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PERILS OF SPECTACLE

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The dramatic interest of Shakespearean drama is, in fact, deemed by the manager to be inadequate to satisfy the necessary commercial purposes of the theatre. The average purveyor of public entertainment reckons Shakespeare's plays among tasteless and colourless commodities, which only become marketable when they are reinforced by the independent arts of music and painting. Shakespeare's words must be spoken to musical accompaniments specially prepared for the occasion. Pictorial tableaux, even though they suggest topics without relevance to the development of the plot, have at times to be interpolated in order to keep the attention of the audience sufficiently alive.

One deduction to be drawn from this position of affairs is irrefutable. Spectacular embellishments are so costly that, according to the system now in vogue, the performance of a play of Shakespeare involves heavy financial risks. It is equally plain that, unless the views of theatrical managers undergo revolution, these risks are likely to become greater rather than smaller. The natural result is that in London, the city which sets the example to most English-speaking communities, Shakespearean revivals are comparatively rare; they take place at uncertain intervals, and only those plays are viewed with favour by the London manager which lend themselves in his opinion to more or less ostentatious spectacle, and to the interpolation of music and dancing.

It is ungrateful to criticise adversely any work the production of which entails the expenditure of much thought and money. More especially is it distasteful when the immediate outcome is, as in the case of many Shakespearean revivals at the great West-end theatres of London, the giving of pleasure to large sections of the community. That is in itself a worthy object. But it is open to doubt whether, from the sensible literary point of view, the managerial activity be well conceived or to the public advantage. It is hard to ignore a fundamental flaw in the manager's central position. The pleasure which recent Shakespearean revivals offer the spectator reaches him mainly through the eye. That is the manager's avowed intention. Yet no one would seriously deny that the Shakespearean drama appeals, both primarily and ultimately, to the head and to the heart. Whoever seeks, therefore, by the production of Shakespearean drama chiefly to please the spectator's eye shows scant respect both for the dramatist and for the spectator, however unwittingly he tends to misrepresent the one and to mislead the other in a particular of first-rate importance. Indeed, excess in scenic display does worse than restrict opportunities of witnessing Shakespeare's plays on the stage in London and other large cities of England and America. It is to be feared that such excess either weakens or distorts the just and proper influence of Shakespeare's work. If these imputations can be sustained, then it follows that the increased and increasing expense which is involved in the production of Shakespeare's plays ought on grounds of public policy to be diminished.

II

Every stage representation of a play requires sufficient scenery and costume to produce in the

THE PURPOSE OF SCENERY

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audience that illusion of environment which the text invites. Without so much scenery or costume the words fail to get home to the audience. In comedies dealing with concrete conditions of modern society, the stage presentation necessarily relies to a very large extent for its success on the realism of the scenic appliances. In plays which, dealing with the universal and less familiar conditions of life, appeal to the highest faculties of thought and imagination, the pursuit of realism in the scenery tends to destroy the full significance of the illusion which it ought to enforce. In the case of plays straightforwardly treating of contemporary affairs, the environment which it is sought to reproduce is familiar and easy of imitation. In the case of drama, which involves larger spheres of fancy and feeling, the environment is unfamiliar and admits of no realistic imitation. The wall-paper and furniture of Mrs. So-and-so's drawing-room in Belgravia or Derbyshire can be transferred bodily to the stage. Prospero's deserted island does not admit of the like translation.

Effective suggestion of the scene of The Tempest is all that can be reasonably attempted or desired. Plays which are wrought of purest imaginative texture call solely for a scenic setting which should convey effective suggestion. The machinery to be employed for the purpose of effective suggestion should be simple and unobtrusive. If it be complex and obtrusive, it defeats “the purpose of playing" by exaggerating for the spectator the inevitable interval between the visionary and indeterminate limits of the scene which the poet imagines and the cramped and narrow bounds which the stage renders practicable. That perilous interval can only be effectually bridged by scenic art, which is applied with an apt judgment and a light hand. Anything that aims at doing more than satisfy the condition essential to the effective suggestion of the scenic environment of Shakespearean drama is, from the literary and logical points of view, “wasteful and ridiculous excess.” 1

But it is not only a simplification of scenic appliances that is needed. Other external incidents of production require revision. Spectacular methods of production entail the employment of armies of silent supernumeraries to whom are allotted functions wholly ornamental and mostly impertinent. Here, too, reduction is desirable in the interest of the true significance of drama. No valid reason can be adduced why persons should appear on the stage who are not precisely indicated by the text of the play or by the authentic stage directions. When Cæsar is buried, it is essential to produce in the audience the illusion that a crowd of Roman citizens is taking part in the ceremony. But quality comes here before quantity. The fewer the number of supernumeraries by whom the needful illusion is effected, the greater the merit of the performance, the more convincing the testimony borne to the skill of the stage-manager. Again, no processions of psalm-singing priests and monks contribute to the essential illusion in the historical plays. Nor does the text of The Merchant of Venice demand any

1 A minor practical objection, from the dramatic point of view, to realistic scenery is the long pause its setting on the stage often renders inevitable between the scenes. Intervals of the kind, which always tend to blunt the dramatic point of the play, especially in the case of tragic masterpieces, should obviously be as brief as possible.

EFFECTS OF SIMPLIFICATION

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assembly of Venetian townsfolk, however picturesquely attired, sporting or chaffering with one another on the Rialto, when Shylock enters to ponder Antonio's request for a loan. An interpolated tableau is indefensible, and “though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.” In Antony and Cleopatra the pageant of Cleopatra's voyage up the river Cydnus to meet her lover Antony should have no existence outside the gorgeous description given of it by Enobarbus.

III

What would be the practical effects of a stern resolve on the part of theatrical managers to simplify the scenic appliances and to reduce the supernumerary staff when they are producing Shakespearean drama? The replies will be in various keys. One result of simplification is obvious. There would be so much more money in the manager's pocket after he had paid the expenses of production. If his outlay were smaller, the sum that he expended in the production of one play of Shakespeare on the current over-elaborate scale would cover the production of two or three pieces mounted with simplicity and with a strict adherence to the requirements of the text. In such an event, the manager would be satisfied with a shorter run for each play.

On the other hand, supporters of the existing system allege that no public, which is worth the counting, would interest itself in Shakespeare's plays, if they were robbed of scenic upholstery and

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