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To attempt an interim report upon Shakespearian production during the last fifty years is not quite so presumptuous an undertaking as the title might seem to imply. Is is a good moment for taking stock of the situation, because we have now reached a position which can be apprehended and defined and can see how and why we have arrived there. Development goes on, but in the main we are working with assurance in an accepted mode. Practical experiment in the theatre, inventiveness and ingenuity have for the time being made their important and sufficient contribution, and are incorporate now in a new and vigorous tradition. It is, in fact, one of those propitious moments when mastery of technique and of material means is so assured that it should enable the fullest concentration of energy to be focused on essentials—in this case, upon the fundamental brain-work applied to the author’s text to discover meaning and dramatic structure and purpose.
The Scenic Heritage: Charles Kean and Henry Irving
To understand the methods and achievements of Shakespearian production in the first half of this century we must turn to the last fifty years of the nineteenth. The work of Beerbohm Tree at His Majesty's represents the culminating point in the history of spectacular Shakespearian presentation, which goes back by way of Irving and the Lyceum in the eighties and the nineties to Charles Kean and the Princess's in the fifties. Granville-Barker's Savoy productions and the first fifteen years of the Old Vic take us back to William Poel and the early work of F. R. Benson, and so back to Samuel Phelps and Sadler's Wells. No one is likely to ignore or undervalue the influence of European ideas in general in the English theatre since 1900, more especially the influence of Germany and Reinhardt in Shakespearian production; but our roots to-day are still, as they always have been, deep in our own past.
Many of the Elizabethan writers are too true to be good. They have given us so faithful a picture of the men and manners of the day that their value as artists is distinctly second to their value as social documents. For the detail that enables us to recreate the Elizabethan scene we go to a dozen other writers rather than Shakespeare. The student who consults such books as Professor Dover Wilson's Life in Shakespeare's England, or the present writer's Elizabethan Life in Town and Country, finds at once that for the purposes of illustrative quotation Shakespeare figures hardly at all, in comparison to the minor writer. Where the ordinary Elizabethan writer is topical in the situation, characterisation and dialogue of an entire scene, Shakespeare is topical only out of his superfluity–in an aside, a simile, an image, a nourish, a jest. Whereas the contemporaneous is of the very body of the work of such a writer as Ben Jonson it is with Shakespeare largely a matter of separable accident. From Jonson we can extract compact little character sketches of the stock figures of the age, or scenes that are as precise in their Elizabethanism as a document.
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