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From Stage to Page: Character through Theatre Practices in Romeo and Juliet

Lynette Hunter
Affiliation:
University of Leeds
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Summary

The question that we would like to open up in this essay is how can we talk about ‘character’. Working together on an edition of Romeo and Juliet, one of us being a theatre director and the other a literary critic, we have found that an area where vocabularies clash most often is that of attributing motivation to the characters’ roles. This emerges most clearly in the translation of these roles from the page to the stage but attribution of motives can be informed by a reversed translation from stage practice to reading strategy. Such attribution immediately calls into play the recent critiques in literary criticism of individuality made by discourse studies, the developing field of ‘subjectivity’ or subject positions within ideology, or the recent emergence of standpoint theory to discuss authenticity and autobiography. ‘Character’ is in effect a highly problematic term, generating accusations of unselfconscious essentialism. Possibly the most telling critique has been that of Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass, who argue that characters are all too often ‘imagined as having developed prior to and independent of the plays in which they appear and as speaking a language that reflects this experiential and psychological history’. So it has to be said, that our underlying concern with ‘translation’ is one that transposes between the vocabularies of the theatre and those of the literary critic. However, in this essay what we would like specifically to explore are methods that the actor uses for translating a part from the page into an engaged and engaging individual on the stage. In so doing, we hope to address some of the unease felt by literary critics who dismiss ‘character’ as a matter of ‘filling up stage prefixes’.

The theatre director and the actor have to find reasons for everything the part tells them is done on stage and frequently turn to ‘character’. This is particularly important with a play that offers conventionally recognizable roles, that encourage the audience to expect specific habits and movements of behaviour, as many of Shakespeare's plays do in drawing on medieval typology. But no part, however conventional, can be effectively acted by way of habit or tricks of the trade, and productions are always in danger of reducing type to stereotype.

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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 53 - 74
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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