The Shakespeare Revolution Redux

J. L. Styan, The Shakespeare Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977

When recently I had occasion to turn back to Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment, a very useful retrospective look at the first ten years of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, edited by Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper, there was a niggling something in the back of mind that would not go away, a lacuna or absence that I could not quite place. Then, by chance, one afternoon, as I was sorting through piles of books that had been left behind by a colleague and which were meant to be catalogued for our department’s resource library, I found J. L. Styan’s Shakespeare’s Stagecraft, a paperback, yellowed copy, crumbling along its edges, at the top of a stack. Suddenly it clicked – it was Styan who was missing from the many essays and conversations recorded in Shakespeare’s Globe. I turned back to the index in Carson and Karim-Cooper’s volume and found only a single, ghostly remnant of the man who had articulated and defined, through his 1977 work, The Shakespeare Revolution, the very movement that had made the construction of the new Globe possible, and who had himself been one of the prime movers in the Globe project.

Much of what is at play in Shakespeare’s Globe is found in The Shakespeare Revolution, especially the characterization of the function of the modern Globe as a “workshop” or “laboratory.” Carson and Karim-Copper write:

As early as 1979, scholars were gathering and publishing papers considering the uses and dynamic potential of the proposed reconstructed Globe. Very early on in this discussion, John Russell Brown uses the term ‘experiment’ in his essay ‘Modern Uses for a Globe Theatre’, acknowledging the exploratory nature of the project from the outset: ‘we would have the Globe, but we would still have to learn to use it; we would have to explore, experiment, and create’. Brown’s use of the pronoun ‘we’ intriguingly suggest not only exploration, but a close, collaborative relationship between the scholar and the actor. (2-3)

While Styan did not coin the terminology of experiment, he brought it forward by synthesizing the work of those who had. By tracing the lineage of the modern movement to reclaim aspects of Elizabethan stagecraft and by advocating its further development, Styan articulated the ethos that would animate the Globe project, and that has similarly inspired the many other early modern theatrical reconstruction projects, as well as the choice made by many companies to embrace what are perceived to be aspects of early modern theatrical practice. The Shakespeare Revolution is not simply a history of a movement, but an argument and a call to action. At its core is another lacuna, the absence of collaboration between Shakespearean scholars and practitioners. Styan’s hopes that a stage-centered Shakespearean criticism might emerge have largely been fulfilled; but, interestingly, they have come to pass with only glancing reference to Styan’s work.

I have attended many conferences, from ASTR to Blackfriars, that thematize the collaboration between scholars and practitioners, have sat on dozens of panels that bring together theoria and praxis, have heard hundreds of scholarly papers on Shakespearean theatrical practice, but I can recall only one or two times when Styan was mentioned (a dubious data set, given the state of my memory, but the numbers can’t be much higher than I recall). This is not some sort of indictment of Styan, per se, but part of a more general pattern. It is not only Styan who is rarely referenced in discussions: William Poel, Ludwig Tieck, the entire line of those who have advocated the historical contextualization of Shakespearean performance and criticism, are generally neglected. Not remaining attentive to this heritage, I would argue has had a warping effect on our understanding on our own present pursuits.

There is often an implicit sense that the current interest in the origins of Shakespearean stagecraft is itself original. If I might offer a sort of mea culpa, I’d like to point to an essay in a volume that I edited, with Matt Kozusko, Thunder at a Playhouse: Essaying Shakespeare and the Early Modern Stage. In the final contribution, “Early Modern Theatrical Practice in the Late Modern Playhouse,” Don Weingust outlines the robust interest today in “original practices,” which he defines as, “a series of approaches to the performance, and preparation for performance, of English Renaissance drama that are akin to those of Shakespeare and his theatrical colleagues” (249). What most interests me at this moment are the claims that his essay makes for the novelty of this situation: (if I might excerpt) “Original practices… have become a phenomenon in the recent performance of plays…”; “Scholars have begun to take a greater interest” in “the movement and its nascent scholarship…”; “OP work is in its early stages” (italics mine). I certainly don’t mean to imply that Weingust, who is an accomplished scholar, is unaware of the long history of such efforts. But his language insinuates a kind of originality of purpose and process that are not at all original. And as editors we collude in the impression that some may garner of the sui generis nature of the current emphasis in scholarship on theatrical practice. To be fair, in our introduction to the collection, we place the contributions in the volume in dialogue with those who have come before; but we too neglect to acknowledge Styan’s role in this chronology. So having an opportunity to review an “old” book for this inaugural volume of The Hare, I decided to “re-view,” that is to take another look, at Styan’s The Shakespeare Revolution, to see if it might be profitably brought back into the conversation, and to see if by asking where and why we have left Styan behind might illuminate where we are and what we are up to today.

