- Shakespeare in Performance: “The Tempest” by Virginia Mason Vaughan
Virginia Mason Vaughan’s volume on The Tempest makes an invaluable addition to the Shakespeare in Performance series. The Tempest is a play that has remained popular in the repertory (although often in adaptations), presenting myriad opportunities for companies to exercise and reflect on their capacities for theatrical spectacle. It is also a play affording new possibilities for meaning as cultural history has changed around it, responding to interpretive perspectives from Victorian evolutionary theory to Freudian psychoanalysis to postcolonial critique. Vaughan charts these changes in a wide-ranging edition that contains a wealth of solid theater history combined with sophisticated theoretical meditations.
Vaughan is eminently qualified for this project, having previously (with Alden T. Vaughan) edited the Arden3 edition of The Tempest, written a cultural history of Caliban, and published a collection of critical essays on the play. Her exhaustive knowledge of The Tempest and its history gives this book an admirable density and breadth; while she discusses some twenty-five productions in detail, she is able to make productive passing references to dozens more. And while Vaughan’s ongoing interests in race and intercultural encounters enrich the sections on postcolonial Tempest productions, these concerns are balanced with other enduring questions provoked by the play: “What is the relationship between nature and nurture? What are the roles played by ‘art’ and education in the formation of human values? What are appropriate uses of personal and political power? Can we find a balance between our contradictory longings for revenge and reconciliation? And, perhaps the most difficult question, what makes us human?” (2).
The introduction enumerates the theatrical challenges The Tempest raises— storm and shipwreck, spirits and monsters, masques and transformations—and considers how they might have been met in an early modern playhouse. The play’s [End Page 241] opportunities for spectacle made it a test case for developing technologies and changing fashions. Vaughan devotes a chapter to the Restoration adaptation by Dryden and Davenant, which held the stage almost unchallenged for 171 years. With several new songs, a flying Ariel, added roles for Miranda’s sister Dorinda and her suitor Hippolito (a young man who has never seen a woman), and dialogue laced with double entendres, the Dryden/Davenant version catered to Restoration tastes for “spectacle, music, and sex” (27).
By the nineteenth century, advances in scenery and lighting had turned The Tempest into a primarily visual experience. Vaughan details the elaborate effects achieved in the productions of William Charles Macready and Charles Kean; in Macready’s production, for instance, Ariel appeared in a ball of fire, while in Kean’s staging, Ariel rode on a dolphin’s back. Vaughan treats Victorian actor-managers with more respect than they are sometimes accorded. “The staging described here may seem excessive, but its impact should not be hastily dismissed,” Vaughan writes (46). She also posits that “Macready and Kean were in many ways the precursors of contemporary filmmakers . . . who substitute rich visual imagery for Shakespeare’s evocative language” (46). Vaughan’s sensitive discussion of nineteenth-century production, building on the work of Michael Booth and Richard Schoch, gives welcome weight to an era of Shakespearean production that is often only a punch line.
In a fascinating chapter on “The Evolutionary Caliban,” Vaughan explores the impact of Darwinian theory on the depiction of Shakespeare’s “man-monster” (70), who came to be seen by Victorians as an image of the “‘missing link’” (51) in human development. Leading actor-managers, such as Frank Benson and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, began to play Caliban rather than Prospero. Though these performances sometimes overdid the grotesquerie (Vaughan details Benson’s simian athleticism and fish-eating antics), they allowed a new perspective on the play. Tree’s production famously ended with Caliban stretching out his arms “‘in mute despair’” after the departing ship on the horizon; in the words of Tree’s edition, “‘The night falls, and Caliban is left on the lonely rock...