The so-called ‘theatrical revolution’ of the mid-eighteenth-century is generally hailed as the turning point in the history of English acting patterns, writing styles and playhouse management. As with any revolution, its origins and development have been described by leading participants from the viewpoint of the victor. It is a story of the pioneering labours of such figures as David Garrick and Charles Macklin rendering new performances, of old plays being reset and recast, of puffing up the pride and the prestige of the profession of actors and actresses. In true revolutionary manner, the accumulated weight of tradition which had borne down so heavily on individual talents, narrowing and stifling them, was cast aside. Under the banner of‘realism’ (in some accounts ‘naturalism’), a new generation of actors breathed life into dusty theatres and threw down the challenge of novelty: new styles, new acting manuals, new forms of expression, new representations on stage.
Censorship of the stage, like censorship of the printed word, was widespread and well-established in Europe in 1815. However, while prior censorship of the press was eliminated throughout Europe by 1914, European countries almost universally retained prior censorship of the stage until (and sometimes well after) World War I. England became the first major European country to abolish censorship of the press in 1695, yet Parliament systematized a formerly haphazard theatre censorship in 1737, and did not end stage censorship until 1968. Most other European countries did not eliminate press censorship until about the middle of the nineteenth century, while maintaining theatre censorship throughout the century, and typically exercised much harsher controls over the stage than over the printed word. As John Allen has noted, ‘In many times and places the drama has been subject to far greater censorship than any other form of literature or art’, reflecting governmental feelings that ‘the theatre, with its power of affecting an audience with possibly subversive emotions and ideas, is more to be feared’.
It is a commonplace among historians that British theatre during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is best characterized on the one hand by its taste for scenic spectacle, and on the other by what Allardyce Nicoll termed ‘a general dramatic debility’. For the first time in British theatrical history, spectacle for its own sake became the principal attraction for most of the audience. Not spoken language, whether poetry or prose, but the sentient lure of elaborate scenery, pantomime, music, and mechanical effects swelled the receipts of the major and minor houses alike. The ascendancy of visual spectacle over dialogue drama of autonomous literary merit is customarily regarded as a debasement of theatre as an art form, attributed with varying degrees of emphasis to the legal shackles of the patent system and the Lord Chamberlain's censorship; to the cavernous expansion of the major houses; and to commercially expedient appeals by the managers to less cultivated tastes in the burgeoning, heterogeneous audience. This durable theory of theatrical prostration is a reductive judgement, the result of critical bias and a limited methodology that have been mind-forged manacles for historical research in theatre since its inception in the 1930s.
Sicut infantes audi nos. This motto, which Nicolas Médard Audinot caused to be emblazoned on the proscenium curtain of his theatre on the Promenades des Remparts (the future Boulevard du Temple), tells us in the first place that, however primitive the shows he put on, he was bent from the start in attracting a rather more cultivated clientèle than the artisan families and small traders who are supposed to have made up the staple of his audience. Only men of some education could have been expected to appreciate the pun (audi nos = Audinot). And only such men could have interpreted the legend, which we may render, a little prolixly perhaps, as: Give us a hearing, remembering we are children. There is the additional point that the Latin word infans meant originally ‘one not yet capable of speech’.
When in 1932 M. C. Bradbrook put forward the view that the Elizabethan style of acting was probably formalistic, she initiated a debate that has not yet ended, between those who accept her view and those who, like Marvin Rosenberg, believe that Elizabethan acting style was probably realistic, akin to modern style. She wrote: ‘There would be comparatively little business, and gesture would be formalised. Conventional movement and heightened delivery would be necessary to carry off dramatic illusion.’ There is no real conclusion to be drawn, and those who take a middle way, arguing for a more complex fusion of the formalistic and the naturalistic, are probably close to the truth. The reason why the argument cannot be resolved is that there is virtually no contemporary evidence about acting styles in general or about particular performances, so that discussion rests less on scholarship than on conjecture based upon the few hints that can be gleaned from the plays and elsewhere. In this paper I want to consider the ways in which female roles might have been acted by boys and young men, taking my perspective from the performance of the onnagata, or female impersonator, in the Japanese Kabuki theatre.
Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov (1879–1953) has never been accorded his due credit as one of the most original thinkers and practitioners of modern European theatre. The absence of a rigorous and extensive appraisal of Evreinov's vast creative output has undoubtedly blinded otherwise well-informed critics to the seminal importance of his ideas on the essence of theatre. While names like Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Strindberg, Piscator, Brecht, Artaud, Craig, Appia, Reinhardt, Pirandello and even the lesser known Russians, Vakhtangov and Tairov have all become by-words in the history of experimental and innovative theatre, Evreinov has remained a shadowy figure.
It is difficult to deal with all the ideas and concepts of a man whose writings span a period of some forty years and which are contained within some twenty-one essays. But the time spent on even a cursory exploration into some of the most important ideas presented in Zeami's later essays is most rewarding to anyone interested in theatre, for they are unique in pointing to the nucleus of his concepts on acting and performance based on his own experience and deep insights as a thinker, actor, director and playwright.
On 21 February 1900, William Poel staged the First Quarto Hamlet for a single performance in the Carpenters' Hall, London. On 5 and 6 April 1904, George Pierce Baker mounted a production of Hamlet with Johnston Forbes Robertson in Sanders Hall at Harvard University. The two productions shared a number of remarkable similarities. Both were attempts to stage the play in the Elizabethan manner; therefore, they departed from illusionistic traditions of the nineteenth century. Although there were distinct differences – for example, one had a cast of amateurs, one was professional; one was performed for the public, one for a university – each was an important step in the reformation of Elizabethan staging. The productions also reflected the pursuits of two men who, although they had similar ideas about Elizabethan drama, were motivated by different objectives.
The volume of critical writing on the theatre of Wole Soyinka both in Nigeria and abroad indicates his unrivalled pre-eminence among African play wrights. His work is still not as well known in the West as it should be, though his plays do occasionally get performed, especially in the USA, and it is encouraging that six of them have recently been published in one volume in the Methuen ‘Master Playwrights’ series. If cultural chauvinism is at least partly to blame for ignorance of the Third World's leading dramatist, there is also a genuine problem of access to a writer whose work is ‘difficult’ even for the educated élite among his own people. Indeed, some younger Nigerian critics have persistently accused Soyinka of obscurantism and of being too much immersed in private myth-making, an arcane metaphysics, at the expense of communicating with a popular audience about issues which directly concern it. A heated and sometimes acrimonious debate has arisen in the last few years around Soyinka's theater, in which the dramatist himself has participated both as critic and artist. Since the controversy, like the drama, is not well-known, and some of its key texts are not easily available, my purpose here is to summarize its main features, the implications of which go well beyond the work of a particular writer, however important. In conclusion, I shall briefly review Soyinka's more recent work and its bearing on the critical debate.