Styan’s revolutionary claims seem at first rather modest. He asserts that Shakespeare in the twentieth century (up to 1977, that is) had experienced an “unusual turn-about in both criticism and performance” (1). This reversal was the result of a rather straightforward insight—that Shakespeare was first and foremost a man of the theater and that his work ought to be viewed through this prism. “Could the Shakespeare of the stage and study have been the same man, the plays the same plays?” Styan asks (1). Of course he was and of course they were, is his resolute answer. But what he is most concerned with are the consequences of this position; and in following this conclusion towards its rational endpoint, Styan is an advocate for a more radical form of revolution, if we take “revolution” in its original sense, a return to an origin point. On the surface, The Shakespeare Revolution chronicles the evolution of Shakespeare in the twentieth century, a narrative arc that seems linear—Poel to Barker to Guthrie and Brook, intertwined with scholarship and the move from illusionistic to non-illusory Shakespeare; but the arc begins to bend back on itself, perhaps in spite of Styan’s intention or preference.

To begin the process of recovering Shakespeare in his/its original guise, it was first necessary to scrape away the barnacles of Victorian convention that had encumbered theatrical practice. After dispensing with Beerbohm Tree’s live rabbits hopping about the stage (a sort of metonym representing the excesses of tableaux over text) and A.C. Bradley’s readings of Shakespeare that layered on top of the tragedies the architecture of the nineteenth-century novel, with all its gestures towards psychological verisimilitude, the first hero of Styan’s tale appears serendipitously on the scene in the figure of William Poel. While many found Poel’s facsimiles of Renaissance dramatic practice to be cloying, for Styan these productions worked to revivify the “spirit” of Elizabethan stagecraft and laid the groundwork for what he would call “stage-centered criticism:” “Stage-centered criticism is that which characteristically checks text against performance, and does not admit critical opinion as full valid without reference to the physical circumstances of the medium” (72). The quasi-historical trappings of Poel’s productions were less important to Styan than the gestures they made towards reconciling the page and the stage and the influence they had on practitioners and scholars who followed.

Harley Granville-Barker looms large in Styan’s account, embodying the very relationship between scholar and practitioner that Styan seeks to foster. His Prefaces to Shakespeare, which analyze the plays in conjunction with performance concerns, provided a counterpoint to Bradley’s psycho-centric criticism. Moreover, Granville-Barker was a proponent of the workshop model of inquiry, using a language of hypothesis and experiment that is very much like the language often used today in relation to early modern theater:

We still remain so ignorant of their stagecraft, that our present task with them is, I think, to discover, even at the cost of some pedantry, what this stagecraft was….We must learn this, moreover, not in terms of archaeology, but by experimenting with the living body of the play. For this purpose precise knowledge of the structure and usages of Shakespeare’s own theatre will be as useful as a philosophic study of Hamlet’s character may be inspiring. Neither, however, can to us so much about the play as the play in performance can….Amazing as the state may appear – Shakespeare’s case as a playwright still has to be fully proved, and the proving of it must needs be a thorough process. (108)

Here we find in 1923 a rather compact articulation of the principles that inspire many scholars and practitioners today to work in tandem towards the recovery of early modern stage practices. The underlying purpose, from Granville-Barker’s and Styan’s perspective, is not to reclaim Shakespearean stagecraft in order to fashion some sort of museum-quality artifact, but to realize in modern productions the full potential of Shakespearean dramaturgy.

Styan chronicles a series of advances and retreats over the next half-century. In the theater, the embrace of stylization over illusion was moving things in the right direction. Directors such as Nigel Playfair allowed both the demands of Shakespearean stagecraft and the particular tone and character of each play to lead production choices, while Barry Jackson offered provocative modern dress productions of Shakespeare. Although many were distracted or put off by what they perceived to be an assault on the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work, some concurred with Muriel St Clare Byrne, who claimed that Jackson’s 1925 Hamlet, “earned the right to be regarded not as a stunt but as a serious excursion in search of authenticity….He has forced the audience back to the text and in pursuit of authentic Shakespeare” (158). Styan recognizes the fraught nature of “authentic,” even as he claims it as his own concern: “The authentic Shakespeare’ is a challenging phrase indeed: a Shakespeare performance which wins acceptance because it affords what the sharpest imagination believes to be the genuine experience of the play is the end of all scholarship and every innovation in production. It is the subject of this book” (158). In addition to being the subject of Styan’s book, authenticity, gained through the collaboration between scholars and theater artists, is the object of Styan’s advocacy.

This is why the rise of the New Criticism is seen by Styan to be a form of scholarly retrenchment. Styan argues against the text-centered approach of the New Critics, using once again the terminology of scientific discovery: “The study of language can, like that of the physical sciences, be pure or applied. The texture of Shakespeare’s verse indicates the delicacy of his mind, but in the theatre laboratory it reveals his character’s mind, and the actor-in-the-character, since a work of dramatic literature communicates only in its terms” (169). In order to apprehend the terms by which dramatic literature could best be interrogated, one had to situate it within the confines of the theater; and the more that one could locate that theater within its original context, the conditions for which the play had originally been written, the more Shakespeare’s plays would unfold their hitherto occluded meanings.

