Rob Hardy on books


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For the Love of the Bard



Rob Hardy


There are professionals and there are amateurs. We tend to demean the amateurs, and of course we would never consent to take the services of, say, an amateur dentist. We should remember, though, that the word "amateur" comes from the Latin word amare, the same root of such words as "amatory." Amateurs put forth their efforts for the love of it, with no expectation of financial gain, so if we laugh, for instance, at any faults in amateur actors, we ought to do so quietly. Not so with Shakespeare; there are plenty of laughs at the expense of Bottom and his boys as they give us their chinked version of Pyramus and Thisbe within A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare's magical play is, in fact, a favorite for amateur performance, but the subject of Shakespeare by amateurs has been more a subject for fun and jokes than it has for serious appreciation. That's far from the case in Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press) by Michael Dobson, a professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of London. In fact, Dobson says his book tries to do something never done before: "It offers the first ever sustained examination of the contexts and styles in which people who are not theatrical professionals have chosen to perform Shakespeare's plays for themselves and their immediate communities, in locations ranging from aristocratic drawing rooms to village halls, and from military encampments to rain-swept cliffsides." This book is entertaining despite generally refraining from anecdotes about memorable or disastrous performances. Dobson admits that while professional performances have had no lack of critical documentation, he has had scraps to work with such as "blandly approving reviews in local newspapers mainly anxious to mention all the people involved who would wish to be thanked." Shakespeare has been performed by amateurs for coming up on four hundred years now, and Dobson lets us know we ought to be grateful for their efforts. Amateurs have over the centuries in countless productions given the plays to audiences who might otherwise not have seen them, and given them a good time, and given them something to think about, and for Dobson, amateurs have done this work at least as effectively as the professionals. 




There is no firm boundary about what productions count as amateur. Dobson generally omits school and university performances. For most of the performances described here, most of the actors indeed got no money. Public performances have rarely been free, however, and amateur theaters have a budget. Some of their money might be spent on a venue, and some can get spent on management, and on musicians, and even on visiting directors and actors. This was not, of course, the case in the estates of the aristocrats whose domestic performances are the subject of Dobson's first chapter. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the upper classes mounted private, home versions of the plays. The plays were still being performed publicly, but the aristocrats thought that they were rescuing Shakespeare from the clutches of the vulgar. While you'd expect that this would be harmless and uncontroversial, it is surprising that private productions were the subject of public censure. It was bad enough that respectable women were pretending to be someone else and exhibiting themselves; especially problematic was an all-female production in Salisbury, which although it avoided anxieties over boy-girl embraces, provoked raillery (in poems to the press) that the young ladies would "act as Senators, Heroes, and Kings." It was the same sort of feeling that kept Romeo and Juliet from amateur performance. During the time, it was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays for professionals, but not for amateurs. Dobson writes, "The very idea of the improprieties that might be involved should any respectable woman play Juliet in a domestic setting, despite the fact that it scarcely ever happened, haunted the imagination of opponents of private theatricals for generations." They were fretting that young women would be inspired by performing in or seeing the play to undertake their own elopements against the wishes of their families, an early instance of worry that depictions in the media spark bad behavior in real life. (I wonder if this was ever true.) 




From performances in stately homes, amateur efforts descended in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century into the drawing rooms of the middle class and the clubs of gentlemen. How-to books of the time, however, advised staying away from the complicated scenes of Shakespeare and sticking to spouting the great speeches only, or reducing famous scenes to mere tableaux. While there may have been few serious full-scale amateur productions of Shakespeare, there was enough interest in the classic plays that the amateurs enjoyed doing lighter or parody versions, like Hamlet Travestie or burlesques written purposefully for non-professionals like the 1866 Hamlet! The Ravin' Prince of Denmark!! Or, the Baltic Swell!!! And the Diving Belle!!! But Shakespeare was to regain serious status in the early twentieth century, especially with the founding of "The Guild of the Norwich Players" in 1911. It was founded by Newton Monck, and he was its director for decades. In 1933, he became the first director ever to have staged every one of Shakespeare's plays, and Dobson says that these versions, unlike many amateur efforts, were well-documented, and "may have been the most influential performances of Shakespeare ever given by amateur players." An admirer of Monck said his great advantage of using amateur actors was that they were "preoccupied with the stage, not as a means of livelihood, but as an art-medium." 




Shakespeare was to travel with the English language outside of his home country (which is the land most documented in Dobson's history). There were military performances of Shakespeare by British troops in their spare time as they fought the colonials in the American Revolution. The rebels put on Coriolanus. Shakespeare was not abandoned by soldiers once the republic had been founded. During the campaign in Texas against the Mexicans in 1845, a young and beardless officer took the part of Desdemona in Othello (this theatrical cross-dressing, with which Shakespeare himself was familiar, is a recurrent theme in the book). He was Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant. The high-water mark of military performances of Shakespeare was during the Civil War, but plays set in Britain were avoided: "Whatever else Uncle Sam may have wanted, he did not want Falstaff." Dobson says, though, that the "most spectacular instances of British expatriate Shakespeare, though they are now largely and perhaps deliberately forgotten, undoubtedly occurred during the Second World War." Why deliberately forgotten? There are ideological issues. The English prisoners surely were keeping up morale by performing in roles of their national playwright, and perhaps they were insisting on their intellectual freedom even within their barbed wire surrounds. But their Nazi captors helped in providing printing, costumes, and make-up. Was this collaboration? And what does it mean that the Nazis enjoyed seeing prisoners act out The Merchant of Venice




Dobson's final chapter is on amateur Shakespeare performed outdoors. This is the way it is done in our time. There is plenty to be said for outdoor performances. That favorite, A Midsummer Night's Dream, is perfect for fields and woods, for instance. While the amateurs can still spend money and effort on costumes (often a particular point of enthusiasm), an outdoor performance needs fewer backdrops or props. Outdoor performances borrow on the popularity of outdoor pageants, and on the academic interest of staging Greek dramas as they used to be. The open air stages often stress a somewhat out-of-place Elizabethan antiquarianism, and one features peacocks that, Dobson testifies, announce "their intention of roosting with loud screams around the start of act 4." This is a funny, informative book about taking amateurism seriously. From time to time, it is the amateurs rather than the professionals who have more reliably kept Shakespeare onstage. "For four hundred years Shakespeare has suited and indulged such amateur actors and their audiences with endless generosity," Dobson writes, and pays tribute to the enthusiasts for whom merely reading or studying the plays or merely seeing them performed by others just won't do. 




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