06 September 2014

Staging Classic Plays: Traditional or Experimental?


On Thursday, 6 March 1975, The Shaliko Company began previews of Leonardo Shapiro’s environmental production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, only its third offering, at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater, where it ran from 2 April to 16 May.  The staging concept had been Shapiro’s strategy to bring the spectators and the actors into closer contact.  In many of Shapiro’s productions, he placed actors in or near the audience, turned the auditorium lights on during the performance, had actors address the spectators directly, and enlisted the audience’s participation in aspects of the performances.  

Shapiro said his model for Ghosts was a séance with “the actors haunting the audience, as if spirits of the past; the audience haunting the characters, spirits of the future.”  The original title of the play, Gengangere, is Danish, the language in which Ibsen wrote the play, for ‘revenants,’ supernatural creatures resembling either spirits or reanimated corpses like vampires or zombies that return from the dead to terrify the living.  (‘Ghosts’ would be spøgelse in Danish and spøkelse in Norwegian; ‘revenant,’ from the French verb revenir, means ‘to return’ or ‘to come back.’)  

In this spirit, designer Jerry Rojo created for the Public’s 99-seat Susan Stein Shiva Theater (then called the Little Theater), a former movie house, “an environment of lush Victoriana, where the audience pockets function as walls separating the rooms of this Victorian environment” which he thought of as “womb-like.”  Shapiro was most pleased with the lighting: 

To encourage an historical environmental reality for audience/performer there was an authentic use of props and light.  The lighting was created by using period practical electric light fixtures (1910) to achieve a natural incandescent light.  And the performers were directed to actually control the illumination for the play.

Shaliko’s Ghosts stressed “that the sickness which Ibsen attacked still strangles us,” an obsession, the director stated, with which the playwright contended “all his life.”  Shapiro called the play “a tragedy whose characters are trapped by an environment made up of the inheritance of ideas and conventions of the past.  An environment which they have spent their lives dutifully building.”  He validated his interpretation by quoting Mrs. Alving from Act Two of Rolf Fjelde’s translation of the play:

It’s not just what we inherit from our fathers and mothers that lives on in us, but all kinds of old dead doctrines and opinions and beliefs.  They’re not alive in us, but they hang on all the same and we can’t get rid of them.

Shapiro evoked the idea that the past haunts the present again in the Ghosts program with another allusion to the Norwegian playwright: “We sail,” Shapiro quoted Ibsen, “[w]ith a corpse in the cargo.”  This conviction also justified Shapiro’s effort to cross-pollinate the present of the real world with the diegetic past of the play by requiring his actors to realize “experientially these same consequences rather than paying them lip service while sitting in chairs.”  As Jerzy Grotowski, whose theories were immensely influential for the young director, admonished the students in his 1967 workshop at NYU in which Shapiro had participated: “Compare the experience with your own, compare the two.”  

Georg Büchner’s 1837 play, Woyzeck, presented at the Public in 1976 with Joseph Chaikin in the title role, was the fourth play Shaliko produced and the end of the period, from 1972 to 1977, which Shapiro designated as “Meetings with Classical Texts.”  In the Postmodernist vein, he regarded these texts as “found objects” to be treated as librettos which, as Grotowski intended, furnished “only a theme” that Shapiro used to create “a new, independent work, a theater production.”  Robert Brustein, a renowned critic, producer, playwright, writer, and teacher, opined that “if dramatic classics are not seen with fresh eyes they grow fossilized—candidates for taxidermy” and that “great plays can be ‘desecrated’ by excessive piety as much as by excessive irreverence.”  Shapiro’s approach, demonstrated in Children of the Gods (1973) as well as Ghosts, was clearly an interpretation of the Situationists’ détournement, which allows artists to appropriate material created by others and redirect its purpose and meaning, like recaptioning a comic strip, in order to detach it from its usual cultural perspective and provide a kind of Brechtian distancing.  (The Situationists, a radical art and political movement that started in France in the mid-1950s, were one of Shapiro’s acknowledged influences.  I posted “Guy Debord & The Situationists” on 3 February 2012.)  Shapiro certainly applied this tactic with Children of the Gods, which Shaliko had assembled from several classical Greek texts, and Ghosts, whose physical mise-en-scène and thematic focus Shapiro had radically reinterpreted.  He also similarly treated Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken (1974), for which the director didn’t toe Brecht’s own political line and into which he introduced episodes when the audience directly questioned the characters on stage.  

