FEATURE by Louis Fantasia
On a recent flight back from conducting a weekend of acting workshops, I found myself browsing through one of those sky-mall catalogues, the kind that sell everything from luggage and lawn chairs to travel alarms and jackets that never wrinkle. This one, though, also offered 'museum quality reproductions' of European treasures. For example:
The Fifteenth Century Full Suit of Armour - "Full Plate War Harness by Designer Giuseppe Acacia is crafted in Gubbio, Italy... Our full-size replica with jaunty red plume is made in Italy using the same medieval smithing methods that were used in the 15th Century... Each part is hammered on wooden stumps... A sword bracket allows you to position your own weapon... (The armor) stands over 6 1/2 feet tall..." Authentic - despite the fact that most medieval horsemen were closer in height to five feet than seven, and that Signor Acacia might be the local auto body-shop man. Still it came from the historic town of Gubbio and looks authentic. On the same page were:1) Opera House Sconces, which "reminded us of the ornate gilt work in the Paris Opera House'; 2) the Rusty Coggers clock, which was 'an instant antique, reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution'; and - my favorite - 3) the Hapsburg Console Mirror and Marble-Topped Table, 'so fraught with intricate floral scroll work that it takes almost a week to handcarve each one... In order to replicate those seen in grand Viennese salons, these pieces are hand finished and slightly distressed to resemble true antiques..."
'Remind', 'reminisce', 'replicate', and 'resemble'. These are the buzz-words of what I call optional authenticity. This desire for authenticity was, as many of you know, the driving force behind the reconstruction of the Globe. Only by reconstructing as faithfully as possible, it was argued, the theatre in which Shakespeare's plays were originally produced would we be able to gain a true understanding of his plays. The Globe was built, ultimately, because it would be authentic.
Now, what does the word 'authentic' mean? One dictionary I have defines it as 1) 'genuine'; and 2) 'certified as true or reliable'; with 'authenticity' defined as 'genuiness'. For something to be 'authentic', someone must certify that, based on his or her expertise that it is so. Certainly no expert would tell you that our armor or sconce was authentic. We know they are not, even from the catalogue. But we would like to hear the craftsmanship praised and our taste complimented, and, at the very least, our interest in history and art acknowledged.
One of my favorite photos of Sam Wanamaker has him slightly unshaven, wearing a plaid shirt from Liberty's, his arms wrapped around a 19th Century bust of a smiling Shakespeare. I can envision Sam digging this bust out of his closet and taking it to The Antiques Road Show, hoping that the Shakespeare experts there would value it as much as he did. Sam's obsession with Shakespeare, for those of you who don't know, began as a teenager in Chicago, where he had his first taste of the Bard at the 'Century of Progress' World's Fair in 1933. The British Pavilion was a mock-Tudor theatre presenting hour-long versions of Shakespeare plays. Umberto Eco, in Travels in Hyperreality, makes the following point about world fairs and expositions , that "...the basic ideology of an exposition is that the packaging is more important than the product, meaning that the building and the objects in it should communicate the value of a culture, the image of a civilization." Think about that - the "image of a civilization" for Britain at a Century of Progress exposition, was a four hundred year mock-Tudor theatre.
Authentic or not, at that fair Sam fell in love with, or better, became obsessed with, an image of 'Shakespeare' as a marker of 'the value of a culture', with all its class connotations. By the late 1960's, Sam had convinced enough people of the value of his obsession that a manifesto was drafted for a major redevelopment in South London which would include offices, a library and museum, rehearsal space, a pub, and, of course a replica - not a reconstruction - of the first Globe theatre. There was even talk of putting a retractable plastic roof over it, and certainly no intention of building it with thatch or lime.
In 1971 Sam took his Shakespeare to the experts. The First International Shakespeare Congress gave its approval to his plan, with no serious objection to the project other than the generalized fear that it might become Shakespeare's 'Disneyland'. But then again, no one believed it would ever be built, either. As a result of going to the academic community to have his Shakespeare validated, authenticity became key to Sam's reconstruction of the Globe's. Debates, discussions, and some modest summer Shakespeare productions under a leaky tent marked his efforts for a decade until 1981 (the year I met Sam), when, in a surprise move, the same experts, the International Congress, refused to re-endorse the project. Sam was outraged and let everyone know it. He formed the International Shakespeare Globe Centre Trust and put together the team that would eventually build the Globe.
