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THE STAGING OF SHAKESPEARE.*
A DEFENCE OF THE PUBLIC TASTE.
“Sir," said Dr. Johnson, “I have not Emerson-held the opinion that the even mentioned 'Little Davy' in the works of our greatest dramatist should preface to my Shakespeare.”
not be seen upon the stage. Be that "Why?" ventured Boswell.
as it may, it is not my intention to ennot admire that great actor?”
ter into an academic discussion with “Yes,” replied the Doctor, “as a poor these departed spirits. It will be player who frets and struts his hour rather my practical endeavor to show upon the stage-as a shadow."
that the public of to-day demands that, “But,” persisted Boswell, “has he not if acted at all, Shakespeare shall be brought Shakespeare into notice?" presented with all the resources of our At this the immortal lexicographer time—that he shall be treated, not as
dead author speaking dead "Sir, to allow that would be to lam. language, but
living force poon the age. Many of Shakespeare's speaking with the voice of livplays are the worse for being acted.” ing humanity. And it will be my
Then Boswell, Scotchman that he further endeavor to show that in makwas, once more replied with a ques- ing this demand the public is right. tion
I am quite aware that in this asser"What! is nothing gained by acting tion I am opposed by those who regard and decoration po
Shakespeare as a mere literary legacy, "Sir!" replied Dr. Johnson, breathing and themselves as his executors, for hard; “Sir!" he thundered, he whose special behest his bones are pebrought down his fist with all the en- riodically exhumed in order to gratify ergy of his rotund and volcanic per- a pretty taste for literary pedantry. sonality; "Sir!"-and for once there But great poetry is not written for the was a silence—the only silence that is few elected of themselves-it must be recorded in the life of that masterful a living force, or it must be respectfully personality.
relegated to the dingy shelves of the In this brief conversation is great unheard—the little read. Is raised the chief question which has Shakespeare living, or is he dead? That divided lovers of Shakespeare for three is the question. Is he to be, or not to centuries past. Ought his works to
be? If he is to be, his being must be of be presented upon the stage at all? our time—that is to say, we must look Strange as it may seem in an actor, I at him with the eyes and we must am bound to say that I can understand listen to him with the ears of our own this attitude of mind, which was shared generation. And it is surely the greatby many thinkers of past ages. I am est tribute to his genius that we should not astonished even that such acute claim his work as belonging no less to and genial critics as Charles Lamb our time than to his own. There are and Wordsworth--that such serious
those who contend that, in order to lovers of Shakespeare as Hazlitt and appreciate his works, they must only
be decked out with the threadbare * An address to the Oxford Union Debating
wardrobe of a bygone time. Let us Society, delivered May 28th, 1900.
treat these antiquarians with the re
spect due to another age, but do not let us be deluded by a too diligent study of magazine articles into the belief that we must regard these great plays as interesting specimens for the special delectation of epicures in antiques.
We have, in fact, two contending forces of opinion; on the one side we have that of literary experts, as revealed in print; on the other, we have that of public opinion, as revealed by the coin of the realm. Before I enter upon my justification of the public taste, I shall have to show what the public taste is. Now, there is only one way of arriving at an estimate of the public taste in "things theatric,” and that is through the practical experience of those whose business it is to cater for the public. The few experts who arrogate to themselves the right to dictate what the public taste should be are exactly those who ignore what it really is. To their more alluring speculations I shall turn later on; and if, in passing over the ground which has been trodden by these erudite but uninformed writers, I have now and then to sweep aside the cobwebs woven of their fancy, I shall hope to do so with a light hand, serene in the assurance that
pod and strenuous work will survive the condemnation of a footnote.
Much has been written of late as to the manner in which the plays of Shakespeare should be presented. We are told in this connection that the ideal note to strike is that of “Adequacy.” We are assured that we are not to apply to Shakespearean productions the same care, the same reverence for accuracy, the same regard for stage illusion, for mounting, scenery and costume, which we devote to authors of lesser degree; that we should not, in fact, avail ourselves of those adjuncts which in these days science and art place at the manager's right hand; in other words, that we are to produce our national poet's
LIVING AGE. VOL. VIII. 420
works without the crowds and armies, without the pride, pomp and circumstance which are suggested in every page of the dramatist's work, and the absence of which Shakespeare himself so frequently laments in his plays. On this subject-rightly or wrongly (but I hope I shall be able to prove to you rightly)-the public has spoken with no hesitating voice; the trend of its taste has undoubtedly been towards putting Shakespeare upon the stage as worthily and as munificently as the manager can afford.
