If anyone is steeped in Shakespeare it’s David Bevington, Distinguished Service Emeritus Professor in Humanities at the University of Chicago. Bevington has written or edited more than thirty books on Elizabethan drama, including the Longman complete edition of Shakespeare's works in 1992, Bantam's twenty-nine paperback editions of the plays, and the Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama (2002).
This compact and readable volume, This Wide and Universal Theatre - Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, shows that Bevington is also devoted to the art of staging Shakespeare.
In his introductory chapter, “Actions That A Man Might Play,” Bevington offers his threefold intent for the book:
“to provide an account of Shakespeare's theatre in all its complexity of physical space, casting capacities and audience expectations; to place Shakespeare's plays in that original theatrical space as a way of suggesting how an awareness of their theatrical dimensions can illuminate numberless dramatic situations inherent in the dialogue; and to juxtapose those insights with more modern instances in film, television, and theatrical performance in order to appreciate some ways in which changed modes of presentation can arise out of, and contribute to, changed perceptions of the text.”
David Bevington delivers handsomely on that time-machine approach with a thoughtful text amply illustrated with sketches, reproduced images and photographs.
The opening chapters contain the basic information for any introduction to the plays. Bevington describes Shakespeare's career, his companies and rivals, and the physical conditions of Elizabethan stages—both those at court and the specially constructed playhouses such as the Globe Theatre.
Alterations made by producers and actors over the centuries are remarkably vivid in Bevington's overview of and discussions about the plays. Bevington stresses the “presentational” nature of drama in Shakespeare's times, in which the actors and their complicit public could with words and gestures convert the relatively bare stage into virtually any setting.
In contrast, English theatres in the 19th century saw increasingly “representational” stagings with vast and elaborate sets. Beerbohm Tree's production of Twelfth Night in 1901 featured "a garden for the mansion of the Countess Olivia replete with trickling fountains, live grass, pathways, and descending steps." For his 1910-11 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Tree provided a "carpet of thyme and wildflowers" and rabbits scampering through an enchanted forest. The storm-besieged ship at the opening of The Tempest was a showpiece of artifice and illusion for productions from the 1840s through the early twentieth century.
Beginning with William Poel's Elizabethan Stage Society in 1901, the twentieth century saw a return to far more austere, presentational stagings of the plays. Bevington comments,
“One reason that such a comparative study of presentational modes can make special sense today is that modern Shakespeare in production is excitingly closer to that of Shakespeare's own theatre than was the theatre world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Or so, at any rate, we like to think, in our desire to make him one of our own.”
At the same time, the development of cinema and television has made possible a Shakespeare of a different idiom, in which the director and the cinematographer can establish instantly, with the magic of camerawork, the scenes or settings evoked in the mind's eye of the public. Bevington offers telling comments on filmed versions of Shakespeare. A BBC company doing As You Like It can be seen uncomfortably swatting midges in a literal forest; Zeffirelli or Branagh can enchant us with celebrity turns, and Kurosawa can transform Macbeth and King Lear, abandoning the texts entirely.
Bevington examines the plays in chapters grouped by genre in rough chronological order:
- "Stage Business in the Comedies" (Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and brief comments on six more)
- "Thus Play I in One Person Many People - Performing the Histories" (I Henry VI, sieges and battles, Henry V, Richard III, Richard II, I Henry IV)
- "Like A Strutting Player - Staging Moral Ambiguity in Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida"
- "The Motive and Cue for Passion - Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello in Performance"
- "A Poor Player That Struts and Frets His Hour Upon The Stage - Role Playing in King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra"
- "Insubstantial Pageant - Shakespeare's Farewell to the Stage" (Pericles, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, and The Tempest)
For each play, Bevington lightly outlines the action, paying particular attention to conventions of the stage and to those central characters who propel the action through their contrivances, scheming, disguises and orchestration. Very often these principal characters openly or implicitly avow their actions to the audience while concealing them from other characters. Bevington does not dwell on the verse or themes, but invokes them principally when they reinforce dramatic convention or plot development. His aim is not to summarize plots, but to establish through-lines (a simplified way for actors to think about characterization) for the actions, highlighting Shakespeare's references to acting, deception, theatre and make believe.
