Performance Envy

I wrote earlier today that “Words are timeless, performance is not.”  If the greatest performance of Hamlet was performed 100 years ago, what’s that to me?  I missed it.  Even today, the most ardent defenders of the “see it don’t read it” school still freely admit “Every night is different.”  So perhaps the best performance was yesterday, not tonight.  So sorry. Aha, but what about film?  Now we’re talking a whole different animal.  In a way it is simply the persistence of a performance.  You could, although it’s not done so commonly anymore, do a straight recording of a stage play.  Or you could, to put it mildly, go crazy.  The “language of film” (thanks Alan) is not my point.  I’m interested more in the idea of persistence, and the idea of not missing things. Rosenbaum’s Shakespeare Wars  spends most of its opening chapters talking about a 1970’s version of Dream by Peter Brook that changed the author’s life.  He raves about it.  He travels the world looking for people to speak with about it.  But you know what?  I can’t get into it.  Because I wasn’t there.  No amount of praise from anyone who was there will bring me any closer to experiencing it, other than to simply say “Wow, I wish I’d seen it.”  I have seen a good handful of Dream productions at this point, some good, some not so much.  The only real constant has been the text.  Each has bits and pieces that I like, but none had me stark raving. Compare film.  Have I seen what Orson Welles did with Falstaff?  Not yet, but hang on a bit……ok, seen it.  Yeah, that was good.  I can now have an opinion, we can discuss it.  I feel as if I’ve shared that experience with others.   And by others I don’t just mean others who have seen the movie, I mean the people *in* the movie.  I have an opportunity to feel what they feel, from my living room couch. A different example that I’m trying to hunt down is Olivier’s Othello, which apparently only exists as audio.  In trying to find the right words to do justice to Olivier’s performance Rosenbaum chooses not a line, not even a word, but a syllable within a single word – Desdemona.  There’s apparently a bit near the end, when Othello is wailing his wife’s name, that his voice cracked in just that certain way that encapsulated all of the hero’s anguish in one simple sound.  Had Rosenbaum been telling me this of a production he saw 30 years ago, I would at best be able to say “Wow, wish I’d seen it.”  But instead I find myself thinking “I wonder where I could get that?” It’s here that performance wins, hands down.  I agree completely.  I can know the words of the plays, but in my head I would never see the facial expression of Hal when he denies Falstaff, or the cracking voice of Olivier’s Othello.  For that, I need performance.  But I’m very jealous of performance.  Don’t tell me that I’ve missed the good stuff, I don’t want to hear that theatre is exciting because you never know what you’re going to get from night to night. I want the infinite beauty and depth of what it means to be human.  Maybe I can have that on film, maybe I’ll get to see it live.  Either way, they’re both speaking the same words. So by studying the words I still get myself that much closer to the goal, even if I never get all the way there.  Know what I mean?

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3 thoughts on “Performance Envy

  1. Re:Othello – ‘buyable’ at UK Amazon (at a ridiculous price). Although one reason I like the Welles movies is they are exactly that – movies: Translation to film; films of stage performances are frequently very disappointing.

    Time for a bouncer –

    Re: Reading – I like to think of the script of a Shakespeare play as equivalent to a Mozart score – both exist on the page, both in black and white (or off grey, brown), both signal sounds to be made in performance.

    Or maybe (with so many Geeks about) a better analogy would be between the written programme of a computer game and the game itself?

    Experts can read music – musicians read it, but I doubt if they would claim the score is more enjoyable than the performance. But more interesting is the use of the word read – what they do is ‘perform’ in the head: That IS where reading the script becomes legitimate – its not reading, its a reading.

    So too with the game?

    (This is the core of a blogpost I have brewing – what I say about Onions or Garlic; and Shakespeare Intelligences also links in.)

  2. I like the music analogy better than the game. The genius is in the words of Shakespeare or the notes of Mozart, but the genius of software (as a whole) tends more to be in the finished product. Key difference? Every computer will interpret a computer program the exact same way, therefore the final product is basically the same thing as the source code :). Unlike performance art where there is a marked difference between the source and the performance.

    I think that your “experts can read music” thought explains more of what I’m talking about. For instance, I can read source code to a computer program, I can simulate the results in my head, and I can give you judgement on whether it is any good. I cannot, however, do that with music. I can read music, somewhat, but I do not have the sort of trained ear that would enable me to look at a passage and make the leap to “Oh, an F sharp there? Fascinating! Brilliant!!”

    Now go back to Shakespeare. Because are you ready for this? You don’t have to be an expert at theatre or poetry to do that with Shakespeare – you just have to be human.

  3. Two thoughts in followup to my own comment. First, there’s certainly a degree of expertise that one can bring to Shakespeare appreciation over and above “being human”. There’s vocabulary, knowledge of context and so on.

    Second, re the music / “performance in your head” thing, it reminds me of that great scene from the Amadeus movie, where Mozart is dictating an actual opera to Salieri. How do you convert music into words so that one human can share them with another? Imagine the joy when the listener understands, and the frustration when he does not! Fascinating scene:

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