Editors and Actors: Johnson

Reynolds’ 1769 portrait of Johnson, capturing the man’s odd gesticulations.

Of all the editors I am reading for my first chapter, Samuel Johnson both excites and terrifies me the most. There’s just something so distinctive about his way of writing: the preface to his edition, first published in 1765, is a far more remarkable document than anything Warburton, Hanmer, Theobald or even Pope could manage. Much of what I went on to think about as I followed Johnson out into his footnotes and emendations came from my reading of this text, and, as I’ve already said on this blog, I’m sure there’s more to discover with each rereading of its fifty or so pages.

As well as plenty of aspersions cast on the player, many of them familiar from my reading of Pope and Warburton (the player’s pride, his lack of concern for posterity, his vanity, his ignorance), there are two aspects of Johnson’s work on Shakespeare that really caught my attention, and about which I’ll briefly talk here. The first is the way Johnson reappropriates and inverts certain ways of talking about performance; the second is Johnson’s extremely complicated attitude towards theatrical illusion.

To start, here’s one moment where Johnson describes Shakespeare’s powers of imagination:

… he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind; the ignorant feel his representations to be just, and the learned see that they are complete.

Probably because I’ve been reading so much acting theory over the last month or so, this sentence made me think immediately of how Saint-Albine and John Hill both write about the actor as a medium, the best actors capable of relaying the authors thought not just decently but fully too. Whether Johnson knew these writings or not is open to debate, but they do allow us to see what the critic-editor is doing here: he’s talking about Shakespeare’s originality, his direct connection with and transmission of his subject (a point made also by Young), but in such a way that seems to offer grounds for the exclusion of actors. Shakespeare, like Hill’s actor, receives an image. Shakespeare, however, works without “the intervention of any other mind”, directly in contact with the quasi-platonic ideal, and it is because of this direct connection that he achieves just and complete representations. By borrowing bits of vocabulary that might apply to actors (just, complete, representations, receiving an image, etc.), Johnson describes Shakespeare in such a way that performance does not need to be mentioned.

There are more examples of this reappropriation and repurposing. One that I’ve already talked about is Johnson’s use of Hamlet’s line about holding “a mirror up to nature” (originally a description of the actor) as a way of describing Shakespeare. Another is Johnson’s observation that Shakespeare writes so well that “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied by men” – on one level, this is just praise of Shakespeare’s realistic characterisation, but, on another, the way in which it is phrased (“scenes occupied by men”) is openly hostile to actors, whose natural habitat, the stage itself, is now occupied by Shakespeare’s men. Something similar occurs in the notes to Measure for Measure:

ISABELLA … is’t not a kind of incest, …] in Isabella’s declamation there is something harsh, and something forced and far-fetched. But her indignation cannot be thought violent when we consider her not only as a virgin but as a nun.

Once more, we have the language of performance – “declamation”, “force” – but no mention of the actor performing, and instead a reflection on the biography of Isabella, both virgin and nun. Reading this note over, it is almost as if the lines have a life of their own, are able to declaim themselves without need for an actor. All the experience of performance, the harsh declamation and so on, are found, by a process of inversion and appropriation in the text itself. No wonder Johnson wrote that “A play read affects the mind like a play acted.”

This brings us to illusion. And I must admit that my ideas are not as clear here. In my defence, Johnson’s argument is rather twisty too: he begins by saving Shakespeare from the need to follow the unities with the argument that an audience will just as readily accept many places and times as one because they are never totally enthralled by the theatrical illusion. The word Johnson uses in this passage is “delusion”, and he seems to leave the door deliberately open to the full range of the word’s meanings, including the pathological. Yet for all this bluntness, Johnson cannot get away from an interest in audience response: he makes much of the ignorance of Shakespeare’s original public and how their limitations in turn imposed limitations upon the playwright, but he also comments revealingly about spectacle with regard to Henry VIII‘s prologue.

As fool and fight is, ] This is not the only passage in which Shakepeare has discovered his conviction of the impropriety of battles represented on the stage. He knew that five or six men with swords give a very unsatisfactory idea of an army, and therefore, without much care to excuse his former practice, he allows that a theatrical fight would destroy all opinion of truth, and leave him never an understanding friend. … Yet I know not whether the coronation shown in this play may not be liable to all that can be objected against a battle.

The point here is that the stage cannot represent warfare accurately and so must appear (to quote a comment on the battles in Henry V) “absurd”. If warfare cannot be well presented, how then could the pomp of a coronation? Johnson cuts off the note here, but one can feel something of an unravelling of the entire theatrical experience beginning here, and, yet again, the nascent pressure towards the superior experience of reading Shakespeare rather than watching performances of him. At the same time as this suspicion that spectacle is an illusion too easily destroyed or ridiculed, however, there comes the awareness that such spectacle is what pleases in the theatre. Johnson concludes his notes on Henry VIII with the remark that the play “is one of those which still keeps possession of the stage, by the splendour of its pageantry”. The implication here, that there is only sensory titillation available in the theatre and that true appreciation takes place in the presence of the written word is of a piece with Johnson’s general antitheatricality, yet, I wonder: how can the stage both provide such mindless spectacle and at the same time be so frequently absurd?

The only answer, of course, is that it depends on whether the person watching is a Johnson or of the kind of theatregoer this editor calls “a rude people”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.