Tyrone Guthrie believed that the primary impediment in his own day to rediscovering the fundamentals of Shakespearean dramaturgy lay in the configuration of modern playhouses. Guthrie embraced the idea that Shakespeare should be played on an “open stage.” Using the workshop mode, he began experimenting with variations of thrust and platform stages, trying to break clearly from the Victorian tradition of staging that made “dramatic cathedrals” of the plays by placing them at a sacrosanct remove from the audience. While there were other “Elizabethan” playhouses being constructed at this time, notably in Ashland, Oregon and San Diego, Guthrie was not interested in thatching and half-timbering to give the appearance of an historical structure; his focus was on the functional heart of the Elizabethan playhouse, the stage. And on this stage, which Styan enthusiastically endorses, Guthrie eschewed “illusion” and attempt to reclaim the “ritual” of early modern performance.

Yet where Guthrie’s turn towards Shakespearean stagecraft centered on the playhouse, Peter Brook, whose 1968 The Empty Space unfixed performance from orthodox playing spaces, distilled the Shakespearean stage to its essence. As Styan summarizes:

The Elizabethan theatre was born of a violent, vital, pioneering age, and it was ‘just a place with some doors—and so it enabled the dramatist effortlessly to whip the spectator through an unlimited succession of illusions….The theatre not only allowed the playwright to roam the world, it also allowed him free passage from the world of action to the world of inner impressions.’ (211-12)

Styan saw Peter Brook’s seminal production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970 and it, and Brook, seemed to him to represent the apotheosis of the Shakespeare revolution. It was not the particular space that was key to Shakespearean stagecraft (although the wrong sort of space could prove inhibitive), but the spirit of Elizabethan performance that needed to be attended to. Brook’s task was “to recreate Shakespeare’s theatrical meaning for today’s audiences” (212). Styan argues that there is an essential theatricality at the core of Shakespeare that should be honored above all else, and that Brook achieves this convincingly. He cites, and endorses, a review from The Times that characterizes Brook’s Dream in explicitly Platonic terms:

A good Shakespeare production is true to the original in a sense other than textual accuracy or resemblance to how it might have been at the Globe….Productions of the play to be good would have to resemble the Form of it, the resemblance being not one of copying but of congruence. So it would come about that for all the trapezes, juggling, helical wire trees, and general non-Elizabethanism, the Stratford production is not just good theatre, but a true production of the Dream. (230)

In the end, The Shakespeare Revolution advocates a return to an elemental Shakespeare; it is an argument for adherence to the spirit of the laws of Elizabethan dramaturgy, not the letter of law. The arc of Styan’s narrative begins with Poel’s Elizabethan reconstructions; yet Poel is presented as a way-station on a longer journey. After the gradual stripping away of the historical trappings of Elizabethan theatre, the movement that Styan traces ends with the distillation of Shakespearean principles of performance that are held to be timeless and transferable.

Yet in the forty-five years since publication of The Shakespeare Revolution we have witnessed a curious turn—the layering back on of early modern specificity. Theaters such as the Globe in London and the Blackfriars in Virginia have been built not in the style or spirit of their early modern progenitors, but in as literal a fashion as is presently possible. Many theater companies embrace a totemic First Folio and/or adhere to clearly delineated principles or laws of early modern performance. These “reconstructed” playing spaces and “original practices” lay claim to an authenticity distinct from the sort that Styan defined. Where Styan followed the evolution from illusionistic practices to the non-illusory, we seem to have circled back to the illusionistic—but this time around the illusion is not one that elides the “stage” and “reality”, but rather the modern stage and the early modern.

I have no interest in opening up the debate about authenticity in relation to these theaters and theatrical practices. There seem to be, however, interlocking phenomena that if they do not fully explain why, at least suggest how we have traveled from Peter Brook’s white-box Dream to the timber-and-plaster Globe and Blackfriars, which I would like to lightly sketch out here, with hope that they might provoke further discussion. For Styan, the Shakespeare revolution was advanced by a series of inspired figures and culminated in the work of a visionary director, Peter Brook. But as we are now very much aware, Shakespeare’s theater was director-free. There was no single, unified vision that interpreted early modern texts, translating them for production. In place of the figure of a director, recent scholarship has elevated the intricate machinery of early modern theatrical production: modes of rehearsal and performance that accommodated the high volume of plays, the configuration of playing spaces and the particular resources of the theater that demanded certain sorts of scripts, the commercial concerns of impresarios and share-holders. This emphasis had led many companies to attempt to reproduce material conditions and processes of theatrical production that approximate the early modern in search of a more “Shakespearean” dramaturgy. Such approaches are allied, knowingly or not, with the emphasis on material culture that has dominated much of the academic research of the past two decades. Yet the boundaries placed upon theatrical production by the constraints of Renaissance playhouses and the principles of early modern practice also represent a neo-formalist approach to Shakespeare and his contemporaries that is as much a response to the free-wheeling, concept-driven productions of Shakespeare that have dominated the past forty-five years, as it is to the work of academics. Given that “revolution” has at least two meanings in tension with one another—the one, indicating the establishment of a new order, the other, the return to the way things had once been—it is perhaps best to think of the “Shakespeare revolution” as both breaking away from and clinging to its point of origin.