Sunday, December 11, 2011

Performance Criticism 101

The first article I ever read on performance criticism was in L.M. Pittman's class at Andrews University. She assigned us to read a chapter from W.B. Worthen's Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance, a book which I still don't totally understand, but which I understand very differently today than I did then.

Worthen questions the idea of authority as something that any text or performance can have. How can any edition or production of $hakespeare be authoritative, be derived from the author? We might question the relevance of the modern author's presence to their works today; how much more so $hakespeare, who is, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, "demmed elusive"? Which is more authoritative, the written word or the enacted performance? For literary scholars, we see the meanings latent in the page and the stage as only a vehicle for expressing those meanings; for performers, we see the stage as the ultimate, animating reason for the writing. However, if we go back to Barthes, we question the meaning of the word "work" at all; he prefers the word "text" with its sense of intertextuality, a field of meaning, of playfulness of production.

But Worthen also questions text. What is a text? How do we know what Shakespeare's text was? He reminds me of Tiffany Stern when he says that "the conditions of production in the Renaissance playhouse militate against the final ascription of an ideal, coherent work to a single animating author" (8). He goes to editorial practice for his analogy to performance, reminding us (along with Gary Taylor) that any text (edited, produced) must be judged against its "proximity to [its] chosen goal" and its proximity to the goal of the reader/critic (17). Both are specific versions of a work in which a variety of possibilities of meaning are chosen and produced. For Worthen, the text produces the work as much as the production produces the work. Reading or acting are both acts of production.

In his final chapter on performance criticism and authority, Worthen begins with a rather depressing quote from G.W. Knight which suggests that performance criticism cannot do very much, because it is limited to a particular performance which can only have limited meanings and which "exhausts the play's 'dramatic quality' at the moment that the text is staged" (151). It becomes a meaningless enterprise which can offer neither the depth and range of textual criticism nor the immediacy of performance. So what should we, as critics, do, then? He goes over several works of performance criticism but doesn't really say what we should be doing, except for his last statement:

"Allowing Shakespeare such authority, we reify Shakespearean drama--and the past, the tradition it represents--as sacred text, as silent hieroglyphics we can only scan, interpret, struggle to decode. We impoverish, in other words, the work of our own performances, and the work of the plays in our making of the world" (191).

I need to read this book more thoroughly and deeply. This is why I don't really understand it. But it makes me ask myself what kind of critic I want to be. It asks me to look at my motives; was I hard on that production last night because it didn't live up to my idea of "Shakespeare"? I don't think so; I was hard on it because it wasn't coherent or, to my feminist sensibilities, very ethical. But this is why I write Shakespeare "$hakespeare"--to remind myself that he's not a he, he's not a body of work, he's an institution which many people are vitally invested in maintaining.

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