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This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance, Then and Now

Overview

Many readers first encounter Shakespeare’s plays in a book rather than a theater. Yet Shakespeare was through and through a man of the stage. So what do we lose when we leave Shakespeare the practitioner behind, and what do we learn when we think about his plays as dramas to be performed?

            David Bevington answers these questions with This Wide and Universal Theater, which explores how Shakespeare’s plays were ...

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Overview

Many readers first encounter Shakespeare’s plays in a book rather than a theater. Yet Shakespeare was through and through a man of the stage. So what do we lose when we leave Shakespeare the practitioner behind, and what do we learn when we think about his plays as dramas to be performed?

            David Bevington answers these questions with This Wide and Universal Theater, which explores how Shakespeare’s plays were produced both in his own time and in succeeding centuries. Making use of historical documents and the play scripts themselves, Bevington brings Shakespeare’s original stagings to life. He explains how the Elizabethan playhouse conveyed a sense of place using minimal scenery, from the Forest of Arden in As You Like It to the tavern in Henry IV, Part I. Moving beyond Shakespeare’s lifetime, Bevington shows the prodigious lengths to which eighteenth- and nineteenth-century companies went to produce spectacular effects, from flying witches in Macbeth to terrifying storms punctuating King Lear. To bring the book into the present, Bevington considers recent productions on both stage and screen, when character and language have taken precedence over spectacle. This volume brings a lifetime of study to bear on a remarkably underappreciated aspect of Shakespeare’s art.

“An eminent Shakespeare scholar and author, Bevington offers a concise, lucid, and unique overview of the history of Shakespeare in various modes of performance, from stage to film to television.”—Choice

“Even veteran Shakespeareans will profit from the varied reminders of how important performance and staging have always been to the interpretation of the plays.”—Renaissance Quarterly

 

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Editorial Reviews

Choice
"An eminent Shakespeare scholar and editor, Bevington offers a concise, lucid, and unique overview of the history of Shakespeare in various modes of performance, from stage to film to television. . . . . This volume will be particularly interesting to nonspecialists. Recommended."-Choice
Financial Times
"Bevington makes interesting, nuanced and original points about staging and interpretation that reveal the dynamism and complexity of Shakespeare''s canon."-Jerome de Groot, Financial Times

— Jerome de Groot

Renaissance Quarterly
"Bevington''s accessible study, with its many examples of productions from Shakespeare''s time to the present . . . will be welcomed by general readers. . . . Even veteran Shakespeareans will profit from the varied reminders of how important performance and staging have always been to interpretation of the plays."-Bridget Gellert Lyons, Renaissance Quarterly

— Bridget Gellert Lyons

Studies in English Literature
"[Bevington] uses the thetrical metaphor to think about the plays'' meditations on the theater of the world. At stake, then, is the extent to which we can direct--our lives and worlds, as well as Shakespeare''s plays. . . . .[Bevington] has produced an elegant version of the argument that explores the idea both figuratively and literally."
MLR
"This lively, well-informed, and immensely enjoyable book by one of the most devoted and highly regarded of Shakespearians falls into that unique category: the Shakespeare masterwork. Clearly destined (and designed) to adorn the bookshelves of Shakespeare lovers, it contributes to the recent and ongoing shift in approach to Shakespeare''s plays from literary texts to dramas to be performed."

— Adele Lee

Text and Presentation
"This Wide and Universal Theater is especially valuable as an introduction to Shakespeare because it urges new Shakespeareans to think beyond the presumption that the drama will necessarily play out in verisimilar terms."

