A Dramaturg’s Perspective in the English Classroom
by William Hutchings
University of Alabama at Birmingham
by Robert B. Youngblood
Washington and Lee University
Beginning in the ’90s—if memory serves—and for half a dozen or a few more years, Washington and Lee University hosted an annual symposium on Theater in Academe. The presentations dealt with a host of interesting questions from teaching plays in literature courses to staging and performing whole or partial plays in university settings. As teacher of classical and modern German and Italian literature, I derived positive and productive stimulation from a number of the presentations.
One that made a strong impression on me was William Hutchings’s. He is a teacher of Shakespeare plays and, as I was at W&L at the time, an active dramaturg for performances of drama at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Following William’s presentation, which he produced in response to the call for contributions to the symposium in 2003, I communicated my enthusiasm to him and complimented him for the many practical components of his paper, elements of plays which today’s students are ignorant of and would have their attention productively drawn to by William’s teaching. (Readers of ROT might remember a contribution I made on the subject of students’ lack of familiarity with performances of serious drama, “The Theater Problem in Education,” 21 November 2011.) In response to my enthusiasm, he kindly presented me with his manuscript. I re-read William’s paper annually from his presentation at W&L in 2003 until my retirement in 2005, deriving most useful and continual stimulus from it.
Reading papers I had stacked for re-reading after my retirement, I had the great pleasure of recently re-encountering William’s paper. So strong had his useful points remained with me that I contacted him, and suggested he present his paper to Rick for publication on ROT. It is with great pleasure that the paper and its highly useful contents are now being published for the theater-loving community, thanks to ROT.
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Entirely too often, English majors and others who have had little exposure to the process of theatrical production are too content to regard a Shakespearean text solely as literature, to be analyzed in much the same way as a novel, poem, or short story. Though they readily acknowledge the formal distinctions implicit in the genre (e.g., the dramatis personae, stage directions, set descriptions, dialogue), they have seldom had occasion to consider the practical problems that theatre practitioners can never avoid: the physical presence of the actor’s body in a defined space, the effects of physical appearance, gesture, and costuming on characterization, and the endless variations in tone and style through which a line can be spoken. To sensitize students to these issues makes them not only more careful readers of dramatic (and non-dramatic) texts but enables them to think more critically about performances that they see, whether live on stage or in a film. Having worked as a dramaturg for a variety of modern plays at my university, I now find that classroom discussion cannot adequately proceed without such issues being raised, regardless of the period in which the play being studied was written—but it is especially important in studying the works of Shakespeare, who, as both actor and playwright, must have been particularly attuned to the issues involved. My junior-level Shakespeare survey focuses on issues of epistemology in Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part 1, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet. Accordingly, the issue of “how do you know what you think you know?” pervades not only our thematic discussion but extends toward how the students themselves “know” that their readings of lines and situations are “correct” ones. (Short answer: they don’t.) Five sample “problems” that have heightened their awareness of these issues and enlivened class discussion are as follows:
* The actor’s physical presence, especially when “playing a silence.”
* The special problems presented by short or one-word lines.
* Repetition with variation.
* The effects of casting and costuming on characterization.
* The absence of stage directions during certain key scenes.
The pedagogical usefulness of such topics extends well beyond the study of Shakespeare and beyond the walls of the English classroom OR the theatrical space.
The actor’s physical presence, especially when “playing a silence,” often presents provocative issues that traditional English majors have seldom considered. Thus, for example, the fact that Shylock is present on stage as Portia delivers her “quality of mercy” oration is easily ignored as that speech is analyzed in detail for its imagery, its political ideology, its religious implications, and so on, as English majors and (especially) their professors are entirely too comfortable in doing. Accordingly, the conversation came to an abrupt halt in class when I asked, as innocently as I could manage, “What is Shylock doing during this time?” After an almost Beckettian silence as they stared in vain for an answer on the printed page, one of them answered, “He’s not doing anything”—a suggestion with which her classmates readily agreed. “Okay,” I replied, “but how do you tell your actor to do that? He’s physically present, so he has to be doing something, even if he’s only standing there.” “That’s what he’s doing, then: he’s just standing there,” another student ventured. “But standing there how?” I asked, adding “that’s the question. How should the director tell him to stand there? Is he listening attentively, or ignoring her entirely? How does his character seem to change if you have the actor turn his back on her? Would you have him tilt his head slightly, as if he’s really seriously considering her words, or would you have him hold his chin? Or would you prefer to have him cross his arms across his chest, with a look of total disgust? Or should he just look impatient, since this scolding is just holding up the proceedings that he intends to carry forward regardless of whatever she says?” Once they had become attuned to these issues, the students’ discussion of the various options was extensive and occasionally heated, forcing them to examine anew many of the central issues of Shylock’s characterization—and arguing the different sides of problems for which the text provides no answers. Discussion spilled over into the hallways after class as well, and suddenly “just standing there”—and textual silences—became far more problematic, far more difficult, and far more important than they had ever seemed before.
