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There were no theatres when Shakespeare was a boy. The plays he watched would have been performed either in a church or on the street, unless he was fortunate enough to be invited to see a play performed by a group of travelling players in some rich man’s house or by young gentlemen in one of the Inns of Court. Apart from travelling players, actors were amateurs.
Theatre as we know it, along with its first playwrights and the playhouses where their plays were performed, was a new invention. Shakespeare himself, as actor, playwright and shareholder, was one of the inventors.
The playhouses were designed to suit the plays and the plays were written to suit the playhouses. The interaction between the two, allowing for words, music, dance, scenery, costumes and special effects to be combined with increasingly sophisticated techniques, laid the foundations for theatre as it has existed ever since.
The acting profession, while it never quite lost its reputation as a bunch of disreputable vagabonds, found a permanent home indoors with a space backstage to call its own. By the law of metonymy, drama took the name of the place where it happened and became theatre.
All the ingredients of theatre as it then was are still with us in the buildings from which theatre took its name. The limitations which caused Shakespeare to request the audience’s indulgence, asking them to use their imaginations to turn his cockpit, his ‘wooden O’, into ‘the vasty fields of France’, have been gradually overcome, making his apologetic plea redundant and tempting modern directors to cut it.
But other limitations remain, as the current pandemic has shown. The new theatres, only just opened, had to be closed when plague struck, and they have closed again now. There were only a handful of them then, all in London. Now there are hundreds and they are everywhere.
Theatres today are fixed assets. Not capable of being dismantled and put up again somewhere else, as the Globe once was, they have to be mothballed, closed until further notice, even, in the case of one English theatre, used as a temporary courtroom. The cost of running a theatre today involves more than paying the actors’ wages and the playwrights’ fees. The theatre itself is the biggest expense. Theatre is otherwise cheap.
Today’s solutions were not available to Shakespeare. With theatres closed, theatre has moved online. Plays, like football matches, are performed behind closed doors and streamed to audiences in their homes. Shakespeare and the other shareholders moved out of London and did something else for a while. Today’s theatre leadership teams explore alternative business models, when they are not just wringing their hands in despair.
Audiences meanwhile are deprived of the experience of theatre. At least, those who could afford the experience are deprived. The others, which is most of the world, were already deprived. Theatres, being expensive to run, must also be expensive to visit. Theatre, which the first theatres made available to everyone, has become over the last four hundred years something that most people can’t afford.
So perhaps streaming is the answer. Or perhaps film and television can take theatre’s place.
Perhaps, except in one respect. Theatre is different because audiences know that it isn’t real. Or rather, it is and it isn’t. You think it is but you know that it isn’t, because you can see that the actors are real people pretending to be someone else.
You and the actors are close to each other and when the play is over they come back on stage and bow and smile and hold hands and go back to being themselves again. So you can’t forget and fall into the trap, as you do when you’re watching something on a screen, of forgetting that it’s all a charade.
Films, like novels, depend for their success on unconditional belief in their reality. They are in that respect like propaganda or, as it is called now, fake news. That was why Brecht, as a young playwright living in Nazi Germany, was so keen on verfremdungseffekt — distancing or alienation effect. He wanted to remind his audience that what they were watching was quite different from the illusions of Nazi propaganda.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived in times similar to Brecht’s. Shakespeare would have known exactly what Brecht meant by verfremdungseffekt and why it mattered. His plays are full of warnings, comical tragical historical, that we should never take anything at face value.
Theatre is the ideal medium for that message, but it doesn’t have to be performed in a theatre. The pandemic will have done us all a favour if theatre is forced out of theatres and has to go back to the public spaces where it began.