Essentially, Shapiro made no changes in Fjelde’s translation of Ghosts (though Fjelde, himself, made some minor adjustments for this production), and his directorial approach was more traditional and less physical (though not passive, by any measure) than on either of Shaliko’s two previous productions.  Rojo called it “expressionistic,” by which he meant “actors who really use their own private worlds as catalysts for the roles,” a fine thumbnail definition of basic Stanislavskian acting.  Though Shapiro pointed out that Ghosts was Shaliko’s first show in which the actors didn’t play directly to the audience, the spectators were the unacknowledged spirits of the Alving house, and Shapiro’s séance paradigm helps explain his interest in scenes which weren’t so much seen as overheard, a tactic that disturbed some critics.

This isn’t to say that the Shaliko production of Ghosts was entirely conventional, even putting aside the environmental setting.  “Our production attempts to re-vitalize the shock of the original production 80 years ago,” a company announcement declared, “by both being true to Ibsen’s time and place and his desire for complete naturalism and, at the same time, making the play true to contemporary experience.”  (Ghosts was written in 1881 and presented in London in 1891, then in New York City in 1894.)  What Shapiro had in mind, it seems, is what Brustein compared in his essay “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?” (posted on ROT on 10 March 2011) to the “poetic metaphor,” a production that has the “potential for rediscovering the original impulses and energies of the material.”  (See also my own blog article, “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage,” 18 September 2009.)  

Casting his “qualified” vote for “conceptual directing,” Brustein submitted that directors like Shapiro “are more interested in generating provocative theatrical images—visually expressed through physical production, histrionically through character and relationships—that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.”  Shapiro delineated his rationale for the production:

[T]he point of environmental theater is simply its concentration on the reality of the actual transactions going on during the theatrical event—the complicated three-way meeting between audience, actors, and text which happens, each time uniquely, during the performance: those two or three hours when they are locked together in spiritual combat in a dark room . . . . .  The play itself—in its text, thematic content, etc.—is the key element of the equation: it provides the purpose of the transaction, and therefor[e] determines its form. 

As Rojo characterized Shaliko’s approach, “Ghosts is a very sexual play.  Oswald returns to Mommy’s womb.  Mrs. Alving is hot for Pastor Manders.  Oswald kisses Regina . . . . .  Also, the relationship between Mrs. Alving and Pastor Manders is probed to a greater sexual depth—as well as her sexual relationship to her son.”  Despite the more traditional audience-performer relationship, neither this sexual perspective nor the environmentalism sat well with many critics.  Walter Kerr of the New York Times recorded that the production “not only dispenses with the proscenium arch but . . . makes it virtually impossible to locate the actors anywhere.”  Calling the production “thoroughly mindless,” Kerr gave this appraisal of the performance:

Scenes were played in small, raised pockets of space at the far corners of the miniature auditorium or on a balcony so narrow that spectators sitting on the edge of it—feet dangling into space—had to duck or take the damage whenever the performers waxed fierce.  In the latter instance, spectators sitting under the balcony could of course, see nothing at all.

That wasn’t all that chagrined Kerr.  He felt uncomfortably close to the theatrical event: “My own first brush with the ‘environment’ came when I found Ibsen’s housemaid, Regina, watering a plant that tended to lap over my toes; being quick of mind and body, I deftly avoided pneumonia.”  Jane Mandel, who played the role, recalled it differently: “Of course, I never did water his foot, but he was just making a point.  I guess it was kind of like, ‘Who needs this’; I mean, ‘Why do we need [a Ghosts] like this.’” 

As to the sexuality, Kerr was no less graphic than he was regarding the environmental staging:

In this “Ghosts,” Mrs. Alving is a highly sexual wench, a condition partly brought about by her long sexual deprivation and partly by the fact that she is to be seen sashaying around the premises with a wine bottle in her hand—rather as though “Ghosts” and “Ten Nights in a Barroom” were playing back-to-back in repertory and she’d got the performance dates confused.  In any event, she makes a headlong dive at poor Manders, pastor though he be, and kisses him with such cobra-like passion, slithering the while, that he feels himself compelled to hurl her to the floor. 

Kerr’s reaction so exercised Shapiro that he responded in the Times several weeks later.  He upbraided Kerr for objecting “to the closeness and the three-dimensional physical placement of the set because it made him work.  He had to turn his head, follow the action, grasp the connections, at times even choose what was most important.”  Warning against museum productions of classic plays, which Peter Brook characterized as “buried in deadly sentimentality and complacent worthiness . . . approved largely by town, scholar and press,” Shapiro decried a “theater of dead forms and ideas done with professional ease and distance by professional but bored actors.”  In advance press materials, the company justified its production in terms reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s renunciation of “literary masterpieces . . . fixed in forms that no longer respond to the needs of the time”:

This is neither a museum piece reproduction of an expose of Victorian Norwegian life nor an avant garde pastiche using Ibsen’s title as a cover.  It is a shocking, though often humorous, examination of the way in which we sacrifice our love of life for our (usually second-hand) ideas about the way we are supposed to be leading our lives. 

