When you’re done grading, go to the theater



Ever on the lookout for productions of drama from the extra long eighteenth century, I am passing along the announcement of this production of Le Cid (1636) by Pierre Corneille (translated by Richard Wilbur) at the Storm Theatre in New York.  This is the same theater and the same director responsible for an outstanding production of The London Merchant,  discussed here and here on this blog. The Red Bull Theatre’s production of Volpone might also be of interest.  I have not yet seen this, but admired this company’s deliciously bloody Revenger’s Tragedy a few years ago and hope to see Volpone as well.  Finally, today’s New York Times reviewed a production of Amy Freed’s play, Restoration Comedy, based in part on Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. The review did not make the production sound particularly tempting, but I would be happy to hear from anyone with a different perspective.

3 responses to “When you’re done grading, go to the theater

  1. Bristol’s Old Vic – http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/ Go and see a play in the theatre that’s closest to Garrick’s Drury Lane. Not “rebuilt in the nineteenth century”, as Sir John Summerson wrongly claimed because he was against it’s nationalisation by Churchill’s wonderful Government in 1943. Many theatre historians still claim it was “completely rebuilt”. New research shows this was nonsense, and needs to be seen and felt by every theatre historian and others interested in how and why eighteenth-century plays work(ed) in performance, and how they work(ed) in revivals. The 1766 three-sided stage front has been (almost) restored by genius Artistic Director Tom Morris together with Andjrzej (pronounced “Anjay”) Blonski Architects. I’m delivering a presentation at the Museum of London Archaeology Dept on Mon 17th Dec, 2012, for the people who excavated Shakespeare’s lost theatres to show how the plan of the Rose Theatre (1587) compares with the plan of Bristol’s Old Vic. Both stages are surrounded by spectators on three-sided stages; both stages are the same depth (presuming the Rose had a flat tiring house wall, and comparing it with the distance from Bristol’s curtain to its stage front) and both stage fronts stood the same distance from the three wooden galleries opposite. This is because both theatres had Master Carpenter architects who used the same rod-measuring-tools and the same ad-quadratum geometry. It’s a too-often published myth to claim Thomas Paty was Architect for Bristol’s Old Vic: he was the supervising architect. The lost drawings (elevation, cross section, plan, and long section) were made by James Saunders, Garrick’s stage carpenter at Drury Lane who appears in the brilliant play A Peep Behind the Curtain (1767), written just one year after Bristol’s Old Vic opened on the 150th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death. This is not a coincidence, and helps to support Iain Mackintosh’s brilliant thesis of a “continuity of character” in UK theatres from the 16th to the late 19th century that included “spectators on three sides of the stage front, albeit with the great majority to the front” (Architecture, Actor and Audience (Routledge, 1993, still being reprinted). Conservative and unimaginative theatre historians who want to stick to the 20th century claim that “stage fronts retreated during the 19th century” need to compare the Rose stage with Bristol’s Old Vic. Yes, Bristol could stage scenery for operas and pantomimes, and the Rose couldn’t. But if PLAYS – the entertainments that dominate 80% plus of the repertoire in most English playhouses since the 16th century – are our concern, as they should be, Richard Southern repeatedly reminds us in Changeable Scenery that, unlike pantomimes and operas, their backgrounds were far less ornate and far less expensive, because successful play revivals and successful play performances must focus on the imaginative use of script, movement and space by performers, not the imaginative decoration of the play with scenery. Please, please consider going to see any play at Bristol’s Old Vic, and find yourself in a theatre closest to Garrick’s Drury Lane because its architect was Garrick’s Master Carpenter, like the architect of the Rose was Henslowe’s Master Carpenter, John Griggs, and the architect of the Fortune and the Globe was Shakespeare’s Master Carpenter, Peter Street. Let’s enjoy the fact that Bristol’s Old Vic IS a surviving eighteenth-century playhouse and let’s agree to STOP wrongly describing it as a “proscenium theatre” when we mean “a proscenium arch theatre”. If we do want to insist on calling it a “proscenium theatre” let’s remember what that word means: a theatre with a stage that extends into the auditorium. The word “proscenium” was scribbled by Aarend van Buchel on the very front of the Swan Theatre’s stage when he tried to copy Johannes de Witt’s sketch of the Swan Theatre interior c.1596. In modern parlance the 16th, 17th and 18th-century word “proscenium” means “thrust”, today, not “arch” framing scenery. It’s vital we get these terms right when we evaluate revivals of plays first acted in the 16th to 18th centuries, because they were acted, on the whole, on what we now call “thrust stages”, or stages with spectators on three sides. Is one reason 18th century plays don’t have the same popularity and impact simply because scholars and directors insist they are revived on “proscenium arch” stages. In fact, they only really work on stages with spectators on three sides of the stage, because, as Rachel Kavanaugh showed in her DVD recording of The Rivals (2004-5 and available to buy at a very reasonable cost at Bristol’s Old Vic website), these plays are written for every performer to have a constant conversation with spectators (not just during “Asides”).

  2. Daniel O’Quinn’s wonderful new book Entertaining Crisis in the Atlantic Imperium, 1770-1790. (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2011), page 1 supports the shared views of London University’s Dr Bridget Escolme and Britain’s professional play director Rachel Kavanaugh who separately agreed that play performances in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involved a CONSTANT CONVERSATION between characters, on the one hand, spectators, on the other. Page 1 of his wonderful new book explains the words “conversation” and “entertainment” were interchangeable during the 18th century (according to Samuel Johnson’s eighteenth-century definition of the word “Entertainment”, in his Dictionary.) Making play performances open conversations that include spectators always heightens the impact of eighteenth-century plays, and makes them more popular. This is very hard to do in large proscenium arch theatres, where spectators’ busy admiration of wonderfully expensive scenery completely distracts from the important and engaging conversations (entertainments). These conversations (entertainments) can only be successful in small theatres, where spectators surround the stage front on three sides. The fact that spectators sit on both sides of the stage front enhances the ways the energies of the play’s conversation (entertainment) pass from performers to the surrounding spectators and vice-versa. It’s the subject of this conversation (entertainment) that should excite us. Having spectators close to actors on three sides of the stage floors, challenges performers to think and behave and speak more imaginatively than they might do if performing the same play in a huge theatre with spectators only to the front. In 1993, theatre critic Michael Billington from The Guardian national newspaper, sharply contrasted his delight with the RSC’s performance of The Beggar’s Opera on the three-sided stage at the wooden-galleried Swan Theatre (Stratford-upon-Avon) with the appalling impact the same production (with the same actors, scenery, music, etc.) had in the vast concrete Barbican main house, where spectators sit only in front of the stage. In his words: “Lockit’s venal cry… ‘Of all animals of prey, man is the only sociable one: every one of us preys upon his neighbour and yet we herd together,’ changes from ‘a confrontational challenge’ on the three-sided Swan to an interesting social observation on the Barbican main house proscenium [arch] stage.” (The Guardian, 10th April 1993.) We need to revive 18th century plays in ways that imaginatively challenge spectators with a confronting conversation (or entertainment). How many productions of 18th century plays will you see in small theatres with spectators surrounding the stage on three sides?

  3. Interesting point! The Storm Theatre is tiny with the audience on two sides facing each other across the stage. This probably enhanced the experience. I actually recognized someone I knew on the other side.