Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

The ghost in the machine

hamlet.jpg
The ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Story of the Play Concisely Told with 55 Illustrations from the Cinematograph Film (1913). From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

 

‘…profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful…’

When Walter Benjamin decided to start his now-famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with these words from Paul Valéry, his attitude towards the future they envisioned might be described as ambivalent at best. Writing in 1936, in the early years of what would become the golden age of film, Benjamin, like Valéry, recognized the potential for technology to bring the beauty of art to ever-widening audiences. At the same time, he could also foresee the ways in which these same advancements might threaten the very essence of artistic tradition and experience — namely, by chipping away at the uniqueness and material presence of previously hand-crafted, aesthetic objects, and in doing so dampening what he dubbed their ‘aura’.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjaminian aura lately, partly because I’m in the middle of writing an essay about the experience of presence at theatre broadcasts, and partly because I spent the last two weeks of my research trip in the US looking at the ghostly side of technology. Benjamin understood aura as emanating from the unmediated, a-technological artefact — ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ — but the more I look at digitally rich productions of Shakespeare and their historical precursors, the more I find myself thinking about the auratic or spectral potential of technology itself. Take, for instance, the production still above, which comes from a 1913 book about Hamlet based on Jonston Forbes-Robertson’s silent film of the same year. This book, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections, uses images from the film to illustrate a prose version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. What struck me most as I perused its pages were the photographs featuring the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who takes the shape of a bright, ethereal spirit produced by innovations in film technology. To see how the ghost flickers in and out of frame in the movie, have a look at the clip below.

The creative use of technology in the performance of Shakespeare is not unique to film, particularly when it comes to staging the supernatural. John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet on Broadway, starring Richard Burton, featured an audio recording of Old Hamlet’s lines recited by Gielgud himself, accompanied by a looming shadow on the wall, to body forth the ghostly presence of the late king. Long before that, John Pepper created a similarly ethereal ghost of King Hamlet in the nineteenth century by using mirror and light technologies to project the reflection of an actor onto the action of the stage (see the image below for an illustration of this technique, known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’). In both cases, ingenious uses of technology allowed theatre-makers to present a disembodied version of King Hamlet’s ‘aura’, or, to quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, that ‘subtle emanation … viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences’.

Related image
Pepper’s Ghost: A light is shone on an actor performing under the stage, whose image is then reflected into the audience’s view by a hidden mirror.

Even beyond the obviously supernatural figure of the ghost, I’ve increasingly found that Hamlet stands out in the archives as one of the most frequent plays that actors and directors look to when they want to explore what technology might tell us about Shakespeare. Some of the productions I’ve been reading about lately include Robert Wilson’s staging of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1986), Robert Lepage’s one-man show Elsinore (1995), the Wooster Group’s reconstruction of Gielgud and Burton’s Hamlet (2006), Katie Mitchell’s multimedia exploration of Ophelia in Five Truths (2011) and Ophelias Zimmer (2016), and finally Annie Dorsen’s ‘machine-made’, algorithm-based version of the play, A Piece of Work (2013).

Elsinore programme
A programme for Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, performed in 1997 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

While all of these productions use technology in different ways, I find it interesting that Hamlet repeatedly proves fertile ground for mechanical, multimedial, and digital experimentation. Perhaps this is due to the sheer fame and monumentality of the play, but I also wonder if there’s something particularly haunted and haunting about Hamlet that continually seems ripe for technological exploration. There is of course the play’s obsession with death and all the ‘things in heaven and earth’ that push beyond the limits of our philosophy, as well as the tragedy’s own gargantuan and even superhuman literary and theatre history, which looms so large in the study and performance of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself has often been memorialized by lines from Hamlet — ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’ — and perhaps, in a way, all of us who are drawn to Shakespeare’s work find ourselves obsessed and even haunted by Hamlet for at least a time.

Capture
An engraving of the Boydell Shakespeare monument, originally located in Pall Mall in London and now in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Hamlet quote is just visible in the rectangular pediment under Shakespeare. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Hamlet is a play that started out being about death but that has become one of resurrection. It’s not just that it shows us a young man facing the spirit of his dead father — though that of course is significant. It’s also that in its virtually unparalleled cultural legacy, it connects us with a never-ending history of scholars, actors, directors, critics, and thinkers of all kinds who have come before us and pondered this seemingly insurmountable testament to human creativity. When we look on Hamlet, we also look on those who have been there before us. Their ghosts are with us alongside the Old King’s.

