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Why can’t the Globe Theatre do something REALLY authentic? Like burn down.

April 23, 2014


I suppose I don’t really mean this.

I suppose the Wanamaker Theatre on London’s south bank is a valuable and interesting experiment.  Something worth doing on its own limited terms.  But I suppose what I really resent about the idea of the Restored Globe Theatre are its implied claims of “authenticity”, the way it trades on the notion that it can offer a more “truthful” version of a Shakespeare play than anywhere else.

But’s it’s my fairly passionate belief that Hamlet staged at the Wanamaker Theatre is no “truer” than Hamlet staged anywhere else.  All audiences are twenty-first century audiences and all productions are twenty-first century productions.

The buzz of “authenticity” is necessarily bogus.  Now there are various reasons why we can’t in fact stage plays like they did in the 1590s.  To begin with, there is basic health and safety legislation.  You cannot cram that many people into that kind of space any more.  Remember, the old one burned down and it was a miracle nobody was killed.  Food and hygiene inspectorates also, thank God, prevent us from experiencing the tastes and smells of an Elizabethan theatre.  But more fundamentally, no modern audience can “be” an Elizabethan audience, they can’t enter the building carrying with them the same expectations and anxieties that those early audiences brought.  No matter how carefully you research ruffs and hautboys, you are playing to a twenty-first century crowd and creating a twenty-first century performance. So, the basic lack of a consensual early-modern weltanschauung makes any “faithful” version of Shakespeare an irretrievably spurious exercise.

More importantly, detailed historical reconstruction is an exercise that is quite alien to the spirit of everything we know about Shakespeare.   The Shakespeare we know was endlessly adapting and reshaping his material.  Gary Taylor, one of his most important of modern editors, is of the opinion that the version of Hamlet that appears in the Folio represents an effort by Heminges and Condell to edit together all the conflicting versions of the play staged over the course of two decades.  The Shakespeare we know was interested in new staging conditions and possibilities and his move to the Blackfriars Theatre coincided with a new phase of experiment.  The Shakespeare we know had no interest in recreating a specific era, a place or a time,  and instead made Cleopatra wear stays and play billiards. All of his plays were performed in “modern dress”.

So what I would like to burn is not a physical theatre (though historically [authentically?] theatres have burnt down with some reliable regularity, being full of flammable materials), but rather the idea that a play staged at London’s Globe is “truer” to Shakespeare than one staged in New York or New Delhi.  To be “true” to Shakespeare on this his possible birthday is to be true to a spirit of innovation and adaptation, to keep finding new ways to make those words connect with new audiences.  The ossification of Shakespeare as a work of reconstruction is what should burn.  And being very dry – an ossified Shakespeare most certainly will.

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  1. Yes! I agree with all of this. Their OP productions can be very good, but it’s not ‘authentic’ in the way they would like us to think. Also, the actors would be rehearsing with modern rehearsal techniques and such instead of cue parts and rehearsal study too. (I think the Research Bulletins they host online outline this better.)

    What’s most annoying though is people’s tendency to call Shakespeare ‘the Bard’. Ugh no, kill it with fire.

  2. I saw the Globe productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night in NYC, with males in the female roles, dripping candles, period costumes, period music played on period instruments, etc. I don’t know about “authenticity” but it was the most fun I’ve ever had watching Shakespeare.

  3. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Just reblogging this one, because today is the 401st anniversary of the Globe Theatre burning down. No one was killed incidentally.

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