Only at that point did Sam Wanamaker's thirty year-old dream begin to take on the possibility of becoming a reality. For the next decade and a half, authenticity would be the bugle call that rallied scholars, builders and donors, so much so that the mission statement of the Globe became the "faithful reconstruction of (Shakespeare's) Globe Playhouse near its original Bankside site, as part of an international resource centre for people everywhere."
The authenticity debates which ranged on for the next fifteen years - and which still continue - would only be settled by long discussions, debates and, eventually, compromises. With each compromise, such as fire-proofed thatch, stadium lighting, and handicap access (let alone the shape and placement of the stage, tiring house, or pillars), authenticity became ever-so-slightly more optional. In 1989, when the foundations of the nearby Rose Theatre were discovered, as well as in 1991 when parts of the foundation of the Globe itself were found, the argument was made that the new Globe would be far too big (I think it is), and that the relationship among architecture, actor and audience would indeed not be an authentic one. But it was too late.
Construction had begun, and the Globe would be built, with relatively minor adjustments, as it had been discussed, debated and designed, with the best possible evidence available. The Globe would, as much as humanly possible, it was argued, deliver an authentic experience of Elizabethan play-going to the actor and audience alike. It would be a theatre in which Shakespeare, his actors and his audience would have all felt comfortable.
Now, this raises, for me, the question of how 'authentic' the Globe experience is? Has the work done there been 'genuine' and 'reliable'? Despite the all-male casts, hand-sewn costumes, masters of play, and debates about its trompe l'oiel interior, is the Globe any more reliable in the products it sells than the company that offers clocks, sconces, and suits of armor from Gubbio? Since the Globe opened in 1997 it has become one of the most successful cultural tourism destinations in Europe. Lines wait for guided tours. School-groups pack the education center and the exhibition. The public queues for returned tickets to the plays. And the gift shop will sell you all the Shakespeare memorabilia you need, so that you will never have to take another trip to Stratford again. But what had seemed like an open and welcoming space in the architect's models and sketches can barely be seen from the river now, hidden by the Globe's mock-Georgian restaurant. Rightly, for security and safety reasons, access to 'Shakespeare's Globe', as the complex is now called, is controlled. Gates are locked and time in the theatre is strictly limited. To attend a performance you must leave the street, enter the foyer, climb the stairs, cross the memorial courtyard, and enter the theatre under the hawk-like gaze of the infamous Globe ushers. Sam's inspiration has become institutionalized.
This is what I call the "Vaticanization" of the Globe. The manipulation of the architecture implies that one has to be lead to Shakespeare rather than be allowed to encounter him (or it!) without mediation. The theatre's architecture and location (near but not on its original site) reinforce the impression that those inside are the inheritors of the Shakespearean legacy, the possessors of the truth. In other words, if the armor-maker lives in Gubbio, then his amour must be authentic.
But my fundamental problem with the Globe is not with the theatre, which was conscientiously built by traditional Elizabethan means. Having worked on the Globe stage more than any other American, I find the space literally breath-taking. The wood, lime plaster, horse hair and thatch all breathe with you, resonate and support you, if you let them. The building is a living organism, demanding of actors and audience alike that they be open, honest and alive themselves. This is what makes the Globe such an exciting space. We feel that we can contribute to the creation of unique shared experiences here, the kind of shared secrets that make for a great public spaces.
Acting on the Globe stage should be a blood sport like bull and bear baiting, where the actor encounters the arena, the text and the audience. In bear-baiting, the dogs went for the most vulnerable part of the animal, its ears or tongue. They would latch on to it, and, while the bear was in excruciating pain, bring him down, in order to maul him. That's an encounter! An actor on the Globe stage should do the same thing, encounter the audience at its most vulnerable part and bring it down. Not only does the actor have to encounter the audience, he also has to encounter the text, the other actors, and most of all, him- or herself. The Globe stage will tell you how to block, pace and stage the play on it, all you need to do is be open, humble and vulnerable.
Let me give you a brief example. For five years I was the Director of the Globe USA's Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance Institute. Each year we would take thirty secondary school teachers from across the States to the Globe for a three-week workshop. They would study plays on the Globe season and a play they probably hadn't read before. One year it was Troilus and Cressida.
