- New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies ed. by Sarah Werner
Sarah Werner begins New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies by affirming that “nearly everyone studying Renaissance drama today would agree that the examination of Shakespeare and performance is a central field in the discipline” (1). At issue in this lively collection of essays are both the limitations of current dominant methodologies and the novel paths the field might take in the years to come. In her introduction, Werner recognizes two key generations of performance criticism of Shakespeare to date. The first celebrated the insights theatrical performance could provide into Shakespeare’s text; the second insisted upon the ways in which the processes of performance continually remake dramatic texts and their meanings for new historical moments. While a perceived impasse between these two schools has exercised many performance critics over the past decades, Werner’s contributors are more concerned to identify the assumptions into which both methodologies can encourage us to fall and to suggest approaches to help us question those assumptions.
In a collection remarkable for rich dialogue across a range of strong entries, many such approaches emerge. Chief among them, for me, are methodologies that attend to the question of loss as a defining characteristic of performance, to the crucial role of imagination in the performance critic’s toolbox, and to performance’s relation to its own time and place. In advancing these “new directions,” declares Werner, the volume’s aim “is not to provide a univocal manifesto for how the field ought to develop. It is rather to start a debate that its readers will continue” (11). If the volume’s success in this endeavor is such that at times it calls into question quite fundamental premises of Shakespearean performance criticism, that may be all to the good.
First among the familiar tropes that Werner’s contributors set out to complicate is what William N. West describes as the “melancholy sense of performance as loss” that dominates much performance criticism (30). In the volume’s first section, “Working with the Ephemeral,” both West and Robert Shaughnessy take issue with the notion that the performance critic’s task is, or can be, the restoration of [End Page 90] moments of live performance that have now slipped forever into the dark backward and abysm of time. Shaughnessy’s essay, “One Piece at a Time,” argues that such critical restorations can never be complete, for audience members recall performances only in unpredictable flashes and in ways deeply inflected by the personal circumstances in which they watched them. He underlines the ethical need for the performance critic to distinguish between that underindividuated mass, the audience, and her own highly situated self (27). West also stresses the role of memory, emphasizing in the process not the elements of a performance that tend to disappear but those that tend to remain. “Each performance,” he writes, “unfolds already scored by previous performances, which are recalled in part by props, scripts, recordings, and other mediations, but foremost through the memories of the producers of theater, the actors, and spectators” (35). His analysis of the Wooster Group’s 2007 Hamlet offers an effective case study of the ways in which a performance can preserve, reiterate and reshape the remnants of its predecessors.
Attention to such moments of iteration is one way in which performance critics can avoid pitfalls identified by Paul Menzer in his essay, “The Spirit of ’76: Original Practices and Revolutionary Nostalgia.” Menzer underlines the extent to which both scholars and theater companies have recently embraced a “real-estate obsessed” model of theater history (102) that focuses upon the tangible “trace[s]” left behind by theaters of the past and the reconstruction of those traces via such projects as Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the Blackfriars in Virginia. Menzer argues, instead, for an event-based theater history ready to acknowledge the contingent and the anecdotal and to “embrace rarity, novelty, and one-off performances” (106) rather than to pursue...