Maybe the next thing, then, for theatre-makers to experiment with are hyper-real technologies such as 3-D holograms that have started to appear on other stages in recent years. At Coachella in 2012 the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur astonished audiences when he appeared to take the stage alongside Dr Dre. Imagine Laurence Olivier coming back to give his final turn as Old Hamlet, or Richard Burton, or even Shakespeare himself, given that he too is sometimes said to have played the role. It’s possible that such innovations, with their complicated ethics, are a bridge too far. But even if this is the case, I have no doubt that directors and actors will continue to mine new technologies to bring us freshly startling takes on the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and, indeed, on the tragedy of Hamlet itself.

Valuing sadness, past and present

March was a big month for me – my first monograph, Beyond Melancholy, came out with Oxford University Press. The book focuses on the different ways in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood and thought about sadness, and how this influenced explorations of identity and self-experience. While my digital Shakespeare research is in many ways a world apart from this work on the history of emotions, there are some important connections in terms of how new technologies shape how we feel and how we experience our own sense of self. I wrote the short essay below for OUP’s blog last week, and while it’s mostly about Renaissance sadness, you’ll quickly see that 21st century digital technology has made its way in too…

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In September 2013, the American comedian Louis C.K. talked to chat-show host Conan O’Brien about the value of sadness. His comments emerged from a discussion about mobile phones, and the way they may distract us from the reality of our emotions. ‘You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.’

For Louis C.K., a large part of that ‘being there’, of being a person, is about being sad. ‘[S]ometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car … it starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it.’ And the best response to this, he suggests, isn’t to dodge the feeling by picking up a mobile phone, but rather to look at it head on, ‘and let it hit you like a truck … Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.’

Four hundred or so years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and King James I, people also talked about the meaning of sadness, and whether or not it brought any value to life. While few would have described the experience of sadness as ‘lucky’, many did suggest that, in the right contexts, the emotion could be seen as useful, productive, and even enlightening. Think of Shakespeare’s King Lear on the stormy heath, whose extraordinary sorrow helps him see life from a different point of view, to acknowledge the suffering of his impoverished subjects and ‘to feel what wretches feel’.

If we read much of the literature of this time – and perhaps any time – we discover a world of agonizing, and yet somehow also constructive, pain and sorrow. Emotion is repeatedly represented as an extension of the self, meaning that as characters start to know their feelings, they also start to understand themselves and the world that they’re a part of. At the same time, if we read much of the more formal and explanatory writing on emotion from this period, we get a rather different story. Here, writers frequently characterized emotion as a ‘malady’, a ‘perturbation’, and even a ‘disease of the soul.’ For emotion was believed to cause motion in the mind and body, which could destabilize rational thinking and jeopardize the harmony of the self.

Frontispiece to 'The use of Passions'
The unruly passions.

This was nowhere truer than in the experience of sadness. Of all the emotions recognized and discussed at this time – or of all ‘the passions’, as they were called then – sadness or ‘grief’ was widely regarded as the most dangerous and damaging. Countless writers emphasized the physical ailments sad feelings could bring. ‘There is nothing more enemie to life, then sorrow’, the humanist and diplomat Thomas Elyot wrote in his best-selling medical regimen The Castell of Health, and the theologian Thomas Wright likewise advised readers in his The Passions of the Minde in Generall to ‘Expell sadnesse farre from thee; For sadnesse hath killed many, neither is there any profite in it.’

Medical physicians agreed, identifying the passions as one of the six ‘non-natural’ factors dramatically influencing health (the other five being diet, sleep, exercise, environment, and, to put it delicately, ‘evacuation’). Linked to the cold, dry humour of melancholy (literally meaning ‘black bile’ in Greek), sadness was seen as the harbinger of numerous bodily troubles, including stomach aches, light-headedness, heart palpitations, and wasting illnesses, which, in their most extreme forms, might even cause death.

Indeed, while we might now think that dying of sorrow is a rather sentimental idea fit only for the stage, in the seventeenth century ‘grief’ was regularly included as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality, which were one of the earliest forms of municipal record keeping. Though many of the Bills no longer survive, if we look through those that do remain, we can see that during the years 1629-1660 more than 350 people in the city of London were believed to have died from extreme sadness. Elyot and Wright’s comments, it seems, were not idle threats.