It would be interesting to ascertain how many English playgoers have encouraged this method of producing Shakespeare since Sir Squire Bancroft gave us “The Merchant of Venice" at the old Prince of Wales's Theatre, which is my earliest theatrical recollection of the kind; and I do not remember to have seen any Shakespearean presentation more satisfying to my judgment. It was here that Ellen Terry first shed the sunlight of her buoyant and radiant personality on the character of Portia; it was the first production in which the modern spirit of stage-management asserted itself, transporting us, as it did, into the atmosphere of Venice, into the rarefied realms of Shakespearean comedy. Since then, no doubt, millions have flocked to this class of production, when we recall Sir Henry Irving's beautiful Shakespearean presentations from 1874 to 1896; presentations which included “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello," "Much Ado," "King Lear," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Merchant of Venice," “Henry VIII,” “Richard III" and “Cymbeline;" and when we remember Miss Mary Anderson's memorable production of “A Winter's Tale" at the same theatre, where the Leontes was Mr. Forbes Robertson, another actor of the modern school (that old school which is eternally new-I might say the right school), not to mention
Mr. John Hare's "As You Like It," Night's Dream;" and much, no doubt, Mr. Wilson Barrett's “Hamlet” and as it will shock some people, I am not “Othello," and Mr. George Alexander's ashamed to say that for these produc“As You Like It" and “Much Ado tions I have tried to borrow from the About Nothing." Again, at the Hay- arts and the sciences all that the arts market, under a recent management, and the sciences had to lend. And one might have seen produced in this what has been the result? In London culpable fashion "Hamlet," "The Mer- alone two hundred and forty-two thoury Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV.” sand people witnessed “Julius Cæsar," Now, I am not in a position, by means over one hundred and seventy thousand of the brutal and unanswerable logic came to see “King John," and nearly of figures, to speak of the success two hundred and twenty thousand were which attended the various productions present during the run of "A Midsumof my brother managers; neither do I mer Night's Dream”-in all a grand pretend to declare that the majority is total of six hundred and thirty-two always right; nor shall I seek to set up thousand visitors to these three produccommercial success as the standard by tions. And no doubt my brother man. which artistic endeavor must be agers who have catered for the public gauged. But I do know that by the in this manner could, with the great public favor many of the managers successes that they have had, point to whom I have mentioned succeeded in similar figures. I think, therefore, it keeping for a number of months in the is not too much to claim that the public bills their great Shakespearean produc- taste clearly and undoubtedly-whether tions, and I believe that in the aggre- that taste be good or bad-lies in the gate those productions brought them direction of the method in which Shakeample and substantial reward. That speare has been presented of late years we should look for that sluttishness of by the chief metropolitan managers. prosperity which attends entertain- My thesis is to prove that that taste is ments of another order is, of course, justified, and that the great mass of out of the question; but the privilege English theatre-goers are not to be of presenting the masterpieces of stamped as fools and ignorants because Shakespeare's genius is surely as great they have shown a decided preference as that derived from paying a for contemporary methods. dividend of 35 per cent. to a set of I have endeavored to show what the shareholders in a limited liability com- public taste of to-day is. Before enpany. But if I am unable to speak tering upon its defence, I shall put bewith authority as to the success or fore you the case for the prosecution. otherwise, which has attended the pro- Many able pens have been busy of late, ductions at other theatres, I can speak and much valuable ink has been exwith authority in reference to those pended in assuring us that the modern productions for which I have been my- method is a wrong method, and that self responsible--if, indeed, it is per- Shakespeare can only be rescued from missible to call oneself as a witness the slough into which he has fallen by to prove one's own case. For the mo- a return to that primitive treatment ment modesty must give way to the which may be indicated in such stage exigencies of the situation.
instructions as “This is a forest," "This In three years at Her Majesty's The- is a wall," "This is a youth," "This is atre three Shakespearean productions a maiden,” “This is a moon." The first have been given-viz., "Julius Cæsar," count in the indictment, according to "King John" and "A Midsummer one distinguished writer, is that it is
the modern manager's "avowed intention to appeal to the spectator mainly through the eye." If that be so, then the manager is clearly at fault-but I am unacquainted with that manager. We are told that the manager nowadays will only produce those plays of Shakespeare which lend themselves to "ostentatious spectacle.” If that be so, then the manager is clearly at faultbut I am still unacquainted with him. We are assured on the authority of this same writer, who I am sure would be incapable of deliberately arguing from false premises, that “in the most influential circles of the theatrical profession, it has become a commonplace to assert that Shakespearean drama cannot be successfully produced on the stage-cannot be rendered tolerable to any large section of the play-going public-without a plethora of scenic spectacle and gorgeous costumes which the student regards as superfluous and inappropriate.” If it be so, the unknown manager is once more at fault. We may, indeed, take him to be a vulgar rogue, who produces Shakespeare for the sole purpose of gain, and who does not hesitate to debauch the public taste in order to compass his sordid ends.
