Review: Shakespeare on Page & Stage

by Denis Donoghue

Stanley Wells, Paul Edmondson (ed.) Shakespeare on Page & Stage: Selected Essays, (Oxford University Press, 2016), 300 pp.; Stanley Wells, Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh (Oxford University Press, 2015), 288 pp.

Stanley Wells took his first steps into the academic profession by editing several Elizabethan plays, and his next by joining T. J. B. Spencer in the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute project of a New Penguin Shakespeare, which Wells completed in 1980. He is one of the most admired textualists of Shakespeare. He knows the plays not like the back of his hand, but like his fingertips. I am ready to accept—a claim he has not made—that he has seen the plays performed more often, and more differently, than any other scholar alive. For him, a play is the play as performed, understood on the suggestive evidence of a text and then brought forward as a memorable event on a stage. Shakespeare on Page & Stage is a generous selection of his writings, divided into four sections: “Shakespearian Influences,” “Essays on Particular Works,” “Shakespeare in the Theatre,” and “Shakespeare’s Text.” Every essay is a pleasure. Wells writes most engagingly, quotes well, knows the literature of his subject, the theatrical history of every play, the disputes among the critics. He is hardly ever contentious. Clearly he doesn’t like Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which appeared to great acclaim in English translation in 1964, but he is so generous to it that his account could be mistaken for praise. There is only one piece of phrasing that I winced at, where Wells refers to the New Cambridge Shakespeare, then edited by J. Dover Wilson:

In 1964 it was struggling towards completion, which it achieved belatedly in 1966 with the publication of the now half-blind but eternally sprightly Wilson’s edition of the Sonnets, the Introduction originally printed independently as a mischievous riposte to A. L. Rowse’s views on the biographical aspects of the poems.

Four winces, to be accurate.

Among the many pleasures in Shakespeare on Page & Stage, the essay I most enjoyed was “Peter Hall’s Coriolanus, 1959.” Wells saw it several times: a great play (T. S. Eliot called it, “with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success”); a brilliant director; two great actors (Laurence Olivier as Coriolanus, Edith Evans as his mother Volumnia); a distinctive set by Boros Aronson; the smaller parts played by formidable actors, Harry Andrews, Ian Holm, and Roy Dotrice; and, as it happened, outside the theatre, there was a strike by the print industry, inciting images of burly shop-stewards, sullen workers, tense masters. Wells leads us equably through these items and recalls the moment—the “point” as theatre people call such thrills—when Coriolanus mocks the soft talk of Menenius and Cominius:

Cominius: Away! The tribunes do attend you: arm yourself
To answer mildly; for they are prepar’d
With accusations, as I hear, more strong
Than are upon you yet.

Coriolanus: The word is “mildly.” Pray you, let us go:
Let them accuse me by invention, I
Will answer in mine honour.

Menenius: Ay, but mildly.

Coriolanus: Well, mildly be it then. Mildly!

Wells reports that, instead of speaking the final word aloud, Olivier, “after a long pause, simply mouthed it.” An unforgettable tour de force, Wells took it to be. Not everyone agreed with him, some thought it vulgar, but no matter, Wells has never lost the thrill.

The scene of Coriolanus’s death is another great point. Wells, generous to his colleagues, lets Kenneth Tynan describe it:

At the close, faithful as ever to the characterization on which he has fixed, Olivier is roused to suicidal frenzy by Aufidius’s gibe—“thou boy of tears!” “Boy!” shrieks the overmothered general, in an outburst of strangled fury, and leaps up a flight of precipitous steps to vent his rage. Arrived at the top, he relents and throws his sword away. After letting his voice fly high in the great, swinging line about how he “flutter’d your Volscians in Cor-i-ol-I,” he allows a dozen spears to impale him. He is poised, now, on a promontory some twelve feet above the stage, from which he topples forward, to be caught by the ankles so that he dangles, inverted, like the slaughtered Mussolini. A more shocking, less sentimental death I have not seen in the theatre; it is at once proud and ignominious, as befits the titanic fool who dies it.

