Well, I’m back in Shady Side, MD again, looking in on my parents, and this morning I found a pretty interesting piece on the new Folger exhibit featuring the Boydell gallery illustrations (viewing this may require registration with the Washington Post).
I’ve been familiar with the Boydell paintings, some of which are hung up around the Folger, for some time, but here’s one interesting observation that the Post critic, Philip Kennicott, makes about the nature of these beautiful, sometimes kitschy tableaux:
Boydell’s painters frequently turned to the tradition of theatrical painting, recording intimately the faces and gestures — painfully histrionic by today’s standards — that one might conceivably see in an actual performance of Shakespeare.
William Hamilton’s “The Duke of York Discovering His Son Aumerle’s Treachery” is typical. The scene is from “Richard II”; the subject, a father’s uncovering of his son’s participation in a plot to the kill the king. He tears from the young man’s neck a seal that proves his complicity; he berates him; and he ignores his wife’s plea not to denounce and destroy their child.
The painting feels decidedly stagy. The action is contained within a small space, a window drapery looks suspiciously like a theatrical curtain, and the young man’s gesture — right hand thrust to his forehead, his torso inclined backward as if buffeted by a gusty wind of melodrama — is something one might find on the cover of an old penny dreadful.
As Kennicott notes, “part of the pleasure of this show, an unnerving pleasure at times, is the world of weirdness in another era’s conception of literature that we feel we intimately possess and understand.”
In this case, these vivid, sometimes embarassing images give us access to a Shakespeare whose high-cultural status was still in the making at the end of the 18th century, partly through the well-known Romantic criticism of his texts, but also through the more vulgar and workmanlike efforts of entrepeneurs in spectacle like Boydell or Garrick.
I suppose that one of this era’s “weird” preoccupations is its insistence that these two impulses are somehow mutually reinforcing.
One of the other themes in this little piece is about the extreme historicity of performance, and the difficulties of representing it:
Of course, static images of live performance are almost always painful to look at. Just examine any season brochure for a theater or opera company. Just as human beings are not meant to be seen immediately upon waking up, they are not meant to be seen fixed in frozen form while cavorting on stages. What is grand and powerful and shocking behind the footlights is just ridiculous and silly in the glare of the flashbulb.
The Boydell paintings raise this issue of the representability of performance in all sorts of ways, because they stand at one remove from actual performances, yet are still visibly constrained by contemporary norms and expectations of staging.
For example, the intimate domestic scene of Titania, Puck, and the changeling (see above) seems more cinematic than staged, but the action still seems to be going on for our benefit, not theirs. We are supposed to register that come-hither look on Titania’s face, for example, but would it be visible in the back rows?
I suspect that this phenomenon, which I’d call the inevitable translation of performance into visual kitsch, is responsible for a lot of the intellectual embarassment that surrounds performance. It’s too hard to explain in words, and pictures, as they say, “just don’t do it justice.”