The special problems presented by short or one-word lines also deserve detailed in-class attention for reasons that English majors seldom have had occasion to consider. Arguments over Shylock’s character re-intensified as the students assessed Shylock’s famous exit line, “I am content.” Is it said sarcastically? Resignedly? Ruefully? Or with contempt? Or should it, as at a production I once saw at Stratford Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival, signify enlightenment and transformation, literally an on-stage religious affirmation as a celestial light illuminated an opened Christian bible? Again, Shakespeare provides no clue, but every actor and director must decide “the truth” for their own production.
Even such a seemingly mundane short line as Macbeth’s reply to his wife’s question about when Duncan will be leaving their castle can in many ways be crucial to characterization in ways that English students may not have considered. Macbeth’s terse reply, “Tomorrow, as he purposes,” can be played with complete factuality and innocence, but if it is delivered instead with a pause and sense of menace worthy of Harold Pinter, it can also insinuate that Macbeth has other, far more sinister purposes already in mind. The implications of this actor/director choice determine not only a key part of his character at this point of the play—namely whether, in fact, he has already decided to kill Duncan—but also, necessarily, the extent to which he will be influenced by his wife’s subsequent arguments that “persuade” him to kill Duncan.
Single-word lines prove no less troublesome when the “preferable” intimation and delivery are scrutinized in class. Cordelia’s ostensibly simple and direct reply of “Nothing, my lord” when her father requests a public profession of her love for him can in fact be said in a number of ways; opinion was divided over the extent to which she should be meek and remorseful or bravely resolute and defiant. Even among students who agreed about her delivery of the line, opinions differed about the tone of Lear’s reply, which repeats the word “Nothing” as a question. Is he incredulous? Does he believe he misheard her? Or is he already angry? When she then repeats the word “Nothing” in reply, should it be in the same tone as the one before? If not, how has it changed? As we charted the possible combinations in the repetition of this single word by the two characters, the number of possible interpretations increased exponentially, whereas the English majors had typically seen only one.
When a word is repeated several times in the same line, collateral issues are raised. That “repetition means variation” for some intended effect is one of the few axiomatic principles that govern class discussion throughout the term. Accordingly, when Lear repeats the word “Never” five times in a single line in his final speech of the play, the actor can play it either with increasing volume and anguish, until the final iteration of it is somewhere between a howl and a scream, or it can be progressively diminuendo, implying more and more disillusionment and ever-bleaker despair, the final word barely whispered or almost incoherently sobbed. Similarly, the intonation of the four-time repetition of “Howl!” as he enters carrying the dead body of Cordelia can rise to a nearly animalistic scream or break into barely audible cries of futility and frailty. After the students have considered these multiple possibilities, it is especially interesting to play video of the scene from various film versions to show the differences in the delivery of just the single line in question.
