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About this book

What makes a Shakespeare production political? Can Shakespeare's plays ever be truly radical?

Revealing the unspoken politics of Shakespeare's plays on stage, Andrew Hartley examines their nature, agenda, limits and potential. In considering key theoretical issues, analysing a wide range of productions, and engaging in a collaborative debate with Professor Ayanna Thompson, Hartley highlights a more consciously political approach to making theatre out of Shakespeare's scripts – and to experiencing it as an audience. Dynamic and provocative, this book is a crucial text for students and theatre practitioners alike.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

In the summer of 2001, I was working as a dramaturg on a Georgia Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar which was set in the American south of the 1930s. One of the play’s most disturbing scenes takes place right after Mark Antony has inflamed the crowd during his funeral oration over Caesar’s corpse. Subtly manipulating the people’s sympathies and loyalties, Antony is able to take an assembly of ordinary citizens, invert their leanings entirely, and turn them into a ravening and murderous mob. Once unleashed, they tear through the streets of Rome looking for anyone who might have been connected to the conspirators who assassinated Caesar. When they happen on a man who shares a name—Cinna—with one of the conspirators, they assault and kill him, knowing full well that he is merely a hapless poet who has nothing to do with the corpse Antony showed them in the forum. It’s a chilling study in mob violence run amok, a moment so unsettling that it was consistently cut from all eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions.
Andrew James Hartley

In Theory

Frontmatter

1. The Politics of the Stage

Assessing the political nature and impact of theatre is a complex business, in part because the nature of the theatrical event is difficult to limit and measure and because it is so ephemeral. Theatre, unlike a literary text, happens in a particular time and space, after which it becomes something else entirely, something potentially still potent, but generically different. Its meanings are shaped as much by light and music and the appearance of the actors as they are by the details of the dramatic script which is performed. As a result, theatre is an essentially experiential art form, and the meanings it generates—including its political meanings—tend to be limited to those who make up its audience. After it closes, the production may live on in memory, in reviews, in archive photographs or video, but it loses its kinetic immediacy, its presentness. It becomes disconnected from that which defined it: a crucially interactive dependence on the live audience and a broader interactivity which locates both performers and audience in a particular cultural moment. Spoken lines which—for that original audience—clearly echoed the phrasing of a prominent political figure will lose those associations as the culture evolves, and if the political echo was not so much in the actual lines as in an actor’s style of delivery, say, what once seemed pointed may leave no textual traces by which the future might map the moment. Tracking the politics of the theatre is always about identifying the nature of an event and decoding the way all those involved in it (actors, crew, audience members, bystanders, etc.) respond to it. Unsurprisingly then, all assessments of political theatre must be provisional, plural, and contextual, so any consideration of what political theatre is must be rooted historically.
Andrew James Hartley

2. The Curious Case of Mr Shakespeare

As Chapter 1 suggests, there can be no innate paradox between the notion of radical theatre and Shakespearean production where people like Brecht, Boal, and Knowles see Shakespeare’s plays, their original performance conditions and their capacity for contemporary deployment as potentially subversive, but the matter remains vexed. For Brecht, utilizing Shakespeare in the pursuit of an epic or dialectical theatre requires a stripping of Shakespeare’s bourgeois and romantic accretions, a return to the non-realist origins of his theatre practice and an extension of his latent interests in representing the populace, but this is no mean task and questions remain about the extent to which a production can escape Shakespeare’s high cultural baggage. After all, if theatre as an institution is often bound to cultural hegemony and the ideological conformity that implies, what chance of escaping that paradigm has an author whose work is pre-eminently enshrined in the Western cultural hierarchy? Is it impossible for Shakespeare on stage to be truly radical? While political interrogation of the plays has become central to literary study, particularly in terms of the triumvirate of cultural studies—gender, race, and class—identity politics in performance is harder to see in conventional productions, partly because of the way macro concerns tend to get individuated in the body of the actor, so that a more abstract debate about the place of women, for instance, tends to play as a psychological study of a single character. Even when productions take a more political tack, it might be asked whether they can overcome the audience’s assumptions about what Shakespeare is and represents, or whether such a production can realistically reach more than a financially and educationally privileged elite. Further, if Shakespeare can be brought to other audiences, is that necessarily a good thing, or does it serve only to evangelize a dominant world view which creates a deeper sense of cultural alienation in the less traditional audience? Where productions modulate their text to accommodate such audiences, to what extent are they still “doing Shakespeare,” and does such modulation suggest that the only way to render the plays politically effective is to virtually throw them out and start over?
Andrew James Hartley

