An Approach to Mythical Performance in Europe

Par Juan F. Cerdá et Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine
Publication en ligne le 27 décembre 2019

Texte intégral

1Among the multitude of Shakespearean stagings from the past, some performances have acquired a special reputation, a sort of mythical status. Often, this is due to an actor’s outstanding performance. From Richard Burbage to David Garrick, to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, the British tradition of the Great Shakespearean Actor runs parallel to the iconic impersonations of François‑Joseph Talma, Sarah Bernhardt or Ermete Novelli, to name but a few of the prestigious Shakespeareans in Continental Europe. With the emergence of the theatre director at the turn of the twentieth century, the list is supplemented with the likes of Harley Granville‑Barker and Bertolt Brecht, of William Poel and Giorgio Strehler, of Peter Brook and Peter Zadek. The list is much longer and liable to many variations and groupings, so a few initial questions arise from the very existence of such a list : what are the ingredients that make a production memorable ? Why should one name, one title, or one experience be celebrated and remembered at all today ? What is the relationship between the British and the Continental tradition ? How can we establish the European paradigm of mythical performance or whether national experience can be shared by other European nations ?

2Alongside actors and directors, the mythical status of a Shakespearean performance does not necessarily emerge from individual talent but from a range of largely disparate experiences. From the 1613 performance of Henry VIII that culminated in the burning down of the first Globe Theatre, to the passing out of spectators in William Charles Macready’s 1835 performance of Othello, to the enthusiastic anti‑democratic response in Coriolanus at the Comédie‑Française in 1933‑34, Shakespeare’s plays have earned a mythical reputation through the most varied means. What material, phenomenological, or ideological reasons are responsible for such myth‑making ? Is it due to some trends in acting, staging, or performing which spread all over Europe ? Can it be described as a national phenomenon or due to a broader set of circumstances ?

3Even when it comes to actors and directors, status does not emanate from unanimous success, so it is crucial to examine the way these mythical productions were recorded and transmitted, and the direct influence of recording in the creation of the legend around the performance. Sarah Bernhardt’s Lady Macbeth, for instance, is still remembered thanks to Paul Nadar’s beautiful studio‑pictures ; however it was fairly badly received on stage judging from the reviews and mostly from the small number of performances of the play. Is the fame which is transmitted up to our time a myth or a reality ? Can there be a general agreement as to the criteria involved in this myth‑making ? What is the relationship between the initial theatrical production and its further fame ? How have those myths circulated around Europe ?

4Another direction is linked to the politics and value judgement concerning global myth‑making. Is there a consensus as to which performances are fit to be remembered ? Does nationality play a role in selection, and/or is there such a thing as a collective European imagination of Shakespearean mythical performances ? When choosing which productions enter the hall of fame of Shakespearean performance, is the academe replicating the attitudes that provoked debates about the literary canon in the 1980s and 90s ? Considering the uneven presence of foreign performances in the editions of Shakespeare’s works (Arden, Cambridge, Oxford, Folger), is the coverage of international Shakespearean performance a product of polite or political correctness ? To what extent is the Shakespearean academe interested in foreign mythical performances ? How should mythical performances at the local level be incorporated into global discussion ?

5The essays gathered in this volume answer some of these and other questions by exploring theatrical and operatic productions of the Shakespearean canon in various European countries that can be considered as having acquired a kind of mythical status, either through the novelty of the interpretation, the choice of the performers, or the circumstances of the staging (or non staging). Through these examples, some questions arise regarding the ingredients which contribute to myth‑making, from the original opinions to the various reappraisals, sometimes ranging from scandal to success, or limited experience to much wider remembrance. The essays testify to the vigour of the theatrical reception of Shakespeare’s works in Europe, however, they also illustrate how Shakespeare’s mythical status is not a transcendental quality of his texts but, rather, a product of the interaction between the plays and the practitioners that have enacted and « activated » them within specific cultural and material conditions.

