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COMPARATIVE drama 1 Volume 18 Fall 1984 Number 3 The Player’s Eye: Shakespeare on Television William B. Worthen For the past several years I have looked forward to autumn with mixed feelings, knowing that I will be committed to an­ other season of the BBC-TV Shakespeare Plays, an anxiety compounded this past year by the addition of the Mobil Show­ case King Lear. I’m not being entirely facetious. The series has been, with some striking exceptions, competently directed, well acted, and lavishly produced, but in general I have found my evenings of television Shakespeare to be tame at best, to offer a rather remote and at times frustrating experience of the plays. The entire project, of course, raises intriguing questions about the sociology of performance and of Shakespeare in contem­ porary life. But the series also brings a narrower, specifically histrionic question into focus: how does television alter our response to the means of dramatic performance— acting? A dramatic production designs a performance for both actors and audiences. It directs the actor to undertake a series of activities onstage; it also invites us to see those activities in a particular way, situates us as spectators of the actor’s and of his character’s performance. Although both stage and television are acting arenas, they confront the spectator through different means, WILLIAM B. WORTHEN, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of The Idea of the Actor: Drama and the Ethics of Performance which will be published by Princeton University Press this fall. 193 194 Comparative Drama make different demands, and mark out different experiences of drama, in part by constituting a different relationship between actor and spectator in the play they share. The transfer of Shakespeare’s plays to television provides an occasion to clarify the role that acting plays in our response to drama, in our play as theater spectators and as television viewers. To begin, we don’t see the actors on the stage in the way that we see them on the tube. In the theater, we have the freedom to look where we please, to choose how to attend to the events of the stage. The playwright, the director, the actors, and even the technicians all conspire to limit and control this freedom, and— most obviously in plays like Osborne’s Entertainer or Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians, in which we play an audience— to give it a special resonance. In the opening of Richard II, for instance, Shakespeare divides our attention among several simultaneous performances. Our first task is to organize the subtle play of innuendo that binds Richard, Gaunt, Mowbray, Bolingbroke, and the court in a common performance. Dining a televised version of the play, though, our attention is directed somewhat differently. As the camera roves from point to point, we see a different scene: instead of the canny ensemble, we see Richard, then Gaunt, and so on. The effect of this technique can be extremely powerful, as the BBC production proved. But the camera commands us in a different way than the stage does and requires a different performance from us. Watching television, we don’t balance several simultaneous performances, because the camera relates them to us in sequence. The camera asks us to interpret a series, rather than a congeries, of events. In the theater, we act like the characters, making provisional judgments in a complex and unstable situation; at home, we act like the camera, assembling a linear narrative. We perform different tasks; we play a different part.l By asking us to exert an essentially narrative form of atten­ tion, though, the camera sometimes casts us in an unsettlingly undramatic part. In the final moments of King Lear, a theater audience is drawn, like the characters on the stage, to witness the terrible sight of the dying king and his murdered daughter. Shakespeare carefully fixes our attention on the thing itself, the unaccommodated corpse of Cordelia, by concentrating Lear’s actions so intently on her body—he strains to catch her breath, listens for her soft voice, looks finally on her lips, “Look there, look there!” (5.3.312).2 Although other...


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