Quoting innovative Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, Brustein proclaimed, “The Theatre is not archeology,” insisting that it’s “not frozen in time but rather subject to discovery.”  “[C]harges of ‘desecration’ are meaningful,” Brustein warned, “only if you subscribe to the idea of a ‘definitive’ production.”  The critic, teacher, and producer likened those “purists” who demand “faithful” productions to “Switzers before the gates of the Vatican, defending sacred texts against the barbarians.” 

Justifying his open staging of Ghosts a few years later, Shapiro spoke of good reasons for using period elements in a production, but admonished that “using these objects doesn’t mean you must reproduce all the clap-trap and bric-a-brac of 19th-century stagecraft, certainly not for Ibsen, who did so much to revolutionize that stagecraft.”  The Shaliko director cautioned against simply imitating an experience neither the company nor the audience had had first hand because this would “risk reducing the credibility of your mutual pool of life experience” which was the initial rationale for doing the play.  Quoting Ibsen’s own declaration that “a passionate writer needs to be acted with passion,” Shapiro wrote:

The so-called “realistic” conventions imposed on [Ibsen] in most theaters today have become as suffocating as the stale air in Helene Alving’s house, and interfere on a practical level with any real attempt to communicate the power and poetry of Ibsen’s vision, or to make good on his desire to create a real experience for the audience which will allow them to see the truth about their own relationships.

He was fighting against what Brook dubbed “the Deadly Theatre,” which relies on “old formulae, old methods, old jokes, old effects” instead of issuing a “challenge to the conditioned reflexes” of artists, audiences, and critics habituated by received tradition.  Shapiro seemed to be attempting what Brustein designated as “penetrat[ing] the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equiv­alent.” 

Shapiro described his own Ghosts environment as “a little like [the board game] Clue”:

The audience sat in padded black spaces inside the house, spread between, beneath, above, and seemingly in the rooms.  Some of the rooms were all or partly out of sight, and from them could be overheard a particularly dirty deal being made in secret, a hidden love scene, an especially harrowing physical confrontation. 

The young director thought the experience should involve not seeing, but overhearing, as we sometimes do in life—or as people sometimes experience ghosts.  Richard Kostelanetz, in his study The Theatre of Mixed Means, saw this as a characteristic of Shaliko’s type of theater:

Narrative, when it exists, functions more as a convention than a revelatory structure or primary component, for the themes of a piece are more likely to emerge from the repetition of certain actions or the coherence of imagery.  The comprehension of a mixed-means piece, then, more closely resembles looking at a street or overhearing a strange conversation than deducing the theme of a drama:  The longer and more deeply the spectator dissects and assimilates its sound-image complex and associates the diverse elements, the more familiar he becomes with the work. 

Many reviewers, including Clive Barnes of the Times, Marilyn Stasio of Cue, Julius Novick of the Village Voice, Martin Gottfried and Richard Watts of the New York Post, Edith Oliver of the New Yorker, and Douglas Watt of the Daily News, didn’t appreciate this concept.  Watt, in fact, felt so strongly about the whole experimental theater scene that he ran two negative reviews, the second one in the Sunday News in which he disparaged several avant-garde stagings of classic plays, including Shaliko’s Ghosts (with reference to the troupe’s previous show, Brecht’s Measures Taken), the Manhattan Project’s version of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, and Brecht’s Mother Courage by Richard Schechner’s Performance Group.  Like Kerr, Watt had complaints about the seating arrangements, but he saved his strongest opprobrium for the acting and directing: the “seemingly demented” actors were “children at play” with only “a nodding acquaintance with stage demands,” “acting as though they’d never set foot on a stage but . . . encouraged to go out and make believe they were putting on a performance.”  Shapiro’s “misdirection” resulted in a “childish travesty” that “mangled Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’” into an “idiotic farce” that “seemed ever on the verge of turning into a porno farce, if there is such a genre.”  (Watt confessed that he “slinked out of the Engstrand apartment” and left the performance early.  For some reason, just as he misidentified Schechner’s troupe as the “Performing” Group, Watt kept calling the Alvings by Regina’s family name.)  

In Shapiro’s view, the press thinks they own the standards of Western drama such as Ghosts: “They feel like Ibsen is their writer, the middle class is their turf, that we misrepresented the bourgeoisie or whatever.  They saw this as a play in which people sit around in chairs and talk and if you don’t sit around in chairs and talk then you’re fucking it up.”  This reflects the critical fallacy that Michael Kirby, a playwright, actor, teacher, and theater writer, affirmed perpetuates the cultural status quo by privileging “what has been thought to be ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ in the past” while “stifling” innovation and experimentation.  