6Gilles Couderc argues that, from the mid 18th century, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been one of the favourite comedies of European composers and librettists, who have in different manners balanced the immediate operatic appeal of the play’s carnivalesque spirit and the more problematic elements of grotesque. After an overview of the play’s history on the opera stage, Couderc focuses on three productions that are iconic of their respective national styles. Otto Nicolai’s Lustigen Weiber von Windsor (1849) exemplifies how the gothic and fantastic features of singspiel offered the German stage a nationalistic alternative to the refined French and Italian styles, and how Shakespeare’s adaptation into the new operatic mode contributed to the legitimation of Germany’s incipient national culture. Couderc also investigates the possibility of conflictive ideological and gender readings of the production, such as the libretto’s emphasis on the word « tyranny », which could have struck a dissonant chord with Friedrich‑Wilhelm III’s reactionary rule, or Frau Fluth’s repeated threats of divorce, which were, of course, illegal at that point, and that would have lent Nicolai’s opera a certain proto‑feminist ring. Contrastingly, Couderc argues that Giuseppe Verdi’s 1893 take on the Merry Wives annexed the Bard not only to Italian culture but also to a larger context of Europeanism, and underlines Verdi’s mobility and receptiveness to both French culture and German romanticism. Ultimately, Couderc reads Falstaff as an escapist, dream‑like musical antidote against the social turmoil and political disappointment of the peoples of Italy and Europe at the last stages of the 19th century. Finally, the last of the iconic operas is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love (1929), which Couderc frames within the turn of the century English pastoral revival and the somewhat nostalgic celebration of the British folksong, of Tudor music and of Henry Purcell’s pieces. Of this opera, the essay underlines Williams’ unusual reliance on Shakespeare’s « original » text, but the words from Shakespeare’s play cohabitate with a larger British meta‑universe of quotations and textual fragments. Together with what clearly constitutes a celebration of British renaissance culture, the assortment of portions of other Shakespearean comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It) and pieces of text by Sydney, Marlowe and Ben Jonson should perhaps be understood as part of the modernist propensity for intertextuality and self‑reference.

7Jacek Fabiszak and Katarzyna Burzyńska present an essay on the 1975 production of Hamlet directed by Konrad Świnarski in 1975 and on Tadeusz Łomnicki’s performance of King Lear, directed by Evgeni Korin in 1992. The mythical status of the productions was almost guaranteed : both presented two of Shakespeare’s most respected tragedies brought to life by some of the most respected stars of the Polish stage. However, the stagings’ most salient feature is that none of them made it to opening night. The premature death of the director and the leading actor only contributed to the productions’ mythical status, an extraordinarily synergic phenomenon in which the English playwright’s exceptional tragic material intersects with the Polish practitioners’ exceptionally tragic circumstances, « elevating » the productions to, in Fabiszak and Burzyńska’s words, an « almost [...] religious dimension ». Fabiszak and Burzyńska also reflect on the nature of our oblique access to performance, especially in those instances where productions never reach a regular audience and have only survived through interviews and conversations with people involved in the production process (in the case of Świnarski’s Hamlet) or through the documentary film that was being shot during rehearsals (in the case of Korin’s King Lear). The authors attribute the mythical quality of these performances to the way the productions have become « fossilised » before they could come into being, and they reflect on the way media records, encapsulates and freezes the mythological elements of something as fleeting and intangible as performance.

8Isabel Guerrero examines the relationship between Shakespearean drama and the emergence of modern stage direction at the beginning of the 20th century through the seminal figure of Max Reinhardt and his stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Guerrero follows Dennis Kennedy in pinpointing Reinhardt’s productions as the beginning of a new paradigm of theatre practice both in its modern visuality and in its aspiration to create a « total work of art » through the advancement of technology and spectacle. Guerrero’s work underlines the coexistence of apparently disparate styles in Reinhardt’s Dreams, such as naturalism and symbolism, and on the director’s different use of scenery, from the bare to the revolving stage. Guerrero examines some of the salient features of the dozens of Dream productions that Reinhardt brought to the stage between 1905 and 1939, and opposes these theatre stagings against the director’s Hollywood film of 1935 in order to reflect on the disparities between these media, on their divergent casting approaches, treatments of the mise en scène, of sexuality, and of the overall tone of the play, to ultimately argue for the significantly different natures of these mythical versions of Shakespeare’s comedy. The relative failure of the Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a flop by comparison with the hundreds of performances of Reinhardt’s theatre productions, raises questions regarding the adaptability of Shakespearean drama onto the 1920s and 30s silver screen, where big budget Hollywood productions — such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s The Taming of the Shrew (1929) and George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) — failed to connect with the audience in the way Reinhardt’s spectacular productions did.

