18 May 2016
On Page and Stage:
Playing (With) Shakespeare in the Ivory Tower and the Black Box
As a scholar and practitioner, a central critical interest of mine is how the practice of performance can produce potent scholarly “data” that can join in conversation with data produced from more conventional methods. Aside from interviews and books on “important” directors1 – both of which are virtually always mediated via the analytical presence of the scholar – practitioner’s voices are very much absent from academic conversation. Indeed, some scholars even contend that due to the divergent positionalities of these groups of individuals, scholars and practitioners simply cannot be in conversation around particular topics.2 Practitioners do, of course, write their own texts but the assumed audience is not that of the academy. Practitioners write books for practitioners and scholars for scholars, with few exceptions.3
What, precisely, is the catalyst for this conversational impasse? Is it that scholars and practitioners do not see what they have to gain from the deployment of vocabulary from the other camp? Or is there a more profound anxiety that stems from a (legitimate or perceived) lack of knowledge of an alternate vocabulary and its interlocuters? Do we as academics hesitate to utilize practical sources (e.g. acting manuals, directing tracts, our own embodied practices) because we fear we do not have a masterful grasp on how to interpret them? Do practitioners steer clear of academic writing because it is “elitist” or because that text is outside the comfortably recognizable sphere of practical conversation?
In the burgeoning era of Practice-as-Research, these divides are being bridged to some extent. Yet theatre practice, in particular, seems to lag behind “performance” as a condoned object of such multi-discursive engagement. To be fair, scholars such as Richard Schechner have been writing about their practice for decades in ways that are legible within the academy. Yet what I will go on to frame as “popular theatre” – theatre that utilizes tactics that are accessible to a broad-based, non-specialist audience – continues to disclude such conversations. I will argue that the lack of conversation comes first and foremost from a discrepancy in experiential language. While the practitioner may be well-read in scholarly work, in not actively contributing to that field with her own writing, she may feel that both her hermeneutic and responsive positions are available only within the language of artistic practice. To be clear, I define the parameters of artistic practice not only around the ways in which a director facilitates delivery of text, implementation of design, and the aural/visual/somatic structures at play in a particular performance piece, but also the language the director employs in order to engage in such communications. The point here is that I do not write here with the same voice or vocabulary that I speak to my actors in the rehearsal room or my designers in the studio.
Conversely, while theatre scholars may spend a lifetime engaged in the theatre as spectators – even, on occasion, deeply ingrained spectators that spend significant time with a company observing their rehearsal practices – the scholar may also feel at a loss in actually participating in practice in ways that allow them to assess and critique them from a space of embodied knowledge. While external inferences from a critical positionality are unarguably valuable, academic scholarship that can utilize practical experience as a source of data will further enrich the ways in which the academy is able to engage with artistic objects.
Thus, the central object of this study will be to utilize my own experience as a practitioner as a lens through which to investigate other contemporary performance objects, alongside more traditional scholarly sources. Rather than focusing solely on my own work as object, I will introduce a specific project that has been central to my current research as a vehicle through which to articulate prominent questions around contemporary Shakespearean performance, and use the experiential knowledge produced by my engagement with that project as a critical tool alongside academic sources.
In deference to my training in feminist research, I will do my best to articulate, self-reflexively, my own positionality and agenda in engaging in such a project. I am a scholar/practitioner. I am the daughter of college professors and I am in love with the energy that circulates around the insides of theaters. Beginning with my exploration, as a teenager, into what might lie ahead of me in terms of post-secondary education, I was continually put-off by the culturally imposed “fork-in-the-road” that studying theatre seemed to produce: if I was going to be a serious, productive person, I had better have a “fall-back,” or at very least go right from undergraduate study into a graduate program (so that I could teach); or, I could be “true to myself” and make a go at being an artist and live the vagabond life that (most likely) such a career would entail. The notion that the truth of my own experience was a love affair with two jealous suitors - the library stacks and the inside of the rehearsal room - seemed incomprehensible to all but my most intimate mentors.
This is, then, a fundamentally selfish project, but one that, I hope, may make some space for other individuals that want to attempt to hear and speak a poly-vocal language of performance. I do believe in expertise, and that the command of both of these vocabularies takes diligence, rigor and profound investment in the notions of their capacities for problematization and revelation in our lived lives. Given that this is an experiment in language play, the tone, contexts and texts of the two positionalities may (will, I think) occasionally be in conflict or present significant gaps which I will do my best to mitigate or simply expose for reflection.
