Saturday, November 05, 2011

languishing | original practice

[The Staunton Blackfriars Playhouse]

I wonder if the blog hasn't been languishing lately. Certainly there hasn't been much spare time on my hands to write it, but I'm still unwilling to give it up...
Week before last – the week before Halloween, that is – we headed north to the wilds of Virginia, to Staunton (that STAN-ton), where we attended the biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center. Yes, there in a small college town, midway between nowhere and nowhere else (actually, a pleasant half-hour to Charlottesville, & a rather longer drive to Blacksburg), is a full-time professional Shakespeare troupe, performing in a picture-perfect reconstruction of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, used from 1609.

We had a welcome surprise in a snowstorm on Friday; those of you who live in Chicago, Ithaca, or other sane climes, will be puzzled by the pleasure Floridians take in these things. It was a bit odd, however, combining family vacation with conference-going. There was pleasure enough – snowmen, snowball fights, a trip to the apple orchard atop Carter Mountain near Monticello, a serious book-shopping venture into Charlottesville (okay, maybe that was pleasure for me). But there was also always the serious undercurrent of conference-going; am I missing something good by spending time with the kids? Who's talking to whom back there at the cash bar? Should we go to the banquet or order pizza at the hotel?

My own paper was part of a colloquy on performance practices, & doesn't really bear deep discussion. But I was struck thruout the discussions by a kind of base-line acceptance – and only occasional questioning – of the Theater's guiding principle: that of "original practices." Plays produced in the Blackfriars Playhouse (as you can see from the photo above) are performed with the lights on; in Shakespeare's day, there was no easy way to extinguish all the candles in the candelabra. Lucky audience members get to sit on stools on either side of the stage, as Jacobean dandies would have. Before the performance, and during the interval, the members of the acting troupe play music (unamplified) from the balcony (cf. the cover of Jethro Tull's Minstrel in the Gallery:)

The troupe is rather small, maybe 10 actors tops, and roles are doubled thruout the productions, just as they would have been in Shakespeare's day. (Odd to see the Ghost doubling as Osric, I must say...) The stage is undecorated; there are only minimal props, whisked out not by stagehands but by the actors themselves.

(The only two radical anachronisms in the productions: 1) female roles played by women – & I can definitely live with that; and 2) what's the use of dandyishly sitting on the side of the stage if you can't ostentatiously smoke?)

I can only say that we saw some first-rate theater. Excellent productions of The Tempest and Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part I, and the first live Hamlet I've ever seen that didn't feel radically tedious. This "original practices" stuff works, at least in a small theater that makes a kind of selling point of it.

On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling that some of the academics & theater types present at the conference – for this is a conference that seems to attract at least as many directors, playwrights, and actors as it does English-department-Shakespeare-types – were busily making a fetish out of original practices, much as some in the musical community – some the Early Music Revival types, with their emphasis on "period instruments" and "period performance" – have done. It made me think of Adorno's essay "Bach Defended Against His Devotees," which attacks (I take it) mid-century notions of "authentic" performance. "Even had Bach been in fact satisfied with the organs and harpsichords of the epoch, with their thin choruses and orchestras," Adorno writes, "this would in no way prove their adequacy for the intrinsic substance of his music."
The only adequate interpretation of the dynamic objectivity embedded in his work is one which realizes it. True interpretation is an x-ray of the work; its task is to illuminate in the sensuous phenomenon the totality of all the characteristics and interrelations which have been recognized through intensive study of the score.... Objectivity is not left over after the subject is subtracted. The musical score is never identical with the work; devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides. Without such a dialectic, devotion becomes betrayal; an interpretation which does not bother about the music's meaning on the assumption that it will reveal itself of its own accord will inevitably be false since it fails to see that the meaning is always constituting itself anew.
"Authentic" performance on "period" instruments, and "original practices" Shakespeare, can give us a kind of shock of defamiliarization, can make a familiar text new by making it old; they can teach us about the aesthetic experience of the period in which the text or score was produced. But they cannot, by themselves, "realize" the Bachean or Shakespearean work: that is part of the labor of interpretation, which involves going beyond the surface of the text, interpreting and realizing it through the deepest labor of analysis and loving synthesis.

Or to put it another way: Bach (Adorno implies) wanted a pianoforte badly; it just hadn't been invented yet. The inner structures of the works he wrote for keyboard transcend the keyboard technology of his own day. Just as, one might argue, Shakespeare's playscripts call out for real women to play the female roles; or maybe they call out for elaborate lighting and sophisticated sound effects; maybe they even want to be realized in video and digital formats.

But I'm a great fan of "period performance" early music; I'd rather hear Bach by the English Concert than in one of Bruckner's arrangements any day. And I'm glad that the American Shakespare Center is doing Shakespeare the old-fashioned way; clearly, their directors and players are at an entirely higher level of interpretation than 95% of the theater I've seen in the last decade (and yes, that includes a fair number of Broadway productions of "serious" plays); and they seem in no way fetishistically devoted to their "original practices," but rather use them as jumping-off points for fresh and exciting interpretation.
The unofficial motto of the Blackfriars Conference is from The Winter's Tale: "exit, pursued by a bear." Panel chairs keep a close eye on their watches. If a panelist goes over her or his allotted time, some dude in a bear suit stalks into the room and chases them out. I'm told it's quite embarrassing. I think something similar – perhaps with real bears – should be instituted at the MLA.


Jonathan Morse said...

Please keep blogging! The news from here is that my sophomores had better be reading your post right now, because it arrived in the middle of their Shakespeare time and I e-mailed it on to them.

Would you like some concrete educational thanks for that benefaction? On my class web page at two of the many links are semi-original: a French World War I poster which I restored to an approximation of an unbrown, unfaded state with Photoshop, and the header photograph of Wallace Stevens in action.

Vance Maverick said...

Bach arr. Bruckner? Are you thinking of e.g. Liszt, Busoni, Godowsky? Schoenberg and Webern are at least interesting.

Michael Peverett said...

I don't know what it is with Adorno, he always irritates me, yet I can't quite bin him. The idea here seems to be that the core of any work is concealed beneath the score, therefore a performance that makes no apparent effort to go beyond the score must be derided because it isn't trying to open the box. There, I've done my best for him. And even so, the argument is embarrassingly vulnerable. How does the god-like commentator decide whether such a process of active dialectic is in fact taking place? Does the commentator know what a non-interpretive rendering would be like? Or must an interpretive rendering be marked by public eccentricity? And if the good behaviour of interpretation is identified, then is this a good in itself, regardless of the nature of the interpretation? Adorno glides over these gigantic chasms by assertion, scorn and a complete lack of self-questioning. It ought to be hateful, but I suppose there's a sort of compelling beauty in his narrowness.

Mark Scroggins said...

@Vance -- golly, there goes the old memory: I'm recalling a double-lp I had back in the day of one of Bruckner's symphonies, on whose fourth side was a terrifically turgid orchestral arrangement of (was it?) a choral-prelude or something of Bach's. Coulda sworn it was by Bruckner as well, but can't find the lp at the moment. I don't know the Schoenberg, but agree in re/ the Webern.

@Michael -- I do a disservice to TWA's 3-4 argument, which is actually pretty compelling in its unfolding. But you identify the weak spots right on, especially in the notion of the "god-like" commentator; Adorno was infrequently to be accused of diffidence about this own interpretive abilities.

Mark Scroggins said...

Read: "3-4-page argument"