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About this book

In his latest book, John Russell Brown offers a new and revealing way of reading and studying Shakespeare's plays, focusing on what a play does for an audience, as well as what its text says. By considering the entire theatrical experience and not only what happens on stage, Brown takes his readers back to the major texts with a fuller understanding of their language, and an enhanced view of a play's theatrical potential.

Chapters on theatre-going, playscripts, acting, parts to perform, interplay, stage space, off-stage space, and the use of time all bring recent developments in Theatre studies together with Shakespeare Studies. Every aspect of theatre-making comes into view as a dozen major plays are presented in the context for which they were written, making this an adventurous and eminently practical book for all students of Shakespeare.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Theatrical Events

Introduction: Theatrical Events

Abstract
On leaving a theatre and being asked what was most remarkable in a performance of Hamlet, most people will be likely to speak about one person in the play. Among many different answers, they may remember Hamlet when he swore revenge or first saw Ophelia, the Ghost on his entry, or the First Player weeping for Hecuba. Encounters, too, may be remembered: Hamlet seeing the Ghost and then listening to him, or seeing Claudius and deciding not to kill him; the long meeting with his mother in her closet; his encounter with Yorick’s skull, his struggle with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave or their final fight together. A few memories may concern figures isolated among others: Gertrude sitting and wringing her hands, the Polish Captain remaining on stage to answer Hamlet, Osric flourishing his hat, Fortinbras entering to face the on-stage carnage. The odds are high that these memories will not be concerned with verbal statements or arguments, or the meaning of the play: the primary memory will be of performance, of an actor’s presence and what he or she does.1 The words of the playtext may not have registered at all.
John Russell Brown

Audiences

Frontmatter

1. Playgoing and Participation

Abstract
When a play becomes part of a theatrical event, anything that happens on stage will have meaning, give pleasure, or cause uncertainty according to how the audience receives it.1 In one way, this makes judging its effect easier because we can all be members of an audience and use our own experiences to elucidate what happens on any one occasion, but our experiences will differ and we have little means of holding on to passing impressions. In trying to understand a play’s effect on an audience, the best way to start is to stand back and observe other people’s behaviour as well as our own, and to start at the beginning.
John Russell Brown

2. Functions

Abstract
An author will usually deliver a more or less finished script to a theatre, but no play is complete — not seen and heard in its full life — until many other very different people have contributed to what has been written.1 Nor is any single production the one necessary form in which it reaches an audience. Change the actors, staging, audience, or theatre building and vary the infinite number of choices and accidents that occur during rehearsals and performance, and the life of a play is bound to change, often quite radically. While the words may remain the same, their effect depends on how they are spoken and on everything else that happens on stage and in the auditorium. The author will often be surprised when a play becomes part of a theatrical event and will come to think differently about the script he had handed to the players. In the less controlled productions of Elizabethan theatres a play would vary far more in performance than it does today and, until the last century or so, the same was true of productions in most other theatres. What Shakespeare wrote about the processes of writing and performance in his own time provides a first step towards understanding what was, and still may be, involved.
John Russell Brown

3. Responses

Abstract
The physical staging of Shakespeare’s plays calls for much the same active imagination as their dialogue.1 For the histories, actors and audience must travel to the ‘vasty fields of France’, the battle grounds of England, and the great palaces of earlier ages. They must also settle into places of rural calm and familiar domesticity that might be on their own doorsteps and in their own time. The comedies are usually more confined in location and it is their variety of mood that taxes the actors’ versatility and stretches an audience’s imagination. Much Ado About Nothing takes place in and around Leonato’s house but its action involves an army returning from battle, a masked ball, a religious ceremony, and a nighttime conspiracy; these scenes are interspersed with leisured talk in an orchard, ladies dressing for a wedding, and men challenging each other to a duel and keeping vigil in a tomb. Modern production, design, technology and expert stage-management have lessened the physical difficulties of staging but personal appearances continue to make exceptional demands.
John Russell Brown

