Friday, January 30, 2009


Of course, I mean non-Shakespearean Elizabethan drama on DVD. There are rumours that Sam Mendes, Kate Winslett's husband, is currently trying to sell the BBC on redoing all of Shakespeare's plays again. More surprisingly, the beeb is said to be interested in the project. What on earth is the point of doing all 40 or so dramas again, just 25 years or so after the last cycle? So Mendes and others can situate Shakespeare's political intrigues of the 15th century in the corridors of power on Capitol Hill? What a waste of time! The credit for Shakespeare's genius is always primarily Shakespeare's and the most a serious director can do for him is to give a reasonably faithful rendition of his drama. Of course, Mendes wants to make a great classical name for himself by directing these plays and, no doubt, we will have his wife in a variety of Shakespearean roles that 25 years ago, mostly went to Helen Mirren. Needless to say, the beeb's last "bardothon" was hardly perfect and some of the plays got very poor treatment ("Antony and Cleopatra", "Romeo and Juliet", "As You Like It" and "Othello" come easily to mind). On the other hand, several of the productions were really very good (most of the history plays, "King Lear", "Measure For Measure", "Twelth Night" and many of the little known comedies and tragedies). An enterprise of this sort--extended as it is over space and time--is never likely to have a consistent level of performance throughout, and Mendes' new cycle, should it come to fruition, will no doubt be just as imperfect--or perhaps even worse--than the beeb's previous effort more than 25 years ago.

How much more worthwhile it would be for the BBC to give its attention to producing a cycle of non-Shakespearean dramas of the period to go with its previous Shakespearean effort. It would be wonderful to have Jonson's "Volpone", "Alchemist" and "Sejanus" on DVD for perpetuity as well as Marlowe's, Webster's and Middleton's plays. John Ford's "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" is a wonderful drama as is also The "Spanish Tragedy" and Dekker's "The Revenger's Tragedy". Imagine having access to a definitive dramatic source for Beaumont and Fletcher's plays and Jacobean city comedy! Alas, it almost certainly won't happen. Shakespeare's name can still easily be sold to the culturally challenged, yuppie-like denizens of the BBC, but the names of Webster, Dekker and Ford are likely to receive only bemused glances. Perhaps eventually, with the growing tendency to record live performance, most of these lesser known plays of the Elizabethan period will be filmed in the theatre itself--as has already happened with lots of lesser known operas.

We can only hope!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Some commentators don't like these 3 history plays, regarding them as unnecessarily gruesome and almost unperformable. I would disagree. Elizabethan audiences enjoyed some blood and gore--even as modern audiences seem to if we examine the evidence of Hollywood movies. However, violence possessed a more personal dimension for the Elizabethans as executions and amputations were still forms of public show. The second criticism is perhaps more just, but a sensitive director will understand the surreal qualities of a story that encapsulates so many actions and so much time. However one looks at it, these 3 plays are a remarkable achievement for a young dramatist of less than 30 years.

HENRY VI, PART ONE: 8.5--A fine performance of a play that takes place largely in France. Henry begins to lose the French dominions won by his father, and his nobles--in the absence of strong leadership--begin to squabble amongst themselves. Joan of Arc is portrayed without sympathy as a charlatan witch, and the main interest of the play lies in the successes of Lord Talbot (Trevor Peacock). The scenes where the latter faces inevitable death in company with his brave son sometimes reach a level of high poetic power.

HENRY VI, PART TWO: 8--More squabbles between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Trevor Peacock plays the role of Jack Cade, the common man's king, with suitable gusto, and the Duke of York's plotting begins to come to fruition.

HENRY VI, PART THREE: 8.5--Often cited as the best of the three dramas, but I would suggest that part one is just as good. The Duke of York's son, Richard, starts to enter into his bloody own in this play, which acts as a curtain raiser for the later Richard III. During the course of this drama, the Duke of York is killed and his son becomes Edward IV of England. The unfortunate Henry and his son both die tragically.