We are told that under the present system it is no longer possible for Shakespeare's plays to be acted constantly and in their variety, owing to the large sums of money which have to be expended, thus necessitating long runs. Of course, if a large number of Shakespeare's plays could follow each other without intermission, a very desirable state of things would be attained; but my contention is that no company of ordinary dimensions could possibly achieve this, either worthily or even satisfactorily. Leaving out of consideration, for the moment, all such questions as rehearsals of scenery and effects, it is impossible for one set of actors properly to prepare one play in the space of a few days, while they are
playing another at night. Those who have had any experience of rehearsing a Shakespearean drama in a serious way will bear me out that a week or a fortnight, or even a month, is insuffi. cient to do the text anything like full justice. And even when attempts of this kind have been made, can it honestly be said that they have left any lasting impression upon the mind or the fancy? I contend that greater service for the true knowing of Shakespeare's works is rendered by the careful production of one of these plays than by the indifferent-or, as I believe it is now fashionably called, the "adequate”-representation of half a dozen of them. By deeply impressing an audience, and making their hearts throb to the beat of the poet's wand, by enthralling an audience by the magic of the actor who has the compelling pow. er, we are enabled to give Shakespeare a wider appeal and a larger franchisesurely no mean achievement. Thousands witness him instead of hundreds; for his works are not only, or primarily, for the literary student; they are for the world at large. Indeed, there should be more joy over ninety-nine Philistines that are gained than over one elect that is preserved. I contend that not only is no service rendered to Shakespeare by an "adequate” representation, but that such performances are a disservice, in so far that a large proportion of the audience will receive from them an impression of dulness. And in all modesty it may be claimed that it is better to draw multitudes by doing Shakespeare in the way the public prefers, than to keep the theatre empty by only presenting him "adequately," as these counsels of imperfection would have us do.
I take it that the proper object of putting Shakespeare upon the stage is not only to provide an evening's amusement at the theatre, but also to give a stimulus to the further study of our
great poet's works. If performances, therefore, make but a fleeting impression during the moments that they are in action, and are forgotten as soon as the playhouse is quitted, the stimulus for diving deeper into other plays than those that we have witnessed must inevitably be wanting. For my own part, I admit that the long run has its disadvantages-that it tends (unless fought against) to automatic acting and to a lessening of enthusiasm, passion and imagination on the part of the actor; but what system is perfect? It is a regrettable fact that in all the affairs of life, whenever we strive for an abstract condition of things, we are apt to come into collision with the concrete wall which is built of human limi. tations-as many an idealist's battered head will testify. In making a choice, one can only elect that system which has the smallest number of drawbacks to its account. The argument that the liabilities involved nowadays in producing a Shakespearean play on the modern system are so heavy that few managers care to face them, and that, there. fore, unless a change in such system takes place, Shakespeare will be banished from the London stage altogether --is, in my opinion, a fallacious one. Again I apologize for intruding the results of my own experience, but I feel bound to state-if only for the purpose of encouraging others to put Shakespeare on the stage as magnificently as they can afford-that no single one of my Shakespearean productions has been unattended by a substantial pecuniary reward.
I now come to deal with two charges which practically come under one head -the impeachment of the actor-manager. He is represented as being capable of every enormity, of every shameless infraction of every rule of dramatic art, provided only that he stands out from his fellows and obtains the giant share of notice and applause.
These two charges are: first, that the text is ruthlessly cut in order to give an unwarranted predominance to certain parts; and secondly, that the parts are not entrusted to actors capable of doing them justice. If these charges be true, the practice is a most reprehensible one. But are they true? Is it not rather the fact that the old star system has of late given way to all-round casts of a high level? I think the public taste and the practice of managers has been in this direction-a welcome change which has taken place during recent years. In regard to this cutting of the text, it is only fair to point out that the process to an extent is necessary in the present day. It would be impossible otherwise to bring most of Shakespeare's plays within the three hours' limit, which he himself has described as the proper traffic of the stage. In times gone by, when there was practically no scenery at all, when the public were satisfied to come to the playhouse and remain in their seats without moving from the beginning to the end of their performance (taking solid and liquid refreshment when it pleased them), a much lengthier play was possible than in these days; but to perform any single one of Shakespeare's plays without excision at all would be to court failure instead of success. To play, for example, the whole of “Hamlet” or “Antony and Cleopatra"—the two longest of Shakespeare's works-without a cut, would mean a stay of about five hours in the theatre. This would never be tolerated now, and the result of such a practice would be to empty the theatre instead of to fill it. Modern conditions of life obviously do not admit of such a system. Moreover, Shakespeare himself did not represent the entire play of “Hamlet,” which was subjected to judicious cuts in his own time and there is nothing to show that his dramas were ever performed in their printed