What Does Performance Mean, Really?

It comes up a lot.  It came up on Twitter just now.  Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read. Which implies that it is meant to be performed, so that people can see i. But what exactly does that mean, and how can we work with it? On the one end there’s the class field trip, packing up a few dozen kids to head down to the local theatre and sit still for a production of it doesn’t matter what because most of them won’t pay attention long enough to remember it. Or, there’s “see the movie.”  Stay in the classroom, maybe you have the students’ attention, maybe you don’t, but when Olivier’s Hamlet says goodbye to his mom a little bit too enthusiastically, you can pause it for a minute and explain the who Oedipus thing (thank you Mr. Corey, my 12th grade English teacher). But can we take it another level?  A large majority of kids have iPods, or at least computer access at home (barring the edge socio-economic situations where it’s not likely). Couldn’t they download the movie and watch it at their own pace, rewinding as needed? What about looking forward when most students are packing an iPad-like tablet device? I like to imagine a world where the student has a player that shows everything they might want – the text, the footnotes, a modern translation, as well as multiple performance interpretations of each scene.  Want to study the final scene of Lear?  Great, drill down right on that.  See Olivier do it, and then James Earl Jones, and then Ian McKellan. Read the notes.  Form your own opinions. You just can’t do that stuff by simply going out and seeing the show just to say you saw it.  Sure, “live” theatre brings something different than a film does, but that’s a bigger question that really has nothing to do with Shakespeare but does have everything to do with the realities of time management in a busy world.  I don’t think it’s as easy as “see rather than read.”  I think that a combination of both is the only real option, and technology is getting us closer to it.

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6 thoughts on “What Does Performance Mean, Really?

  1. "I don’t think it’s as easy as “see rather than read.” I think that a combination of both is the only real option,"

    Agreed. I've made that statement in various forms re: education, literature, performance, et al many times.

    But the following sentiment is disturbing to me for lots of reasons:

    "Sure, 'live' theatre brings something different than a film does, but that’s a bigger question that really has nothing to do with Shakespeare but does have everything to do with the realities of time management in a busy world."

    Theatre brings a lot different than a film does, and far from having nothing to do with it, has everything to do with Shakespeare. And the unfortunate ever-present and seeming impending 'reality' is, that when the day comes when the technology and 'time management' people think they have successfully replaced the need for the communion of souls re: theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, will be the day after the day before–when our souls gave up the ghost.

  2. I agree, J, that live theatre is very much a good thing (I like that "communion of souls" bit) and that we shouldn't lose it. I was merely trying to separate that question from the more specific Shakespeare issue. Is there something about, say, Beckett or O'Neill that makes them a better candidate for film? What is it about Shakespeare's work in particular that you wouldn't or couldn't equally apply to other well regarded playwrights? (Mind you I'm not talking about the overall quality issue that we beat up on a few weeks back, I'm talking about specific technical or structural things that Shakespeare does, that others do not, that would not translate from stage to screen).

    I am indeed one of those realists, for good or bad, who sees the whole technology and time management thing looming heavy on the horizon. We're reaching a point now where people don't even watch television, they just download entire seasons of a television show to watch at will. I'm just trying to work within those boundaries. Of course it will always be a pleasure to go visit a show, but when we're talking about a dependence, a feeling of "you won't ever understand Titus unless you see it performed", that's where I think that live theatre comes up short and technology has to fill some gaps. Heck, you may go your whole life without even getting the chance to see a staged Antony and Cleopatra. Know what I mean?

  3. I think the real issue is, are today's performances, whether in theatre or on film, up to par? From the VERY little I've seen, it seems like they're not. Reading Shakespeare, after the first four-five apprentice plays where you're still struggling with the footnotes, you can be your own director, you can see your own actors, you can feel the characters' emotions, all for yourself. On stage and on film, this is all done for you, and if it's done poorly–and too extravagantly–there's no saving the text.

    I believe Shakespeare was meant to be seen AND read. I don't want to get into a discussion about Shakespeare's intentions, whether he was a purely pragmatic man of the theatre, or Jonsonian, or, much more likely, something inbetween. But the point is, both reading and seeing have their place. I think a good production can ease people into Shakespeare the way reading can't. Reading Shakespeare, in today's age, means struggling with the language for a couple of plays before you hit your stride. Even in poorer productions, good actors can convey emotions such that as an audience we can gloss over words and phrases we don't understand (Elizbethean audiences would've had to do this too, e.g. in most of Hamlet).