The Dogs of War
The format of this text will investigate a series of critical concerns regarding contemporary Shakespearean performance via the lens of a practical project in which I engaged in the Spring of 2013. Between January and May of that year, the Institute for Exploration in Theatre, Dance and Performance at the University of California, Davis sponsored an extended rehearsal and production period of The Dogs of War, my adaptation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays that attempts to tell the story of war from the perspective of the common people. The central concern of this piece was to centralize the “interstitial” scenes of soldiers, citizens, women, children and ghosts that punctuate the first and second tetralogies. Given the ubiquitous process of cutting text for the pragmatics of running time, these scenes are often cut from productions of the history plays since often they do not provide crucial information regarding the A-plots (i.e. the struggle for power between the houses of Lancaster and York). Could an adaptation be done, I wondered, that used these lords only as the frame for the story of the common people who are killed, and made to kill, who are taken for granted as boots on the ground, and the wives and children whose devastated lives are assumed collateral damage?
As I journeyed through the process of adaptation, and then rehearsal and production of the piece, a number of critical engagements emerged in conversation with emergent Performance Studies scholarship. I will here introduce the central questions and their interlocutors, which will then go on to frame the chapters of this book.
As Douglas Lanier usefully articulates in Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture,
popular culture, or so the story goes, is aesthetically unsophisticated, disposable, immediately accessible and therefore shallow, concerned with immediate pleasure and effects, unprogressive in its politics, aimed at the lowest common denominator, mass-produced by corporations principally for financial gain. By contrast, Shakespeare is aesthetically refined, timeless, complex and intellectually challenging, concerned with lasting truths of the human condition and not fleeting political issues, addressed to those few willing to devote themselves to laborious study, produced by a single genius ‘not of an age but for all time.’ (3)
A plethora of both literary and performance factors further contribute to the continued reification of Shakespeare as high culture. Perhaps the most acute of these factors rests in the dominance of Shakespeare as a cultural force at least as prevalent on the page (or iPad screen), as on the stage or the “big” screen, and the implications of this dominance on the work of language. While Early Modernists are currently in the midst of a quite fascinating debate on the precise inception of Shakespeare’s work as literature, and the “intentionality” or capitulation of the playwright himself as literary author, what is central to my own investigation are the ways in which Shakespeare is produced and consumed in our contemporary socio-cultural context.4 Today, despite a Shakespeare play being virtually ubiquitous on secondary school required reading lists, a prevailing aura around Shakespearean text is that of anxiety around comprehension. Indeed, there are a plethora of tools available for conquering the “fear” that this text incites; one print source (that actually uses “fear” in its title) advertises that its books “put Shakespeare’s language side-by-side with a facing-page translation into modern English – the kind of English people actually speak today.”5 Publishers as renowned as the Folger Shakespeare Library produce editions that specifically target basic textual understanding, accompanying each page of dialogue with a page of explanatory notes.
While these efforts are certainly well-intentioned and undoubtedly do much to mitigate readers’ anxiety about encountering unfamiliar text, they simultaneously work to reify the meta-discourse around Shakespeare’s language: if you do not understand every word, you cannot “properly” appreciate the play text. Such assumptions ignore completely a dual set of linguistic structures at work in these texts. Shakespeare – and many of his contemporaries – went to great lengths to incorporate repetition into their dialogues, particularly around the crucial plot points. I will not venture a guess here as to the playwright’s intentionality – perhaps he was concerned about the ability of his audience to hear the spoken words over the tolling London bells; perhaps he was simply conscious of the fact that he was including literary and culture references with which some segments of his audience may or may not be familiar and felt the need to reiterate crucial information in plainer terms. Students and non-specialist audience members regularly demonstrate their relief when it is explained that Shakespeare’s first audiences may have found much of the structure and content of these plays as abstruse as they do.
Clinging so tightly to the intellectual understanding of terms and references produces two extremely unfortunate consequences for the contemporary reader and audience member. First, this anxiety robs the perceiver of the pleasure in the poetry itself: the aural qualities of the spoken word, the visual provocations of the printed text, the exquisite imagery as it emerges in excess of its literal reference. When one is primarily concerned with making meaning, one is distanced from the sensory experiences that occur alongside intellectual engagement. What results is that the “sense” of making sense is centralized and those who are less familiar or trained with the tools of pinning down meaning are doubly alienated – both from taking part in intellectual practice, and from being able to locate value in the stimulation of other senses.