Actors

Frontmatter

4. Texts and Techniques

Abstract
Shakespeare’s playscripts are both immediately enjoyable and endlessly demanding. Their words can occupy so much attention that a reader may not wish to look further, towards the theatrical events in which they were intended to play their part. Add to the words a voice, an actor, and space on stage, an auditorium full of people drawn from various backgrounds, and the day, time, and place for consecutive performance of the entire play and then, clearly, the changes wrought on what the words on the page might communicate will, at first, baffle enquiry. Yet here is the centre of interest for anyone wishing to know how the texts can do their proper work.
John Russell Brown

5. Persons in a Play

Abstract
The persons represented by actors in a Shakespeare play can seem startlingly real. Palpably present before an audience, they discover new resources during the course of a play and may appear differently from one performance to another. These are complicated phenomena for which Shakespeare has been praised down all the centuries. When a play becomes part of a theatrical event, the audience watches its leading characters as they seem to be driven by their own thoughts and feelings in a course of action that leads to a conclusion that is both fitting and revelatory. With each new performance this process will change, sometimes very slightly, sometimes surprisingly so, offering the actors a journey of discovery. By the end of the play, if all goes well, both spectators and actors will have shared in the unfolding of a seemingly complete world that had lain hidden within the text and now has a life of its own. It can seem so effortless and inevitable that both audience and actors wonder how it has all been done.
John Russell Brown

6. Parts to Perform

Abstract
The relation of speech to performance can be closely observed in soliloquies, for which dramatic focus centres on one person alone on the stage. The changing style of these sustained speeches throughout a play marks a changing relationship of text to performance and of performer to audience that affects the nature of the entire theatrical event. In the course of his career, Shakespeare came to use soliloquies differently, seeming to develop a greater trust in an actor’s ability to draw upon the instinctive depths of his being. Increasingly, he called into play physical sensations and feelings that cannot be put into words because they are beyond the scope of conscious thought.
John Russell Brown

7. Actions and Reactions

Abstract
Because so much attention has been paid to individual parts in the tragedies, Shakespeare’s reliance on the interaction between the persons of a play has almost escaped attention. They speak to each other, obviously enough, but they interact across a much wider spectrum of responses than their words indicate. As these people move on stage, they react physically and instinctively to each other’s presence. Coming together, they can be in agreement or fierce opposition. They can enter on stage together and then leave separately, or the other way about. A vast range of actions and interactions are set in motion by the texts and arise almost without premeditation during performance. Just as naturally, an audience responds to this ever-changing show. If the actors’ parts in the comedies had been considered, these processes could not have been missed, for in these plays location and mood shift frequently and the grouping of figures is constantly changing to reveal further possibilities inherent in their basic relationships and individual resources and qualities.
John Russell Brown

8. Visual Interplay

Abstract
Small details of physical performance and staging are closely related to the words of a text and are therefore more readily understood than actions larger in scope. But actions that involve many persons and evolve over a long period of time affect the whole of a theatrical event and the value of any single moment will depend on its relation to these larger movements. This is partly due to a scale effect, the more substantial and slower actions drawing lighter and quicker ones along with them, as if in their wake. It is also a consequence of the progressive nature of a theatrical event which enables an audience to accumulate impressions, retaining the least transitory and becoming increasingly, if subconsciously, aware of contrasts, similarities, and interconnections. The interplay between different visual elements in a play should to be considered in the widest and most sustained terms possible; it contributes significantly to the overall effect of a play.
John Russell Brown

9. Improvisation

Abstract
Between Shakespeare’s time and our own, theatre has changed in many ways, in the composition and behaviour of audiences and in the setting and staging of plays. Among these changes, although not always obvious, the degree of improvisation used by actors and stage technicians has been a major influence on the staging and reception of Shakespeare’s plays. Today, productions are carefully prepared to ensure that one chosen interpretation of the text is expressed throughout the actors’ performances and in the play’s setting and technical support. The aim is to give the strongest possible effect to each distinctive production. The public benefits from this in that, having a good idea of what they will see from pre-publicity and journalistic reviews, they can choose what they pay for. Successful producers are able to offer the same production, essentially unchanged, over a period of many months and sometimes several years.
John Russell Brown

