A Stirling Conference (II)

Let me continue the tale of my Scottish exploits with a few words about my own panel. A four-person monstrosity wedged into a ninety-minute slot, where the usual frictions of spoken communication resulted in our running over into the break, to the point that there was only space for three questions, two of them to me, which I fielded as rapidly as I could. Thankfully, there was plenty of time to talk to people about things afterwards.

It was in one of these brief conversations that I got, for example, a little piece of insight that solved a problem with my own paper. You see, I was keen to draw a distinction between actors pre-Garrick and Garrick himself: the latter tried to draw (and were seen as drawing) a line of apostolic succession back to Shakespeare; Garrick, however, acting in a completely new way, cast himself not as the great poet’s grandson but his twin, or, even, his second coming. The problem with this distinction, however, is a bit by Rowe about Betterton, where he suggests that this actor had a direct line to Shakespeare. Thankfully, the solution lay elsewhere in Rowe’s preface, as Margreta de Grazia kindly reminded me that Rowe is keen to emphasise how important Betterton’s historical research in Stratford was to his biography. The portrait of Betterton as antiquarian, trying to capture and connect to the legacy of Shakespeare still present in Warwickshire, places him in a much better place for the apostle / resurrection distinction I want.

Another little moment of enlightenment actually occurred in the frantic course of our panel. First up was Andrew Rudd, who gave a very entertaining (and, as was my lot, difficult to follow) account of John Soane’s use of Shakespeare. I won’t detail his argument here, but will say how struck I was by his list of moments when Soane discovers passages of a technical value in Shakespeare’s oeuvre: there are lines in Cymbeline describing the best possible front door; act 5 of The Winter’s Tale gives, unsurprisingly, excellent instructions to the sculptor, and Troilus and Cressida is filled with good advice for the aspiring student of the beaux arts. This employment of Shakespeare’s language fits with something I myself have found in acting manuals (and elsewhere), and can be summarised as the belief that this writer, as well as producing excellent plays, may also furnish us with specific, useful, technical knowledge (be it the height of a door or the best way of striking a pose of fear). This view of Shakespeare frees him from an antitheatrical criticism of art’s uselessness that goes back as far as Plato’s Ion, when the poor rhapsode is asked whether he needs to know about charioteering in order to descant on it.

I can’t do more with this point about language for now, but it does give me a useful weapon for when I return to what I have been calling chapter two. This is currently written as an end-of-year piece of 15 000 words, and will need some manipulation before it can become a part of the PhD.

It may well also need more such moments of insight and illumination, the kind of catalysis that only occurs in a good conference, and which this event had in spades. Enough at least, for one more blog post…

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