Diderot and Shakespeare’s Performability

This is the text of a five-minute presentation I recently gave as a training exercise at Cambridge. Since it was for a non-specialist audience, and had to be kept both short and clear, I thought it would make a great blog post. Enjoy.

Introduction

Two observations. The performances of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after Garrick’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”.

Today, I’m going to offer an explanation for this reversal, which might also further our understanding about the relative strength of categories like ‘drama’ and ‘poetry’ at the end of the eighteenth century.

This work is drawn from one chapter of my PhD. In this short version, I will begin with a sketch of eighteenth-century writing about Shakespeare in performance, then show how the ideas Denis Diderot and James Boswell had about acting offer a connection to romantic claims about Shakespeare’s ‘unperformability’, concluding that Hazlitt and Lamb’s claims actually have clear roots in the French and English Enlightenment thought they appear to repudiate.

1. Shakespeare in and of the theatre

Shakespeare was frequently performed on the stages of eighteenth-century London. Because of this, and because of his availability in print, works that discuss the theatre from this period frequently use Shakespeare’s works and hypotheses about the writer himself to support their arguments. However, in so doing, they also paint a specific portrait of Shakespeare, one inextricable from the workings of the theatre. They do this in the following ways:

  •  By using quotations from Shakespeare to illustrate points of acting technique. An actor must “stiffen the sinews” to show anger (just as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V); or show the dignity that Shakespeare has Hamlet find in a portrait of his dead father.
  •  By imagining Shakespeare’s own involvement with the theatre, either as an actor, playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, or as a master of theatrical effect, as shown by the stage directions to The Tempest.
  •  By reproducing or subverting the link Garrick claimed between himself and Shakespeare. This is done positively, for example, in paintings showing Garrick wrapping a brotherly arm around a statue of Shakespeare; on the other hand, one also finds imaginative accounts of Garrick in the underworld, listening to Shakespeare condemn his acting skills.

Overall, through quotation, re-imagination and the influence of Garrick … the understanding of Shakespeare as an author, as well as the study of his works, appears deeply connected to the theatre in the eighteenth century.

2. New theories of acting

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Because of the connection between Shakespeare and the stage, it is reasonable to presume that new ways of thinking about acting might have a bearing on new ways of thinking about Shakespeare. The largest debate about performance in this period involved the question of whether actors feel what they are acting whilst they are acting it: does Garrick, for example, feel sadness when he plays a grieving King Lear? For the most part, the answer to this is yes; moreover, Shakespeare is himself imagined as having the same delicacy of feeling, something which only becomes fully apparent in performance of his works. In the face of this orthodoxy, two writers, James Boswell in England and Denis Diderot in France, argue that the actor takes some distance from his emotions when he is performing. This, I believe, impacts ways of thinking about Shakespeare.

  • Boswell, in 1770, argued that the actor has ‘two chambers’ in his head, one which is filled with all the emotion of the role, and one ‘inner chamber’ which remains cold and calculating, directing the performer’s movements according to a prepared script.
  • Diderot, at around the same time, argued that the actor feels nothing when acting but rather, prior to performance, has imagined the entirety of their role. When acting, the performer then attempts to correspond to the ideal image of the part that they have in their head.
James Boswell (1740-1795)
James Boswell (1740-1795)

What is striking about both these theories is that they displace the work of the performer from the stage to the period of preparation before going in front of an audience. This is crucial, because it means that ideas originally articulated with relation to what happens on stage can now be applied in all sorts of different arenas: to barristers (for Boswell), to prostitutes (for Diderot), and, more generally, to authors such as Shakespeare, who can have a dramatic genius but be separate from the stage. Shakespeare can be ‘unperformable’ and yet retain something of the actor, because, in the eyes of Diderot and Boswell, the real work of the actor occurs prior to the performance.

Conclusion

We have now seen how eighteenth-century claims about the importance of the theatre to understanding Shakespeare give rise to Lamb and Hazlitt’s claims that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This shift is facilitated by a new wave of acting theory that detaches the actor’s work from the stage, instead placing the emphasis on the actor’s preparation, preparation which can serve as a model for poetic creation.


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