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About this book

John Russell Brown is arguably the most influential scholar in the field of Shakespeare in performance. This collection brings together and makes accessible his most important writings across the past half-century or so. Ranging across space, words, audiences, directors and themes, the book maps John Russell Brown's search for a fuller understanding of Shakespeare's
plays in performance. New introductory notes for each chapter give a fascinating insight into his critical and scholarly journey. Together the essays provide an authoritative and engaging account of how to study Shakespeare's plays as texts for performance. Drawing readers into a wide variety of approaches and debates, this book will be important and provocative reading for anyone studying Shakespeare or staging one of his plays.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Introduction

Abstract
Shakespeare wrote his plays for an acting company and, in contrast to an increasing number of his contemporaries, seems to have done nothing to ensure they were available in print. Perhaps he saw little reason for that because to read a text and imagine it in performance before an audience will not come naturally to any one and any play can be acted and produced in many different ways. To study Shakespeare’s plays in performance is an endless task because it varies with each change of cast and production. The entire theatrical event should come into the reckoning: the occasion, location and context for performance, the composition and expectation of the audience, the form and equipment of the theatre building, the skill, training and experience of the actors. Daunting as all this is, a student of the plays must also remember that every reader and critic will bring a unique experience and imagination with them as they discover for themselves what the plays can offer. All of which brings uncertainties to the study of Shakespeare’s plays in performance but also the discovery of their contemporary relevance, centuries after they were written and received their first performances.
John Russell Brown

Study

Frontmatter

1. Theatrical Study and Editions of the Plays

Abstract
With this first attempt to understand the consequences of trying to study Shakespeare in performance, I considered a number of approaches and came to a positive conclusion. I identified describing and analysing a production’s use of time and space as basic and necessary tasks and introduced two phrases that were to recur frequently in my writing: the ‘progressive experience’ of an audience and the ‘journey’ undertaken by actors. I had also begun to consider a ‘theatrical event’ as the complex outcome of everyone’s contribution to a performance, on stage, back stage and in the audience, both before and during a performance. These personal and shared experiences are influenced by the location and timing as well as the nature of a production. I was learning new ways of grappling with Shakespeare’s plays in performance but not finding the task any easier.
John Russell Brown

2. Research in the Service of Theatre

Abstract
It seems obvious to me now that a study of Shakespeare’s plays in performance involves a wider and parallel interest in theatres and audiences but it was some time before I was aware of the consequences. In this article I look at how I started out, drawing on what was familiar and mapping territory that was new to me.
John Russell Brown

3. Writing about the Plays in Performance

Abstract
Some ten years ago I began to edit a series of Shakespeare Handbooks and wrote three of the early volumes. These book-length studies were significantly different from other existing series about Shakespeare in performance that evaluate individual productions, directors, performances and actors: they do not try to describe a few specific productions by reference to the texts, in the manner of other commentaries and extended studies. Knowing that all performances die as soon as they have been given, I concluded that a responsible attempt to understand what happened on stage involves describing productions that no longer exist and contextualising the theatrical events of which they were once a part. To describe any theatrical performance is a skilled and, ultimately, unsatisfactory task; many factors must be considered and description, at best, can only be the impressionistic and personal view of the writer.
In contrast to other studies of the plays in performance, the Shakespeare Handbooks are designed to help their readers imagine the plays in performance for themselves by providing commentaries that, moment by moment, describe the tasks that the texts require all actors to undertake and, at crucial moments, to consider some consequences of the choices that they can make. A reader needs no special theatrical knowledge to understand the actors’ tasks because the plays mirror life and not theatre: the commentaries show what can be seen in that mirror once the texts come alive in performance.
John Russell Brown

Words and Actions

Frontmatter

4. The Nature of Speech in the Plays

Abstract
In common with many others, I had become interested in Shakespeare’s plays by reading their texts when I could not see them in performance. They were more akin to the poetry I was reading than any other form of literature and so I started to study them as if they were poems that demanded my close and very personal attention. When I could see them in performance, however, much that engaged and moved me left me wondering what had happened and why this was so different from reading the texts. I wanted to know how speeches affected an audience and, more basically, how actors turned text into speech and poetry into theatre, and what were the consequences of these transformations. I was grappling with fundamental and difficult questions for any student of the plays.
John Russell Brown

5. Acting in the Plays

Abstract
Searching in play texts for clues that would explain how Shakespeare’s plays were acted originally, scholars had proposed two opposing answers: an old-fashioned formal style derived from training in rhetoric and oratory and a new one that mirrored life, was called ‘natural’ and could be mistaken as ‘real’. The actor’s art was changing at the same time as the playwright’s, the two aiding and abetting each other as they drew audiences to the newly built public theatres.
John Russell Brown