Shapiro, however, insisted that most Ghosts audiences, responding with “eagerness and enthusiasm,” “laughed, cheered, . . . and, at the end, cried.”  Richard Brestoff, an actor who was then a student in NYU’s Master of Fine Arts program (and later taught and wrote books on acting), observed, “The Shaliko Co. had burst the play wide open—and now I like many Spiritualists believe that Ghosts can live.”  Otis L. Guernsey, Jr., critic and longtime editor of the Best Plays annuals, called the production “distinguished”; Mark Hall Amitin, a consultant and producer who was executive director of a non-profit agency representing experimental theater companies, described it in a letter to the New York Times as “exciting” and “daring”; theater professor, avant-garde director, and editor of The Drama Review Richard Schechner proclaimed, “The show is very good, and important.  People should see it[.  Y]ears from now they may lie and pretend they did”; and Peter Kass, Shapiro’s former acting teacher at NYU, even went to the length of sending Joseph Papp a telegram asking: “Do you know that the most extraordinary production of Ghosts is being given by the Shaliko Company at the Public Theater.”

At least one theater person objected openly, however.  On 28 April 1975, the Venture Theatre Club, a now-defunct Off-Off-Broadway actors’ showcase theater in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, took out an advertisement in the Village Voice to protest the notice run by The Shaliko Company and the New York Shakespeare Festival which juxtaposed the critical response in 1891, the play’s London debut, with that in New York in 1975.  Mary Bozeman Raines, Venture’s founder, objected that 

the critics’ adverse reactions in 1891 to the play itself . . . were printed alongside excerpts from the critics’ adverse reactions in 1975 to the current production at the Public Theatre.  This juxtaposition, besides being extremely presumptuous, is misleading . . . .  We feel that Ibsen has been ill-served by the ad, as well as by the production, and that Joseph Papp owes him a public apology for both. 

In the New York area press, however, only Emory Lewis of The Record of New Jersey’s suburban Bergen County and Barbara Ettorre of Women’s Wear Daily (both significant critical voices at that time) praised the production, with Lewis writing that Shapiro “has staged this probing play with extraordinary finesse.  He choreographed every movement.  The work becomes a dance of life.”  Ettorre warned, “One must abandon any preconceptions and approach it with a fresh mind . . . .  As a result, the ghosts of the past . . . loom even more suffocatingly.”  She summed up, “It is a vibrant evening, preserving some of the genteel Ibsen quality.”  In St. Louis, however, according to Judy Newmark, Shapiro “endowed Henrik Ibsen’s classic with the vitality and strength that may have characterized its original performance before the turn of the century.”  Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post that Shapiro’s “inventive staging . . . produces the immediacy that can draw the audience into the world of the play” and that Shaliko’s “most original conception of the play . . . never falls back on standard interpretations.”  

In his New York Times response to Kerr, Shapiro asked, “What is it that critics hate?  That which is visceral and immediate . . . .”  He demanded, “What kind of theater do people really want?”  Critics like Kerr, Shapiro assumed, preferred a “theater of dead forms and ideas” performed by professional actors with no bond with the audience or the outside world.  In his discussion of “the Deadly Theatre,” Peter Brook put the blame for the perpetuation of this phenomenon on “the deadly spectator.”  This kind of viewer, among whom Shapiro would doubtlessly have placed Kerr, “emerges from routine performances of the classics smiling because nothing has distracted him from trying over and confirming his pet theories to himself.”  He goes to see “plays done by good actors in what seems like the proper way—they look lively and colourful, there is music and everyone is all dressed up, just the way they are supposed to be in the best of classical theatres” and confuses this “intellectual satisfaction” with a true theatrical experience.  Shapiro even recounted an exchange with the late Jan Kott, “a critic whose work I very much admire,” at an exhibit of early production photographs of Ibsen’s plays: “These pictures make me sure of something I had begun to suspect,” the theater scholar told Shapiro—“that these plays must be done exactly as they were originally done.  They are absolutely historical pieces.”  

Shaliko’s director, conversely, believed the troupe’s audiences wanted “a theater of involvement, of new forms and ideas in which the voices of the past are joined and amplified by the voices of the present in productions which are committed to breaking ground for the future.”  The mainstream critics, however, rejected this approach, as Elinor Fuchs, respected theater critic and scholar, noted: “New York’s critical establishment seems ever more deeply establishmentarian. . . . .  It appears unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the obvious erosion of the humanistic certainties associated with” the traditional interpretation.  Conventional Realism, Tennessee Williams contended, “with its genuine Frigidaire and authentic ice-cubes, its characters who speak exactly as its audience speaks, corresponds to the academic landscape and has the same virtue of a photographic likeness”—unrelated, he asserted, to the “organic” truth represented by art.  In its day, Ibsen’s theater was revolutionary, both in its themes and in its theatrical style, and what Shapiro saw as so vital in those old photographs was that very revolutionary intensity.  “[W]e will be guilty of cheap nostalgia and sentimentality,” he argued, “if we try to re-create their vision as if nothing had happened in this terrible century when so much has happened.” 

