since caused me to wonder whether Shakespeare's plots are really quite as silly as critical sophistication suggests.
At school I fell in love with RICHARD II and MACBETH. I do not remember that this was due to particularly imaginative teaching. Perhaps the soil of my mind had been thoroughly prepared by four generations of theatrical ancestors, most of whom had had a bout with Shakespeare at one time or another. But it is a matter of the gravest regret that most children learn to regard Shakespeare as an undesired task to be mastered as superficially as is consistent with the necessity of pleasing a given body of examiners. Few of them are led to know and understand the people in the Shakespeare plays or to appreciate the music of his spoken verse. Little is done to feed the eagerness of their imaginative curiosity or to quicken their sense of the power and beauty of their own language; and their minds are crammed with a mass of basically irrelevant detail, which they thankfully reject as soon as possible. If, in later years, they are lured into a theater where Shakespeare is being played, they are astonished to find that there is really nothing difficult about him and that he can even supply very reasonable entertainment.
My own Shakespearean education, after the inevitable collegiate appearances as Portia and Puck, was greatly advanced by Sir Philip Ben Greet, in whose company I played many plays in many places, usually in the open air and under the oddest conditions, apt to be productive of more hilarity than art. The Ben Greet productions were not of the highest standard, but his companies were filled with eager young people, none of them awed by the works of the master and all of them ready to tackle anything. You had to learn to make a running exit of anything from twenty to a hundred yards, tossing blank verse blithely but audibly over your left shoulder as you went; to play Lady Macbeth up and down a fire escape and convince an audience of irreverent school children that you really were sleepwalking at the same time; to climb stone walls in an Elizabethan farthingale, crawl behind a hedge or two, and emerge in view of the audience unruffled in dress or speech; and to be heard in great open spaces above the sound of the wind and the tossing branches of the trees above your head. You had to sink or swim. There wasn't much finesse about it, but it gave you a sense of freedom and of power. You had the feeling that Shakespeare himself would have felt at home there and enjoyed the sensation of driving the play clear through against the odds, as you hold a boat against a high wind.
After various interludes, I had the good fortune to play a season at the Old Vic in London and to meet there a tradition of Shakespearean production which in its essentials was probably as sound as any now practiced in the English-speaking theater. Playing parts which ranged from Audrey in AS YOU LIKE IT to Lady Macbeth, watching the work of distinguished actors and directors through many seasons, and feeling the collaboration between actors and audiences continuously but quite unself-consciously devoted to the Shakespeare plays, I learned many things. Here Shakespeare was both exciting and familiar; the atmosphere was full of challenge, not of awe. I realized the enormous value of this sense of comradeship among actors, audience, and author. Here, too, Shakespeare was played almost uncut. The Old Vic public would have resented blue-pencil evasions of difficult passages on the part of the director or the actors; we could not take refuge in the escapism of the old-fashioned cut versions; and this led, necessarily, to a much closer study of Shakespeare's dramatic intention in its less facile aspects. It resulted in a greater appreciation of his theater reasoning and also in a healthier respect for the full texts which recent scholarship has unearthed from beneath a mass of wanton "editing." Nevertheless, the audiences expected entertainment, "theater," in its best sense. Entertainment, it appeared, was not incompatible with scholarship.
My first directorial task was a curious one. Eight hundred women of the county of Kent in England combined together, through their village institutes, to give an outdoor performance of HENRY VIII. Each village contributed the crowd and small parts for one of the big scenes, and only a dozen principal characters remained constant throughout the play. The experience I gained in handling this massive problem taught me, principally, two things: firstly, that anybody, man or woman, young or old, fat or thin, tall or short, can, with the aid of the famous Holbein stance and make-up, look the living image of Henry VIII; secondly, that every member of any Shakespearean crowd is as important as the principal speakers in the scene. These village women, some of them unable to read the text itself, were lost at first, listening sheepishly and uncomprehendingly to the flood of speeches. But when I gave to each of them an identity, a character, an individuality of her own, they played with an impassioned conviction that made the crowd scenes genuinely thrilling.
I realized, too, that the problems of Shakespearean production are not basically different in the amateur and professional theater. In these days, when so many of his plays are left to the devoted labors of student societies, collegiate bodies, and amateur groups, it is valuable to remind oneself that the problems, and the rewards, of producing Shakespeare are not by any means confined to the professional stage.
In February, 1937, I directed RICHARD II for Maurice Evans in New York. It was my first wholly professional Shakespearean production and my first glimpse of the opportunities and challenges which confronted a producer of Shakespeare in the United States. This play was virtually unknown to American audiences. The most that was hoped of it was an "artistic" success; yet it enjoyed a record-breaking run in New York, as well as two extensive road tours. The uncut HAMLET, which followed, was also produced for the first time in the American commercial theater; and HENRY IV, PART I, though it had been done by the Players' Club in 1926, had never been considered as having potential value for the theatrical manager with a living to earn. Both of them found eager audiences all over the country. So did the better known TWELFTH NIGHT, presented with Evans and Helen Hayes by the Theatre Guild in 1940, and the Evans MACBETH, with Judith Anderson, in 1941. The reputation and personal quality of the stars were undoubtedly a great factor in this result; but it seemed that Shakespeare was still one of America's most popular dramatists.