That year one of the teachers had to tackle Ulysses' long speech about degree. It was not a pretty picture - until, that is, he got up on the empty Globe stage (at seven o'clock in the morning), with his colleagues all around the theatre, on all three levels, in the Lords' rooms, and in the pit. That teacher, without any prompting, began to play the speech around the building:
".... The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place...
How could communities...
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
...Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid Globe..."
He was open to the secrets the space wanted to reveal, and shared them honestly with others. That is my kind of authenticity - integrity mixed with vulnerability. Yet rather than encourage this sort of individual experience, much of the marketing and many of the educational and artistic decisions of 'Shakespeare's Globe', seem, instead, to reinforce the image of ex cathedra authority. Education at the Globe is based on disseminating discoveries made by the company on the relationship among actor, audience and architecture through the work of the Globe's 'masters' of voice, word, movement, and play; as well as the Globe's actors and education 'practitioners', as they are called. As if this hierarchy were not enough to inhibit individual discovery of the nature I have given above, the Globe keeps tight control over its truths. When a leading California regional theatre wanted to offer workshops in conjunction with the Globe they we told that, "as a matter of policy (Globe Ed) does not collaborate with other organizations unless we have seen and appraised their work first hand..." This Vaticanization of education might be suitable for a discussion in its own right, but it is the Globe's so-called 'original practices' productions that I want to focus on today.
"Original practices", to quote the Globe's artistic director, "are practices true to the period of Shakespeare's working life..." Yet, if the Globe has taken these authentic practices seriously in the past, they have been riddled with optionality. In the Globe's 1997 opening production of Henry V, great lengths were taken to ensure the authenticity of the production. The underwear of the actors was researched and sewn by hand. Women's roles were played by men. Yet the speeches of the Chorus were divided up amongst the cast members rather than given to a single actor, not something particularly noted in Shakespeare's lifetime. In Antony & Cleopatra, again with an all-male cast, Cleopatra's last scene was played as Plutarch described it, not as Shakespeare wrote it, with the Queen ill, hair shorn, face scratched and dirty. Not only did this negate what Shakespeare actually says in Act V (that Cleopatra in death looks "As she would catch another Anthony/In her strong toil of grace."), but also no one, at least at the performance I attended, ever knew what had happened to her. KING LEAR was an odd compilation of various Quarto and Folio texts; while in Hamlet, Horatio was old enough to be Hamlet's father. The Merchant of Venice had the cast dressed again in 'authentic' black period Venetian clothing. Authentic, until Lorenzo and other revelers appeared in bunny rabbit costumes to steal Jessica away. Bunny rabbit costumes!
At that production of The Merchant of Venice the audience was again encouraged to behave in an 'Elizabethan' manner, as it had done in Henry V, this time booing Shylock instead of the French. On the afternoon I saw the play, the audience laughed at Shylock's forced conversion. They booed the Jew. Perhaps an authentic, anti-Semetic audience in Shakespeare's working lifetime found the play funny. I don't know, I wasn't there. And, frankly, I don't care. Shakespeare added seven or eight hundred words to the English language, but 'Auschwitz' wasn't one of them. Authenticity has less to do with accurate costuming than it does with accepting the responsibility for one's aesthetic and artistic choices. I am offended, not so much by those choices - one can do whatever one wants with Shakespeare, I suppose, including "original practices" - but by the lack of artistic integrity masquerading as authority.
Like most heretics and sinners, I have my own issues with authority, not to mention authenticity. Another worn dictionary I have defines the 'authentic' as 'entitled to belief; trustworthy, or reliable'. I am often not sure how reliable or trustworthy I am. Often I know I am not. Yet it is in the theatre that I try hardest to tell the truth. And truth in the theatre is always provisional. It is never absolute. And it rarely depends on original practices.
Authenticity comes from a need to say something which is simultaneously both concrete and ephemeral; something simple, direct and immediate, without reference to Plutarch, the Fourth Folio or Elizabethan sumptuary laws for understanding. Great public spaces such as the Globe hold out the promise of transformation and transcendence. We can be moved and changed by hearing this music, these words, in this place, at this moment - as long, and this is a topic for another discussion - as tradition does not become an excuse for dogma.