Friday, January 16, 2009

TIMON OF ATHENS: 8.5--A good production of what is sometimes termed an "experimental" play. The experimentalism comes in because the drama does not easily break down into a 5 act structure--and the latter part of the play simply focuses on a mad Timon, living wild, somewhere on the outskirts of Athens, being visited, one at a time, by those he had known in better days. This latter section is certainly minimalist, but works quite well in the context of the play as a whole. Jonathan Pryce gives us a suitably tortured Timon.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA: 9--A pleasing drama, somewhat in the mood of the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet. It is hard to understand why this play is so neglected, full as it is of light romance and narrative interest. Certainly one reason must be the shocking error against taste and dramatic sense which takes place at the end of the play when the wronged Valentine forgives his friend Proteus and, as a sign of sincerity, offers him the hand of the lady Silvia--who Proteus had previously tried to win by false means. This play is also famous for the well-known song "Who is Silvia", set to music by various well-known composers. One final thought: it is rare to find a Shakespeare play without at least one phrase that has come into the language as proverbial wisdom. Here, the phrase occurs in the wood when Valentine is taken by thieves and decides to "make a virtue of a necessity" by joining them and becoming their leader.

RICHARD II: 9.5--An excellent production of a fine play. Derek Jacobi is here much more assured than he was in Hamlet--probably because his own personality is nearer in type to the somewhat effete Richard than to the introspective and more martial Hamlet. Shakespeare thoroughly alienates his audience against the maverick King Richard in the first part of the play and then spends the rest of the drama building up his heroic pathos. The poetry in this play is of a very high standard--but it should be remembered that the poetry is Shakespeare's and not Richard's (and by so doing, reject those sentimental critics of the play who see the suffering Richard turned into a prophetic poet in the latter part of the drama). It should also be noted that Jon Finch is excellent in the part of the highly ambiguous Bolingbroke (or Henry IV to be).

Friday, January 09, 2009

TITUS ANDRONICUS: 9.25--Anyone who loves Elizabethan revenge tragedies such as "The Spanish Tragedy" and "The Revenger's Tragedy" itself will love this one. Yes, it's every bit as gory as you've heard--but it's also a masterfully constructed revenge tragedy of the type the Elizabethans did so well. It has been conjectured that this drama is not by Shakespeare at all but by some lesser playwright, but the build-up of tension and the expertly paced conglomeration of human misery is extremely Shakespearean--as is also the language and sensibility. Yes, it's clearly an early work with rough edges--but it's wonderfully entertaining as well. This is a fine production too but, really, the director only needs to let this drama speak for itself. For the squeamish I should note that the action includes 2 beheadings, 1 murder, 3 chopped off hands, a ripped-out tongue, a father who kills his own son, 5 revenge killings, 1 mercy killing and a man who is buried in the earth and left to starve. No doubt this extensive representation of gory deeds resonated much more closely with an Elizabethan audience, used as they were to public executions and amputations.

HAMLET: 9.5--The revenge tragedy par excellence or, rather, the revenge tragedy taken on to a higher plane and sublimated into true psychological drama. I'd give it 10 except for the fact that I have never been 100% happy with Derek Jacobi's interpretation which includes too much shouting and grimacing for my liking. Gielgud had the voice and Olivier the young athleticism to do the role of Hamlet justice. Therefore, the ideal Hamlet might be a composite of these two.

ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL: 8.5--Very good. Parolles provides the farce and Bertram and Helena the central drama.. Some commentators have regretted the sudden change in Bertram's behaviour at the end of the play when he unexpectedly declares his love for Helena--but anyone who thinks of the play primarily as a text and structure, will see that the conversion was necessary in order to preserve dramatic unity.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST: 8--Good enough--though I don't think the Regency setting adds anything useful to the play. A good LLL depends on an able and suitable actor to play the loquacious Berowne and in this production Mike Gwilym does an acceptable job--though he seems to have so much make-up on that one can barely see his face.

RICHARD III: 9.85--At last a tragedy that takes the same high mark as the comedy, "Measure For Measure"! Nick Cook is superb as Richard and all the other roles are played with aplomb. This production will come as something of a revelation to anyone who remembers this drama best in the Lawrence Olivier film version. The Olivier production cut out a good third of the text and made a simple morality play of a complex drama. In this almost complete edition, the psychological realism has been restored and it emerges as one of the true jewels in the Shakespearean crown.

CYMBELINE: 8.25--Apparently this was one of Shakespeare's most performed plays through the 18th century, but subsequently declined in popularity. This BBC production is highly entertaining, and Helen Mirren--so ill-at-ease in "As You Like It" does a great job in the role of Imogen.