— Emily C. Bartels

Harold Bloom
“David Bevington, one of the most learned and devoted of Shakespeareans, has given us a highly useful study of the staging of the greater plays. The cognitive and imaginative interplay of language and action is conveyed with insight and joy.”
Kenneth Gross
“David Bevington’s probing, spirited, and expansive study shows us acutely how Shakespeare’s plays make theater the engine of life, thought, power, fear, doubt, and love. Even more so, it lets us see just how strongly the plays themselves desire our imaginative collaboration in their relentless and ever-changing theatricality. Holding lightly his great knowledge of his subject, Bevington moves among a vast mosaic of examples, assembled from the long history of Shakespearean performance. He crosses easily and generously between early and late, between traditional and avant-garde, between stage and film, always with an eye for the telling detail, always reminding us of our ongoing, necessary conversation with the plays. This is a book to animate both our reading and our theater-going.”—Kenneth Gross, author of Shylock Is Shakespeare
Bruce Smith
“David Bevington’s new book belongs to a quite specific genre: the Shakespeare masterwork. He has drawn on more than four decades of experience to produce this genial companion to Shakespeare in performance, a trustworthy and comprehensive guide that will enhance the theatrical experience of a wide range of readers.”
David Riggs
“Informed by a lifetime’s play going and reflection, and ranging from Elizabethan inn yards to a singing bus driver in modern-day Chicago, This Wide and Universal Theater offers a compact yet comprehensive account of Shakespeare in performance. David Bevington’s masterly new book will be an indispensable resource for spectators, stage historians, actors and directors, film critics, and Shakespearians of every description. This is the ideal guide to the labyrinthine relations between the page and the stage, text and performance.”
Renaissance Quarterly - Bridget Gellert Lyons
"Bevington's accessible study, with its many examples of productions from Shakespeare's time to the present . . . will be welcomed by general readers. . . . Even veteran Shakespeareans will profit from the varied reminders of how important performance and staging have always been to interpretation of the plays."
Financial Times - Jerome de Groot
"Bevington makes interesting, nuanced and original points about staging and interpretation that reveal the dynamism and complexity of Shakespeare's canon."
Text and Presentation - Emily C. Bartels
"This Wide and Universal Theater is especially valuable as an introduction to Shakespeare because it urges new Shakespeareans to think beyond the presumption that the drama will necessarily play out in verisimilar terms."
Comitatus - Sos Bagramyan
"If one is looking for a casual read, filled with great insights, on the history of staging, then Bevington's book is an excellent choice."
MLR - Adele Lee
"This lively, well-informed, and immensely enjoyable book by one of the most devoted and highly regarded of Shakespearians falls into that unique category: the Shakespeare masterwork. Clearly destined (and designed) to adorn the bookshelves of Shakespeare lovers, it contributes to the recent and ongoing shift in approach to Shakespeare's plays from literary texts to dramas to be performed."
Choice
"An eminent Shakespeare scholar and editor, Bevington offers a concise, lucid, and unique overview of the history of Shakespeare in various modes of performance, from stage to film to television. . . . . This volume will be particularly interesting to nonspecialists. Recommended."
Renaissance Quarterly
Bevington's accessible study, with its many examples of productions from Shakespeare's time to the present . . . will be welcomed by general readers. . . . Even veteran Shakespeareans will profit from the varied reminders of how important performance and staging have always been to interpretation of the plays.

— Bridget Gellert Lyons

Financial Times
Bevington makes interesting, nuanced and original points about staging and interpretation that reveal the dynamism and complexity of Shakespeare's canon.

— Jerome de Groot

Text and Presentation
This Wide and Universal Theater is especially valuable as an introduction to Shakespeare because it urges new Shakespeareans to think beyond the presumption that the drama will necessarily play out in verisimilar terms.

— Emily C. Bartels

Studies in English Literature
"[Bevington] uses the  thetrical metaphor to think about the plays' meditations on the theater of the world. At stake, then, is the extent to which we can direct—our lives and worlds, as well as Shakespeare's plays. . . . .[Bevington] has produced an elegant version of the argument that explores the idea both figuratively and literally."
MLR
This lively, well-informed, and immensely enjoyable book by one of the most devoted and highly regarded of Shakespearians falls into that unique category: the Shakespeare masterwork. Clearly destined (and designed) to adorn the bookshelves of Shakespeare lovers, it contributes to the recent and ongoing shift in approach to Shakespeare's plays from literary texts to dramas to be performed.

— Adele Lee

Comitatus
If one is looking for a casual read, filled with great insights, on the history of staging, then Bevington's book is an excellent choice.

— Sos Bagramyan

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226044781
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/15/2007
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1967. The author of numerous books, he is also the editor of the twenty-nine volumes of The Bantam Shakespeare and The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

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Read an Excerpt

This Wide and Universal Theater

Shakespeare in Performance, Then and Now
By David Bevington

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2007 David Bevington
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-04478-1


Chapter One

Actions That a Man Might Play

An Introduction

In what sense was Shakespeare a man of the theater? He wrote plays for the acting company to which he belonged and took part in the performance of many of those plays, and yet to succeeding generations of students and readers his reputation has often been primarily that of a great poet, a profound thinker, and a perceptive observer of the human condition. He is taught in schools and colleges by English teachers for some of whom the theater is a strange and unfamiliar place. The Romantic poets all but ignored the theatrical dimensions of his accomplishment. Many admirers today of Shakespeare are only sketchily informed about the theatrical conditions for which he wrote. And, although Shakespeare has made a strong recovery in our own day as a writer to be admired in performance, modern audiences and readers are sometimes ill equipped to appreciate how his plays have been transformed by the lively demands of modern theatrical spaces and staging conventions. We see Shakespeare on film or television, or on an array of modern stages, without an awareness of how the scripts he wrote were originally devised for a very remarkable and enabling kind of theatrical world (fig. 1.1).

