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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 325-326
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What should compel us to give our attention to nineteenth-century burlesques of Shakespeare's plays? Are we too beholden to the Victorian concept of usefulness to acknowledge their wealth and richness? Richard W. Schoch states that the purpose of his Not Shakespeare: Bardolatry and Burlesque in the Nineteenth Century is not merely to "restore an unjustly neglected series of comic plays and performances" (3). Through shifting our focus from burlesque's "form to [its] function" (19), Schoch wants to persuade us of the genre's power as a critical tool. "Rather than 'solving' the problem of the legitimate, the burlesque operates as an ongoing mode of criticism . . ." (86). Burlesque encourages us to undertake "acts of cultural engagement" (33). That the author succeeds so well in engaging the reader throughout this well-researched and highly readable study is a hallmark of its success.
Schoch points out that a legion of critics, from George Eliot to Jonathan Bate, has denied the worth of such works beside the majesty and sweep of Shakespeare's originals. Schoch's passion for these works is based on his belief that they have great importance as interpretive instruments: "What David Z. Saltz has written of Heiner Müller's Hamletmachine (1977) applies equally to any nineteenth-century burlesque of Hamlet: that it 'spins a dense web of allusions to Shakespeare's play, and even more, to the mythologies that have accrued around the play over the centuries, and to the ideological implications of those mythologies'" (21). Schoch places Shakespearean burlesque in a comic tradition that has persisted in our theatrical culture from the days of Aristophanes to the present. "Because parody comically distorts both an original text and readers' expectations of that text, readers always understand a parody by reference to its original . . . whose value it at once both affirms and denies" (19). In other words, Shakespearean burlesques are welcome tonics that allow the spectator to see the works of Shakespeare more clearly—unimpeded by undue reverence. Schoch's book cautions us against the dangers of "Bardolotry," whatever its manifestation. If "performance [is] a cultural production and not . . . an isolated aesthetic artifact" (29), then any era's claim to correctness in reference to Shakespearean interpretation and staging is suspect, for it is inevitably biased and therefore inherently distorted.
The burlesques of plays as varied as Hamlet and The Winter's Tale challenged, through their ironic stance, nineteenth-century practices in the staging of Shakespeare's works. Legitimate actor-managers such as Charles Kean and Edwin Booth, emphasizing "antiquarian splendor and supernatural stage effects" (65), claimed to possess the authentic and correct way to produce Shakespeare's works. The burlesque theatre continually brought into question the ideological and artistic notions that were the basis for such claims.
Ignorance of specific Victorian references need not keep us from reading these plays if we "can recognize that ignorance—both ours and the original audience's—is the constitutive condition of burlesque spectating" (39). Parody and burlesque underscore the fundamental distinction between reality and its representation. Ignorance should not unduly prejudice us against works of cultural production with which we have limited or no familiarity. Indeed, Schoch suggests that ignorance can be provocative, stimulating, and extremely enticing.
Schoch manifestly admires and delights in the sheer virtuosity of nineteenth-century burlesque performers and authors. Striving to honor "the genealogies of acting traditions" (48) descending from such luminaries as Garrick and Kemble, the performers of the legitimate stage were not inherently superior to the stars of the burlesque theatre, who often excelled as actors, singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, etc. Laughter is not easily won, a fact of performance that we all too easily overlook. The laughter that Shakespearean burlesque evoked in its audiences was not simply "the easily won laughter of mimicry [, but had] a great deal to do with the thoughtful laughter of a more searching parody."