Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History

July 14, 2011

When it comes to Shakespeare, we're all amateurs. Jacques Derrida wished to live 200 years to become a Shakespeare expert. Michael Dobson hasn't lived that long, but with four centuries of Shakespeare scholarship under his belt, he knows his Boar's Head from his Bottom. Here, he celebrates the love of Shakespeare - "amateur" derives from "amatory" - that speaks its name on rickety stages from the plank-walking performance of Hamlet in 1607 aboard the Red Dragon off the coast of Sierra Leone, to the earthen floors of Stalag 383 in the 1940s, where the cross-dressing British prisoner of war Don "Pinkie" Smith had an armed guard posted at his bedside.

His focus is on the period since the rise of "amateur dramatics" in the modern sense. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its earliest use in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1846 work The Papers of an Old Dartmoor Prisoner, the year after a beardless young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant played Desdemona on his way to fight in Mexico, and the year before the Chartist Thomas Cooper played Hamlet in a production designed to pay the costs of his trial for sedition. Amateur Shakespeare is a drama of many parts.

Dobson considers in turn Shakespeare "in private" (drawing-room productions), "in public" (through the rise of amateur dramatic societies), "in exile" (including colonies, garrisons and prisons, as witness those sailors and soldiers from the Red Dragon Hamlet to Grant's Desdemona and Pinkie's Stalag stagecraft) and "in the open" (from the New Shakespeare Company's Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, London, to the star-crossed roof of the Globe).

Never patronising, Dobson writes movingly and wittily, stressing the slipperiness of the category of "amateur". His analogy between theatrical and scholarly professionalisation is telling. Shakespeare - "peddled by showmen and scholars alike as the universal export, Britain's insidious undercover cultural agent par excellence, still on her majesty Eliza's secret service" - is also the popular poet who mesmerises untutored audiences worldwide. He offers a fascinating alternative history of Shakespeare, arguing that "in the era of YouTube...the long history of amateur Shakespeare" is "an important theatrical instance of user-created content".

Hubs of 19th-century hamming, such as the Kilkenny Theatrical Society, the Pic-Nic Club and the Stockport Garrick, all contributed not just to the canonisation but also to the very character and concept of Shakespeare. Dobson's most compelling claim is that "the empire's playwright laureate" was forged by amateurs, so that "one thing which an enormous international audience evidently still wants from him is a globally recognizable, incipiently Luddite, perennially amateurish, deeply parochial Englishness. Complete with the weather."

He occasionally takes his analogies too far, as in this conclusion: "At a time when the British government is making vague noises about a 'big society' in which the voluntary sector is to take over services formerly provided by the state, a time when threatened budget cuts are calling the very survival of the subsidized theatre into question, it may be that the amateurs will have to step into the breach once more." In that spirit, he looks forward to the amateur Shakespeareans booked to perform in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Elsewhere, in a typically trenchant aside, he observes "it has never been easy to distinguish between a young waiter with a serious amateur interest in the theatre and an apprentice actor with a part-time job in catering".

Amateur dramatics, like the demon drink, may provoke the desire but take away the performance. But from Hal and Falstaff clowning in the Boar's Head, through Bottom hamming it up in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to Hamlet's more pointed play-acting, there's an amateur-loving aspect to Shakespeare that chimes with modern popular performance. Dobson's is a loving book, not in the obsequious manner of professional Bardolators, but in a way Nick Bottom the weaver would understand: "A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry."

Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History

By Michael Dobson. Cambridge University Press. 265pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780521862349. Published 28 April 2011

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