J. Graunt, Natural an political observations.
11 deaths from grief in 1632.

And yet, despite the palpable dangers posed by sadness at this time, many writers still suggested that it had important benefits, and even a kind of ‘poetry’, to harken back to Louis C.K.’s twenty-first-century observations. First and foremost, these writers insisted that there were different sorts of sadness, which had different effects on the mind, body, and soul. ‘Grief’ was not always identical to ‘melancholy’, which was certainly not the same as ‘godly sorrow’ or ‘despair’ – both of which had much more to do with theology and the immortal soul than physiology and the medical body.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, these different sorrows didn’t mean the same thing irrespective of the sufferer. Even a dangerous grief could be productive if the person experiencing it deemed it so. In the literature and historical records of the period we can find numerous instances of people defying the advice of doctors, priests, family, and friends, and persisting in sorrow due to a belief that it revealed something important to them about their own sense of self.

Many scholars have suggested that culture offers people ‘emotional scripts’ by which to make sense of and act out their feelings, but looking at responses to sadness in Renaissance England we can also see how people engaged in what I call ‘emotive improvisation.’ These wilful, and often defiant, responses took sufferers ‘off book’ and towards new ways of understanding emotional experience and self-discovery. They show us what happened when people ‘put the phone down’, as it were, and let life hit them like a truck.

– See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2016/06/valuing-sadness-past-present/#sthash.Xas4UAhP.dpuf

 

Stage versus screen? The RSC’s Richard II

The other week I did something unusual, at least for me – I saw the same Shakespeare production back-to-back, going to a Tuesday matinee and then a Wednesday evening performance. But this was repetition with a difference. While I attended the matinee performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II live and in person in Stratford-upon-Avon, I went to the Wednesday night show at a packed-out cinema in London, where they were live broadcasting a video transmission of David Tennant and Greg Doran’s take on Shakespeare’s historical tragedy.

I’ve seen live broadcasts of theatre before, namely through the thriving NTLive series, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same production in person and in cinema, and it’s an experience that merits some reflection. The first thing I should say is that I was surprised by how similar the two were. And if that sounds daft, let me explain – having been fully converted to the mantra that theatre is different every night, I was struck by the care with which particular, and in some cases rather small, performance choices were reiterated almost identically across the two performances. Bushy drew his bare left foot in as Bolingbroke pronounced his supposed crimes and death sentence; the Duchess stared feverishly down the barrel of her husband’s coffin as she imagined Mowbray’s bloody death; and Richard and Aumerle laughed with perfectly replicated timing when the King offered to place the hollow crown on his friend-turned-lover’s head.

But more importantly, and more pertinently for this response to the live broadcast, my sense of the overarching performance experience that emerged through a succession of camera angles and edits for the cinema screen in London very closely matched the one that I had perceived in-person in Stratford the day before. Perhaps this was due to an unconscious filling in of scenic and performance detail on my part – it would have been interesting, I think, to have seen the filmed version first, and then the in-person show, since one of my main difficulties with previous broadcast experiences has been a sense of confusion as to where particular characters are located on the stage, or indeed what the wider stage-space itself looks like. In Kenneth Branagh’s recent Macbeth, for instance, which I saw only via cinema broadcast, I found myself struggling at the outset to place the witches in the theatrical space, introduced to us as they were in tight close up. Had I also seen the Macbeth in-person the day before, I would have known that the witches came out of a door placed low in the side stage wall, irrespective of what the camera chose to show me.

But that said, I’m fairly confident that this RSC broadcast presentation of Richard II, produced by John Wyvermixed camera angles and perspectives in a more varied, measured, and – for me – satisfying way than in any live broadcast I’ve previously seen. Crucially, wide shots of not only the full stage space but also fringes of audience appeared frequently throughout the filming, and almost always at the start and close of every scene. This meant that as cinema audiences we had knowledge of the wider layout and use of the stage in each scene before we moved into more closely framed shots. In many live broadcasts, continuous close ups seem to be the norm, a tendency I can understand given how accustomed we as audiences are to getting this intimate perspective in television and film. But in live performance recording I often find it awkward, and even boring, especially when the shot is tightened to just the head and shoulders. While these shots give us unprecedented access to actors’ facial expressions, offering us a proximity not available even to in-person audience members seated in the front row, they also trap the actors’ bodies within the confines of the camera frame, imposing stasis on a moment that in the theatre is unbounded and alive with possibility. While the actors might not end up running across the stage at a moment’s notice, or falling suddenly and dramatically to the ground, there is still a sense in the theatre that they could. Very tight camera shots foreclose this possibility, imposing the stable mise-en-scène of the camera into the wider and indeed wilder stage-scape. In such shots the face to reigns supreme, and while I like faces, I also like other things too.