What Shapiro was trying to create with Ghosts was Brook’s “Rough Theatre,” an Artaudian theater of cruelty that “deals with men’s actions, and . . . is down to earth and direct—because it admits wickedness and laughter”—some of the very things that had bothered Kerr.  This theater, Brook argued, raises “questions and references” which spectators “can retain and relate to . . . when they recur transposed, diluted and disguised, in life.”  Reminding us that Realism was an innovative technique when Ibsen wrote plays like Ghosts, Shapiro argued that to continue to impose that style on his works today defeats the effort “to communicate the power and poetry of Ibsen’s vision, or . . . to create a real experience for the audience.”  He warned that, like Ibsen, other classical writers had lost their immediacy in the United States because their plays are treated as “self-contained aesthetic objects, like paintings” and mounted in “flat literal productions.”  “Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us,” Artaud wrote.  “We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.”  These works are dialogues, Shapiro explained: one half is the playwright’s text and the other’s the audience.  Traditional productions ignore the second half of the dialogue: 

You can only make their work seem dull or dated or predictable by treating them as finished properties, as aesthetic objects to be put on safe display. 

The task is to take them as living poetry, as diagrams—like a wiring chart that describes a complicated series of paths through which powerful currents can flow and produce transforming energy.

Dubbing these traditional stagings “ho-hum classics,” playwright Mac Wellman, a one-time collaborator of Shapiro’s, submitted that they belong “in the simple time of clocks,” unlike “the Wild Time of nonlinear narrative” which “can bend, slow, break or fork.”  Elinor Fuchs saw the dichotomy of the apparent expectations, indeed, requirements, of Kerr and others and Shapiro’s approach as no less than a struggle between the orthodoxy of “‘standards,’ ‘taste,’ ‘high culture,’” on the one hand and “a move by hitherto invisible perspectives—racial, sexual, multicultural—to invade the dominant culture” on the other.  She reminded critics that traditional aesthetics aren’t “divinely ordained,” but one choice among many, one that “carries . . . an ideological price tag.”  Shapiro put it this way: “There must be a way to allow the dead to live within us, to help us in our effort without relinquishing our life and the life of our time.  This is the problem, whether the dead shall become part of the living, or the living part of the dead.” 

Shapiro’s admiration of Henrik Ibsen was predicated on the Norwegian’s plays, which Shapiro deemed innovative and, indeed, revolutionary, having shaken up European society even to the point of causing riots.  Ibsen appealed for a “revolution of the spirit,” and George Bernard Shaw even construed the Norwegian’s message as a radical call to purge ourselves of all our received knowledge: “If you are a member of a society, defy it; if you have a duty, violate it; if you have a sacred tie, break it.”  Indeed, sounding very much like Shapiro himself, Ibsen stated (in a proclamation that might be the playwright’s own manifesto of a theater of cruelty):

My plays make people uncomfortable because when they see them they have to think, and most people want to be effortlessly entertained, not to be told unpleasant truths. . . .  People who are afraid of being alone with themselves, thinking about themselves, go to the theatre as they go to the beach or to parties—they go to be amused.  But I find that people’s eyes can be opened as well from the stage as from a pulpit.  Especially as so many people no longer go to church. 

There’s ample evidence that Shaliko’s environmental production of Ghosts, Shapiro’s radical vision, isn’t so alien to Ibsen’s intentions as reviewers like Walter Kerr and Douglas Watt decreed.  Both prominent reviewers revealed their positions on experimental and innovative theater going into the performance.  Some two-and-a-half months before he reviewed Shaliko’s Ghosts, Kerr wrote (in a Times column subtitled “Were These . . . Revivals . . . Necessary?”): “[W]e don’t need revivals . . . unless a director or a very special company of actors has discovered an urgently personal way of introducing them to us, persuading us that in some sense they’d been strangers before.”  Arrogating to himself the determination of who’s “special” and what constitutes a worthy revival, Kerr insisted, too, that “we do know the plays, have seen them,” oblivious to the likelihood that many ordinary—as opposed to professional—theatergoers might not have seen them—or might just wish to see them again.  (He also disregarded the truth that even a failed experiment has value—and does not eradicate either the play’s text or previous performances.  It’s not, after all, painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.)  In his Sunday notice, in which he labeled the Shaliko actors “amateurs,” Watt unambiguously proclaimed:

Now, I don’t pretend to know exactly what this new esthetic is, if we can call it an esthetic, but I do deplore it if for no other reason than that it opens the floodgates to amateurism.  Which is why I think such catchy labels as Theater of the Absurd and Theater of the Ridiculous are noxious, conferring, as they do, a form of respectability on what is all too often plain nonsense.