9Kiki Lindell’s essay reflects upon the mythical status of certain iconic moments in Shakespearean drama, and on how these memorable instants have accrued a stage history of their own, making them particularly challenging to produce as they will often be measured against numerous and often remarkable previous examples. Lindell draws on her experience staging a student production of The Winter’s Tale to focus specifically on the complications of staging « exit pursued by a bear », arguably the « most famous stage direction in the Shakespeare canon ». The essay reflects on the use of bears in early modern London and on the relationship between theatrical performance and other spectacles, performative — such as the Jacobean masque — and non‑performative — such as public bear baiting. Lindell also raises a number of questions concerning, on the one hand, the difficulties of adopting a restorative approach aimed at reproducing the effect and exoticism of the early modern bear and, on the other, the range of possibilities that modern technology offers theatre practitioners. The essay also compares the demanding audience expectations of big budget productions, such as the BBC’s or the RSC’s, and the alternative options of amateur theatre. The essay tangentially opens up a line for ecocritical inquiry when it addresses the role of animals on stage, and on the unexpected possibilities of a human/animal interface when it argues that an actor doubling the bear and Leontes underlines the similarities between the two « characters » and their threatening effect on Perdita. But, ultimately, apart from analysing the history of the renowned stage direction, Lindell argues for the value and usefulness of amateur performance in the study of mythical moments in Shakespeare’s plays.

10Kyoko Matsuyama’s essay examines how Edmund Kean succeeded John Philip Kemble as the leading Shakespearean actor in Britain at the turn of the 19th century. Matsuyama reviews Kemble’s production of Macbeth, starting in 1788, and marks Kean’s debut in London, with his 1814 performance of Shylock, as the beginning of the decay of Kemble’s dominance. Matsuyama reflects on how the torch of Shakespearean performance is passed on from actor to actor in the 18th and 19th centuries as a sort of generational struggle. From Garrick, to Kemble, to Kean, to Macready, Matsuyama traces this sort of Oedipal phenomenon in which the Shakespearean actor seems to be compelled to outdo his predecessor, sometimes by presenting new styles of performance but also sometimes by going back to traits of earlier generations. The essay reflects on how in the Shakespearean context the understanding of a new actor’s style is constructed through a language that necessarily incorporates the traits of previous figures, so previous actors do not just become measuring sticks for the next generation, but the memory of their performances become the language through which new actors are understood and discussed. As in Gabriella Reuss’ essay, Matsuyama also underlines certain cohabitations and synergies between specific reviewers or critics that establish a special relationship with performers, such as Kemble and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while she also emphasises the importance of theatre reviewing as an advertising tool and as a determining factor in the construction of the performer’s mythical identity.

11Gabriella Reuss’ research emanates from her discovery of the prompt book of William Charles Macready’s 1934 production of King Lear at the Bodleian Library. Reuss’ finding modulates assumed notions of Macready’s restoration of Shakespeare’s play, which from 1681 had been staged in the form of Nahum Tate’s adaptation. Previous work on Macready’s restoration of King Lear rested on his 1838 version of the play that, as well as reinstating much of Shakespeare’s text, was also said to re‑establish the play’s tragic ending, the character of the fool and a more energetic performance of the old king. However, Reuss argues that some of these features were already considered in the previous production of 1834. The essay addresses how scholarly exhaustiveness and precision can get in the way of previous narratives, whose consistency is somewhat damaged by transitory, not so clear‑cut accounts of stage practice. Even after considering the 1834 promptbook, Reuss argues, Macready’s restoration of King Lear is more spectacular in the 1838 version so, ultimately, Reuss’s questions to what extent mythical moments in the stage history of certain Shakespeare’s plays need to be constructed around these sharper, better defined, differential moments. Reuss’ work also points out that the mythical stature of the performer is sometimes constructed around notions of exclusivity. Coinciding with Kyoko Matsuyama, she finds that the fame of star actors, such as Macready and Edmund Kean, is initially concocted by a small number of select people attending the first performances, who are responsible for the buzz, often associated to the idea of having spotted the new upcoming star that will redefine Shakespearean practice. Also, both Reuss and Matsuyama affirm that the success of the star actor in the 19th century is sometimes catalysed by renowned intellectuals, such as Charles Dickens, in the case of Macready, or William Hazzlit, in the case of Kean, para‑performative figures that help establish the mythical status of the Shakespearean performer. Reuss argues that these Shakespearean stars are often measured against one another and that their performances have a significant influence on their successors like Samuel Phelps, Henry Irving or Randle Ayrton, in the case of Macready’s performance of Lear.

