- Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance
The title Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance signals some unfinished business from W. B. Worthen's 1997 Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance. So it turns out. Where the earlier book had sought to deconstruct the habit of deriving the meaning and the origin—the "authority"—of Shakespearean performance from the author function, the later book seeks answers to the questions posed by the earlier volume. If the validity of a performance is not to be derived from the author or even the text, in what then does it consist? The proposition here is that the performance of a Shakespeare play stands or falls by its "force," that is to say, the performative interface between the text and the energy and protocols of lived culture, "the terrain between language and its enactment" (3). To perform [End Page 260] a Shakespeare play, then, is not merely to voice the words that "Shakespeare" and his printers have conspired to deposit on the page but to engage in the mutual unfoldings of text on the one hand, and the multifarious upwellings and intonations of contemporary speech on the other. To perform is first to engage with what J. L. Austin and others think of as the performative or illocutionary dimension of language: that order of speech acting directly upon the human world. To derive performance from "performativity," therefore, is not just to skip the author and the text, but—potentially at least—the theater and the rehearsal as well. Austin's focus on the performative is predicated on a disdain for theatrical language, the distinguishing feature of which is precisely a lack of genuine performativity, a "hollowness" or hamminess vis-à-vis the real world. However, Worthen resists Austin's conceptualization of the performative, noting its reliance on an outdated notion of theater. The performative is then available to theater, but "to consider dramatic theatre as an instance of the 'performative' requires a fundamental rethinking of the function of writing in performance" (9).
What might this mean? Until quite recently, performance has been opposed to print and writing. Yet, writing is intuitively closer than print is to performance—as the comparison between a conference paper optimized for reading and the same paper, optimized for print, would suggest. And the line dividing print from performativity is more permeable than we might think. Hence, the text-over-performance and performance-over-text models of dramatic signification are oversimplified, essentialized, and misleading. Indeed, "the history of drama testifies to an extremely variable relationship between forms of textuality and modes of embodiment, even in conventional theatre" (20). On the other hand, a glance at the technological present of the "printed" word (such as hypertext) reveals further shifts in the equation linking writing to performativity. Writing is now consumed in radically different ways than heretofore and seems further than ever from authorial models of meaning. Technology itself, however, is not the essential material determinant of writing within culture. Thus, "neither the ideologies—of print culture, of digital culture—nor the practices are immanent in the technology: they arise in the ways we understand and use them . . . in the sphere of the 'performative'" (23). Having devoted his opening chapter to this expanded and more flexible understanding of the performative, Worthen devotes the remaining four chapters to case studies of "the performative dialogue between writing and enactment" (24).
The first of these chapters is about various species of "performing history," starting with the restored Globe Theater on London's Bankside. For Worthen, the whole project of the Globe, not to mention the building, is fundamentally mistaken. If the building "epitomizes a host of attitudes toward history" (29), the project—that of an archaeological performance laboratory—simply locks the plays into a theme-park version of Elizabethan theater history. The notion that "the framing structure will release the behaviors that originally made the plays 'work'" (29) bespeaks a backward-looking, dead-end, and authorcentric model of Shakespearean performativity. The mistake is equivalent to...