The Stage and The Scholars

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Photo by Christoph Manuel Mueller

One day in 1950 when I was an undergraduate in London I told my tutor, an immensely distinguished literary critic, that I was going to see Michael Redgrave play Hamlet that evening. ‘O’, she replied. ‘I should like to see Hamlet. One day.’ Whether she ever did I don’t know. But her attitude was typical of the gulf at that time between the academic world and the theatre. American universities had run drama departments for decades – Yale’s dates back to 1926 – but the first one in England had been founded only in 1956, in Bristol. Most of the best work on the history of Shakespeare’s plays in British performance came from American scholars such as Arthur Colby Sprague and Charles Shattuck. Shakespeare criticism was almost entirely text-based, paying little attention to performance.

The same was true of editions. Dover Wilson’s idiosyncratic and often eccentric New Shakespeare, published by Cambridge University Press and at that time dragging painfully towards its close, included bare, completely uncritical lists of productions through the ages, and Arden editions – including some volumes, such as Kenneth Muir’s Macbeth, which are still in print – virtually ignored the theatre in both their introductions and their notes.

But in the post-War period scholars at last woke up to the fact that the theatre might have something to tell them, indeed that performance is itself a form of criticism, and that actors and their directors may have insights into the text which are no less valuable than those of literary scholars and critics. Great pioneers were Glynne Wickham, of Bristol, and John Russell Brown (still going strong), who worked simultaneously for the National Theatre and the University of Sussex. During the past half century or so theatre-based criticism has escalated in volume to the point where it is now a major subsection of the Shakespeare industry. Whole volumes are devoted to studying the theatre history of individual plays, attempting to discover what it can tell us about their stage potential and their openness to variant interpretation. Moreover editors have tended to privilege theatre-derived texts of Shakespeare’s own time, such as the First Folio versions of King Lear and of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, over quarto versions that are closer to what Shakespeare wrote before the plays were put into rehearsal and performance.

Another result of developing academic interest in theatre is that scholars have increasingly been asked to review productions. The Times Literary Supplement took a valuable lead, and specialist journals such as Shakespeare Survey and Shakespeare Quarterly have done the same. This has been especially useful at a time when the space given to newspaper reviewers has shrunk. Academic critics, not always working to tight deadlines, can offer more in-depth appraisals of what they see.

Scholars of our time are rarely purists. Most of us recognize that productions which depart greatly from the original texts, using them as jumping-off boards to reflect political and social concerns of the time and place of performance, are worthy of study in their own right, seeing Shakespeare as a catalyst as well as a creator. Many of the plays performed during the World Shakespeare Festival last year at the Globe and elsewhere used freely adapted texts, often in translation. And they are to be the subject of a book, A Year of Shakespeare, edited and written by theatrically aware academics and published this spring by Bloomsbury.

Whether the interest that academics take in the theatre is reciprocated by theatre practitioners is less clear. Certainly directors of Shakespeare’s plays are more likely now to have been university educated, many of them having read either English or Drama or both, than a half century ago. Cambridge especially has been a great training ground, partly because of the enduring influence of George (Dadie) Rylands. But I have a feeling that once they embark on their careers such practitioners become so immersed in their profession that they rapidly lose touch with academe. Admittedly they, or their publicity managers, often call on scholars to write short essays for their programmes. But pressure of timing usually means that the writers of such essays are in the dark about what line the director will take, and so can only write on the basis of the text itself. Though there was an occasion when Adrian Noble asked me to change a piece in which I’d written that King Lear dies as he is looking into Cordelia’s eyes because in his production Robert Stephens would be having ‘a kind of vision.’ As he duly did.

Theatre has to exist in the present, but I sometimes wish it were more willing to treasure its past, and to learn from it. Knowledge of past productions can inform and enrich new ones. Academics learn much from the theatre, and we’re only too happy when we can help those who work in it.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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