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About this book

The Dancing of the title was in Shakespeare's mind as he wrote: a physical and active imagination. This book studies its operation in his most frequently performed texts and encourages readers to seek out the performance possibilities of all the texts for themselves.

The need to study Shakespeare's plays as they come to life in a theatre is now widely recognised. John Russell Brown moves beyond an exploration of what has happened in a number of specific productions to examine the entire theatrical event in which a performance occurs: the meeting and interaction of actors and audience, and the social and cultural contexts of a play's reception in the past and at the present time. Assuming no prior knowledge of theatre practice and offering practical advice for further investigations, Shakespeare Dancing is written for all who study Shakespeare's work in search of a fuller understanding, or as a preparation for performance.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
Written early in Shakespeare’s career, these words were prophetic. The changing dynamic of his plays drew audiences to performances that could be as sensational as the dancing of leviathans. When a play ends, both actors and audience can be left wondering what has happened, so far have they been transported.
John Russell Brown

1. Present Laughter: Comedy in Performance

Abstract
Comedies depend on their audiences, even more than other plays, because laughter is an unreliable and problematic phenomenon. It can be an almost mindless reflex but, at other times, a thoughtful, surprising, dangerous or hesitant response. We can laugh for very personal reasons when no one else does, or laugh along with everyone present. We can laugh at the persons on stage or with them, enjoying their company. Much will depend on our mood at the moment. As Rosaline tells Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost:
John Russell Brown

2. Living with the Tragedies: a Progressive Experience

Abstract
Shakespeare’s tragedies are both the most accessible and the most formidable of his plays. One or two persons dominate each of them as their story provides the main action and the principal focus for our attention. In the comedies we cannot be so sure, as the action shifts from one set of persons to another and to a different part of the forest, another city, a more private room, or out into the street. The history plays are structured in much the same way as the comedies, but after Titus Andronicus the tragedies are more consistently focused on one story-line. Even when the scene moves from Scotland to England in Macbeth or from Egypt to Rome in Antony and Cleopatra, the thrust of the drama remains constant and keeps us watching and waiting for what will happen to the protagonists. The sub-plot of King Lear would seem an exception to this, but the story of the Duke of Gloucester and his sons reflects that of Lear and his daughters in many ways and soon becomes interwoven with it: Gloucester dies off stage without preventing the tragedy coming to a full close. And yet, while we do not lose our bearings in any of the major tragedies, the journey we follow makes new demands at each stage of the way, and what happens so fully engages us that we may well want to pause to take breath or avert our eyes as we begin to fear the outcome.
John Russell Brown

3. Annotating Silence: Speechless Eloquence

Abstract
On the pages of a book, Shakespeare’s words say everything for a reader and can arouse endless reactions, associations, and visual images. But his playscripts were written to do more than that. In theatrical performance, with the help of actors and their many supporters, they take on a living presence and a spectator views a complex phenomenon, a re-making of the everyday world that transforms ordinary events and can transcend or intensify ordinary experiences. The words are still there but as part of an event in which they have meanings that a reader might never consider and, indeed, might judge to be impossible or plain wrong. Words are eaten up in performance and digested, with much added, subtracted, accentuated, or ignored. They give rise to a happening on stage that on every occasion is unique and, to some degree, surprising.
John Russell Brown

4. Accounting for Space: Choreography

Abstract
Play-texts only record the words to be spoken and a few stage directions, some of doubtful authenticity, and so it may seem that Shakespeare has left little guidance about staging for present-day actors and directors. But, on the contrary, implicit in the dialogue is a network of instructions that, in today’s language, can be called the choreography of each play. Shakespeare was very knowledgeable about physical performance. He wrote for a company of actors with whom he had daily dealings over long periods of time. In his formative years he had acted among them on stage in a large repertoire of plays that included his own. As a consequence, when he wrote dialogue he would have seen actors in his mind’s eye, aware of how they might move and interact with each other. If we read the texts with open eyes, we can trace the imprint of this very close and specialized knowledge, an awareness as lively and careful as his understanding of words and speech.
John Russell Brown

5. Awakening the Senses: an Actor’s Task

Abstract
The methods of training and rehearsal that actors are familiar with today were unknown in Shakespeare’s day. Stanislavski’s use of specific emotional memories and Brecht’s questioning, dialectical concern with history and politics were unimaginable: the vocabulary they used and their self-awareness were unavailable. Equally, ‘theatre games’ were not played and individually expressive movement was not encouraged as a means of exploring the use of space and developing a student’s creativity.1 No one had been to an acting school or attended workshops given by masters of the art; acting was learnt by apprenticeship and by taking small roles within a company. Most modern facilities and facilitators have to be left out of the account if we want to know how Shakespeare expected his actors to respond to the texts, sustaining long roles and respecting the subtleties and innovations that are found on almost every page.
John Russell Brown

6. Staging the Everyday: Actual Activities

Abstract
A reader of Shakespeare’s plays will quickly realize that gifted and experienced actors are needed to represent the exceptional persons who speak their words and are involved in their exceptional situations and actions. Yet, at times, the words are so simple and what is happening so like the events of everyday life that no skilled performances or sophisticated staging seem to be necessary. In his own times this sense of actuality would have been more apparent than it is today because the language of the dialogue was more familiar and even its most extraordinary qualities could be recognized as a heightened form of everyday speech. Loss of verbal familiarity has far-reaching consequences because it obscures a continuous lifelikeness that the plays once possessed, a sense that everything is actually happening at the very threshold of one’s own daily experience. Actors can compensate us for this loss when their sense-awareness and physical performance embody a play’s action and re-animate its speeches, bringing even the most complicated speeches to palpable and present life. A reader can also resuscitate the plays by an active imagination.
John Russell Brown

7. Seeing Double: Uncertainty and Choice

Abstract
Anyone who has worked on a theatre production will have a keen understanding of failure. As an actor, you can be left with ‘egg on your face’, stripped of all pretence, alone and exposed to the audience, perhaps laughed at, mocked, or sent off the stage. An author may have to listen when words fail to hold attention or make no sense at all, while an actor struggles to ‘make them work’. A stage-manager or, as Elizabethans would say, a bookkeeper will sometimes be unable to prevent the wrong person entering or a technical device failing to function. Sometimes an entire company of actors must face an audience that has lost interest or become hostile. Behind any success in theatre lies the possibility of failure, when the only recourse is to recognize what has happened, try to ride the unmanageable beast, and learn from the experience.
John Russell Brown

8. Criticism: Making the Plays One’s Own

Abstract
In much the same way as any natural phenomenon, a theatrical performance can appeal to the senses without being consciously understood.1 Even a play’s most literary qualities — its narrative, structure, language, imagery, its imitation of ordinary speech, and subtextual suggestions — co-exist in an audience’s mind with a sensory experience. Words that are spoken do not function alone but always together with the individual and unique presence of the actors who speak them. All that happens in performance, visible to everyone in the theatre, will supplement and modify whatever a dramatist sets down on paper. Shakespeare was so aware of the physical, temporal, and actor-centred nature of performance that a play may be said to have danced in his mind as he wrote and imagined its more than ordinary existence on a stage. This book has tried to study that dazzling phenomenon and used various ways of grasping this complex and essentially theatrical art. The next step is to assess the consequences of this form of study.
John Russell Brown
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