In Practice

Frontmatter

3. Identity Politics and the Stage

The three plays I will consider in this chapter—Othello, The Merchant of Venice,andThe Taming ofthe Shrew—have all been considered so politically incendiary in their representation of race, ethnicity, and gender that some theatre practitioners now refuse to stage them at all. Each play represents, it is argued, a normative early modern perspective which has played a part in the perpetuation of stereotypes, disempowerment, and injustice in ways which have had real and damaging consequences for the world outside the theatre both for individuals and for society as a whole. One of them, The Merchant of Venice, might even be called a contributor to the culture which produced a genocide. Even if we can escape the plays’ historical associations, some say they contain ideas and assumptions which are offensive. As such they have no place on the contemporary stage and—regardless of their other laudable qualities—should be consigned to the trash bin of history.
Andrew James Hartley

4. “Who talks of my nation?” Challenging the Establishment

If some Shakespeare plays are particularly good grist for the mill of identity politics, others—notably the histories and tragedies—naturally invite association with the politics of statecraft, nationhood, and the power to rule. Few combine these concerns better than the second tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2,and Henry V) with its preoccupation with the getting and maintaining of power in the face of enemies foreign and domestic, and the last play in the sequence is a particular flashpoint for competing ideological views focused through the lens of kingship. As elsewhere, the importance of this play as a consideration of power and an especially British nationalism has been shaped as much by the cultural legacy surrounding the play as by the lines within it, and any consideration of recent productions in political terms must be placed in a larger context, notably the long and potent shadow cast by the film version of Henry V made in 1944 by Laurence Olivier.
Andrew James Hartley

5. “Let him be Caesar”: Representing Politics

While all Shakespeare plays might be considered political or might be made so in performance, others simply are political in the very marrow of their bones. One of these is Julius Caesar, a historically rooted play about conspiracy, assassination, the manipulation of popular opinion, and the military outgrowth of political action. This is a play whose very blood—that which gives it life and motion—is politics. Yet the play has a vexed performance history and is widely considered to be flawed as the starting point of a piece of theatre which audiences will flock to: it is almost completely without humour, it has only two small female roles, it is low on visual spectacle and, most damning of all, suffers from the structural problem of the title character dying midway through the play, after which the story seems to lose its drive and dramatic appeal, ending in squabbles and piecemeal combat scenes populated by characters who were not part of the play’s first acts. These are valid complaints, and I have no interest in sweeping them under the rug here, looming large as they inevitably do in the mind of any director bold enough to tackle the play on stage. They are complaints, of course, which have not harmed the play’s utility in the classroom (where its lack of bawdy humour has actually increased its durability), but its use in schools has only furthered the play’s aura of dust and dryness on stage.
Andrew James Hartley

6. Place and Pedagogy: Site-Specific Production, School Tours, Prison Shakespeare, and the Question of Agenda

There is a deeply held cultural assumption that the performance of Shakespeare for (or by) those who are not customarily thought of as its audience—those in rural communities, say, but also the impoverished, the marginal, the young, and the incarcerated—is necessarily a Good Thing. Those audiences (or, indeed, players) are somehow uplifted by their encounter with the hallowed text, stunned by its apparent newness and “relevance,” and transformed in ways benefiting society as whole.
Andrew James Hartley

7. The Tame Snake: The Politics of Safe Shakespeare

On the eve of the 2008 presidential election, United States president to be Barak Obama opted to give his final address before votes were cast from the campus of my present institution, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). The venue was not chosen idly. North Carolina was considered a key swing state, one which had traditionally voted Republican but which if it fell to Obama and the Democrats might model shifts to the left elsewhere in the country. Charlotte is the state’s most major city (though not its capital) and UNCC is that city’s major institute of higher education. As it happened, Obama won the election on the shoulders of states like North Carolina which did indeed vote Democrat. Four years later, after a bruising depression and the rise of the “Tea Party” Republican movement, the Democrats once more chose Charlotte, this time to play host to the Democratic National Convention where Obama would officially be named his party’s nominee for the election which would follow two months later.
Andrew James Hartley

Provocation and Debate

Frontmatter

8. “A Conversation with Ayanna Thompson in Three Acts”

Andrew, you rightly warn that in all matters of political theatre, “Context, here, is all.” Keeping this mantra in my mind, I begin with a very specific example of political theatre, the Eden Troupe at Patrick Henry College (PHC).
Andrew James Hartley

Annotated Reading List

Part IV Annotated Reading List

For ease of reference, I have divided the following list into three sections—on reading Shakespeare politically, on political theatre, and on staging Shakespeare—though it is assumed that the student of the larger subject will find overlap and cross-pollination between all three areas. The list is far from exhaustive but should provide provocative starting points for readers who want to explore further the ideas surrounding Shakespeare and political theatre.
Andrew James Hartley
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