Prithee good Bard reviews

Shakespeare in the Theatre
November 21, 1997

Edmund Kean's Richard III "fought like one drunk with wounds", wrote William Hazlitt. "And the attitude in which he stands with his hands stretched out, after his sword is taken from him, had a preternatural and terrific grandeur..." Of Harriet Faucit's Volumnia, Leigh Hunt noted that "a Roman matron did not think it was essential to her dignity to step about with her head thrown half a yard back, as if she had contempt for her own chin". Laurence Olivier's Richard, for Kenneth Tynan, "eats into the memory like acid into metal". We read the great reviewers for their phrases. What they are dealing with, above all, is acting.

Nothing is harder in theatre criticism than to write well about acting. Until the mid-20th century, it was taken for granted that acting was the supreme test of reviewing. Tynan sought "high-definition performances", and was often perfunctory about the productions in which they occurred. The change can be dated here to around 1950, and the Measure for Measure at Stratford. This was Peter Brook's production, and the reviewer, Richard David, acknowledged its star: "Peter Brook presented Vincentio rather as friar turned duke, than as duke turned friar" -"presented" as in "puppet-master". The age of the director had dawned. Hence the later reviews speak routinely of "Barrie Rutter's production of Richard III", "Bogdanov's Henry IV", and so on. Much of the post-1950 reviewing deals painstakingly with sets, costumes, textual emphases and cuts, the staging of a key scene, the "super-objective" of the production. Acting has not disappeared from the reviewer's brief, but it takes up a smaller proportion of the space. This is a main feature of contemporary reviewing.

In making his selection of reviews, Stanley Wells has had to skirt several elephant traps. His terrain is evidently the English stage. But "English" is too decisive and provocative. There are the Scots and Irish to be thought of.

Then, the Americans. They are too big to be left out, but not good enough to be persisted with. Wells takes the Americans up to Orson Welles's Julius Caesar at the Mercury, then abandons them without a word. He implies that American Shakespeare has done nothing of note since 1937. This seems a harsh verdict on Richard Burton's Broadway Hamlet (1964). The continentals can safely be left out (apart from Granville-Barker on Jacques Copeau's Twelfth Night) on language grounds. This, however, forces Wells to declare a choice "generally confined ... to performances in the English language". In that case, why is Canada ignored? For several decades Stratford, Ontario, in effect if not name the National Theatre of Canada, has provided the finest classical theatre in North America.

What we have is a collection, chronologically arranged, of pieces mainly on the English stage from Colley Cibber on. The first two centuries are well and authoritatively done. It is good to have the Hamlets of Garrick, Kean, Forbes-Robertson, and Irving, as seen by Lichtenberg, Hazlitt, Shaw, and Winter, between two covers. Beyond the great reviewers, the 20th century has some piquant entries. Virginia Woolf has a delightful review of Twelfth Night in which one partially dissembles her preferences for reading Shakespeare over seeing Shakespeare on stage. Evelyn Waugh's review of the Brook/Olivier Titus Andronicus (1955) offers a surprising vista on Vivien Leigh's Lavinia: "It is an empty part; she filled it with humour and made it a delicious little work of art. When she left us to collect a basin full of blood she mimed a demure Victorian bride. When she mewed over the bookshelves, when she raised her paws to enumerate her ravishers, she just hinted an affinity with Dick Whittington's cat. She wrote in the sand with endearing nonchalance. When she was dragged off to her horrible fate she ventured a tiny impudent, barely perceptible, roll of the eyes."

Waugh, however, takes the story into modern times, and the tone changes. It is all down to a melancholy turn of history. "The growth of academic criticism," which Wells holds to be the most important development of the postwar era. Academics and directors have embraced; and of the last 22 extracts, academics account for twelve (15 with a relaxed count). The tribal winning streak is co-extensive with the RSC. The alliance between RSC and academic reviewers is presented as the new story of Shakespeare in the theatre.

This leaves almost nowhere for ordinary professional reviewing for newspapers and non-academic journals, whose readership numbers millions as against thousands. Wells does not believe that brevity is the soul of wit, arguing that newspaper critics "have often lacked adequate space to do justice even to major productions". But an anthology without anything from Charles Morgan (The Times, 1926-39), Harold Hobson, Irving Wardle, Benedict Nightingale and John Peter is absurd. There are no memoirists of the modern era, as though actors and directors were debarred from writing about the theatre. William Gaskill (A Sense of Direction) on the Guinness-Signoret Macbeth is worth several of the later entries here. The book of the rehearsal, a vital new genre, is not represented. A few pages from David Selbourne's The Making of A Midsummer Night's Dream would greatly advance the idea that Shakespeare on stage is a process, not a finished product whose definition can safely be left to academic reviewers.

The disabling weakness of this anthology is its certitude that academic criticism has colonised theatre reviewing. John Elsom's principle, "the strength of British theatre criticism ... lies in its variety", finds no echo here. Wells proposes a tradition of leisurely reviewing as the dominant legacy of The Examiner. He traces an apostolic succession of reviewers, in which the chief heirs to Hazlitt and Hunt all, by happy coincidence, write for Shakespeare Survey, usually about the RSC. Readers wishing to cover Shakespeare on the modern stage will want a collection less idiosyncratic, that casts its net far wider.

Ralph Berry is the author of Shakespeare in Performance: Castings and Metamorphoses.

Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism

Author - Stanley Wells
ISBN - 0 19 871177 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £20.00
Pages - 338

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