- Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan
While deeply engrossed in Tiffany Stern's fascinating study Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, I was also preparing to teach Sydney Pollack's film Tootsie and began reading Susan Dworkin's Making Tootsie. Murray Schisgall and Larry Gelbart are listed as the film's authors, but Dworkin reveals the inaccuracy of this ascription. The film is actually the work of a series of successive writers, including Bob Kaufman, Robert Garland, and Elaine May, and additionally includes improvisational contributions by the actors—as permitted, even encouraged, by director Pollack. This collaborative authorship is typical of the way films are made in Hollywood today and raises questions about our concept of authorship. Stern's comprehensive history of how theatrical productions emerged from scripts during the rehearsal process makes it clear that during the two hundred years between the ages of William Shakespeare and Richard Brinsley Sheridan such collaborative authorship was the norm. As Stern investigates the rehearsal process, she goes beyond the detailed examination of how actors learned their lines and developed their roles and delves into the question of "whose play is it anyway?" Her book explores and raises questions about how theater is made and what the role and power of the author is and has been. As Stern explains, "In writing about rehearsal, it has been necessary to write about the relationship of actors to plays, and plays to actors, and the relationship of the audience to both. Rehearsal extends beyond the way in which plays are prepared for performance into the process of textual change itself" (290).
Stern explodes myths about how the English theater operated in the early modern era. She notes the fallacy, common even among today's literary critics and theater historians, of universalizing our current view of rehearsal practice: that of an ensemble of actors working together with a director and/or author to unlock the psychological truth of the scene or character. Instead, true ensemble rehearsal was a rarity—even the notion of an ensemble is historically inaccurate. Stern meticulously documents how actors received their parts, studied them, and came together with other actors to prepare the works for the stage. She has consulted prompters' notes, marked copies of manuscripts, contemporary biographies, pamphlets, as well as other contemporary commentaries. (Even if her book were not so well written, it would be of immense value simply for its encyclopedic bibliography.) Stern examines changes in rehearsal process over the course of the two centuries between Shakespeare and Sheridan, but she asserts that, despite variations over that time period, theater professionals during that era would have had a sense of familiarity with each other's approaches, but would find how we conceive of the rehearsal process today utterly alien. In general, in the early modern theater, actors were presented with "sides," manuscripts containing only their own parts and their cue lines. Actors studied their parts privately; the more important the actor, the more prestigious his or her tutor. Roles "belonged" to their creating actor, and subsequent players of roles were taught to "re-create" every nuance of the original actor's performance. Often such interpretations were handed down for generations—David Garrick was revolutionary in reinterpreting other actors' roles. Actors were often not familiar with the whole play; nor were they interested in what other actors did. When not [End Page 140] performing, an actor might not hold character and might even spend his or her time on stage while waiting for a cue acknowledging the audience.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, authors and actors, as well as one actor and another, were antagonists with completely different agendas. Although authors wrote the scripts, they were probably the least respected among theater professionals. Managers, prompters, and actors felt free to revise scripts to suit themselves. Actors were known for playing particular kinds of roles, and the audience held them responsible for what they delivered; therefore actors could not afford to tolerate lines or plots they felt unbecoming to them. Clowns, from Shakespeare on, were expected...