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Television and the Anti-Realist Theatricality of “not Shakespeare”

From: Shakespeare Bulletin
Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 2015
pp. 543-568 | 10.1353/shb.2015.0055

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Television and the Anti-Realist Theatricality of “not Shakespeare”

Television’s earliest adaptation of an early modern play by an author other than Shakespeare was the BBC’s 40-minute version of The Duchess of Malfi, broadcast in February 1938. “A melodrama of almost unbelievable crudity,” was the response of the Listener critic Grace Wyndham Goldie to the bleeding chunks offered to the audience by producer Royston Morley. “The whole production smacked of the artifice of the theatre,” Goldie wrote, “and not of the reality of the movies.” At the time of writing, John Webster’s tragedy is also the most recent “not Shakespeare” early modern drama to have been televised. In May 2014, BBC Four broadcast a recording of the inaugural production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, although for Matthew Hemley, writing for the Stage, the transmission “didn’t come close to the experience of going to the theatre itself.” In the nearly eight decades between these two productions and the critical disappointment they engendered, there were two other television productions of Webster’s drama. In 1949, Harold Hobson described a studio staging as “a riot of ornate costumes, Gothic arches, and increasing boredom” (“Varied Fare”). Responding with far greater enthusiasm to James MacTaggart’s 1972 location-shot The Duchess of Malfi, Raymond Williams, then a regular television critic for the Listener, observed that this was “not the only occasion on which television, even with material ordinarily thought of as high culture, has shown itself significantly ahead of the theatre.” Central to three of these critical analyses of Webster on screen is a comparison of the electronic medium with the theater, with each of the writers spinning an argument around the theatricality (or its absence) of the television broadcast. Hobson, too, seemed to suggest that a sense of theatricality was absent when he wrote [End Page 543] that “They chopped it up, they tried to make it realistic, they lost its baleful magic” (“Varied Fare”).

Embracing these four productions of The Duchess of Malfi, along with some thirty other plays, the corpus of television adaptations of “not Shakespeare” drama from the early modern repertoire (which here, for reasons discussed below, is broadened to include medieval mystery plays) is both comparatively extensive and at the same time limited. These television productions, together with adaptations created in educational and academic contexts, as well as ones distributed solely on DVD or conceived primarily for online exhibition, are the focus of this introduction and the articles that follow. In the past five years there has been a rapid expansion in “not Shakespeare” productions made primarily for neither cinema nor television, but to date this proliferation has attracted only a modest amount of critical writing. These articles are offered as a contribution towards stimulating further attention to this growing body of work as well as continuing engagements with television’s “not Shakespeare” legacy that stretches back more than seventy-five years. Indeed, the idea of “not Shakespeare” was established in the earliest printed mention of this small-screen body of work. A brief note about the first production of The Duchess of Malfi by the Radio Times diary writer “The Scanner” characterized the drama simply as “a gruesome play by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Webster” (“Another”).

In her introduction to the 2014 “Not Shakespeare: Early Modern Drama and Film” special issue of Shakespeare Bulletin Jenny Sager is concerned to dismantle “the critical dichotomy of Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean” (2). Yet she also acknowledges that “In both performance and criticism ‘not-Shakespeare’ continues to position itself as a site of radicalism, a place to break new ground in response to a Shakespeare who continues to be recognized as the epitome of virtuous respectability” (3). The radicalism of certain “not Shakespeare” feature films has been discussed most notably by Pascale Aebischer in Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare (2013), in which she considers adaptations by Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Mike Figgis, and Alex Cox. Aebischer identifies productions that are united by “the counter-cultural work they are doing collectively to critique the dominant modes of filmmaking and adapting Shakespearean drama to the screen” (6). For all the interest of “not Shakespeare” on the small screen...