6. Unspoken Thoughts and Subtextual Meanings

Abstract
In rehearsals today actors and directors often speak about’ subtext’. The word was taken from books by Konstantin Stanislavsky, the Russian actor, teacher and theorist, that became widely available in English translations: An Actor Prepares (1936) and Building a Character (1950). For actors, the briefest definition is that ‘subtext is what makes us say what we do in a play,’ an idea that had proved especially useful for acting and producing plays by Anton Chekhov, Stanislavsky’s contemporary and close colleague. Subsequently it was appropriated for acting in films that ordinarily give a more complete and convincing image of actual life than any stage play. Then, more slowly, ‘subtext’ was drawn into wider use and literary, as well as theatrical, criticism.
At first, Shakespeare scholars and critics resisted the innovation on the grounds that he was a poet whose meanings and mood were created ‘primarily and entirely by the actual words.’ I joined the debate in two issues of Tulane Drama Review (1963–4) and later in Discovering Shakespeare (1981), from which the following extract is taken.
John Russell Brown

7. Using Space

Abstract
Wishing to learn more about acting, I joined classes in movement, modern dance and, later, choreography. There I learned how to ‘read’ physical actions and how movement across a stage influenced the effectiveness of performance as well as its meaning. This encouraged me to envisage Shakespeare’s plays in performance on a platform stage, resembling those I had seen in drawings and reconstructions of Elizabethan theatres. The plays’ dialogue and some original stage directions were my sole guides in this and helped with problems of interpretation.
John Russell Brown

Productions

Frontmatter

8. Free Shakespeare

Abstract
The more productions of Shakespeare I saw, the more I became restless and unwilling to take all that was offered without question. I did not want to see the plays through another person’s eyes and be told what I should think. When reading and thinking about the plays and imagining them in action on a stage, I was continually surprised and challenged but too often when I saw them in performance what was fresh and engaging was dominated by what was traditional, lazy, intrusive or inept. I sought a shared experience that would lead me to a new understanding of the play and awaken sensations and thoughts that caught and held my attention. Frustrated, I tried to share my thoughts in the article reprinted here and subsequently in a short book that is still in print, both entitled Free Shakespeare (1971 and 1974).
John Russell Brown

9. Representing Sexuality

Abstract
In everyday behaviour and dress, sexuality is now more apparent than in Shakespeare’s day but in the plays, language and action express many unconscious or subtextual thoughts about sexual encounters. Close attention to puns and other wordplay, changing rhythms and silences revealed sensations and physical attractions that exercise a strong but tongue-tied influence on the action.
John Russell Brown

10. Violence and Sensationalism

Abstract
At first, Shakespeare trusted language to represent cruelty and suffering but he then also sought other more direct means. By looking for what happens on stage, I became aware that in King Lear silent suffering and vicious actions are used alongside sustained verbal expression of pain and tenderness.
John Russell Brown

Directors

Frontmatter

11. Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet

Abstract
Directors use Shakespeare’s dialogue to suit their own purposes and it can become a question as to whether an audience sees the original play or a new adaptation of it. After extensive rehearsals and workshop experiments, a mixture of both is usually staged and a careful account of performance is needed to evaluate the director’s shaping influence.
John Russell Brown

12. Three Kinds of Shakespeare

Abstract
Acting style, stage settings and stage business, as well as verbal emphasis and characterisation, are powerful ways in which a director can control a play in performance. Noting the means that are favoured in a production will reveal the director’s contribution and is a measure of the play’s possible effects on an audience.
John Russell Brown

Audiences

Frontmatter

13. Playgoing and Participation

Abstract
I knew very well from productions I had directed that an audience’s reception of a production affects everyone helping to create it and alters the effect of performance. Clearly a study of the plays in performance should try to take into account the composition, experience and response of audiences.
John Russell Brown

14. Asian Theatres and European Shakespeares

Abstract
Travel opened my eyes and mind to theatrical experiences I had not known before and, on returning home, I found that they had altered how I responded to Shakespeare, on stage and in print. First in articles and then in the book, New Sites for Shakespeare: Theatre, the Audience and Asia (1999), I tried to understand the change and reconsider earlier responses.
John Russell Brown

Conclusion: Anyone’s Shakespeare

Abstract
In this book all the studies of Shakespeare in performance lead towards a realisation that, in this form of criticism and scholarship, as in a disaster at sea, the call must be ‘each for himself!’ or for herself. Not only is the subject of study and its context always changing, so also are the readers. Anyone studying the plays in performance brings to the task a random bundle of likes and dislikes, prejudices and blind spots, and these are liable to change with time. This study is like a sport, worth watching for spectators, enjoyable and sometimes difficult or surprising for participants. I hope the book will draw readers to watch the sport more closely and encourage new players onto the field.
John Russell Brown
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