While such conscription of meaning to text produces significant experiential liabilities for the lay perceiver, the “expert” perceiver is similarly curtailed. One of the greatest pleasures of Shakespeare, in my own experience, is that the more I study the texts, and the more I play with them in rehearsal, the more information and provocation they throw back at me. I will never forget preparing for a rehearsal in which my ensemble was going to be working Act IV, Scene 2 from The Second Part of Henry VI, in which Jack Cade and his band of rebels stand up to the Staffords, lords sent by the king to disband them. Before the Staffords enter, Cade and his cohort speak in prose, as is the norm for characters of “the meaner sort.” When the Staffords enter, they speak in verse and Cade, interestingly, responds to them in verse, although the rest of his followers continued to speak in prose. After a few lines, however, Cade gives up and resorts to prose again – first in an aside and then directly to the Staffords. When the lords exit, Cade once again takes up the verse from for his call to arms, articulating six lines of perfect iambic pentameter. Yet when Dick the Butcher responds to him, “They are all in order and march toward us,” Cade concludes the scene in prose as he says “But then are we in order when we are most out of order. Come, march forward!” Cade’s articulation of being “most in order when we are out of order” is, of course, being provocatively and eloquently underwritten by Shakespeare’s play with the textual form. The order of the common people does not align with the measured, predetermined structure of the figures of power. In order for them to maintain order, such structures – here linguistic, as well as conceptual – must be demolished.
The key point in this example, however, is that very few – even “expert” - audience members would pick up that reference from the hearing of the text in performance, and probably very few even from reading it on the page. While one might argue that Shakespeare is exercising the Elizabethan correlate of contemporary computer programmers’ “Easter eggs,” inside jokes for the elite few that can access them, I will argue that the choice he makes here inflects on both reading and the experience of performance in ways that do not rely solely on conscious understanding. As a colleague of mine, and former RSC actress, once told me, “speaking in iambic pentameter for two and a half hours beats any other high out there.” The breath and the rhythm of verse text have sensorial qualities that profoundly distinguish them from prose text. Thus, Cade’s transitions can provoke an affective response from an audience member that does not have the vocabulary – or simply does not consciously name – the formal juxtapositions.
In fact, one of the shortcomings of the initial production of The Dogs of War was a lack of investigation into the parallel qualities of prose text. An enormous amount of brilliant work has been done by practitioners on how to negotiate speaking verse in contemporary production. Yet this heightened form has been distinguished from prose speech in the practical attention it has received. Very little work has been done on the particular qualities of Shakespearean prose speech and how the actor might manage such text to help the audience experience it in a way that “makes sense.” Our failure to investigate these qualities re-performed the dichotomy between high-brow verse text that is, to return to Lanier’s framework, “aesthetically refined” and “complex,” the low-brow prose of the people that is unremarkable.6
Lanier’s thorough, if somewhat bilious, explication of the popular as equivalent to low-brow culture and Shakespeare as the quintessence of high-brow culture foregrounds the primary issue at play in the creation of The Dogs of War. The argument that we made was that a central vehicle perpetuating the equation of Shakespeare with high-brow culture was his subject matter. While common people do figure significantly in his texts, they are never the subjects of the conflicts, merely the framework via which a given oligarchical or monarchical conflict is illustrated. In other words, we may know more about King Henry V because of his relationship with Pistol, or about Orlando in what is revealed in his dialogue with Adam, but none of us mistakes Henry V as Pistol’s story, or As You Like It as Adam’s.
We employed two primary tactics in attempting to situate The Dogs of War as a piece of popular theatre. First, of course, was the centralizing of the common people themselves. The nobility only appeared when they were in direct conversation with the commons, or – on a few occasions – when they had extended discussions amongst themselves regarding the nature of the lower classes and their activities (Richard III and Buckingham’s discussion about the people remaining mute upon hearing that Richard would ascend the throne is one such example). A reviewer noted that “one of the pleasures of The Dogs of War is the opportunity to glimpse such rare material,” referring to scenes from The First Part of Henry VI that are “more often discussed in class than acted on stage.”7 When the nobility did appear, the actors portraying them were confined to a walled-in television studio that occupied the inner above and their images were projected onto screens in the house. Thus, their presence was always mediated, versus the commoners who played on the deck in direct proximity to the audience.
