Sunday, April 18, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Romantic Actors and Bardolatry by Celestine Woo

REVIEW: By Martin Abramson

Romantic Actors and Bardolatry: Performing Shakespeare from Garrick to Kean by Celestine Woo, Studies in Shakespeare Vol. 16, Peter Lang 2008, 209 pp. $69.95. First published in Book/Mark, Spring 2009

First published in Book/Mark, a small press review.

The average Shakespeare buff can probably name a few of the principal actors in the plays as originally staged: Burbage, Kempe, Armin, Alleyn. And most can supply even more examples of Shakesperian stars of contemporary theater and cinema, e.g. Olivier, Evans, Gielgud, Wells, Burton, Scofield, Branagh, Plowright, Thompson and Dench. But for most of us the existence of Shakesperian actors of the middle-period, the 18th and 19th centuries, occupies a hazy era during which Thomas Bowdler “expurgated” the plays in the interest of modesty and the huge field of Shakespearean scholarship was in its infancy.
Celestine Woo’s study of the four major actors of the middle period, therefore, is not merely needed in itself, but serves to clarify a closely related sociological question: How did Shakespeare become a national institution? How did he become an icon gaining undisputed recognition as England’s greatest writer?
The answer lies in the stage techniques and popular publicizing methods of four actors: Garrick, Kemble, Siddons and Kean. These talents brought the Bard down from an upper class Parnassus to the burgeoning middle-class who were soon quoting the memorable lines they heard proclaimed on the stage.
Ms. Woo, an English Professor at SUNY Hartsdale, arranges her subjects chronologically beginning with David Garrick whose fame caused mid-eighteenth century England to be called, “The Age of Garrick”. As Ms. Woo points out, Garrick was the first to redefine Shakespeare in a manner that produced the reverential attitude and the “bardolatry” that began to turn Shakespeare into the cultural phenomenon, marketing device and cottage industry he has become. As Shakespeare’s greatest interpreter, Garrick was inseparably part of the Shakespeare worship he inspired.
As an actor, Garrick displaced the “old style” of acting which was predominantly aural, depending on vocal power to do most of the heavy lifting while the actor assumed a static pose meant to illustrate the appropriate feeling. Soliloquies were called “points” and always declaimed in a particular manner with specific gestures or tableaux. Garrick discarded the dignity and solemnity of the old style replacing it with an emphasis on the visual aspects, introducing mobility and plasticity of facial expression to the mix. Rather than relying mainly on voice and pose to interpret a character, the audience could tell from facial clues and physical gesture what emotion was evoked. The mobility of Garrick’s features astounded 18th century audiences. After a century of the glacial “old style” theater, the effect of Garrick’s innovations can hardly be exaggerated. These effects were heightened by a new emphasis on costumes and stage business. Garrick promoted himself by promoting and advertising Shakespeare in an endless variety of ways culminating in a Shakespeare “Jubilee” in 1769 held at Stratford. The event, worthy of a P.T. Barnum, encompassed plays, poetry, souvenirs, concerts, fireworks, a horse-race and a masked ball among myriad other promotional gimmicks. It was the earliest transformation of Stratford on Avon into a Shakespearean shrine.
Other innovations included better lighting and more elaborate scenery and costumes. Garrick also instituted late-afternoon performances and enforced more dignified behavior in traditionally rowdy audiences.
Garrick’s immediate heir and successor was John Philip Kemble whose acting career stretched from 1783 to 1817; he combined physique, dignity and heroism to command the contemporary stage. He and his sister, Sarah, were part of a well-known theatrical family. He continued and advanced upon Garrick’s emphasis on costume and scenery. Choosing artistry over naturalness, Kemble increased the separation of stage from audience, simplified stage business, coached supporting actors and understood the power of ensemble acting over the mystique of individual stardom.
Kemble realized the era’s thirst for a theater that probed the psyche in exploring human character. He augmented Garrick’s “points” with vocal and visual hints to a character’s state of mind. This was in keeping with the beginnings of Romantic interiority, which saw actors delving more deeply into the emotional motivations of their roles. Kemble was taking the first small steps on the path to “method” acting. He didn’t hesitate to edit Shakespeare in order to cut out material he considered extraneous to a unifying effect. (It should be pointed out that modern directors of film and television productions also feel free to alter the original plays in deference to time limitations and contemporary tastes.) Kemble favored art over artifice and, as Hamlet, he gained Samuel Johnson’s praise for greeting the ghost calmly without the melodramatic effusions of Garrick. Because of his emphasis on artistry and scholarship, Kemble was blamed by contemporary critics for not being sufficiently emotional. He seemed to lack the spontaneity to do comedy well. But his overall effect was to increase the authority of theatre by directing all stage elements toward producing the impact of a unified impression on the viewer.
If anything Kemble’s sister Sarah Siddons had an even more powerful effect on the public and was perhaps the first acknowledged goddess of the stage. By foregrounding women’s issues in her performances and highlighting real feminine qualities in her characterizations, she drew a much larger female audience to the theater. She is credited with making gender a essential component of Shakespearean scholarship. Her total immersion in a role was another step toward the “method” and enabled her to eclipse her brother’s fame. Her ability to humanize Lady Macbeth who had been previously played as the epitome of pure evil, impressed contemporary critics. Her interpretations influenced critical judgment of Shakespeare’s women for generations. Ms. Woo supplies abundant examples of these qualities as well as a colorful portrayal of Siddon’s acting brilliance and the semi-deification she won as a consequence.
Ms. Woo’s final subject, Edmund Kean, merits the longest chapter which describes the most colorful and paradoxical of the four persons studied. More than any of the others, Kean had an electrical effect often likened to actual bolts of lightning. Portrayal of a more humanized Shylock launched his career in a manner analogous to Sarah Siddon’s sympathetic interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Kean generated an adoring cult as had Siddons and the deep impression he made on auditors like Keats and Hazlitt influenced the course of English literature and criticism…much of which is extensively set forth in these pages. Kean triumphed in productions of King Lear, Richard III and most notably Coriolanus by bringing a passion and sense of humanity to the roles that struck Byron as “Life—nature—truth…”
Ms. Woo serves up a critical-biographical-historical delight that clearly demonstrates the success of these actors in planting the seeds of the deification of Shakespeare that blossomed into full flower thereafter. Her clear, graceful prose style will please the casual reader while the book’s extensive notes and bibliography will satisfy the most exacting scholar.

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