It is perhaps dangerous, if not foolish, to think that a theatre which took nearly half a century to come into being should be thought of as provisional, but that is what I believe. The Globe could have been one of the great theatre laboratories in the world. Instead, it has become just another London theatre. Simply put, since the Globe has opened, its increasing tendency, encouraged by all kinds of artistic, administrative and educational decisions, has been to make the tourist, audience member, actor, teacher, student, or scholar believe that he or she was in, at, or on 'Shakespeare's Globe' as opposed to being in, at or on a reconstruction of that Globe.
Now, it is true that the Globe has begun, in several ways, to change its tune and and the move from 'authentic' to 'original performance practices' is probably a laudable one. Yet, the Globe continues to fall victim to its own Vaticanization. This year, in its 'regime change' season, the company boasts four productions, including two done by an all-female company. The Globe justifies this not by saying it needs to give more work to actresses, but rather by invoking the "original practices" defense in its season brochure:
"...Shakespeare's original actors were not limited by the gender of the parts they played, but enjoyed a revolutionary theatre of the imagination where commoner played king, man played woman, and, within the plays, woman man. "
Even last season's Twelfth Night, perhaps the most successful production in the theatre's history, owed less to these 'original practices', than it did to the Globe mustering its first truly professional cast, and Mark Rylance's iconic, Kabuki-inspired Olivia. Yet, in all its publicity and planning for the forthcoming U.S. tour of Twelfth Night this fall, the Globe focuses on the mantra of "original practices":
"We are at the cutting edge of a growing Early English theatre movement...which adds specific consideration of the period in which a text was written to the performance of that text today..."
Among those "considerations" for the Globe are "cross gender casting with an all male cast; recreated and hand-made clothing of the late Elizabethan period; a jig at the end of the play; Elizabethan music arranged for six early music specialists playing on reconstructed instruments of the period; and, a reconstructed Elizabethan hall screen and floor in oak", which probably were never used on the Globe stage. Recreated and reconstructed, this three-and-a-half hour-long re-production of TWELFTH NIGHT - brilliant as it may be - belongs in the same catalogue as the armor from Gubbio, the opera house sconces, and the rusty coggers' clock.
Yet in its brochure for that Twelfth Night season, the Globe company was described not as "synthetic Elizabethan, but modern Elizabethan..." Apart from the fact that I am not sure what a 'synthetic' Elizabethan might, what does it mean to be a new Elizabethan? To be generous, I think the Globe was - and is - trying to recapture an 'Elizabethan' sense of exploration, spontaneity, and creativity, but is this even possible? As I see it, the Elizabethan were two things that we, fundamentally, are not. First, they were metaphysical, with a deep seated belief in the spirit world which our era does not possess; and, second, they were what I call lingual, rather than verbal, believing in the physical power of speech, oaths, vows, curses and edicts. We in the Twenty-first Century are, instead, literal and visual. We are masters of the atom, the genome, the pixel and digit. We live in the era of the shot, the frame, and the sound bite. While the Elizabethan were capable of 'hearing' a play or a court case and retaining much of it in memory, we can sit in front of our TV sets on New Year's Eve and watch the year's highlights go by in 60 seconds and know, exactly, what each of those split-second images meant - and where we were when we first saw them! If our modern sensibilities have trouble getting around Shakespeare's language, it is not so much that we don't know the vocabulary, but rather that the sensibility which sees the world in metaphor and expresses it poetically is alien to us.
So why this desire to be 'modern Elizabethan'? Why the need to 'remind', 'reminisce', 'replicate' and 'resemble' an inauthentic past? For a possible answer let us step away from the Globe and my sky-mall catalogue and look at what may be the center of optional authenticity on the planet today. No, not Disneyland, but Las Vegas! Like Shakespeare's Globe or Signor Acacia's armor, Las Vegas boasts faithful reproductions of European and American antiquities - the Renaissance of St. Mark's Square, Belle Époque Parisian sidewalks, a Central Park from the 1940s, and soon, a Ghiradelli Square from San Francisco before the earthquake. What if the Globe, stone for stone and thatch for thatch, had been built in Las Vegas? Would its reconstruction, no less accurate than the semi-fake lions guarding a semi-fake St. Mark's Square, have had the same 'authenticity' as it claims now? Probably not.