While a different set of stories constituted the “A”-plot, the actors worked diligently to resist romanticizing the characters they portrayed. The goal was to illuminate a historically marginalized set of experiences, but not to represent these bodies as infallible – in other words, to dehumanize them by other means. Pistol and Jack Cade presented incredibly fruitful challenges in this regard, as the inclusion of their own text about themselves, rather than others text about them, allows significantly more empathic access to them, yet they nevertheless commit atrocious acts of violence in the service of their own self-betterment. It was up to the actresses that played these roles to allow the audience to reflect more deeply on the social constitutions of these men and to begin to understand their actions as need-based without erasing the horror of the actions themselves.
Additionally, the actors vastly extended the opportunities for direct address to the audience. While direct address is regularly incorporated into Shakespearean performance through the vehicles of the soliloquy and the aside, these tactics nevertheless tend to reify formal and “high-culture” associations of the plays rather than making sincere invitations to the audiences that attend them. These vehicles are both conservative and predictable. An audience either knows beforehand, or quickly learns, that these moments in which they are being engaged are conventional and thus, they are not disruptive. Furthermore, even if an actor delivers his lines “out” to the house, rather than to another character onstage, if the play is performed with a darkened house – particularly a darkened proscenium house – the audience is spoken towards but not to. When an actor speaks from an illuminated stage into a darkened house, he cannot actually see the individual audience members. Thus, there is no opportunity for eye contact or the one-on-one engagement between the performing and perceiving bodies that create a truly profound phenomenological connection.
In order to sincerely invite – and implicate – our audience into the onstage happenings, the actors delivered much of the dialogue in the scenes directly to the audience, often giving individual lines to particular members of the audience. This tactic was facilitated by our performance space, an intimate 200-seat house gathered around a thrust stage. The size of the space allowed our lighting designer to make the audience visible without simply leaving the house lights up, so the perceivers were never in darkness. In fact, the only full blackouts were at the top of intermission and at the bottom of the show. This constant invocation of the audience as co-participants was designed to remind them that they were the ones being represented onstage and to direct their imaginative energies towards experiential intersections, rather than comfortably distant fantasy.8
Given the relationship between the word and popular access explicated above, The Dogs of War relied heavily on other performance “texts” that operated alongside, and sometimes disrupted, Shakespeare’s language. In making these decisions, I was heavily influenced by the work of Hans-Thies Lehmann, whose seminal text Postdramatic Theatre I find both inspirational and fundamentally problematic. In his book, Lehmann contends that “the majority of spectators, who – to put is crudely – expect from the theatre the illustration of classic texts, may well accept the ‘modern’ set but subscribe to a comprehensible fable, coherent meaning, cultural self-affirmation and touching theatre feelings”(19). To be frank, as a scholar/practitioner who is interested in the radical potentialities of affect and empathy, Lehmann’s denigration of “touching theatre feelings” has had me muttering aloud to myself on many an occasion. Yet what I find so provocative and useful about this book is its laying open the potentialities of non-dramatic texts within the performance encounter. Lehmann points to examples such as music, non-verbal utterances, digital media, and abstract movement as spaces in which narrative “wholeness” can be upended, a disruption he finds critical to the engagement of a self-reflexive perceiver.
When the progression of a story with its internal logic no longer forms the centre, when composition is not longer experienced as an organizing quality, but as an imposed ‘manufacture’, as a mere sham of a logic of action that only serves clichés (something Adorno abhorred about the products of the ‘culture industry’), then theatre is confronted with the question of possibilities beyond drama…(26)
I continue to be interested in the various hermeneutic positions that can be taken up around particular narrative structures, in ways that the artists to whom Lehmann turns have fundamentally discarded, and am continually suspicious of critics that undifferentiatedly set up against culture that is popularly successful. That said, I find the opportunities for surprise and disorientation offered by his theory quite powerful and deployed a number of them in the context of our production.
First and foremost, the nature of the adaptation itself led to an episodic rather than linear narrative. While there are, in fact, quite a number of scenes that feature commoners (our production ran just under two and a half hours and I certainly did not include all such scenes), these scenes do not fall into a sequence that provides for a traditional narrative arc. Therefore, what I chose to do in the reconstruction of the text was to break the text into five segments, each of which would focus on the experience of a character or a set of characters. The episodes were entitled “Falstaff”, “Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym”, “Joan”, “Jack Cade”, and “Citizens and Ghosts”. Even within this episodic structure, the scenes did not produce even linear mini-narratives, but the audience was able to live with a particular character for an extended sequence of time.
