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  • (Re)Presenting the Renaissance on a Post-Modern Stage
  • Theresa Smalec
Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

To say that Susan Bennett merely extends the questions that prevalent scholarship asks about postmodern culture’s obsession with re-presenting the past is to neglect the keen conceptual shifts that her new book performs. Her opening chapter reveals more than a bid to contest standard definitions of nostalgia as a longing for the mythical past, as a desire to keep things intact. Rather, “New Ways To Play Old Texts” refigures this conservative praxis of longing as radically linked to political change. Nostalgia becomes “the inflicted territory where claims for authenticity (and this is a displacement of the articulation of power) are staged” (7). This term provides the pivotal foundation for Bennett’s exploration of “how particular vested interests project their desires for the present through a multiplicity of representations” (3) of Renaissance texts.

To reconceptualize how Shakespeare’s authority both figures and fails to appear in postmodern experience, Performing Nostalgia unsettles the power that literary culture ascribes to the written word. Bennett insists that the collisions between genre, gender, race, and nation which incite debate among textual scholars have generative counterparts in contemporary performance. Aptly titled “Performance and Proliferation,” her second chapter aligns historical power with the realm of corporeal ritual; it surveys a decade of those “verbal and gestural repetitions which activate remembering” (9). Specifically, this chapter traces the production methodologies and reception economies of twelve different stagings of King Lear that occurred in Britain between 1980 and 1990.

Initially, Bennett probes the possibility of (dis)articulating Lear’s overarching “greatness” within the parameters of British public television and mainstream (commercial) theatre. Within the bounds of the Royal National Theatre Company, the Renaissance Theatre Company, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the BBC, she attends to those specific combinations of factors and agents that “suggest the potential for an innovative and perhaps radical reading of this canonical text” (40). And yet, to complicate the lens through which a notable range of postmodern criticism identifies and champions transgression, Bennett takes up the Royal National Theatre Company’s 1990 production of King Lear. She summons this re-presentation for two interrelated reasons: first, to assess the extent to which an orthodox British stage may serve as the site on which individual directors’ and actors’ revisionary idiosyncrasies are actualized; second, to locate and to explicate the “matrix of material conditions” (41) through which politically engaged renditions of Shakespeare are necessarily produced and received.

Bennett begins with Deborah Warner’s direction of the Royal National Theatre Company’s 1990 version of Lear. Mindful again of the too-hasty suppositions that accompany our contemporary appetite for subversion, she notes that Warner might easily be marked as “challenging tradition by virtue of her biological coding” (40). After all, she is not only a woman directing Shakespeare, “but one doing it at a particularly prestigious theatre” (40). Moreover, there is Warner’s resolve to put red plastic noses on King Lear, King Lear’s Fool, and even on the dead Cordelia. As anticipated, scholarly accounts of this staging promptly align emancipatory change with the visible surface of things. One example is Anthony Leggatt’s Shakespeare in Performance, a text which endorses the view of Anthony Sher, who played Lear’s Fool: “We began with the red noses was immediately successful. There is something very liberating about wearing a red nose, both externally and internally” (40). 1

To problematize this faith in a singular agent’s power to unfetter the bodies that act out a text as prescriptive as King Lear, Performing Nostalgia confronts the multiple, interrelated forces that sway not only the production but the reception of this particular play. On one hand, it is clear that certain personal, bodily gestures bear the power to fill in the “gaps of the Shakespeare corpus” (2). The details that an individual director cites as missing from the script can be made to return through an embodied representation. In this sense, the highly visible yet unsanctioned red noses worn by Lear and Cordelia “become the text” (2) to supplant the...

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