The intent of this book is thus threefold: to provide an account of Shakespeare's theater in all its complexity of physical space, casting capacities, and audience expectations; to place Shakespeare's plays in that original theatrical space as a way of suggesting how an awareness of their theatrical dimensions can illuminate numberless dramatic situations inherent in the dialogue; and to juxtapose those insights with more modern instances in film, television, and theatrical performance in order to appreciate some ways in which changed modes of presentation can arise out of, and contribute to, changed perceptions of the text.

One reason that such a comparative study of presentational modes can make special sense today is that modern Shakespeare in production is excitingly closer to that of Shakespeare's own theater than was the theater world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or so, at any rate, we like to think, in our desire to make him one of our own. Granted an element of wish-fulfillment in such a desire, we can identify some concrete ways in which the claim is defensible. Theater buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were heavily committed to visual realism framed by the proscenium arch. Audiences sat in increasingly large auditoriums, facing the stage at one end of the hall. As in many large opera houses today, a curtain lifted at the start of the play to reveal a handsomely constructed set that visually announced the locale for the ensuing action. Breaks between scenes required the lowering of the curtain so that a series of illusions of varied locales could then be presented. Eighteenth-century sets were comparatively simple ones mounted on painted panels that could be slid in from the wings to create the effect of an interior room or a sylvan scene; nineteenth-century sets were increasingly verisimilar and expensive, requiring longer intervals between scenes in order to move the scenery, but in either case the intent was to provide the spectators with a scenically plausible imitation of a throne room or a castle exterior or a landscape. William Charles Macready, staging the historical plays of King John and Henry VIII numerous times between 1823 and 1848, gave scrupulous attention to historical accuracy in costuming and set, erecting interiors onstage with carved Gothic tracery in the windows and monumental thrones on raised daises. Charles Kean, not content with the already lavish spectacle called for in the text, added in 1852, at the Princess's Theatre, a scene of King John's capitulation to the barons' demands at Runymede, in order to give a striking visual display of that important historical event which Shakespeare had somehow managed not to mention. Every one of Kean's expensively built locations was copied from a specific medieval castle or ruin of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The trend toward costly elaboration reached its culmination in the productions of Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the years right around 1900. For his Twelfth Night at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1901, he created a garden for the mansion of the Countess Olivia replete with trickling fountains, live grass, pathways, and descending steps (fig. 1.2). Not surprisingly, he simplified the scenic structure of the play so that the action could remain continuously at Olivia's house for extended stretches of action rather than shuttling back and forth between that location and Orsino's house, as in Shakespeare's script. For his A Midsummer Night's Dream at Her Majesty's in 1900, Tree provided a carpet of thyme and wildflowers; in 1911, at the renamed His Majesty's Theatre, live rabbits scampered through an enchanted forest. When he staged Antony and Cleopatra in 1906 at His Majesty's, Tree dressed some of his actors in the Egyptian garb of the old pharaohs and staged the meeting of the two title figures at the river of Cydnus, complete with all the exotic effects of barge, oarsmen, Cupid-like attendants, waiting-gentlewomen, and other details that Shakespeare's text presents only verbally through Enobarbus's description. This famous encounter was to be filmed later, in 1963, in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cecil B. DeMille-like extravaganza based not on Shakespeare's play but on a Hollywood version of the story, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

When William Poel started his Elizabethan Dramatic Society in 1901 with an intent of restoring something closer to original Shakespearean staging, then, he was doing something revolutionary. His undertaking was both a historical restoration and a bold break with tradition. By abandoning expensive verisimilitude in favor of simpler sets nearly devoid of scenic representation, Poel revisited what he perceived as the essential idiom of the Shakespeare script, moving rapidly from scene to scene without a shift in sets, relying on the audience's imagination to create the desired illusory effect. At the same time, by doing so he also aligned himself with a movement toward theatrical self- awareness that was to be further developed in the twentieth century by avant-garde playwrights like Samuel Beckett and by experimental directors like Peter Brook. The stage was now capable of being presentational rather than representational, that is, descriptively and persuasively aware of its own artifices of illusion rather than wedded to a literalist notion of showing what the scene appears to call for in representational terms. What seemed so new in this movement was also perceived as a recapitulation of the moving spirit of Shakespeare's theatrical world.