Kerr, Watt, and other establishment reviewers, it seems, went into Ghosts with their objections already firmly in place before they even took their seats.

It shouldn’t be overlooked, first, that Ibsen was never an absolute realist.  Early in his career, the young playwright wrote that “literal reality has no place in art,” a sentiment he never abandoned despite appearances.  Many analysts of Ibsen’s work, including Anton Chekhov, remarked on the underlying unreality in his plays.  His is the illusion of reality, and it became most obvious in his last plays, John Gabriel Borkman (1896) and When We Dead Awaken (1899), which are existential and psychological landscapes of an inner reality.  When We Dead Awaken, in fact, hints that Ibsen had ended his focus on the realistic series he had begun with A Doll House (1879) and was ready to move on to something “in quite another context; perhaps, too, in another form.”  Ibsen’s very words anticipated Shapiro’s own ambition.  

Second, Ibsen began writing for an essentially 18th-century stage featuring wing-and-drop scenery and verse or lofty, heroic language.  Only after exposure to the realistic staging of the Meininger troupe of Germany, where he was honored by Duke George II in 1876, did he begin writing the realistic plays for which he’s renowned.  In fact, it was Ibsen’s dramaturgical innovations, considered then to be avant-garde and experimental, that began the practice of Realism in European drama.  Once having settled on his new style, he demanded that his language be treated as actual conversation and that the actors performing his plays look and behave like ordinary people in real-life situations.  Shaw, in fact, insisted that in his characters, Ibsen not only brought the audience on stage but their situations as well.  Rendering on stage the people his audiences knew and met everyday in circumstances they experienced in their own lives shocked many spectators and critics at the time.  Additionally, after seeing the Meininger, Ibsen began creating settings that were individualized for each scene, and he wrote scenes that changed as the situation required, rather than employing one setting, to be created with stock scenery, throughout the drama.  Lighting, one of Ibsen’s principal concerns just as it was for Shapiro in Ghosts, was specifically and carefully determined to set the atmosphere as well as the locale of each scene.  Ibsen wanted his audiences to feel they were watching actual events taking place in real places so that they were drawn into the drama rather than remaining outside of it. 

By the middle of the 20th century, stage Realism had become standard theatrical practice.  No longer new, innovative, or experimental, it had pretty much reached its pinnacle early in the century with productions that included live animals on stage and the reconstruction of actual places, examples of the kind of staging Richard Paul Janaro, Shapiro’s first college director, disparaged as “kitchenism” (and which a director-teacher of my own dubbed “gee-whizz Realism”).  Not only wasn’t it shocking any longer, by mid-century it was hardly noticeable, either dramatically or theatrically.  Brecht had even declared Ibsen obsolete in 1934 because his works “no longer move anybody” and the modern audience “can’t learn anything from them” and in 1945, Tennessee Williams, himself often erroneously considered a Realist, called for a “new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture.”  

Perhaps most significantly for Shapiro, Vsevolod Meyerhold, one of Shapiro’s strongest influences who had directed or appeared in many Ibsen plays, disparaged the traditional naturalistic approach to Ibsen: “The urge to show everything, come what may, the fear of mystery, of leaving anything unsaid, turns the theatre into a mere illustration of the author’s words.”  Thus criticizing the technique of the Moscow Art Theater (where he trained), Meyerhold justified stylization for Ibsen.  His 1906 production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler intended to convey an “impression” of reality, to show what the Russian director sensed “behind” the play.  He eschewed “lifelikeness” in an effort to lead the audience to its own understanding of the play through the use of “new unfamiliar means”—a classic description of Brechtian “alienation” (Verfremdung) or its Russian predecessor (priëm ostranneniya) and of Shaliko’s theatrical philosophy.  Meyerhold, in fact, had also experimented in 1906 with Ghosts and his staging can be seen as a kind of prototype for the Shaliko production.  Having dispensed with the main drape and the footlights which separated the audience from the performers, Meyerhold built a forestage over the orchestra pit and extended the playing area out into the auditorium to bring the spectators and the actors into closer contact.  Like Shapiro, the Russian innovator turned the auditorium lights on during the performance.