While the Richard II recording had its fair share of close ups, frequently moving to this mode when the dialogue focused in on two characters (for instance, the goodbyes Gaunt and Bolingbroke exchange in Act 1 scene 3 after Richard banishes his cousin), the directors weren’t afraid to leave this mode and offer what I would describe as a more open, contingent, unpredictable – in a word, theatrical – point of view. Wide and mid-shots of the stage and characters were sensitively mixed with tighter close ups, creating a roving and fluid perspective that loosened its grip on the viewer’s gaze and recognised the fact that there’s more than one best seat or best perspective in any theatrical house. Most effective and exciting for me were the long tracking shots that started with a tight focus on a particular part of the stage-space and then slowly opened up to move across and through the wider scenic tableau. An example was Act 4 scene 1, when the Bishop of Carlisle challenges Bolingbroke’s assumption of the throne – starting with a tightly cropped shot of the Bishop and Bolingbroke towards the back of the stage space expressing their mutual displeasure with one another, the camera then pulled away to gradually reveal and weave through the half dozen other characters dotted across the stage and taking in this very public moment. Through this visual choreography we were able to focus in on two of the scene’s most central characters, but not at the expense of locking our view and erasing everyone else.

Alongside what I am suggesting are more theatrical modes of engagement were also a few strikingly cinematic choices. The broadcast opened with an aerial shot of the Duchess slumped over her husband’s coffin, which then pulled away to show the wider stage space, and towards the end of the play the York family appeared at a distance in a long shot that transitioned into a slow, sweeping zoom into the scene. Perhaps most noticeable of all was the camera work offered during and after Richard’s capitulation to Bolingbroke’s demands in Act 3 scene 3. Here Doran’s production inserted a tender exchange between Richard and Aumerle that ended with a passionate kiss – arguably the most striking directorial choice in an otherwise rather stately and textually conservative production. In the in-person theatrical space we watched this moment between the two men unfold from their location on an elevated balcony, which crossed the stage’s proscenium arch; on film we saw it in close up, a framing that served to enhance the extreme intimacy of this illicit, and ultimately tragic, expression of love. With both men seated, the blocking itself dictated a stillness that the camera frame reiterated rather than imposed, further marking this moment as the true crux of Doran’s reading of the play. At the end of the scene, after Richard descended from the balcony to submit himself to Bolingbroke and follow him to London, the camera slowly tracked back up to the now-empty scene of the kiss, visually imprinting its significance once again in our minds through this focused direction of our gaze.

While the points above don’t account for all the scattered thoughts and impressions I had about the cinema experience of Richard II, they pretty much cover the most salient, and significant points. There were, of course, a few minor glitches on the evening, including very live, echoey sound in the first scene and a half of the broadcast, and a couple of unfortunate relays of the stage work, such as a lost joke between Richard and the Queen when he commanded her to ‘Be merry’ as he departed for Ireland, and more significantly Northumberland’s announcement of Gaunt’s death from behind a rather sizeable chair. I had expected more moments in which the scale of acting for a live audience in a large theatre would feel awkward or overblown within a close camera frame, but aside from Green’s slightly over-ample stage blood and the Duchess of Gloucester’s very evacuative tears, there was little that seemed outsized on film.

It was, all in all, a very thoughtful and responsive interpretation of the in-person stage performance I had seen the day before, and judging from a few comments on Twitter perhaps even a preferable version of it (one example – ‘#RSCRichardII live @cineworld tonight. Even better than when I saw it in Stratford bizarrely. Tennant mesmerising.’) While the stubbornly subjective question of ‘better’ will always depend on personal taste and context, the question of how audiences respond en masse to this new era of widespread theatre broadcasting – both in terms of general feedback and in terms of ticket sales – is one that will be of serious interest to theatres, arts programmers, funding bodies, and critics alike. It is, I think, the question with regards to where theatre-going and as a consequence theatre-making are headed in the coming years.

Metatheatre indeed. RII at the Renoir Cinema.
Metatheatre indeed. Richard II at the Renoir Cinema.