The course of the play itself has what I would frame as an affective arc. I chose to order the sequences in (basically) chronological order, rather than by the order of their composition (i.e. scenes from the second tetralogy preceded scenes from the first). Many of the characters in the first tetralogy, and the commoners in particular, are anonymous and relatively “flat” – in other words, Shakespeare does not provide us with the biographical or textual roundness with which he endows many of the characters in the second tetralogy. While Pistol, Williams, and even the Pageboy articulate hopes, desires, preferences and goals, and demonstrate consistent textual qualities that differentiate them from one another (e.g. Pistol speaks in verse with characteristic imperfection), the first tetralogy is populated more generally by masses of common bodies: unnamed citizens that appear for one scene to discuss the implication of King Edward’s death, messengers that deliver news of rebel uprisings and are never heard from again, fathers and sons that eloquently eulogize one another as they lay dying on the battlefield. Aligning these scenes later in the play facilitates a crumbling into anonymity of the piece itself, as distinct identities succumb to the undistinguishing brutality of war. Any sense of narrative “logic”, to use Lehmann’s term, begins to fray within the opening scenes and totally collapses by the performance’s end.
What fundamentally intrigues me here is the impact of such narrative collapse on the phenomenological experience of the perceiver. In his extensive study on The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, Keir Elam maps the systems, codes and subcodes through which the language of a theatrical performance is configured. While Elam explicitly notes the complexity with which these codes interact, he nevertheless ascribes every aspect of the event to one code or another, even the particular choices by a practitioner that break from the acknowledged semiotic rules. “Any dramatist, director, actor or designer of note will impose, over and above the constitutive and regulative rules, his own subcode or idiolect, the ensemble of personal, psychological, ideological and stylistic traits which makes a written text recognizably ‘Strind-bergian’ (even in imitation), an acting method ‘Gielgudian’ or an overall performance text ‘Brechtian’”(49, italics in original). While Elam makes space for the practitioner in contributing “innovations which appear less rule-bound but which may in turn help to establish new norms”(Ibid.), he chooses to focus his attention on how these innovations condition the evolution of semiotic codes rather than what they impel phenomenologically within a given performance event. What happens to the affect-scape of a theatre performance when one of the disruptions Lehmann so admires is introduced, when the spectator cannot read with any certainty the code of a particular signifier or set of signifiers? Even more importantly, what happens in this moment before the act of disruption simply becomes coded as, for example, “Robert Wilson-esque”?
My instinct is that in order to invite an audience to the sort of self-reflection that Lehmann demands, particularly if one is situating one’s production within a popular context and not counting on a body of perceivers with elite performance vocabularies, a balance must be sought between the utilization of a recognizable semiotic system with which the perceiver can engage, and enough disruption from narrative inevitable that the perceiver is invited to move off of his/her experiential center. The non-linearity of the text framework of The Dogs of War, alongside the various aural, visual and somatic texts at play in the production attempted to achieve just such a balance.
A key query in this production was around the ways in which history plays are specifically implicated in the writing of cultural history. I count Walter Benjamin as a crucial interlocutor in my framing of the practice of history. In many ways, Benjamin prefigures the advent of post-modernism in his attempt to undermine the “causal nexus” with which the victors of humanity have constructed history.
No state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It became so posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. The historian who proceeds from this consideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time. (397)
While many scholars of both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries bind particular articulations of the past with the immediate needs of the present, Benjamin is distinct if not unique in his further pointing to the future, as indicated by the explicitly messianic nature of this text. While Benjamin is careful to note that in the messianic tradition attempting to foretell the future is prohibited, the act of storytelling draws the past into the present in ways that continue to create “the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter”(Ibid.)
This binding together not only of past within the present, but also of present articulations toward the future, is crucial within my own practice. I believe that the fundamental value of artistic production is the potential change that a work of art can make on its practitioners and perceivers, and to the extent that such change is made, it is what extends beyond the encounter itself and extends into the future. The change is what remains.