From Shapiro’s standpoint, then, the response was self-evident: given Ibsen’s determination to enliven the stage with revolutionary techniques and practices, extending the continuum from Romanticism to Realism and Naturalism, isn’t it a reasonable step further along that road to place the audience among the actors, within the environment, so that they experience the drama even more as if it were happening around them—just as Ibsen had desired 100 years before?  If Ibsen insisted that his characters speak language that sounds like ordinary speech and that the audience should seem to be listening in on overheard conversations, isn’t a next logical step for the actors/characters to speak in tones that really require overhearing, from places not quite visible to each spectator, in sometimes low volumes, even whispers?  Ibsen was adamant about rejecting asides and soliloquies and he began using actual whispers (as distinct from stage whispers), heard neither by the other characters on stage nor the audience (in The Wild Duck, 1884, and Rosmersholm, 1886, for instance).  Wouldn’t it then be reasonable for contemporary actors to stop declaiming (that is, “projecting”) their dialogue when the characters would probably speak in intimate tones?  Is it a violation of Ibsen’s wishes that the audience have to select where to look and to whom to listen, just as they might have to in real life?

And if Ibsen insists on lighting that seems natural and true to the circumstances of the scene, wouldn’t it be the next logical step to create lighting that comes entirely from actual fixtures in the rooms (that is, “practicals”), rather than the artificial lighting of theatrical instruments?  In keeping with Ibsen’s dictates, Shapiro would have insisted, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the characters themselves to control the lights in the house, rather than the unseen hand of a lighting technician?

This isn’t to say that any of these techniques would work either dramatically or theatrically in any given production, of course.  That depends on the creativeness of the director and designers, as well as the execution of any design and production concept.  (It also isn’t meant to suggest that there aren’t other, divergent steps leading along a different continuum with the same beginning.)  But doesn’t it suggest that, far from being a perversion of Ibsen, a violation of his theatrical spirit, such an experiment is an extension of that spirit and even an attempt to return to his plays the kind of revolutionary energy with which he created them?  While it might be entirely valid to say that the attempt failed, that the experiment didn’t work, it wouldn’t be valid to state that the experiment shouldn’t have been made at all, that the concept was a travesty.  Indeed, in the year Ibsen died, when Meyerhold directed his production of Ghosts, the highly theatrical, expressionistic director Max Reinhardt staged a production of the play with designs by Ibsen’s compatriot, the expressionistic painter Edvard Munch, that provided a mere suggestion of scenery making use of ghostly shadows to evoke both mood and theme.

Ibsen considered himself a true avant-gardist in the sense that he was forever out in front of literary and theatrical conventions, not to mention political trends.  He invoked his own independence as evidence that he was always moving away from the prevailing practices:

But I firmly believe that an intellectual pioneer can never gather a majority around him . . . . .  The majority, the masses, the mob, will never catch him up; he can never rally them behind him.  I myself feel a similarly unrelenting compulsion to keep pressing forward.  A crowd now stands where I stood when I wrote my earlier books.  But I myself am there no longer, I am somewhere else—far away ahead of them—or so I hope. 

Given Ibsen’s insistence that the spectator at his plays should “feel as though he were invisibly present” in the world of the play and his belief, specifically of Ghosts, that the “effect of the play depends greatly on the audience feeling that they are listening to something that is actually happening in real life,” how far afield could Shapiro have been with the concept of his production 94 years after Ibsen’s play first shocked readers?  If Ibsen was as anti-conventional as he claimed, might he not have demanded that 20th-century productions of his provocative plays be staged provocatively, defying the conventions of our day as Ibsen had those of his?  He might agree with Pirandello, who also insisted, “Unwilling­ness to take up old works, to modern­ize and streamline them for fresh production, betrays indifference, not praiseworthy caution.”  While the execution of Shapiro’s concept for Ghosts might not have pleased Ibsen in the end, it’s hard, in the face of the dramatist’s own declarations, to require that this play and any other classic works “be done exactly as they were originally done” over a century ago, as Jan Kott demanded.  

[I don’t use footnotes on ROT, but occasionally I feel it’s useful to supply a list of my sources for quotations and other references.  Below are the works and documents on which I drew for “Staging Classic Plays”; many are available in bookstores or libraries, though a few, namely the archival material and the interviews, aren’t generally accessible.  (I’m nevertheless including those references for the sake of completeness.)