Issues of casting and costuming can also lead students to re-examine their presumptions about individual characterizations. In Henry IV Part 1, in particular, the students’ opinions were sharply divided over what actor they would choose to play Hotspur and why—and how attractive or sinister the character should be. Some, who had seen Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing, felt that Keanu Reeves would be a good choice, since he could make Hotspur almost as villainous as that play’s Don John. Others wanted Ben Affleck, but dressed in black and rather villainous. They were astonished when I suggested a decidedly un-villainous Matt Damon for the part—appropriate perhaps because Hotspur rather than Prince Hal has many of the qualities traditionally associated with a romantic lead (and has the best love scene), whereas Prince Hal spends much of his time carousing in the tavern. To my surprise, the latter activity had put him almost permanently out of favor with a number of my more religious students, who also devoutly disapproved of—and saw nothing funny about—Falstaff! Even those who sided with Henry IV regarding Hal’s un-princely behavior were less than certain about who should play the Prince, though some opted for a young Kenneth Branagh, having perhaps seen him playing the same character in Henry V. Their preference for (and presumption of) black costuming for Hotspur was also surprisingly consistent—and eventually led them to consider not only their presumptions about the character but the way in which costuming choices could influence an audience’s perceptions and attitudes—a subject about which, again, Shakespeare says nothing, and to which few if any of them had given much thought heretofore.
At times, the absence of stage directions in certain key scenes increases their ambiguity, perhaps without the playwright’s intention but certainly beyond the notice of many of the play’s readers. Like many directors and theatre-goers, most students were quite ready to assume that Marcellus and Horatio hear and react to the voice of Hamlet’s father’s ghost when he commands them to “swear”—though in fact there is nothing whatsoever in their spoken lines or in any stage directions (most of which were added by editors long after Shakespeare’s own time) to confirm that they do. Arguably, their terror is a reaction to Hamlet’s emotional state and his having drawn his sword on them. Yet many if not most productions have them react to the ghost’s word, seeking where the voice came from and so on. When played this way, it confirms for the audience that the ghost is “real,” that its voice is heard by others rather than by Hamlet alone. Yet, equally plausibly (and far more intriguingly, in my view), the scene can be played with the two of them totally undistracted by the ghost’s voice, whether they hear it or not, focusing their attention on their obviously distraught prince and sustaining for the audience many of the play’s central indeterminacies. In the classroom, as students look in vain for evidence to “prove” that Horatio and Marcellus have heard the ghost, the episode becomes an exercise in “close reading”; in the theatre, it becomes a choice for the director, dramaturg, and actors as they shape their production through deliberate choices.
Accordingly, this focus on “what Shakespeare didn’t write” has a number of pedagogical advantages for students in the classroom as well as in the theatre attending a performance, whether of a play by Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett, or any other playwright. In the classroom, it teaches not only the importance of close reading and critical thinking but also the importance of attention to absence as well as presence in the text. For those who have had little or no exposure to theatre in performance, it reinforces the importance of the physical presence of the actor as well as the choices that are made. In the theatre, indeed, it makes students aware that literally EVERY detail of a performance is the result of deliberate choices made by actors, directors, costumers, designers, and everyone else involved with the production—and that every such choice has been made from among numerous other options that could have been chosen and could radically alter the implications or the entire production. With this array of choices suddenly foregrounded as they watch the performance, they see it with a heightened critical awareness, willing to question the choices that were made, to disagree with them or support them for articulable reasons, and to watch the performance before them with a honed critical awareness and newly fresh eyes. They can thus approximate the ideal audience that Lindsay Anderson, the British film and stage director, critic, and polemicist, envisioned over fifty years ago in his essay defining “Vital Theatre”: audiences “who come . . . to the theater not just to sit, and be ‘absorbed,’ made to laugh or cry by an expert machine, . . . audiences who come not with the expectation of passive ‘entertainment,’ nor just with mouths wide open for another slab of minority culture, but themselves prepared to give something, to work, with minds open and alert, themselves creative.”
© Copyright William Hutchings, 2014. All rights reserved.
[William Hutchings is a Professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he teaches a course on Shakespeare’s plays among other theater-oriented classes. His most recent book is Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot: A Research Guide (Praeger, 2005), and he is also the author and editor of two books about English playwright David Storey. His academic specialty is 20th-century English drama and fiction, and his articles include studies of such authors as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Peter Shaffer, Alan Sillitoe, Woody Allen, and Mae West. Dr. Hutchings has also worked as a dramaturg in university productions of Equus, The Playboy of the Western World, Arcadia, Dancing at Lughnasa, and The Importance of Being Earnest. This essay was first presented, in slightly altered form, at the Sixth National Symposium on Theatre in Academe, at Washington and Lee University, in March 2003.]