At the heart of this discovery was the revelation of a paradox to which a great deal of modern theater is still committed: namely, that the more the theater eschews a literalist kind of realism, the more it invites the imaginative participation of the audience and thereby fosters a more active involvement of that audience. The result can be an intensifying of experience that increases rather than decreases a sense of what is "real." The traditional proscenium arch theater, when compared with this experimental model, seems inert, relegated to a self-contained illusion of reality separated from the audience by the "fourth wall" of proscenium arch and curtain.

This is not to argue simplistically that Shakespearean staging of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lacked a remarkable grandeur of its own. These were the years of many justly famous actors and actresses, such as David Garrick, Peg Woffington, John Philip Kemble, Charlotte Cushman, Samuel Phelps, Isabel Glynn, Helen Faucit, Henry Irving, Madame Vestis, and Ellen Terry, along with Charles Kean, Macready, Tree, and many others. Elaborate verisimilar spectacle was their idiom and their discovery; they were innovators as much as were their successors in the twentieth century. The history of Shakespearean staging is a history in shifting tastes as a cultural response to shifting cultural values. The large theaters of the nineteenth century brought Shakespeare to life for expanding audiences in an age of a rapidly developing middle class. We must not smile condescendingly at the achievement of that age, or minimize its importance to the development of the Shakespearean theater we know today. The argument of this book is rather that modern Shakespearean theater has found its own reasons for returning to a mode of presentation that, in our eyes at least, seems closer to the spirit of the original. In that spirit, we can hope to gain a valuable perspective on contemporary theatrical practices by juxtaposing them with what we know about original Shakespearean staging.

Was it simply a coincidence that Poel's rediscovery of presentational staging coincided more or less precisely with the invention of film? That new medium certainly had the effect of compounding the paradox of illusion in the presenting of Shakespeare to audiences, for, from the start, film seemed ready-made as a means of substituting pictures for words. Silent Shakespeare, as for example in the ten- to fifteen-minute Vitagraph excerpts filmed in Brooklyn and vicinity in the early 1900s by J. Stuart Blackton and William V. Ranous, found an efficient way to evoke the splendors of Shakespeare's most popular plays by interspersing title cards with action sequences filmed when possible out of doors in order to do what a stage production could not. In Twelfth Night (1916), Viola (played by Florence Turner) emerged out of the sea toward the beginning of the film by wading ashore on a Long Island beach. Julius Caesar was assassinated in an outdoor scene that was suspiciously reminiscent of the steps of the Carnegie Public Library. A flying Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Vitagraph, 1909) zoomed around out of doors on the wings of camera stuntcraft. By means of cutting and splicing, the ghost of Caesar materialized out of thin air at Philippi in act 5 of Julius Caesar (1908). The trompe l'oeil effects were, as we look back on them now, laughably amateur: Bottom the Weaver (played by William Ranous) was outfitted with an ass's head that required the actor to pull on a lanyard every time he wanted the ass's mouth to open. Short as they were, these truncated versions were addicted to showing scenes merely described in Shakespeare, including the crowning of Julius Caesar in the play named for him, and, in As You Like It (1912), the banishment of Duke Senior, the deathbed farewell of Sir Rowland to his two sons, and Jaques's famous evocation of the Seven Ages of Man, here shown seriatim in picturesque detail. The new medium was muscularly eager to show how it could visually transcend the limitations of theater and written text.

