Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

SHAKESPEARE IN VIENNA

17

A few years ago I was in the Burg-Theater in Vienna on a Sunday night-the night on which the great working population of Vienna chiefly take their recreation, as in this country it is chiefly taken by the great working population on Saturday night. The Burg-Theater in Vienna is one of the largest theatres in the world. It is of similar dimensions to Drury Lane Theatre or Covent Garden Operahouse. On the occasion of my visit the play produced was Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The house was crowded in every part. The scenic arrangements were simple and unobtrusive, but were well calculated to suggest the Oriental atmosphere of the plot. There was no music before the performance, or during the intervals between the acts, or as an accompaniment to great speeches in the progress of the play. There was no making love, nor any dying to slow music, although the stage directions were followed scrupulously; the song "Come, thou Monarch of the Vine," was sung to music in the drinking scene on board Pompey's galley, and there were the appointed flourishes of trumpets and drums. The acting was competent, though not of the highest calibre, but a satisfactory level was evenly maintained throughout the cast. There were no conspicuous deflections from the adequate standard. The character of whom I have the most distinct recollection was Enobarbus, the level-headed and straight-hitting critic of the action

-a comparatively subordinate part, which was filled by one of the most distinguished actors of the Viennese stage. He fitted his part with telling accuracy.

The whole piece was listened to with breathless

interest. It was acted practically without curtailment, and, although the performance lasted nearly five hours, no sign of impatience manifested itself at any point. This was no exceptional experience at the Burg-Theater. Plays of Shakespeare are acted there repeatedly-on an average twice a week-and, I am credibly informed, with identical results to those of which I was an eye-witness.

VIII

It cannot be flattering to our self-esteem that the Austrian people should show a greater and a wiser appreciation of the theatrical capacities of Shakespeare's masterpieces than we who are Shakespeare's countrymen and the most direct and rightful heirs of his glorious achievements. How is the disturbing fact to be accounted for? Is it possible that it is attributable to some decay in us of the imagination to a growing slowness on our part to appreciate works of imagination? When one reflects on the simple mechanical contrivances which satisfied the theatrical audiences, not only of Shakespeare's own day, but of the eighteenth century, during which Shakespeare was repeatedly performed; when one compares the simplicity of scenic mechanism in the past with its complexity in our own time, one can hardly resist the conclusion that the imagination of the theatre-going public is no longer what it was of old. The play alone was then "the thing." Now "the thing," it seems, is something outside the play-namely, the painted scene or the costume, the music or the dance.

ALLEGED DESIRE FOR SPECTACLE

19

Garrick played Macbeth in an ordinary Court suit of his own era. The habiliments proper to Celtic monarchs of the eleventh century were left to be supplied by the imagination of the spectators or not at all. No realistic "effects" helped the play forward in Garrick's time, yet the attention of his audience, the critics tell us, was never known to stray when he produced a great play by Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's day boys or men took the part of women, and how characters like Lady Macbeth and Desdemona were adequately rendered by youths beggars belief. But renderings in such conditions proved popular and satisfactory. Such a fact seems convincing testimony, not to the ability of Elizabethan or Jacobean boys-the nature of boys is a pretty permanent factor in human society -but to the superior imaginative faculty of adult Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers, in whom, as in Garrick's time, the needful dramatic illusion was far more easily evoked than it is nowadays.

This is no exhilarating conclusion. But less exhilarating is the endeavour that is sometimes made by advocates of the system of spectacle to prove that Shakespeare himself would have appreciated the modern developments of the scenic art— nay, more, that he himself has justified them. This line of argument serves to confirm the suggested defect of imagination in the present generation. The well-known chorus before the first act of Henry V. is the evidence which is relied upon to show that Shakespeare wished his plays to be, in journalistic dialect, "magnificently staged," and that he deplored the inability of his uncouth age to realise that wish. The lines are familiar; but it

is necessary to quote them at length, in fairness to those who judge them to be a defence of the spectacular principle in the presentation of Shakespearean drama. They run:

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dar'd
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold

The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts,
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder;
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,

And make imaginary puissance:

Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth.

For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour glass.

There is, in my opinion, no strict relevance in these lines to the enquiry whether Shakespeare's work should be treated on the stage as drama or spectacle. Nay, I go further, and assert that, as

ESSENTIAL LIMITATIONS OF SCENERY 21

far as the speech touches the question at issue at all, it tells against the pretensions of spectacle.

Shortly stated, Shakespeare's splendid prelude to his play of Henry V. is a spirited appeal to his audience not to waste regrets on defects of stage machinery, but to bring to the observation of his piece their highest powers of imagination, whereby alone can full justice be done to a majestic theme. The central topic of the choric speech is the essential limitations of all scenic appliances. The dramatist reminds us that the literal presentation of life itself, in all its movement and action, lies outside the range of the stage, especially the movement and action of life in its most glorious manifestations, Obvious conditions of space do not allow "two mighty monarchies" literally to be confined within the walls of a theatre. Obvious conditions of time cannot turn "the accomplishments of many years into an hour glass." Shakespeare is airing no private grievance. He is not complaining that his plays were in his own day inadequately upholstered in the theatre, or that the "scaffold" on which they were produced was "unworthy" of them. The words have no concern with the contention that modern upholstery and spectacular machinery render Shakespeare's play a justice which was denied them in his lifetime. As reasonably one might affirm that the modern theatre has now conquered the ordinary conditions of time and space; that a modern playhouse can, if the manager so will it, actually hold within its walls the "vasty fields of France," or confine "two mighty monarchies."

A wider and quite impersonal trend of thought is offered for consideration by Shakespeare's majestic

« ZurückWeiter »