The Dogs of War attempted to prompt such a change specifically in the re-imagining via performance of relatively fixed history. The story of the Wars of the Roses, due in no small part to Shakespeare’s incarnations of them in the history plays are known quantities. We know who the heroes are (Henry V, John Talbot, Henry Tudor), and we know the villains (Northumberland, Sussex, and without question most prominently, Richard III). The structure of these plays, at least superficially – and certainly according to the majority of Early Modernists – illustrates the inevitable and celestially ordained rise of the Tudor line to please the royal patroness. However, within these texts, Shakespeare composes a not insignificant amount of dialogue that explicitly questions the actions of the nobility – on both sides of the family – particularly around the utility of war. While no one (other than super-villain Richard III) questions the worthiness of Richmond to inherit the crown, given the contemporary activities of Elizabeth in Ireland during the years of composition, these plays can, in fact, be read with a distinct angle of political critique.
In their book on Shakespeare and War, Ros King and Paul Franssen eloquently critique the ways in which the history plays, and Henry V in particular, have been produced in order to uphold the ideology of the “just war.” In their introduction, they note that as editors, “we wanted to keep clear in our minds the different levels of historical writing, story telling and political spin at all stages of the invention, transmission and reinvention of the plays that go under the shorthand name of ‘Shakespeare’”(6), later calling attention to the ways in which “these plays show an awareness of the ubiquitous truth of [what is silenced], which we refuse to acknowledge because to do so is to call into question the very possibility of the concept of justice in war”(9). The Dogs of War utilized specific tactics to attempt to reveal such silences. A key production choice in this regard was to cut what I referred to as the “rebuttals” toward the commoners. For example, at the top of Act IV of Henry V, the Chorus delivers an imagistically ravishing monologue on the conditions of the French and English armies on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. The French are fed, clothed, “over-lusty” and outnumber the English ten-to-one; the Chorus imagines them reprimanding the “tardy, cripple-gaited night” who takes such a very long time in going by. The opposing camp, those soldiers that represent the army with whom Shakespeare’s audience is identified, embodied an entirely different structure of feeling.
…The poor condemned English,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires
Sit patiently and inly ruminate
The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad,
Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats,
Presenteth them unto the gazing moon
So many horrid ghosts. (IV.Cho., 23 - 29)
In the immediately succeeding lines, the Chorus narrates the arrival of the king, making his way through the camp and cheering his troops by his own presence and valor, succoring the soldiers with “a little touch of Harry in the night.” The Chorus’s finale to this speech effectively marks the suffering and terror of the English soldiers as a simple plot device via which Harry can emerge as savior, compassionate king and true warrior.
Similarly, in the very next scene, we see the king’s night walk, although here he is in disguise versus the earlier depiction by the Chorus. He first encounters his old friend Pistol, primarily to establish that he cannot be recognized even by those with whom he is intimate, before moving on to a group of soldiers just beginning to prepare for battle. These three – Bates, Court and Williams – are articulate, logical and passionate in their appraisals of the king’s responsibility to his citizens and his failure to prioritize their well-being over his imperialist cause. Williams finishes the sequence, arguing that if the soldiers meet with a bad end, as he maintains is the only real possibility when one dies in war, “it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were beyond all proportion of subjection” (IV.i, 196-199). Shakespeare then writes Henry a forty-line rebuttal that argues for each man’s life being his own responsibility, after which the soldiers capitulate and the scene ends.
In our production, we cut the “rebuttals” from both the Chorus’s opening speech and the scene between King Henry. The Chorus speech ended with the line “so many horrid ghosts” and went directly into the encounter between Henry and Pistol. In that scene, the three soldiers exited after William’s “beyond all proportion of subjection.” I did maintain a portion of Henry’s soliloquy that ends that sequence in which he complains about the impossible responsibility of kingship, concluding with the moan “What infinite heart’s-ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy!” By allowing these scenes to conclude with the commoners’ perspectives - giving them, in short, the last word – we allowed the text that Shakespeare had given them to resonate louder and longer, rather than being undermined by the voices of authority. Crucially here, I in no way altered the lines that Shakespeare had written for these characters; I simply inverted the typical tactic for production edits, cutting the king’s text rather than the soldiers’, in order to foreground the normally peripheral perspective.