Robert Wilson, editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wrote in a recent column (May/June 2000) that in Las Vegas, "the illusion of Venice and other simulated historic places is quite convincing, right down to the fake bird droppings on the statues. Can such fakes, in some sense, be authentic? And what does the word authentic mean to most people today...? Architecture writer Wayne Curtis, in the same issue, offers this definition. "Something authentic is simply something that looks as you imagine it might, based on a lifetime of movies, television and glossy advertisements." Mr. Curtis continues: "...The word authentic is thrown around Las Vegas like one-dollar chips. 'There's an 'authentic cantina' restaurant at Mandalay Bay, an 'authentic pirate sea battle' at Treasure Island, and an 'authentic Italian ice cream parlor' at the Bellagio... I realize, of course, that there's no call to be self-righteous about those who describe obvious fakes as authentic. As words are wont to do, 'authentic' has evolved and changed. The dictionary definition of 'real, actual, genuine' (pace my reference books!)...now seems quaintly old-fashioned.... In this context, Paris Las Vegas can boast of its 'authentic replicas of famous French landmarks' and not be accused of being oxymoronic. If you've never seen the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, these structures are exactly as you imagined them. It's uncanny. They're definitely authentic..."
The Preservation article goes into some detail about the team that created the 'authentic replica' of St. Mark's Square at the Venetian Hotel, discussing the research they did, the testing of their designs, the compromises between what was doable and what was affordable, the skill and care of the artists and craftsmen involved, including one who earnestly claims that if Michelangelo were alive today he would be working in foam, the faux material of choice in Las Vegas. It is all uncannily similar to the authenticity debates that preceded the construction of the Globe.
Let me quote Umberto Eco again. "...History robs architecture of its meaning and endows it with new meaning..." "Discussing the Egyptian pyramids," he explains, "Not only is their primary function, that of a tomb, lost on us today; even their original connotation, based on astrological and mathematical symbolism, in which the pyramidal shape had exact communicative function, has lost its meaning. What is left is a series of connotations established by history and 'carried' to the monument. We recognize these connotations... in these massive forms... because we are educated to the same symbolism...'
Think of the Globe as just such a 'massive form.' We approach it bringing to it all kinds of connotations of what 'our' Shakespeare means to us,' connotations formed from early school teachers, bad or brilliant productions, old films, and, like Sam Wanamaker, dusty statues treasured or discarded in cultural closets.
Each of us, if we read intelligently and without fear, has the right to our own authentic Shakespeare. I believe there is no authority that can issue its seal of authenticity to us. Each of us, institution or individual, engaged in teaching, producing, editing or playing Shakespeare, can offer only an interpretation - and only a possible, provisional, interpretation - of a constantly changing and challenging body of work.
My encounter with Shakespeare has been, in many ways, one long accident. I even flunked Shakespeare as an undergraduate at university, and have the transcripts to prove it. When I was in junior high school my class was taken to see a production in Boston of A Midsummer Night's Dream, by a company that was sponsored, I think, by one of the local newspapers. I remember nothing about it except that everyone spoke with fake British accents. That seemed silly to me, because my grandparents were Italian immigrants who spoke with Italian accents, and they were laughed at because of them. Why were these British ones better? No one seemed to know, or if they did, no one told me. A few years later, my high school drama teacher took us into Harvard Square to see Olivier's film version of Othello.
I know it's a landmark production and all that, but I couldn't keep from laughing then, at the idea of this actor in black-face rolling his eyes around all the time. This was the movie theatre where I had snuck away from the house to see films by Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa. What planet were these Shakespeareans on? Didn't they know what acting was about in the Twentieth Century? But this was Shakespeare, dear boy. It was Olivier! The words were spoken with hushed reverence. So what did I know? Who was I? My family had plastic slipcovers on the furniture. But for whatever ever reasons, these accidents lead me to Sam Wanamaker and the Globe. They allowed me to be privileged enough to be present at its creation. They also allowed me to be stubborn enough to question everything I, or anyone else, did there. I can only hope my journey has been an authentic one. It has not always been successful, but success is often the least accurate barometer of authenticity.
The Globe has certainly been successful since 1997, but I am not so sure that it has been authentic.