Looking at Shakespeare Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth- Century Performance, Dennis Kennedy says that his intention is twofold: to show the uses of the visual as well as the verbal to transmit meaning in Shakespearean productions and to demonstrate the complex cultural uses of Shakespearean scenography in the twentieth century. Defining scenography as “stage and costume design, lighting, the arrangement of the acting ground, the movement of actors within it, and anything else proper to a production that an audience sees, including the interior architecture of the playhouse surrounding the stage: all the ocular aspects of the ludic space,” Kennedy searches for the appropriate settings for Shakespeare’s plays. Artists, audiences, and critics are all concerned in this search, since the modern theater does not know beyond question how to dress or provide environments for actors in classical plays such as William Shakespeare’s. Indeed, there is no longer a set of shared cultural convictions that can be demonstrated through theatrical style, as there undoubtedly was in the Greek theater and, to a large extent, in the Elizabethan theater. Because of this uncertainty and the eclecticism it breeds, the visual history of performance is often excluded from Shakespeare studies, but documenting it and examining it, as Kennedy does in Looking at Shakespeare, demonstrates the many questions raised and the answers given about the status and uses of Shakespeare in the twentieth century.

Visual fashions and codes of gestures have always had a relatively short life span, and the communication revolutions of the twentieth century have speeded up this decay of meaning. Anything created to take specific advantage of a visual vogue dates quickly, as advertisements attest. Ads also attest cultural shifts that can render them meaningless or controversial in unexpected ways over time. The same is true for theatrical production. Created for a specific time and place, classical plays can easily look dated and seem to demand theatrical reinterpretation every few years. As Peter Brook says in The Empty Space (1968), “A living theatre that thinks it can stand aloof from anything as trivial as fashion will wilt.”

Few critics, however, have studied how theatrical scenography, as it changes through time, may be used as a tool of commentary or interpretation. Kennedy notes that even theater historians suffer from literary bias, relying on written records, the printed drama or newspaper reviews, more often than scenographic information. Ever since Aristotle, spectacle has been held to be the least artistic element of theatrical production. At least since the Romantics, the reading of Shakespeare-the theater of the mind-has been valued more highly than the seeing of Shakespeare. Yet times and critical stances change, as this book attests. Performance criticism, stage-centered criticism, is becoming widely recognized as valid to the intellectual enterprise of interpretation. In return, Shakespearean productions often acknowledge current critical discourse in making scenographic and performance choices. Harley Granville- Barker, author of Prefaces to Shakespeare (1946) who moved from influential director of Shakespeare to influential Shakespearean critic, is perhaps a precursor of this dual approach, as Kennedy’s previous book Granville Barker and the Dream of Theatre (1985) suggests. Yet Kennedy claims that much of this work still privileges text over performance, with theater scholars generally critical of performances that seem to violate the “meaning” of the play. Drawing on the work of theater semioticians such as Patrice Pavis(Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of the Theater, 1982), Kennedy continually reminds the reader that there is more to performance than words and more to playgoing than the hearing of words. He cites Bertolt Brecht’s practice of appropriating the classics by rewriting the texts, as well as the countless cuts made by myriad directors, to reiterate the fact that performance will always have a contemporaneity of cultural resonance that texts lack.

In Looking at Shakespeare, Kennedy’s method relies on concepts of cultural materialism as well as theater semiotics. His work is organized chronologically and focused entirely on Shakespeare, leaving out directors and theatrical designers, no matter how important, who are unconnected with Shakespeare. Within those limits, his approach is broad: He does not limit his discussion to English-language productions, nor does he privilege one type of production-tragedy over comedy, for example. Perhaps the most valuable aspects of Kennedy’s book are the ways in which it documents its breadth by wide- ranging discussion of European productions and by extensive use of photographs. Kennedy is the author of Foreign Shakespeare: Con-temporary Performance(1993), 50 one would expect him to demonstrate detailed knowledge of international Shakespearean production. He...

(The entire section is 2052 words.)