And there are plenty of these references in the plays. Shakespeare often uses meta-theatre or the "play within the play" device. To cite just a few examples: the usually eliminated two-scene induction to The Taming of the Shrew in which a mischievous lord invites a beggar to witness the play; the rude mechanicals' deliberations and performance in A Midsummer Night's Dream complete with commentary from the court; Hamlet's version of The Mousetrap, and then there’s the elaborately staged deceptions of Prospero in The Tempest and of Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure. Bevington demonstrates that many of Shakespeare's principal characters are dissembling while stage-managing their own productions. Among them are Puck, Oberon, Paulina in The Winter's Tale, Iago, Macbeth, Richard III, Cleopatra, Edmund and Edgar in King Lear, and, of course, Hamlet. In contrast, the haughty Coriolanus meets his downfall precisely because he finds himself thrust into a role he cannot play: that of politician ("Like a dull actor now, / I have forgot my part, and I am out, / Even to a dull disgrace").
Bevington also stresses the flexibility of Elizabethan stagings usually done in the afternoon on almost bare boards. The public is readily transported through narrative or verse, as by the Chorus in Henry V:
"Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high, upreared, and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;"
Gesture or simple mime establishes the scene. When a character carries a torch, the scene occurs at night. Because sailors of The Tempest "enter wet," we understand they are struggling in a storm. His discussion of the stage depiction of siege warfare and combat in the histories is particularly entertaining; the Chorus in Henry V gets the numbers about right when he comments in Act IV:
"…we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils
Right ill dispos'd, in brawl ridiculous
The name of Agincourt."
For each play discussed, after establishing the through-line and theatrical concepts, Bevington skims through the historical record. The 17th and 18th century references to performance are relatively scarce. For example, he notes in passing that the tradition of Juliet on her balcony originated from stagings of that time; Shakespeare mentions Juliet's "window," but never uses the word "balcony" at all.
The 19th century is inevitably good for some astonishing accounts such as the 1884 production of Romeo and Juliet featuring a garden with "a cascade of descending terraces receding into a distant moonlit haze" and machinery that "made possible the transformation of houses into gardens and cloisters into tombs." Actor-impresarios would often revise Shakespeare's texts and plots, in part to accommodate their impressive and expensive scenery.
Bevington gives good account of notable productions in the twentieth century, both on stage and in the visual media, from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to Anthony Hopkins, Leonardo Dicaprio, Mel Gibson and Bill Murray. This is a catalog of reimaginings of Shakespeare, noting many that are surprising, provocative or particularly apt to the mood of the time. It's a big-city theatre list, focused on London and New York with an occasional mention of a Chicago production.
Bevington notes that Shakespeare only rarely makes use of the deus ex machina—Jupiter in Cymbeline being one exception—and that in tragedies and comedies alike the resolutions remain resolutely on the human plane. Sleep, enchantment and dreaming occur as themes, as do the mystery and inevitability of death. References to the theatre and acting are fundamental to Shakespeare's texts.
This Wide and Universal Theatre is gracefully written, thoughtful, perceptive and informative. It's a text to be kept for bedside reading or for a brush-up before attending the theatre. One can hope that this is not Bevington's own farewell to the stage, even though he has retired from teaching and recently contributed $100,000 to help sustain the University of Chicago Press, which published this volume.
A passage from his comments on The Tempest may serve as a medallion both for the book, itself, and for the art of performing Shakespeare:
"…Prospero knows that he is no god. Yet as theater artist he play acts a godlike role in the world of artifice given to him as his realism. The fallen world outside the island will continue to go its ways. Persons from that world will visit Prospero's island for a time, much as audiences come to the theater and then return to their daily lives. Those visitors will be moved to varying degrees by what they have seen and experienced in the artificial world presided over by the theater artists. Such is at once the potential and the limit of the artist's efforts to make some difference in the ways that people live.”
Bevington, David, This Wide and Universal Theatre: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007, trade paperback edition 2009).