Contexts

Frontmatter

10. Stage Space

Abstract
Anyone with a grammar school education in Shakespeare’s day would have known that the word theatre derived from Latin, with the meaning of a place for viewing or a public arena. Playhouse was a more specific word, a document of 8 January 1600 referring to ‘the late erected playhouse on the Bank … called the Globe’. This word seems to have been a new coinage, the first literary citation in the Oxford New English Dictionary being Shakespeare’s Henry V of 1599 (II. Chorus, 36). But earlier, John Norden’s map of London in his Speculum Britanniae of 1593 shows two circular buildings just south of the river which he identified as ‘The Bear house’ and ‘The Play house’, the latter representing the Rose theatre that had been built in 1587. These inscriptions defined purpose: actors were to be seen performing in the playhouse and in the bearhouse animals were watched being baited. The older theatre came to be used with much the same intention, as in ‘An Excellent Actor’ in the collection of Characters of 1615:1
sit in a full theatre, and you will think you see so many lines drawn from the circumference of so many ears, whiles the actor is the centre.
John Russell Brown

11. Off-stage Space

Abstract
In performance, Shakespeare’s plays appear to occupy a space far wider and deeper than any stage. The persons of a drama arrive as if from other places, sometimes from long distances, sometimes from within earshot, and the course of a story will often depend on off-stage action that is independent of any event shown on-stage. Since it is never visible, neither text nor actors can do more than suggest the presence of this off-stage space; it needs to draw upon the imaginations of spectators if it is to become effective. Doing so will involve them closely with the play’s action by making it seem to take place within the space of their own minds.
John Russell Brown

12. Time

Abstract
A performance of a Shakespeare play can never be what it was in his time. Even if the text could be kept exactly as it was written, it would never be acted or received in the same way. With a great deal of trouble, guesswork, and approximation, theatre buildings and stage management could be replicated today but not their original effect: today, they would strike audiences as antiquated and peculiar. This study has shown that a theatrical event depends on factors that will always be subject to change: the occasion of performance, the composition and disposition of its audience, the individuality and talent of each actor, and the conscious and unconscious decisions that actors make before and during the show. Inevitably, every performance will be both old and new, even when it conscientiously tries to repeat the past. The wonder is that Shakespeare’s plays have proved so receptive to change that they continue to be revived and can still draw large audiences after more than 400 years. It seems that the possibility of change has been written into the texts.
John Russell Brown

Plays in Print

Frontmatter

13. Reading

Abstract
Reading a Shakespeare play is like swimming: however difficult it may seem at first, once started and practised the process becomes entirely natural and readers grow more ambitious. Some will have more difficulty with the language than others and yet, on a first reading, that hardly matters because enough words and images will catch attention and hold it moving forward. For everyone reading will be different as it involves the imagination and brings memories, fantasies, day dreams, and real dreams into play. What we consciously think is also involved, the opinions developed from what we have read and heard and those derived from our own experiences. If we keep an open mind, the plays can quickly become part of that long argument we each have about how and why we live, and what we value most in others. If we are curious and adventurous the plays will start to speak for themselves in unique ways.
John Russell Brown

14. Study and Criticism

Abstract
Trying to understanding how Shakespeare’s plays function in a theatrical event is an undertaking that will never be complete.1 All the difficulties experienced by a reader are met in greater force when setting out to discover what is dominant or constant in a play’s theatrical life. As this study has shown, any one production is never the same as another because it relies on the presence and achievements of individual actors and the skills of managers, directors and designers. And the experience it gives is never easy to understand because it reflects the culture of the time and the response of each audience is influenced by the place and occasion of each performance. This ever-changing set of circumstances affects the presentation of speech, argument, narrative, and the persons of the play. Nothing exists in theatre except as a part of a re-creation of life that cannot be closely or permanently defined and is not limited in its effect to what can be readily described. It follows that any account of performance will have to be, in part at least, impressionistic and must draw upon a very personal response.
John Russell Brown
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