The aim of the Evans productions was a collaboration with both author and audience. We tried honestly to interpret the author's intention, as nearly as we could divine it, to the audiences for whom the productions were intended. We never supposed that we were providing any definitive answer to the problems of the plays, especially those of the inexhaustible HAMLET.
We had to face a number of difficulties of which we only gradually became aware. There was, for instance, the minor one of accent. Several actors went so far as to refuse parts in the productions on the grounds that they either could not "speak English" or were afraid that by so doing they would endanger their chances of future employment as gangsters. We tried to obtain some homogeneity of speech that was neither dude English nor localized American, pertaining neither to Oxford University nor Akron, Ohio. We found that actors were plainly frightened of Shakespeare, particularly of the verse. Modern habits of speech, both English and American, incline us to careless enunciation, flattened inflections, and brief, spasmodic phrasing. It is virtually certain that our Elizabethan forebears had a liveliness of utterance which we have lost. Nor were Shakespeare's colleagues abashed by speaking in verse; they must have seized upon it with zest and understanding.
We found, also, that our actors were disinclined, at first, to tackle the characters as real people, flesh-and-blood human beings close to themselves. Audiences, too, approached Shakespeare in the theater with caution. On both sides of the footlights we were faced with these inhibitions, the result of regarding Shakespeare as high-brow and remote. One of our most difficult tasks was to overcome this unwholesome reverence for the Bard. At a performance of HAMLET in a Middle Western city, the balconies were crowded with school children, noisy, skeptical, restless. Owing to a shortage of ushers, a couple of policemen were called in to keep a watchful eye on the children. The policemen were very conscious of their responsibilities; and when the children, as quick as they were critical, began to laugh at Polonius, they were cowed by a fiercely respectful "shush" from the police force. Poor Polonius played frantically to solemn faces throughout the afternoon.
Left to themselves, however, children and adults alike proved eager, swift, perceptive, and delightfully ready either to laugh or cry; they were the kind of audience Shakespeare himself might have wished for. This was my first impression of the American theater-going public, and subsequent experience has done nothing to change it. I have staged and produced and played Shakespeare in all sorts of places since then and to all sorts of people: in "streamlined" form at the New York World's Fair of 1939; to a superbly responsive public in New York and right across the United States with the Robeson-Ferrer OTHELLO; on Broadway and in the Eastern cities with THE TEMPEST and HENRY VIII; and at the New York City Center with RICHARD II, RICHARD III, and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. The faithful patrons of the City Center, who come regularly to the drama seasons as they do to opera and ballet, are the finest audiences I have ever encountered since the days of the Old Vic. It is worth remarking that they pay considerably less than Broadway prices for their seats and that many of them are not regular attendants at the playhouses of Times Square. They are not super-sophisticated; they come to enjoy themselves. So did the citizens of London, circa 1600.
But the most instructive and rewarding experience I have ever had came during the seasons of 1948 to 1950, when I took four Shakespearean productions over the length and breadth of the United States. I had a talented young company, without stars, which traveled by road, playing mostly what came to be known as "the gymnasium circuit." We covered over thirty thousand miles during each season, and some eighty per cent of our dates were in places where Shakespeare had not been professionally played in a generation. Quite often the audience would be composed of young people who had never even seen live actors—known in Vermont as "meat actors"—before. The response to these performances demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Shakespeare well played has lost nothing of his power and enchantment. When living actors play living characters to living audiences, the words put on flesh and become incandescent. Then, and I think only then, we understand his true magic and find ourselves miraculously transfigured in the mirror of his genius.
It is a question of the highest importance, and one to which I shall return at the end of this book, as to how we can preserve Shakespeare in the twentieth-century American theater, how we are to keep his plays alive throughout the forty-eight States. The old actor-managers and their companies, who used to play Shakespearean repertory from coast to coast, have long since been forced out of business. I myself was forced to abandon my "Shakespeare on Wheels" enterprise for economic reasons, and no fully professional company has since been able to make a similar attempt. There has been a steadily decreasing number of Broadway productions and almost no first-class tours during recent years. Shakespeare is rapidly disappearing from the professional theater.
One of the results of this process of attrition is that there is no longer any tradition of Shakespearean acting or staging in the United States, especially in the matter of speech and style. The absence of tradition is not entirely without advantages, in that young actors and directors are not bound by convention or hampered by a rigid orthodoxy. But there is no longer any established standard against which they can measure themselves, no yardstick of excellence, little informed or firsthand knowledge of the plays as they come alive in the theater. Tradition need not be merely a collection of fusty and outworn shreds from the dramatic wardrobe of an earlier time. The truth and validity of newly divined interpretation should be reinforced by proved and practiced skill in the crafts of the theater. The art of acting has been handed down from one generation to another in the flesh, through the actor himself and through the eyes and ears of those who watch him. It cannot be preserved in books: the lifeblood escapes, the skeleton alone remains. Production methods can, however, be described and analyzed. Stage designs are preserved in photographs and drawings. There is plenty of valuable material available for us to study.
Excerpted from Shakespeare Without Tears by Margaret Webster. Copyright © 1955 The World Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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