Friday, January 02, 2009

MACBETH: 9--An excellent performance of Shakespeare's "Scottish play". Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire are both extremely strong in the central roles. The action of the play seems to unfold far more quickly than in Shakespeare's other tragedies, and, indeed, the play is a good half hour shorter than most of Shakespeare's other late dramas. The tradition is that John Middleton edited Macbeth and that this edited version is the one that has come down to us. If this is true, then Middleton did a fine job of cutting out the inessential and condensing the main action into a compelling whole.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA: 7--One of my own favourite plays is here marred by lack-lustre staging, direction and acting. Colin Blakeley plays Antony as a tree might play a block of wood. He has no charisma and charisma and charm is central to the role of Antony. The direction of Jonathan Miller is slow and laboured while the staging is miserly in its paucity. The only bright spot in this lugubrious production is Jane Lapotaire's interpretation of Cleopatra. Would that she had had a worthy Antony beside her!

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS: 9.25--An excellent production of a rarely seen play. This is one of Shakespeare's earliest dramas, probably written between 1589 and 1604 and, like the later "Tempest", it follows the rules of the classical unities. Indeed, its story of two sets of identical twins separated at birth, is a typical theme of the Roman comedies of Terence and Plautus. All the actors give a good performance, and Roger Daltrey is surprisingly good as Dromio.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Deconstructing RP

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak translates Derrida's "sous ratures" as "under erasure" and in this short essay I would like to put British (more correctly "English") RP--Received Pronunciation--under erasure. I think it is clear that a text (and here I am using "text" in the semiotic sense of any meaningful code which communicates a message) is most easily put "under erasure" when we do not take it at face value: we do not automatically accept its own claims for itself. Instead, we reveal hidden inconsistencies and weaknesses, points of strain and rupture until the true text begins to reveal itself. A simple example would be the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism. According to this, history possesses an immanent motion that is sure to propel the proletariat to political power and eventually subsume all classes into one. One might begin a critique by asking lots of awkward questions: "Is God behind history?", "If not, what is the active agent that propels the motion of history?", "What about the many instances where the theory refuted itself, such as the peasant takeover of Russia in 1917? (rather than the bourgeois revolution predicted by Marxism"). It is by asking such questions that we can begin to "open up a text", put it "under erasure" and see the cracks appear that will eventually lead to the collapse of the whole edifice.

What are the initial awkward questions then that we should ask about RP? "From what historical context does RP arise?", "What claims does RP make for itself?", "In what sense is RP correct?", "Who speaks RP and who is excluded?", "What are the assumptions that underlie RP?" "Are these assumptions true?" Perhaps these are enough questions to be going on with. Let us try to answer some of them at least.

1. FROM WHAT HISTORICAL CONTEXT DID RP ARISE? Daniel Jones, the linguist who first labeled RP, initially called it PSP or "Public School Pronunciation". These "Public Schools" originally developed after 1870 and in the wake of the Arnoldian revolution. The typical features of the public school--boarding facilities, emphasis on games, prefects, etc.--only developed after this time. Previously, traditional grammar schools had based themselves on familial models and were mostly local, taking students only from their immediate areas. Between 1870 and 1900 the basic system that we now know as "public school" was established, with its emphasis on educating the sons of the aristocracy and upper classes in Spartan environments far away from home. John Honey, in his book "An Historic Tongue" makes clear the reasons for the rise of RP:

"Around 1870 the question "Where did you go to school?" began to become crucial for appointment to jobs, commissions in the army, entry to clubs, and in terms of general social acceptability. Biographical reference books began to record details of schooling, and (for example) Oxford University matriculation registers suddenly , for the first time, began in the 1890s to take note of entrants' previous schooling. One of the curiosities of the situation was the great imprecision about which schools actually constituted the "public school system", so that reference books, school registers, and the newly invented device of the Old School Tie could only confirm the credentials to public school status of those who had attended the better-known public schools. The other recognition device invented by the public school system, a specific accent, served by its absence to exclude all those who could not have been to public schools, but gave the benefit of the doubt to those who, having gone to some trouble to acquire it elsewhere, advertised their identification at second-hand with that system."

But why was it suddenly so important that members of the aristocracy and upper classes should distinguish themselves from the rest of society? There were two important historical reasons. Previously, most British children had not received an education so those who could read and write, possessed social graces and cultural aptitudes, easily recognised one another in spite of their regional accents. However, with the passing of the 1870 Education Act, in theory at least, all children were to have the right to an education--and in these circumstances the ruling classes, afraid of the potentiality for new literacy amongst the general population, dedicated themselves to creating ways in which they could easily recognise each other while excluding the mass of the population. A second cause for the development of RP was the spread of the British Empire in the late 19th century. The hundred years between 1815 and 1915 are often referred to as Britain's "Imperial Century" and, at its height, more than a quarter of the globe's population lived in an English dominated territory. The administrators for this huge enterprise were mostly taken from the public schools and the old universities, so RP began to be more aggressively associated with political power. John Honey is again informative about this relationship between RP and political power:

"The degree of prescription of English pronunciation exercised first by the public schools and then by their imitators in the rest of the school system for at least a century after 1870 has been one of the great unexamined aspects of our social history. In 1895 a Rugby master asked a colleague about the newly appointed Head: 'Tell me, is James a gentleman? Understand me, I don't mean, does he speak the Queen's English but--had he a grandfather.?' It would be the achievement of the public school system to substitute for ancestry as the criterion of 'gentleman' status, first, membership of that public school caste itself, and secondly, the ability to speak the Queen's English with the specific accent and intonation which the public school system was now establishing as a standard. It is salutary to reflect that it is barely two decades since the death of a well-known Englishman--diplomat, politician, and author: public school and Oxford--who once declared that he found himself unable to take seriously anyone who spoke with what he called a 'common voice'. It takes an effort to recollect that Sir Harold Nicolson was a member of the Labour Party."

The upshot of this placing of RP in its historical context is to show that RP has no long and famous history and, moreover, that the original reasons for its acceptance and spread no longer exist.

DIDN'T FAMOUS ENGLISH PEOPLE ALWAYS TALK RP? Not at all. Up until the rise of RP in the public schools (for the reasons we have already looked at) nearly everyone spoke in their local accent (and often their local dialect too). Let's look again at Honey for more information about this:

"(People) outside London, were still influenced, in varying degrees, by pronunciation forms which reflected local dialects...This was true of Sir Robert Walpole, despite Eton and Cambridge, the 14th Earl of Derby (Eton and Oxford), the 15th Earl of Derby (Rugby and Cambridge) who, according to Disraeli, 'spoke a Lancashire patois'; and it was even to a slight extent true of Gladstone himself (Eton and Oxford), of whose speech Disraeli wrote tersely 'Gladstone was provincial, but a very fine voice.' Sir Robert Peel (founder of the police force) grew up in Staffordshire and attended Harrow and Oxford. Disraeli's account suggests he pronounced 'put' as 'putt': 'to the last he said 'woonderful' and woonderfully...' A good number of later Victorian public school headmasters as well as leading Oxford and Cambridge dons who had attended their public schools before 1870, retained marked traces of regional accent....We are required to envisage a transitional stage (say 1870-1900) in which boys with non standard accents entering a given school in the public school system are induced to adapt to the standard (the evidence suggests this was the ruthless shaming of those who spoke otherwise...) Such a process would certainly have to allow for the continued presence in the school of masters--even a headmaster--who spoke with marked non standard features: we have evidence that this was the case, and that the boys adopted various degrees of tolerance to accommodate that fact.

WHAT CLAIMS DOES RP MAKE FOR ITSELF? That it is "correct". As anyone who has studied linguistics will know, phonology is value free and sounds are neutral. Even dialects are "correct" when their own rules of pronunciation and grammar are followed. If more people decide to pronounce a particular sound in a short, rather than a long, way then that is a social event. It says nothing about "correctness". Of course, the claim of RP to be "correct" has now been seriously challenged by, in particular, American English. The long term decline of RP in competition with American pronunciation has been going on for years and is likely to continue in the future.

ISN'T RP AND BBC ENGLISH THE SAME? The BBC established its rules at a time when the influence of RP was strong. Most of its newsreaders, producers and directors came from the same public school backgrounds. In recent years there has been a considerable relaxation concerning RP pronunciation and this is likely to continue in the future.

CONCLUSION: From this discussion it can be seen that the rise of RP coincided with important historical events such as the growth of empire and the establishment of new educational ideals. It did not drop from the skies ready-made and it does not, even today, have a history of much more than a hundred years. Famous people (indeed, all people) spoke, to a greater or lesser extent, with regional accents before 1870. Today, the empire has gone and universal education is well-established in Britain. This is to say, that the philosophical and historical factors that underpinned the creation and success of RP are no longer with us. Within Britain itself (or only England really) RP still has some faded luster (though that is counter-posed by a virulent dislike of the accent in other quarters). It is clear that a more neutral English accent is in the process of developing--and in the long run, this must signal the eventual demise of RP. If Britain once ruled the waves then today the USA might be thought--at least in some quarters--to rule the world. In consequence, it is the mix of regional, Irish, Scottish and European accents that went into the creation of American English that is slowly emerging as the new standard.