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On Stage

In response to:

The Illegitimate Theater from the February 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

May I, as is the custom, request space for a reply to Nigel Dennis’s review of my book The Antitheatrical Prejudice [NYR, Feb. 18]?

Mr. Dennis is an accomplished satirist, a master of the sneering putdown, and (to judge from his review) an antitheatricalist in good standing, with many a long grievance against directors, leading ladies, electricians, stagehands, and their kind, for presumptive maltreatment of his plays. It was to be expected that on this occasion he would do his thing. It was to be expected that a writer whose own notion of criticism is a whizzbang essay of forty-six pages that wisecracks and bulldozes its way through the whole history of Western culture—religion, philosophy, psychology—(Two Plays and a Preface [New York, 1958], pp. 7-53) should lack patience with a work of attempted scholarship in which individual writers and their writings are attentively analyzed. It was to be expected that a longtime editor of Time magazine, who scorns the “identity mongering” of the likes of Freud and Sartre, should find little to admire in a book which owes much of its understanding of human behavior to the same figures. And it was to be expected that Timewriter Dennis, given to the sort of journalistic vulgarity paraded in paragraphs three, four, and five of his review (Plato’s “dismal” Republic “has always seemed more like a subject for black comedy than solemn reflection,” etc.) should have small patience with academic writing, should find it donnish, “peculiar,” filled with “painfully long words,” etc.

It was, in short, to be expected, from the flip dismissiveness that animates his review, that he would show little notion of what responsible criticism means or of what scholarship is about. Complaining of the need for “simplification” in my book, he proceeds to provide that simplification himself with a vengeance, steamrollering the argument at every point into a one-dimensional caricature, flattening it into unrecognizability. Illustrating the thinness of my discussion of Lamb and of Byron, he “sums up” what I say about them: “Why did Byron hate the theater? Only for personal reasons: he was snubbed by the great actor of his day, Edmund Kean. Why did Lamb bleat? Because he was opposed to realism.” In fact, in Byron’s case I point first of all to his experience as a member of the Drury Lane Committee, in which capacity he found the stage of his day “such a school of dullness and petty politicking that he renounced it with a vow never to have anything further to do with it” (p. 192). I mention the rebuff from Kean (p. 332). I cite, from the Preface to Marino Faliero, some lines of thin-skinned indignation against a thick-skulled public (p. 333), before going on to suggest that Byron’s problem lay in his failure to think of the theater “as an artistic medium in its own right, with its own laws of expression” (p. 333), making it clear that I regard this last consideration as the most important and certainly as the most interesting one.

As for Lamb, the trashy quip with which my comments on him are tossed into the dust-bin misconstrues them even more abysmally. I speak (pp. 328-332) of the stage conditions of his day, “which offered bleak prospects for intelligent revivals of the classics” (by which I do not mean stage realism), of the growing vogue for “correct” scenical rconstruction that was beginning to turn stages into fake museums, of the element of claptrap whereby fantasy plays like The Tempest were made not more but less credible to spectators, of the inherent (and to Lamb distasteful) need for plays to externalize, and the consequent temptation for players to coarsen and exaggerate, of their lamentable tendency to feed their own exhibitionism by abandoning the pretense at realism, and finally of the disturbance to Lamb’s own peace of mind when confronted by acting of such power as that of Kemble’s Macbeth. Nowhere in the discussion does the word “realism” appear, nor is the concept more than marginally relevant at any point.

But willful distortions such as these form part of an insistent pattern whereby Dennis ascribes opinions to me that I do not hold, and then berates me for holding them. When I speak of the theater, says he, I almost always mean the actors in it, “they having drawn the fire of all antitheatricalists…from time immemorial.” In fact I comment on much besides the actors, on the institutionalizing of the theater, and how that helped inflame antitheatrical passions, of the effects, real or alleged, of plays on their audiences, on a number of interrelated aesthetic questions, such as that of imitation and the responses aroused by it. It is also however a plain fact that a great deal of the abuse showered on the theater—if one ignores complaints against local conditions like fire hazards, the danger of riots and contagions, opportunities for lewdness, etc.—has to do with the actors. The fact seemed well worth noticing, and (so far as was possible) analyzing. Of course the theater is a business, with a box office to worry about, and of course so long as plays are verbal structures (a situation to which I am by no means so averse as Dennis professes to think), there will be directors to cut pieces out and spoil the meaning, electricians to spot (or mis-spot) the leading lady, and costumes to distract attention from the work. But directors, electricians, and costume designers come along, as separate and identifiable categories of theatrical personnel, much later in history than actors, and what I say about theatrical conditions applies to them in any case. They contribute, all of them, it hardly needs saying, to the same dilemma: how can the theater—an artistic venture for playwrights and playgoers, and for many actors—surmount the vulgarity, the brute facticity, and ugly competitiveness that seem built into it as a commercial enterprise?

Only the text is real,” declares Dennis, in a far more extreme view of the matter than the one he is trying to pin on me—that only performance is real—which I do not in any case hold. What I believe rather is that a play exists in two distinct but related modes: as a text, or dramatic poem, and as a staged performance. Dennis’s own examples from The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar are very much to the point. Lorenzo and Jessica on their moonlit bank, Mark Antony haranguing the Roman mob, need live actors for their fullest realization. The fact that this happens to be the opinion not only of Timewriter Dennis and Professor Barish but of “all owners of theaters, all theater managers, all producers, all directors,” etc., hardly invalidates it. It only illustrates the grievous tensions between those who write plays and those who mount them. It helps explain a further fact, too, namely, that authors who have chosen deliberately to write plays for reading only—Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, for example—have rarely done so with much success. To be sure this is only part of the story. It is also often the case that a passage in a play, especially a Shakespeare play, will live more vividly in the mind, because of its “ideas”—the knottiness of its thought, the complexity of its poetry—than in performance. As a committed playreader, I recognize this fact and have no quarrel with it. But Romantic and Victorian critics of plays often betray an undercurrent of hostility, sometimes amounting to incomprehension, toward all performance. And while I do not number myself among the “theater folk” who pull triumphantly from their sleeves the “trump card” of Shakespeare’s involvement with his troupe, I find the retort that “Shakespeare’s feelings about the theater are completely unknown” quite preposterous. Shakespeare’s plays swarm with references of every sort to the theater, with theatrical images and theatrical allusions and theatrical evocations, not to mention a whole gallery of characters vividly conceived in numerous ways as actors, and though it may not be easy to reduce all this to a simple formula of like or dislike, it is absurd to sweep it from the board as telling us nothing about its author’s feelings. Shakespeare, we may note, unlike a number of his contemporaries—unlike Thomas Kyd, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville, and others—did not write plays for private or coterie reading, but wrote, for the public stage, plays to be recited by actors and witnessed by spectators. He may, of course have secretly detested the whole venture, but would he in that case have made himself a shareholder in his company and devoted his entire adult career to it?

More, much more, might be said, but perhaps this much will suffice to indicate how Procrusteanly your reviewer has dealt with my own text, how perversely he has misrepresented it, and how confusedly he pursues some obscure, muddled pseudo-argument of his own. It is not I, but he, who “demands all or nothing,” who sees things only as absolute alternatives, and who, where he cannot find them, will impose them or invent them for himself.

Jonas Barish

University of California

Berkeley, California

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