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27 August 2015 @ 12:12 pm
…I just realized that I don't have a "tragedy" tag.  
This is a telling realization, as my "comedy is hard" tag gets frequent use.

Anyway, has anyone else read this article from 2014?

Shakespeare's Bloody Problem: Why the Tragedies Almost Never Work Anymore

Here's the central argument:

I can’t help noticing, as I watch them through splayed fingers, how all four [plays] are structured. In their first halves, Shakespeare dramatizes the intersection of intimate relations and political power, employing the most imaginative theatrical poetry ever written to knit the complexities together. But having climbed these wonderful stairways of insight, they then take a slide down Bloodbath Mountain. All the marvelous thickness of family intrigue in Lear and Hamlet, all the madness of marital love in Macbeth, all the knottiness of psychopathology in Richard [III] seem to dissipate around the middle of Act Three, replaced by swordplay, death skits, war scenes, howling, eye-gouging, head-­severing, and pageants of frenzied murderousness. It’s almost as if Shakespeare didn’t trust his audience, or the part of it standing in the yard with oranges, to hang around for the second half unless he threw them a bone or ten. Of course, there’s still high-class poetry scattered amid the Grand Guignol for the groundlings, some of it as beautiful as ever. But it now floats free from the binding of story, like marooned islands of fat in a broken mayonnaise.

I'm trying to decide what I think about it: it's true that I've often felt that the second half of a performance of one of the tragedies doesn't live up to the first half, but I feel that way during a lot of performances of the comedies, too. (Intermission is a hard thing to come back from.) I don't know that it's specifically because of the violence - although I do often feel as though the violence is staged to no particular purpose or design; it's often just sort of…there.

Anyone else have any thoughts?
a_t_raina_t_rain on August 27th, 2015 06:23 pm (UTC)
This strikes me as a really weird and snobbish argument (and I'd probably have respected the author a lot more if it had been framed as "why the tragedies don't work for me" rather than "why the tragedies don't work any more"). But I will admit that The Bits I Don't Like Were Just Thrown In For The Groundlings Who Didn't Know Any Better is one of my particular pet peeves.
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on August 28th, 2015 05:12 am (UTC)
Mine too! "Shakespeare would be so much better if he hadn't had to write those bits for the lower classes…"

I do think that a lot of productions don't know what to do with the second half of the tragedies, but I don't think it's because we've "moved on" or something.

Neaneadods on August 28th, 2015 12:07 am (UTC)
I don't have thoughts, yet, but I do have thanks for the link!
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on August 28th, 2015 05:08 am (UTC)
You're welcome!
La Reine Noire: Vergillareinenoire on August 28th, 2015 07:38 pm (UTC)
It could simply be an issue of pacing. I know with Richard III specifically (and to a lesser extent Macbeth), it's far more compelling to watch the protagonist climb to power and less so to watch them fall. It could be a question of modern sensibilities vs. Elizabeth/Jacobean ones--while we modern types do enjoy a good dose of schadenfreude, it doesn't quite function the same way as an Elizabethan audience watching a villain get what one assumes is deserved comeuppance. But that's probably oversimplifying things a lot.

Some of it, I'm sure, has to do with cuts and with directors/producers/etc not necessarily trusting the text as much as they should. I get pissy about people who cut major speeches from Romeo and Juliet precisely because it upsets the balance of the play and makes it about something it isn't actually about. But I don't necessarily know if the same argument would apply to Hamlet or Lear, where stuff doesn't get cut all that much in the second half--I'd actually argue that people tend to cut more in the first half of those plays than in the second.

Much like a_t_rain, I don't like the implicit snobbery in the article, but the author might have a point that, to an extent, modern audiences have become desensitized to violence such that theatrical violence doesn't have the same shock value that it once might have had. It works for people who are used to the theatre, but if you're accustomed to CGI and cinematic special effects (like, say, my students who couldn't get over the fact that characters were still breathing even though they were supposed to be dead), it's harder to make that jump. At which point, directors feel the need to overcompensate and throw yet more blood into the proceedings and things start to get a bit silly.
tempestsarekindtempestsarekind on August 29th, 2015 04:06 pm (UTC)
directors feel the need to overcompensate and throw yet more blood into the proceedings and things start to get a bit silly

Yes! This is so unfortunate, because the theater is its own thing; it shouldn't have to try to compete with screen violence. One of the most moving and horrifying moments I've ever seen staged in Macbeth happened when I saw the Original Pronunciation production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, last July. It probably happened because they didn't have a young boy to play Macduff's son in OP, so they had Macduff's wife come on stage with a bundle of cloth in a bassinet representing a baby. Then the murderer mimed reaching into the bassinet to strangle the baby - then held it up and said the boy's line, in a cruel, mocking lisp: "He hath killed me, mother." It was terrible and heartbreaking, and no stage blood in sight. (At the end of the scene, the actor let the cloth flutter to the ground, and that was terrible, too; instead of breaking the illusion - which can happen easily when one is trying for realism - it was as if the baby had been totally obliterated.)

But you probably do have to build up to those moments early on, so that an audience that's used to TV and film can start to learn the theatrical "language" the production is using.
La Reine Noire: Elizabethlareinenoire on August 29th, 2015 04:13 pm (UTC)
Oh, man, that sounds horrifying and wonderful all at once. There was a production of The Duchess of Malfi where they did something similar--Cariola was onstage with a baby carriage that presumably didn't have anything in it, but my students absolutely FREAKED when Bosola just started stabbing into the carriage. I miss having students who actually understood how suspension of disbelief works.
tempestsarekind: all the world's a stagetempestsarekind on August 29th, 2015 04:20 pm (UTC)
I wonder if anyone has done any research or pedagogical writing on this: I can imagine that a lot of students (those who aren't "theater kids," anyway) are less and less familiar with that kind of suspension of disbelief, at least once they grow up and stop playing games that require it. And they certainly might not expect that this is how theater works - so how do you get that across before showing a filmed production or going to see a play?

…Maybe they should all have to read the prologue from Henry V beforehand. :)
La Reine Noire: Elizabethlareinenoire on August 29th, 2015 04:27 pm (UTC)
I've done the HV prologue exercise a few times and it worked beautifully with some of my classes. I really like using it as part of an opening lecture on what Ren drama looked like, accompanied by photos of the Globe and the Peacham drawing and that sort of thing. It worked with a lot of my students but not all of them.
tempestsarekind: historiestempestsarekind on August 29th, 2015 04:37 pm (UTC)
I'm still sad that I'm not getting to teach my Shakespeare/Renaissance drama elective this year because only three students signed up; I so wanted to get into early modern theater in a way that I didn't in last year's Shakespeare elective (where I focused mostly on language)! Ah well.

Now I'm thinking about doing the speech before teaching R&J, though: I usually have my students practice looking for rhetorical devices and practice "deciphering" the language on Hal's "I know you all" soliloquy, so they know what to look for when we get into a whole play. But the H5 prologue could be interesting, especially compared to the one from R&J. And I already show them pictures of the Globe anyway, to talk about the "balcony scene." Hmm...

Edited at 2015-08-29 04:38 pm (UTC)