    On technology, I see it this way: we all have powerful imaginations, but if they're not exercised they get lazy. That's not to say, quite pretentiously, that growing up on TV and movies means you can never read a book any more, or go to the theatre (which requires a LOT of faith-leaps), but it does mean that we've been fed a lot of aesthetic realism in our art, giant explosions with all the fire parts, close-ups of (gorgeous) people's faces where every line and wrinkle is in clear focus, sharp production value and prominent visuals. You don't get any of this in theatre, and certainly not in books, and CERTAINLY not in books where the only words are dialogue.

    A good universal and timeless performance focuses on the text, on the characters, and the driving emotions behind their actions and words. A good modern performance, perhaps better realized on screen rather than on stage, should walk a very fine line, and boy is it hard to walk, between letting words loose in the air and capturing a "realism" of action that the poetic words don't have. That's the great struggle with Shakespeare in today's age, (I think), that nobody, ever, speaks in poetry, or even in some of the prose Shakespeare writes, and yet those words provide a great window into the character's inner selves; extravagance, over-acting, an obsession with realism, these all ruin a production. And yet without a strong imagination, or at least a willingness to work rather than be fed, we need some of that, lest it become too hard to feel Shakespeare.

  4. Terribly sorry about the triple post, blame whomever you like (I'm going with Microsoft) but I'm testing a migration from XP to Windows 7 and my internet connection is intermittent at best.

  5. I know what you mean.

    As to the difference between Shakespeare and other, modern playwrights, and why Shakespeare doesn't translate as well:
    What (and how) he wrote is translated best through a combination of imagery and vocal projection of that imagery. The production of live speech is a real, physical/visceral/vibratory exercise. The roots of speech, hence words themselves, are bound inextricably to emotional sources deep inside. As a result, the understanding and appreciation of words meant to be spoken live is best achieved in an atmosphere that allows for the emotional transmission of those words by an actor (transmitter) to be literally felt by the audience (receiver). It's the reason vocal production and the uses and care of the voice are my first focus when teaching, no matter the age or expertise of the student, and why one of my courses is entitled "Speake the Speech".

    The successful transmission of words written initially with an internal design embedded for their live transmission has an immediate AND long-term effect on not only the actor, but on the audience as well.
    From an essay, "Shakespeare and the Bare Truth":

    "In many ways, both literal and figurative, the structure of the Globe fought against the existence of a barrier between actor and spectator. But even in Elizabethan Drama there is still the holy world of the play and its reflective mirror of life. An actor walking atop the “4th Wall” treads a dangerous path—unless he happens to know a genius who has a way with a quill pen; one who is willing to draw un-tread-upon footsteps in ink, to show him the safe way down. If so, the actor finds that his precarious jaunt has been worth the gamble. As he returns to the inner sanctum world of the play, he carries with him many more listeners upon his shoulders than ever thought humanly possible. They become more than welcome visitors—they are now Honorary Players. Spectators do not take this honor lightly, nor do they tend to forget it easily."

    You can't do that on an ipod or in a movie theatre. 🙂

  6. p-e-s, I agree with so much of what you wrote–and you made so many good points. I would only partially disagree, in a somewhat niggling way, on a couple of those points.

    "…we all have powerful imaginations, but if they're not exercised they get lazy."

    And they have gotten lazy–terribly so. As you substantiate later very well, we are a visual society. But I don't believe that the answer to doing something about it is succumbing to the notion that "modern Shakespeare" is

    "…perhaps better realized on screen rather than on stage…".

    If we are to somehow reverse the conditioning process, I don't think the answer is better versions of the same thing we've been conditioned to accept, even though it might be a partial step in the right direction…somehow. More of the same, even if better executed, eventually leads to diminishing returns in this case, in my opinion.
    I think the answer lies in adopting/assuming/re-assuming an appreciation for the gift we've been given in the ability to communicate through language. Language and communication of thought, emotion, and ideas, through words, is what Shakespeare was (is) all about, and we need to first appreciate words for what they are–or can be. I think the focus needs to be on how and why it worked the way it was set out to work, and on how we might be able to bring back some respect to the process itself; one we 'use' every day without really thinking about it. The words have a power we've forgotten how to exploit, and the focus on and respect for their importance has been dropped at every level of education, whether it has to do with "English" and the art of rhetoric ('rhetoric' now a bad word to most of us), or in performance, where the words have become stepchildren to internalizing emotion, instead of using them to project, share, and instigate it.

    "I believe Shakespeare was meant to be seen AND read."

    To that, I would only add "heard" as well.

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