Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Jill Dolan on Shakespeare

I am still gasping about this one -- totally taken aback and surprised. From Jill Dolan's blog, "The Feminist Spectator":

"I’m usually not a fan of Shakespeare productions. The language, instead of seducing me with its complexity and poetry, tends to alienate me, and I take even longer than usual to fall into the rhythms of the play. Gertrude Stein wrote about going to the theatre that in her first few moments of watching every production she experienced “syncopated time.” She fell behind the narrative as she tried to absorb the scene, the atmosphere, the characters, and the experience of being in the world of the audience as well as the world of the play.

My own sense of syncopation at Shakespeare is always attenuated. I’m tripped up not by the lack of naturalism, or by the stinted speech and sometimes awkward dress and the way the actors’ bodies bend themselves into different poses and attitudes as a result; I don’t necessarily need naturalism with my performances to make them mean something. I’m more distracted by how archaic the language sounds, and how hard I have to work to find my way in (to “blast” my way in, as avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman used to say about what spectators needed to do to enter the off-kilter world of his performances). Often, I never make it, because I’m put off, irritated that we continue to venerate a writer who was simply successful in his own day and never meant to be so venerated, but comes to us as canonical through a centuries-long discourse of critical, ideological, and pedagogical insistence."

9 comments:

MattJ said...

Interestingly enough. Dolan's post is directly related to my most recent post and my attention span.

This “syncopated time," that Stein speaks of, I can compltely relate to actually. What's interesting is that I and many others have cited lyricism as an antedote. But we're talking about Shakespeare here....?

Joshua said...

I couldn't agree with her more - though I always state that big Will did and still does have a huge impact, I feel exactly the same way whenever I go see one of his shows, even the excellent ones staged in the park -

I think big Willy's ideas within his work did and always will be worthy of extended scrutiny, but I sure am tired of, just because I am a theatre person, always supposed to be going to his plays.

Maybe that's why I love new work.

Josh Costello said...

I've got to believe that Shakespeare done really well can balance this out. And I do believe that the more experience with Shakespeare you have, the more enjoyable and accessible it becomes.

I think the problem is that so many productions don't do an adequate job specifically with the language. It takes time and experience for an actor to be able to bring Shakespeare's language to life -- by which I mean, to become sensitive enough to the workings of blank verse so that the performance is "natural", relaxed, clear, specific, and connected. The last thing I want is for Shakespeare to be considered elitist in any way. But I'm not sure how to solve the problem of the learning curve that seems to be just necessary (for both actors and audience) for making Shakespeare accessible.

Joshua said...

I've heard that, it just needs to be done right, and I've seen it done right, but even when it's done as good as it can be, it doesn't speak to me the same way new work does and can, especially work that speaks to my time and place culterally - I remember seeing the original run of How I Learned To Drive in 96 and being blown away to the point of speechlessness - big Willy, for all his strengths, has just never done that to me and I suspect he never will - an acquired taste and what I fee we need more of is today's new tastes . . .

Alison Croggon said...

The thing is, Jill Dolan goes on to rave about a production of A Winter's Tale, which "entranced" her as A Winter's Tale ought to. So it seems to me that she hasn't seen any decent productions of Shakespeare. I don't know how Americans do the Bard, but I do know very little is more excruciating than a deadly production of Shakespeare - I loathed him on my first experience at school, until I heard it spoken well and realised that it was actually not that hard to understand.

Myrhaf said...

I've acted a lot of Shakespeare. In fact, I'm in Much Ado and Comedy of Errors right now (two of the more popular plays for modern audiences). The worst directors are the ones who don't trust Shakespeare because they fear the language. They cut much of the poetry and emphasize gags and pacing, hoping to keep the audience's interest. They sacrifice the highest part of Shakespeare's art for the lowest common denominator. Physical comedy is okay, but it has to be integrated with the rest of the play.

My advice to any director new to Shakespeare would be: read Harold C. Goddard's THE MEANING OF SHAKESPEARE. Goddard is too anti-theatre, but aside from that he is essential for understanding Shakespeare's extensive and subtle use of irony. For instance, Goddard shows that Henry V is NOT Shakespeare's ideal king, and NOT a glorification of war and imperialism. Henry V is a hypocritical strongman; when he rebuffs Falstaff and becomes King, he takes a tragic fall from imagination to violence. Also, Ulysses's speech on order in Troilus and Cressida is not to be taken straight, but is more hypocrisy; after the speech, Ulysses spends the rest of the play sowing anarchy, and he is in fact a villain. Understanding Shakespeare's irony is important for giving a production depth of meaning. Goddard is indispensable.

Tee Quillin said...

Okay. I know that there are Jill's all over this world that think that "Shakespeare" is this huge safe that has to be cracked in order to enjoy what's inside, but the truth is that for the most part, his characters and his writing is very much on the surface. Some people (whom I don't particularly agree with) claim that there is little or no subtext in Shakespeare.

Shakespeare crafted some of the most amazing characters that have ever been created. Not only that, but he strung syllables together in such a way that people still talk about them 400 years later.

It's all about the imagery. If you can't see the imagery, then you are not using your imagination. Go back to watching TV...

Sorry, that last part is a rant, but I just have to say that I will happily spend the rest of my life with the works of Shakespeare constantly gleaning as much out of them as I can. It's my passion.

Yes, it hurts when I see a bad production of Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean that the writing is bad!

RB Ripley said...

Stein's “syncopated time" comment, I believe is a universal experience at the theatre. It's what we, as individuals, bring with us that accounts for a quick or slow immersion. JD's opinion about Willy S. is JD's opinion. Personally, I have trouble watching much of Chekov, but its become less difficult over the years. To each her/his own, ya?

Scott Walters said...

To each her/his own, no. Never been a fan of naive relativism.