Saturday, August 16, 2014

Shakespeare the Player

Well, here's a blessing.  I'd call it an unbought grace, except that I bought it, in a used bookstore, on impulse.  That is: Shakespeare the Player, subtitled "A Life in the Theatre," a book by one John Southworth, hitherto unknown to me who, if I have the right IMDb  page, hoofed it out through a lifetime of mostly second-tier assignments as stage and screen actor (IMDb says he died in 2004).   The career context is important because what we have here is a man with a message, or a mission: arraying himself against a formidable (albeit not unanimous) phalanx of contrary critics, Southworth wants to put the theatre at the center of Shakespeare's universe, and to put the Shakespeare at the center of the theatre--to make him a working actor who got into playwrighting because the company needed a material, not merely a playwright who traded pen for buskin just to fill up an idle hour.

This book must have been a labor of love, perhaps not unlike his acting career. So far as I can tell, the academics never took him seriously (returning his own favor) and I don't suppose many of his fellow actors were willing to give much time to what is, at the end of the day, a pretty dense book.  Southworth may not be a scholar but he has done a scholar's job of combing the record for any forgotten bauble that might adorn his argument.  He does what he can to demonstrate not merely that Shakespeare was an actor, but rather also to to identify the parts he played and (sometime) why.  Most of this is near-bald speculation which any anonymous reviewer would have savaged on his first read.  But most of the guesses strike me as pretty shrewd and I am delighted to take them in default of a better.  He also offers up 10 pages of excerpts to show how the young Shakespeare early in his career echoed so many of the playwrights around him. Not plagiarism: precisely not. Southworth's point is rather more that if you live in that world (memorizing whole globs of stuff and playing a different play every night), you were bound to riff on habits of speech that you heard from those around you.

All of which builds up to the takeaway argument at the center of the book. The question is the old favorite: what was Shakespeare doing in the "lost 80s," when the trail goes cold in Stratford, years before it warms up again in London.   Southworth's answer: no, not that Shakespeare was a sailor, a soldier, a spy a servant in a great house.  No: Southworth argues that he was right there in the theatre, learning his own trade.

I have to confess this suits my own prejudice nicely.  I never thought to make the point as strongly as Southworth. But it has long struck me that Shakespeare almost from the beginning--in Henry Vii, say--seems to know stuff that an outsider wouldn't know.  He might not have reached full maturity as a poet (though Southworth thinks a lot of this stuff is better than it gets credit for). But he knows theatre stuff: he knows how to do theatre stuff: how to shape a scene how to get characters on or off stage.  So far, so good. Southworth's point is that he cannot have learned that kind of stuff on the fly in a few months. It's the kind of skill you build up only through long experience under careful tutelage.  Southworth argues that Shakespeare's situation suggests exactly that: entirety plausible (uh oh) that he  honed his skill by the tedious practice of stuff that actors do

I guess I can understand why this book wasn't a natural hit, not even among the enthusiasts: too jaunty for the academics, too dense for those who have to go rehearse their lines.  But it's a compelling story, carefully documented which goes far to make Shakespeare's world even more three-dimensional than it might have been already.

1 comment:

Keri said...

I've just bought this book from a local book sale and 40 pages in I've got to say I am very impressed. I have read a number of Shakespeare biographies and 3 of James Shapiro's books on Shakespeare and I've got to say that Southworth's theory seems very convincing.This very much struck home:

Not “a single player in the whole period is known to have been accepted into any of the companies in his early twenties without previous training or experience, as is [conventionally] supposed of Shakespeare”.

In retrospect we can look back and see how exceptional Shakespeare was and think of course a Theatre company would have taken him on. But he would have been taken on by people completely lacking our hindsight. It makes sense that we have no evidence for what Shakespeare was doing, but that players served apprenticeships therefore in want of any better explanation Shakespeare most likely served an apprenticeship in the theatre. It seems so obvious.

Thanks for the write up, by the way.