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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 322-323
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Positioning film and other modern media within the history and criticism of theatre is both a necessary and vexing project. For one thing, it is a project, one that, in an age of informational overload, would daunt even the most encyclopedic of scholars. Mordecai Gorelik's classic New Theatres For Old (1940) was one of the earliest recognitions that the dramatic impulse has made its way into new technologies that were arguably part of theatre history rather than only adjunct to it. Gorelik is a little precious to read now, but his vision of the cinema as integral to the theatre's historical narrative has always struck me as both prescient and substantially unfulfilled even today. Part of the problem is practical (complex timelines that are sometimes parallel and sometimes intertwined) and part stylistic (avoiding the appearance of digression or extraneous shoehorning).
All of which is by way of saying that W.B. Worthen's Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance is an exceptionally graceful illustration of how a theoretical engagement with new media and old can be accomplished, treating them not as discrete phenomena but as aspects of a shared historical situation. Worthen's style is seamlessly unapologetic, as if to say: of course film, theatre, hypertext, and other media are different, but so are performances of Shakespeare in English at the reconstructed Globe different from those in Portuguese on a Brazilian street, or simply one English language production from another. It is really a [End Page 322] question of venue, as though film and hypertext were just different spaces, not flashpoints for questioning the compatibility (or not) of Shakespearean works with media for which they were not conceived. The latter has been alleged for as long as I can remember about Shakespeare in print (the plays were written to be performed, not read), an unproductive dichotomy that those who do not think Shakespeare is truly Shakespeare when on film or in other languages have effectively echoed. Worthen is theatre-centric enough to locate his notion of force in performance rather than in printed texts (as he believes Judith Butler and others have done), but what strikes me is the effortlessness with which he goes from film to theatre to hypertext and back again, without calling undue attention (if any) to having done so.
He sees the force of performance as a sort of historical driver that animates each of these Shakespearean manifestations. Worthen's specific concept of it derives from J.L. Austin's theory of speech acts, even as he debunks what he sees as the philosopher's anti-theatrical devaluation of performative language on stage. To Worthen, dramatic texts are inherently fluid—proto-hypertexual, even—notwithstanding the alleged fixity of printed documents, which are in fact subject to all manner of alteration from the moment they appear (editing, annotation, physical defacement, changing typeface, and so on). Playscripts are even less fixed than other printed artifacts, subject to multiple choices and embodiments in successive if not simultaneous productions. The real force of a Shakespearean play is, therefore, located in what Worthen calls, in the last sentence of the final chapter, "the ongoing reconfiguration of the interface between writing and its performative embodiment that is the history and future of dramatic performance" (215).
Leading up to this beautifully phrased formulation of performative force as historical process are an introduction that explores the concept of force and four engrossing chapters that apply it, respectively, to contemporary treatments of Shakespearean histories (by Branagh, Taymor, and others), to the themed performativity of London's new Globe (à la Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg), to new global geographies of Shakespeare (including the advertising-saturated city of Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and the Brazilian Romeu e Julieta, problematically received at the Globe), and, lastly, to the baby steps taken towards online Shakespeare by a few, mostly educational websites...