These reorientations were intended to invite a convergence of what Phillip Zarilli delineates as the three modes of semiotics always at play in the theatre event: Universal History which calls upon themes that transcend particular times and spaces (e.g. love, war, death, etc.), the Specific History upon which the setting of the play relies, and the Theatrical Present, the time/space in which the play is being performed.9 As noted above, the phenomenological impact of the theatrical encounter in radically extended by the erosion of clarity within a particular set of communicative codes. Thus, the oscillations between these three temporal sign systems produce potent spaces for such phenomenological eruption. Any text that relies on narrative structure frames itself within a time and a space, even if those spaces are fluid or imaginary (i.e. Waiting for Godot invokes a very provocative Specific History in its specific placement outside of historical time and location – this “outsideness” distinguishes the onstage world from the Theatrical Present occupied by the audience). Some narratives, of course, rely on explicitly on particular sets of historical circumstances, Shakespeare’s histories being a prime example. Always at play in the theatrical event, however, is the historical location of the players and the audience members themselves, a condition of which all bodies involved are continually reminded more or less intentionally and explicitly. Universal History, then, operates as a sort of conceptual bridge across times and spaces, a hook by which a perceiving (or performing) body can locate its present self within the Specific History of the onstage narrative. The Dogs of War investigated of the Universal History of war through the vehicle of the Specific History of the Wars of the Roses within the Theatrical Present of an American nation that has been in a time of war for over a decade. To return to Benjamin, in creating the space for this temporal oscillation, we invited our audience members to engage in a performance event that might bind up the telling of the past within the self-reflection of the present in ways that have implications for our imagined futures. We hoped that the changes produced by this convergence might remain imprinted within the bodies of the practitioners and the perceivers, and articulate onto their own lived texts as the future became the next present.
The presence and power of such phenomenological remains fundamentally bring into question the notion of performance as ephemeral, a concept that grounds much of contemporary performance theory. Peggy Phelan, in her now canonical text Unmarked, argues that “performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance”(146). Phelan’s central theoretical contribution in this text is that performance shares an ontological status with femininity, following Lacan in arguing that the latter is essentially conditioned by its lack.10
While The Dogs of War extended beyond the representations of explicitly female bodies, the project engaged in an experiment of making present those bodies historically marked as “abject.”11 Repeatedly in these play texts, literally dozens of times, the nobility – both those framed as heroes and those framed as villains – characterize the commons as falling short of total humanity. These examples are perhaps nowhere so apparent as in those that informed our title, the series of metaphors that equate working and fighting bodies with dogs. “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start,” calls Henry V to his army as he attempts to rouse them “once more unto the breach;” later, however, he invokes a similarly animalistic, yet not so flattering image of his soldiers as he threatens the residents of Harfleur: “The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,/ And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,/ In liberty of bloody hand shall range/ With conscious wide as hell, mowing like grass/ Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants”(HV, III.iii, 11-15).12 This pair of references, both delivered by one of the monarchs the audience is presumably supposed to find empathic, locate the value and liability of the laboring body in its carnality. Yet this quality does nothing to separate them from the animal world with which they are linguistically equated, and everything to separate them from the discerning, perceiving, agential figure that speaks these lines. Finally, in terms of their negation as human subjects, no one articulates the state of the commons more succinctly than does Falstaff when defending to Hal his choice of particularly bare and impoverished men for his regiment: “Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better” (1HIV, IV.ii, 65-66).
Rather than emulating the tactics of the feminist performance artists Phelan cites and attempting to implicate the (always implicitly male) spectator in the perpetuation of such dehumanization, we instead chose to invite the perceiver to identify with the positions of the bodies that were being subjected to this ontological violence. We worked from an understanding that the bodies in the room with us would not be those that, in our Theatrical Present, are the equivalents of the kings. The people engaging in the theatrical event with us are those whose agency in deciding whether or not their country should be at war is severely limited, and for many of them and their families, even their own ability to determine their direct, embodied participation in those wars has been compromised. Thus, these spectators are not those that need shaming for their facilitation of the abjection of the Other, but rather those that may benefit from hearing the story of a fellow “cur,” eloquently composed by the scion of culture to which they themselves are typically offered only conditional access.
Finally, the transgressive popular agenda of The Dogs of War was made manifest not only or even primarily in my project of textual adaptation, but in the company’s work together in rehearsal and production. As I wrote in the program note:
My greatest pleasure in working on this project has been to see the ways in which the company’s creative process has been able to reflect and impact upon the politics of the play itself….the gift of [four months of rehearsal] time allowed us to build an ensemble together, to get to know intimately one another’s ways of working, tics, fears, desires and instincts, as well as to hone the skills specifically required for Shakespearean performance. For a large portion of the rehearsal process, the company experimented with different roles before we settled down into a set “cast.” Thus, every actor on stage is delivering a performance that has been fundamentally informed by the interpretations and incarnations of her fellow actors. This outcome of the extensive rehearsal process – along with the fact that each actor is playing at least half a dozen different parts – has been to undercut the typical hierarchy that results in casting the “great roles” of Shakespeare.