12Estelle Rivier‑Arnaud discusses controversy as a fundamental myth‑making mechanism. She argues that while the French national repertoire theatre in Paris, the Comédie‑Française, traditionally displayed an uneven response to Shakespearean drama, recent productions have been paving the way for the assimilation of Shakespeare as a national theatre icon. The success of Shakespeare at the French national theatre is being led, paradoxically, by a few foreign directors who have been bringing considerably provocative interpretations of the English plays. In the 2001 production of The Merchant of Venice, Romanian director Andréi Serban turned Shylock into a frightening Polish villain in a production that included gas chambers, KKK costuming and different echoes of fascist ideology. At the same time the production explored the representation of early modern sexuality by locating the action in a contemporary Turkish bath to emphasise the play’s homoerotic potential. Some critics responded to the production harshly, the sort of conflictive response that, River‑Arnaud claims, has helped enlarge the myth of Shakespeare on the French stage as of late. Oskaras Koršunovas The Taming of the Shrew of 2007 also met with criticism, as part of the audience felt uncomfortable with the Lithuanian director’s highly symbolic and alienating metatheatrical approach which, for some, got in the way of the characters, the action, and of the poetry of François‑Victor Hugo’s translation. In turn, Andrés Lima’s The Merry Wives of Windsor proved to be the theatrical hit of 2009, a production in which the success of its physical comedy, clownish pranks and improvisation promoted the invitation of other directors to showcase their foreign theatrical traditions in the home of Molière. These guest directors, Rivier‑Arnaud argues, have promoted a self‑evaluating process that stimulates the Comédie‑Française and invigorates Shakespeare’s presence in French theatre.

13Veronika Schandl examines the 1971 production of Romeo and Juliet by socialist Hungarian director Tamás Major to dissect the heated debates that made this one of the legendary Shakespeare productions of the Kádár era. Schandl establishes a network of European influences — from Brecht and Jacques Copeau, to Manfred Wekwerth and Brook — that accounts for the director’s alienating techniques and metatheatricality. Major’s anti‑romantic treatment resulted in a substantial break with the traditional sentimentality that had characterised previous stagings of the play at the National Theatre of Budapest which, together with Major’s didactic and politicizing understanding of theatre, provoked a highly emotional response by reviewers and scholars alike, both for and against Major’s staging. Major’s relocation of the play to a contemporary context of military conflict, including Vietnam War‑inspired costuming, attracted polarising critical debates, which predominantly centred on the appropriateness of « modernizing » Shakespeare’s plays. However, Major’s apparent disrespect towards Shakespeare contrasted with the director’s obstinate fidelity to Shakespeare’s original version. Also, through an ideologically charged communal approach, Major differentiated his production by making Romeo and Juliet share the stage with the « people » surrounding them, favouring the ensemble over individual actors and promoting the importance of secondary characters. This staging of Romeo and Juliet, Schandl claims, created a new paradigm for the performance of the play in Hungary, which suggests that Shakespeare’s mythical status depends on the practitioner’s ability to adapt his dramas to the topicality of changing political circumstances.

14Ludwig Schnauder examines the anti‑Semitic production of The Merchant of Venice premiered in Vienna’s Burgtheatre in 1943. Schanuder shows how Shakespeare was « cannibalized » by fascist ideology while at the same time clearing some misconceptions concerning the appropriation of Shakespeare’s work in Nazi theatre. The Burgtheatre, Schnauder explains, had a certain degree of autonomy and independence from censors and institutional overseeing and, contrary to what might be assumed, The Merchant of Venice was performed less than ever in Austrian recent history. At times, the play was even paradoxically forbidden for its anti‑Semitic content ; also, the concept of rewriting was considered an « impure » artistic practice, so Austrian directors struggled with what, in their view, was the most difficult element to swallow in the play, that is, the marriage between a Jew (Jessica) and an Aryan Christian (Lorenzo). According to Schnauder, unlike in many other contexts, the problem for the Nazi authorities was not Shylock’s religion but his ethnicity, so Shylock’s conversion could not really rid the play of its unredeemable faults. Schnauder affirms that this staging constitutes one of the « [w]orst abuses ever of a Shakespeare play for ideological purposes » yet the production script only deviates in a few specific instances from the « original » text. Ultimately, the essay reflects on how the socio‑political context can make a production stand out and become mythical for all the wrong reasons, occupying a dubiously salient spot within the whole of Shakespearean theatrical production.

15As these articles show, the creation of a myth can be favoured through various means : fame or scandal, acting or non‑acting, reviewing or lack of reviewing. Another matter is whether this mythical status will last forever or if it will fade away with time or the emergence of renewed experiments. It will also be interesting to witness which ones among the present‑day performers and performances will acquire such a status in the future.

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Par Juan F. Cerdá et Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine, «Edito», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°9 - 2015, mis à jour le : 27/12/2019, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1853.