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Introduction: Popular Shakespeares: Modes, Media, Bodies

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 41, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 313-319 | 10.1353/jnt.2011.0103

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In February 2011 I purchased a web showing of The Wooster Group's 2007 production of Hamlet for my Ph.D. students to watch. I saw the production live in New York in November 2007, but the web showing captured a 2009 performance in Gdansk, Poland. While there were noticeable differences between my memory of the 2007 performance and the one recorded in 2009, I was struck most by the difference the medium shift made for my viewing: a shift from live to digitally recorded to web posted. As many scholars have noted, the medium employed to show a production will affect audience reception in multiple, complex, and complicated ways. Of course, The Wooster Group's Hamlet is in many ways about media, memory, and performance. It is, after all, a performance that attempts to recreate motion by motion a 1964 Broadway production starring Richard Burton that "was recorded from 17 camera angles and edited into a film that was shown for only two days in 2000 movie houses across the United States" (TWG 2007, 32). Burton's performance was recorded through "Electronovision" to create a "new form called 'Theatrofilm,'" and TWG claimed that, "Our Hamlet attempts to reverse the process, reconstructing a hypothetical theatre piece from the fragmentary evidence of the edited film, like an archeologist inferring a temple from a collection of ruins" (TWG 2007, 32). In addition, TWG "digitally reedited the Burton film . . . [so that] some figures have been erased or obscured, and the duration of the play is shortened using fast forward and jump cuts" (TWG 2007, 32). The "live" performance, then, blended live, filmed, and digital aspects, and the web showing of the digitally recorded performance in Poland in 2009 was remediated yet again; it captured a recording of a production about the impossibility of recreating and re-experiencing past performances. If the web showing had a tagline, it could have been, "You Can't Go Home, Or, Media Matter."

While an attention to media is common in performance and Shakespeare studies alike, it is less likely that this attention is wedded to a consideration of bodies and modes. To return to TWG's Hamlet, the change in medium from live to web broadcast highlighted the racialized nature of the performance for me. While I was not particularly attentive to the racial makeup of the audience in the "live" showing in New York in 2007, the 2009 audience that was digitally captured for the web showing was all white: naturally, because it was filmed in Poland. In turn, the Polish audience made me attentive to the way whiteness worked within the productions of Hamlet themselves. The cast in Richard Burton's 1964 Broadway production was all white, and the cast in TWG's 2007-2009 production was also all white. For a theatre company that historically has been interested in the dynamics and semiotics of race in performance (e.g., TWG was derided in 1981 for their blackface performance of Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act), and hailed in 1998 and 2006 for incorporating it into their productions of The Emperor Jones), the blinding whiteness of the cast read in a particularly resonant fashion to me. Although there was nothing explicitly racialized in TWG's Hamlet, the shift in medium made me see anew the ways that whiteness implicitly worked within the productions. Seen in this way, the production was not merely "[c]hanneling the ghost" of a past performance, but also channeling the ghost of the past socio-racial politics of performance with all of their attendant goods and ills.

Just as the shift in the medium made me attentive to the bodies in and around the Hamlet performances (1964, 2007, 2009, and 2011 on my computer screen), so too did this re-focus enable me to consider the modal or generic tensions inherent in the production. While I always teach Hamlet as a revenge tragedy that interrogates the revenge tragedy genre, TWG's Hamlet seemed less interested in the revenge tragedy genre than in nostalgia as its own mode and genre. Thus, Hamlet's father's ghost was not the only presence onstage calling for remembrance and revenge. Instead, Richard Burton, Theatrofilm, and...

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