Two factors were crucially at stake in our practice: building ensemble and developing a common physical and vocal technical vocabulary. The ensemble structure was of key import in practically grounding the ethos of the project itself, primarily in that it worked to mitigate – at least somewhat – my role as ultimate authority in the room. As the director, I was in a particularly privileged position to structure the activities, conversations and interpretations of our work, a position that was only further extended by my parallel roles as teacher, Shakespeare scholar, and eventual documentarian of our process. Doing what I could to facilitate a working group of actors that trusted one another allowed them a group agency that was infrastructurally much less accessible to them one-on-one.
The late casting process helped immensely in this regard. Most often, actors know what role they will play before the rehearsal process begins. While this has the benefit of focusing their attention on the pieces of text with which they directly have to engage, it has the distinct disadvantage of equating the performing body with the “territory” of the role itself, severely limiting what ideas, inspirations and information about that role they are able to accept from their fellow cast members. Such isolation can also lead to portrayals of characters that feel disconnected with the overall tenor of the piece. Our process, in which we spent weeks of rehearsal time playing with different groups working through various scenes, and changing up the assigned roles virtually every day, insured that every performance of every character that finally emerged was deeply inflected by the multitude of bodies that had inhabited it. No one could entertain the illusion that they had created a role on their own. This consciousness of collaboration not only worked to level the casting hierarchy - a result already well-achieved by the fact that each actor was playing many roles over the course of the play – it led to more open and less defensive communication between the cast throughout the rehearsal and production process.
In terms of building our physical and vocal vocabularies, we used Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s Viewpoints technique as our foundation.13 Viewpoints began as a tactic for movement-based composition in rehearsal. The system identifies nine physical viewpoints which could be used to bring the performers’ attention to various aspects of their physical interactions. These are Spatial Relationship, Kinesthetic Response, Shape, Gesture, Repetition, Architecture, Tempo, Duration and Topography. As the system developed, Bogart and Landau added the vocal viewpoints, many of which mirror the physical viewpoints, but also include Pitch, Acceleration/Deceleration, Timbre and Silence. What emerges from the system is a set of tools to which the performers can become familiarized and that can allow them to construct parameters inside of which spontaneous, playful choices can be made. As the authors themselves note, when the performers get to a place where they can utilize all of the various viewpoints, the director is able to “introduce the imperative of removing choice. It is no longer for [the actor] to choose what is right or wrong, good or bad – but to use everything…Although this is one of the most difficult stages of the process, it can also be the most freeing. This is the moment when [the director] takes the onus off the individual to “be interesting”…s/he need only receive and react” (42). This removing of the “onus” from the individual helped our company to achieve simultaneously the two key goals of our practical work together: to extend the responsibility for creative production to the ensemble as a whole, rather than producing a set of discreet individual performances, and to use that ensemble spontaneity to mitigate the hierarchical position of the director. Indeed, many of the sequences in the final production were physically and vocally varied performance to performance due to the ensemble’s own agency over their creative work.
Finally, the practice and performance of The Dogs of War allowed me a platform to explore, refine and articulate a set of questions around key issues at play in contemporary Shakespearean performance. While the scope of this text may seem, at the outset, unapproachably broad, my dual positionalities as scholar and practitioner in fact make this infrastructure not only ideal, but imperative. While the solely scholarly text may choose to deal with just one of the aspects of performance that I am engaged with here, the practitioner – in every production – must attend simultaneously to questions of time and space, of audience and of performing bodies, of the multitude of performance texts that are at work. Thus, in the interest of laying bare the incredibly expansive capacity of these two discursive fields to be in productive conversation, I will do my best to investigate each of these questions in the context of academic scholarship alongside an array of provocative and influential contemporary performances that take them up.
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Hudson, Jeff. “’The Dogs of War’ Tweaks Shakespeare to Highlight Working Class,” in The Davis Enterprise. 22 March 2013.
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Miller, Josy, dir. and adapt. The Dogs of War. Performed May, 2013, Davis, CA: University of California, Davis Department of Theatre and Dance.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed. The Complete Works. G. Blakemore Evans, et. al, eds. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Zarilli, Phillip B., et. al. Theatre Histories: An Introduction, 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.