  • Artaud, Antonin. Selected Writings. Ed. Susan Sontag. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
  • Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. Tran. Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958.
  • Braun, Edward. The Theatre of Meyerhold: Revolution on the Modern Stage. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1979.
  • Brecht, Bertolt.  Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and tran. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
  • Brecht, Stefan; Peter L. Feldman; Donald M. Kaplan; et al. “On Grotowski: A Series of Critques.” Drama Review 14.2 (T46: Winter 1970): 178-211.
  • Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Discus Books, 1968.
  • Brustein, Robert. “Stage View: Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?” New York Times 11 November 1988, sec. 2 (“Arts and Leisure”): 5, 16.
  • Crawley, Tom. “The Stone in the Soup: Jerzy Grotowski’s First American Workshop.” Unpublished typescript. [New York:] Thomas F. Crawley, 1978.
  • “Dramatics Instructor Revolts Against ‘Kitchenism.’” Falcon Times [Miami-Dade Junior College; Miami, FL] 3 May 1962: 3.
  • Fuchs, Elinor. “‘Cymbeline’ and It’s Critics: A Case Study: Misunderstanding Postmodernism.” American Theatre [Theatre Communications Group, New York] 6.9 (Dec. 1989): 24, 26-31.
  • Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. Curtain Times: The New York Theater: 1965-1987. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1987.
  • Hand-written notes, note-taker unknown. N.d. Mark Hall Amitin/World of Culture for the Performing Arts, Inc., Archive. Mark Hall Amitin/World of Culture for the Performing Arts, Inc. Archive. MSS 121. Box 35. Folders 41: “The Shaliko Company, 1974.” Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University Libraries. New York, NY.
  • Kass, Peter. Telegram to Joseph Papp. 17 May 1975.
  • Kerr, Walter. “Stage View: An Agreeable Evening With H. L. Mencken: Were These . . . Revivals . . . Necessary?” New York Times 26 Jan. 1975, sec. 2 (“Arts and Leisure”):1, 7.
  • Kerr, Walter. “Stage View: A Kung Fu Version of Ibsen.” New York Times 13 Apr. 1975, sec. D (“Arts and Leisure”): 5.
  • Kirby, Michael. “Criticism: Four Faults.”  Drama Review 18.4 (T63: Dec. 1974): 59-68.
  • Kostelanetz, Richard. The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments, and Other Mixed-Means Performances. New York: Dial Press, 1968.
  • Mandel, Jane. Telephone interview with author. 4 Mar. 1992.
  • Newmark, Judy. “Shaliko Company Gives ‘Ghosts’ At University.” St. Louis Post 10 Feb. 1975, sec. B: 4.
  • Lewis, Emory. “Lively Arts: Ibsen’s modern outlook.” Record [Hackensack, NJ] 3 Apr. 1975, sec. C: 12.
  • Lugné-Poe, [Aurélien-François]. Ibsen (Paris: Éditions Rieder, 1936).
  • McNamara, Brooks; Jerry Rojo; and Richard Schechner. Theatres, Spaces, Environments: Eighteen Projects. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1975.
  • Meyer, Michael. Ibsen: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
  • Meyerhold, Vsevolod. Meyerhold on Theatre. Tran. and ed. Edward Braun. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.
  • New York Shakespeare Festival. Ghosts program. 1975.
  • Shaliko Company, The. “Ghosts.” Announcement of availability for touring. N.d. Mark Hall Amitin/World of Culture for the Performing Arts, Inc. Archive. MSS 121. Box 35. Folders 41-42: “The Shaliko Company, 1974.” Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University Libraries. New York, NY.
  • Shapiro, Leonardo. “Back Talk: ‘Which Excesses Are the Critics Attacking?’” New York Times 11 May 1975, sec. D (“Arts and Leisure”): 5.
  • Shapiro, Leonardo. Interview with author. Baltimore, MD. 28 June 1986.
  • Shapiro, Leonardo. Interview with author. New York, NY. 3 Mar. 1992.
  • Shapiro, Leonardo. “Notes for a Speech on Staging Ibsen.” Typescript. [1978].
  • Shapiro, Leonardo. “The Tip of the Iceberg: Creativity and Repression in the U.S.” Performing Arts Journal 13.3 (Sept. 1991): 25-41.
  • Shaw, Bernard. Shaw and Ibsen: Bernard Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism and Related Writings. Ed. J. L. Wisenthal. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
  • Venture Theatre Club. Newspaper advertisement protesting the Shaliko Ghosts notice. Village Voice [New York] 28 Apr. 1975: 94.
  • Watt, Douglas. “Children at Play in ‘Ghosts.’“ Daily News [New York], 3 Apr. 1975: 104.
  • Watt, Douglas. “Look at New School of Dramatic Thought.” Sunday News [New York] 13 Apr. 1975, sec. 3: 3.
  • Wellman, Mac. “A Chrestomathy Of 22 Answers to 22 Wholly Unaskable and Unrelated Questions Concerning Political and Poetic Theater.” Theater [New Haven, CT; Yale School of Drama] 24.1 (Nov. 1993): 43-51.
  • Wiles, Timothy J. The Theater Event: Modern Theories of Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • Williams, Tennessee. “Production Notes.” The Glass Menagerie. Ed. Robert Bray. New York: New Directions Publishing Co, 1945[1999], xix-xxii.

[Some of the sources above are also available in other editions, such as Wellman’s idiosyncratic essay, which has been published as the preface to a volume of his plays, and Williams’s Glass Menagerie note, which has been included in most published editions of the play.  If any reader feels the need for more specific references, feel free to contact me via a Comment on this post.  I’ll do my best to satisfy you.]

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