- This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now
At only 200 pages and change, This Wide and Universal Theater can never hope to be anything like a thorough and detailed history of how Shakespeare's plays have been performed and the myriad meanings that have been made of them. Instead, the book ranges widely though lightly over the canon, and its points are more general than incisive. This is a shame in some ways, as the aims of the book are ambitious, Bevington's knowledge of the materials is indisputably vast, and the central argument is a useful one.
Bevington begins with a short but eminently useful primer on theatrical conditions during the time Shakespeare wrote, dealing with the acting companies and some of their key actors, the spaces they worked in and concomitant staging conventions, and the expectations and understandings audiences might be bringing through the doors with them. This setup is important, because in each of the chapters that follow—one each for comedies, histories, problem plays (Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida), earlier tragedies (Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello), later tragedies (King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra), and the late tragicomedies—Bevington begins by imagining the plays in their original theatrical context "as a way of suggesting how an awareness of their theatrical dimensions can illuminate numberless dramatic situations inherent in the dialogue" (1). He then goes on to juxtapose [End Page 325] those possibilities with later stage, film, and television performances to consider the ways in which "changed modes of presentation can arise out of, and contribute to, changed perceptions of the text" (2). For the most part, this involves contrasting presentational and representational approaches to the plays, with Bevington making the case for the presentational mode as more open, experimental, intense and inviting, and more likely to rely upon and therefore engage audiences' imaginations in the experience.
Bevington has useful things to say about sieges and battles in the history plays, regarding the varied spatial relations in play when utilizing the tiring house façade, the gallery above, and the doors below. Romeo and Juliet is considered in terms of its original presentational staging that would allow for "flexible shifts from exterior to interior or from one part of the theatre space to another while maintaining a continuity of understood location" (134). But at other times his reading of the texts seems to forego performance in favor of more thematic considerations, about the conventions of the pastoral in As You Like It or about nature, legitimacy, and inheritance in King Lear. Bevington has some beautiful things to say about Prospero's powers and limits as a theatre artist in The Tempest, but then doesn't really anchor them in the practical world of stagecraft or to those possibilities inherent in or inspired by the texts concerning what might actually be done on the stage.
More disappointing is the way Bevington deals with performance history. The details taken from productions seem to be more often listed than carefully analyzed. As a result, the acts of performance Bevington champions as the true measure of Shakespeare's greatness come across as a bit slight. The free-floating opinion that Kevin Kline made a "more thoughtful and theatrically conscious Hamlet" (150) than someone else or the isolated production factoid that "Herbert Beerbohm Tree, at His Majesty's Theatre in 1911, staged Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene on a grand staircase" (176) tell us little about the making of meaning in performance. The statue scene at the end of The Winter's Tale is built up as "a climactic event . . . suffused with theatrical magic" (203), but is then abandoned without a single de-tail of exactly how the sequence has been handled in different productions. In accordance with what I thought to be Bevington's interest in the virtues of the open, thrust stage, I was hoping for some idea of what bodies onstage might be doing here. Which way does the statue face? Based on...