Amateurish as it was, silent film Shakespeare has nevertheless brought into focus a question that is still subject to intense debate: how are Shakespeare's scripts to be performed for today's audiences who are unfamiliar with the stage language of Shakespeare's original theater? The new Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames in London (fig. 1.3) gives us valuable glimpses into the stage vocabulary of a theater that employs essentially no scenery, relies for its lighting on the open sky in afternoon performances, and provides standing room for a sizable percentage of the audience on three sides of a large, rectangular stage with pillars supporting a roof and with a gallery backstage over the stage doors, but even here we realize that the spectacle is only approximating what the original must have been like. All-male casting for plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night (both staged recently in this fashion at the new Globe Theatre, with Mark Rylance as Cleopatra in 1999 and as the Countess Olivia in 2002-2003) can provide some taste of what it must have been like to have no women onstage, even if we must admit that adult actors in the roles of Viola and Olivia are not boy actors and that modern audiences are not Elizabethan audiences. Quite sensibly, the acting company at the new Globe argues that it should not be consigned to doing all its work in Elizabethan costume, and so an occasional production there is set in the 1920s or some other period. Other Elizabethan festival theaters in Stratford, Ontario; Ashland, Oregon; and other locations provide a varied diet of Elizabethan and more modern costuming, along with thrust staging, use of upper acting areas, and the like, discovering in the process how any such repertory theater must engage in a continual negotiation between modern theatrical sensibilities and the demands of Shakespeare's scripts. Academically researched purism can be deadly, and in any case misses the larger point, which is that Shakespeare's texts need to live today by interacting with modern temperament. This present book is an attempt to see how such an interaction can work by examining the evidence as to how Shakespeare's plays fitted into their original theatrical space, and then how modern directors and producers have sought, through the varied idioms of film, television, and an assortment of modern stages, to reposition those plays in an aural and visual environment that will engage the passionate attention of today's spectators.

The visual capabilities of film and television inevitably alter the expectations we bring to a performance of a Shakespeare play. His scripts constantly call our attention to the limited ability of the Elizabethan stage to show the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, the sea battle of Actium between Antony and Octavius Caesar, Henry V's great victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, and so on. The actors on the Globe stage in 1599 could not "cram within this wooden O / The very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt" (Henry V, opening chorus). Armies of thousands could only be hinted at by a pitiful handful of extras, outfitted in standard armor that made no attempt to reproduce the military hardware of 1415. Metonymy, or the use of a name to represent a larger entity of which it is a part, was then and remains today essential to the theatrical language of stage illusion. Synecdoche, a figure of speech by which a part stands for the whole, is similarly vital to the theatrical experience. Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than when we compare stage productions with filmed versions in which events that have only been named or described as having occurred offstage are brought before the viewer through the magic of the screen.

A screen will generally tell us where we are in a given play or scene by devices that nonscenic theater must convey through other means. As You Like It, for example, appears to begin in the garden belonging to Orlando's mean-spirited older brother, Oliver; we know this by costume and gesture, and because Orlando speaks angrily about the way he has been raised among the livestock of Oliver's house with no opportunities for self-improvement. A filmed version, such as the BBC's 1978 television production directed by Basil Coleman and produced by Cedric Messina, can show us Oliver's house and grounds, complete with livestock. Not only can film provide details that Herbert Beerbohm Tree so painstakingly imported into the theater; it is expected to do so. We learn a good deal about where we are, and who the characters are, before they speak a word. Characters are thus placed by film into a ready-made complete visual environment that is rich in information. Conversely, on the Elizabethan stage in 1598, the actors would tell the spectators who and what and where they were. They did so by what they wore, what they carried in their hands, how they gestured toward each other, and above all by what they said. Shakespeare's text adroitly handles the exposition in act 1 of As You Like It by having Orlando explain to the family servant, old Adam, how he has been mistreated by being kept at home in the role of a menial. The Elizabethan audience could learn from the dialogue a great deal about this idealistic young man, justifiably rebellious at his ignominious treatment. Awareness of location would arise entirely from such theatrical signals as these, from the actors themselves, rather than from the theatrical building, which neutrally lent itself to whatever spatial characterization the playwright and actors wished to lay upon it.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from This Wide and Universal Theater by David Bevington Copyright © 2007 by David Bevington . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures     ix
Actions That a Man Might Play: An Introduction     1
There Lies the Scene: Actors and Theaters in Late Elizabethan England     11
A Local Habitation and a Name: Stage Business in the Comedies     39
Thus Play I in One Person Many People: Performing the Histories     73
Like a Strutting Player: Staging Moral Ambiguity in Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida     105
The Motive and the Cue for Passion: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello in Performance     129
A Poor Player That Struts and Frets His Hour upon the Stage: Role-playing in King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra     159
Insubstantial Pageant: Shakespeare's Farewell to the Stage     191
This Falls Out Better Than I Could Devise: An Afterword     219
Further Reading     225
Index     231
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