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Approaching plays
Approaching plays

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6.2 Performance and reception

Our discussion of the performance possibilities for Beckett's play begins to reveal the author as someone who went to great lengths to articulate a particular artistic vision. The matter of how his plays were received was extremely important to him, and his presence at rehearsals is frequently recounted as an active, if not obtrusive one. Beckett was someone who sought extensive directorial control over the production of his work. Indeed, he made this the subject of one of his plays, in Catastrophe: Tale of an Authoritarian Director (1982) and wrote plays with particular actors in mind; Patrick Magees's voice, for example, was the one he ‘heard inside his mind’ when writing Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Billie Whitelaw's was the female voice he had listened to when he wrote Not I. For Beckett, the role of the author was one which extended beyond the writing of the text, and one which should be allowed considerable licence in seeing that text realized in performance. Central to his vision were the matters of authenticity and authorial intention. Let's consider these issues, for a moment, in a different context.

Activity 12

In 1864, a New York production of Hamlet cast a well-known and highly regarded actor, Edwin Booth, in the leading role. Sir John Gielgud also famously played Hamlet in London's New Theatre production of the play in 1934, as did Jonathan Pryce, at the Royal Court in 1980. Which of these is the real Hamlet, and why?


The short answer is none of them and all of them. I agree that this is not a very satisfactory answer, but it drives home the point that there can be no definitive interpretation of the character and that every performance of Hamlet will say something different both about the play and the context in which it is performed. A longer answer would elaborate these latter two points and explore issues of authenticity and authorial intention, as well as perhaps accounting for changing conceptions of the role of the author and performance.

I want to say something about these issues, but first I'd like to ask you to think about how you answered the question.

I can't anticipate every possible response to this question, but I'd be surprised if you hadn't taken into account that the three actors are young, white and male. Photographic stills of the actors would also reveal that each, despite their differences, has a somewhat romantic demeanour, indicative perhaps of the complex range of qualities associated with the role. You might well agree that so far nothing about each of these Hamlets challenges our traditional notion of what the character Hamlet is traditionally supposed to be like. But what if I had asked you to consider a 74-year-old Hamlet, or a female Hamlet? Would you then have been so convinced that this is what Shakespeare intended? I doubt it. You might have felt curious about what such interpretations of the part sought to achieve, or your doubts might have sent you back to the text, to the ‘authorial source’, to find some justification for these performance decisions.

At this point it is worth remembering that there are many versions of Hamlet, and that historically the editing of the play text reflects a desire to focus on the central character, emphasizing his psychological or emotional condition (Ryan, 2000, p. 163). It is also worth observing that the text, whilst occupying a privileged role in the field of drama today, would not have done so at the time of Hamlet's early performances. Similarly the author, who today commands a form of reverence among many of his readers and audiences, would not have been regarded with the kind of authority which we now ascribe to writers. Read the following extract and note down what you take to be the main points.

These plays [Shakespeare's] were made and mediated in the interaction of certain complex material conditions, of which the author was only one. When we deconstruct the Shakespeare myth what we discover is not a universal individual genius creating literary texts that remain a permanently valuable repository of human experience and wisdom; but a collaborative cultural process in which plays were made by writers, theatrical entrepreneurs, architects and craftsmen, actors and audience; a process in which plays were constructed first as performance, and subsequently given the formal permanence of print.

(Holderness, 1988, p. 13)

Holderness emphasizes the collaborative nature of drama and theatre, making the point that plays were the product of a combination of text, production and reception, and not simply sacred pieces of manuscript. He says that theatre was created by the collaborative efforts of playwrights, performers, and a whole host of other craftsmen, as well as through audience response. Indeed, he suggests that far from the text determining the performance, it was more likely to be the case that the performance signalled the direction the writing of the play script would take. Recall, for example, that the staging of Henry V took place before the play text was published.

To illustrate this point further, we can go back beyond Shakespeare to some of the earliest forms of drama where very few of the performers could read or write; in these ritual-based performances a text would not have been necessary, since the components of drama would have been handed down through an oral tradition. Our current valorization of the author and the primacy of the text are then, peculiarly modern concepts, and tend to render the role of the reader, or in the case of performance texts the audience, less significant. This point is made by the critic, Roland Barthes, whose highly influential essay, ‘The death of the author’ (1977), argues for a ‘re-birth’ of the reader as against the primacy of the writer:

A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author … a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination … Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer … we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.

(p. 146)

Read in the context of plays and performance, Barthes emphasizes the processes of writing, the multiplicity of perspectives and points of origin of texts, and deconstructs the traditional notion that the author is the point of unity, drawing all the various strands of meaning together. The relevance of Barthes' argument for considering issues of performance and audience is to be found in the challenge it presents to approaches such as Beckett's. Barthes argues that our response should not be determined by author or playwright, and that we need to avoid the tendency to think that in ‘getting close’ to the author, we are assured of a more authoritative meaning of the text.