Wells returns to these moments, with his own eloquent voice, in Great Shakespeare Actors. I’ll quote the passage, later, for the pleasure of transcribing his sentences.

Great Shakespeare Actors begins with a dedication “to all the great Shakespeare actors not included in this book,” so I spent a quiet hour trying to name some of the probable absentees, without stopping to question their “greatness.” Mostly I had to rely on celebrity. I got as far as Anthony Hopkins, Peter O’Toole, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gambon, Albert Finney, and Anthony Quayle. Then my memory leaped to an evening in Dublin, where on March 1, 1960 as I find, I saw, in the Gaiety Theatre, Orson Welles playing Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, his version of Sir John’s presence, mainly in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the two parts of Henry IV. In Henry IV, Act 3, Scene 2, Falstaff says: “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

Great Shakespeare Actors consists of 39 short chapters, one for each actor (10 women, 29 men) from Burbage (1568–1619) to Kenneth Branagh (born 1960, still thriving). The emphasis is on English artists, not American. The first half of the book deals with actors whom Wells could not have seen, so he, too, has to rely on the murmur of celebrity, historical fame, mainly British glory, and the Dictionary of National Biography. He can hardly question Mrs. Siddons’s fame or the merit of it. When there are standard biographies of early artists, such as William Appleton’s of Charles Macklin (1699–1797), Claire Tomalin’s of Dora Jordan (1761–1816) and J. C. Trewin’s of Macready (1793–1873), Wells accepts these gifts and quotes them pertinently. He also quotes one of the best pieces of theatre criticism in the canon, the philosopher Lichtenberg’s account of David Garrick’s performance of Hamlet in 1775 when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to his son in Act 1, Scene 4. Horatio exclaims: “Look, my lord, it comes!” Then Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!”

The reasons for Wells’s choice of his 29 actors are meant to be self-evident. At least he does not argue the case for any of them. But about halfway into the book he touches, lightly indeed, on a distinction he might have offered his readers before then:

It is not always easy—possibly it is not even necessary—to distinguish between great Shakespeare actors and great actors who have played Shakespeare. Charles Laughton may belong to the second category.

Necessary or not, Wells does not examine the distinction in relation to the economy of the modern English theatre. Do great actors play Shakespeare as a duty, a patriotic sacrifice, or is it a reasonably well-paying career? Wells refers to “the vagaries of a theatrical system that often failed, and that continues to fail, to offer actors the opportunity to play in major productions to which they are ideally suited.” He makes this complaint in the chapter on Richard Pasco (1926–2014), but perhaps there were other great Shakespeare actors available at the time whom the producers regarded as even better suited than Pasco. Wells leaves the question of economy still obscure. Several stars in his first category—great Shakespeare actors— have performed in less exalted dramas than Shakespeare’s. Olivier played Archie Rice in John Oborne’s The Entertainer. Judi Dench has played “M” in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, movies in the James Bond franchise. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson played together in David Storey’s Home (1970) at the Royal Court Theatre and again on Broadway. Branagh has played, on TV, the Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. It appears that the greatest Shakespeare actors find time to take good parts in anyone’s play, even though Shakespeare remains, as Judi Dench reported, “the man who pays the rent.” It also appears that the artists in my notional list are, with Charles Laughton, in Wells’s second category. I thought of them before coming on his distinction between the two kinds.

The better half of the book comes with actors whom Professor Wells has seen or might have seen, has known or might have known. If he hasn’t seen the play, he quotes critics who have, from Henry James on Henry Irving’s ”harsh, monotonous voice” to Tynan’s review of Laughton playing Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “He blinks at the pit his moist reproachful eyes, softly cajoles, and suddenly roars”. This half of the book begins with Edith Evans (1888–1976) and introduces Wells’s style at its most appreciative:

My most vivid memories of Edith Evans’s Shakespearian roles are of her season at what was still the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959. Tyrone Guthrie’s All’s Well That Ends Well was one of the most brilliantly accomplished productions that I have seen. Chekhovianly beautiful in the Roussillon scenes, farcically irreverent in those set in Florence. . . . Playing the Countess, the role that Shaw had described as “the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written,” Evans was all tenderness and grace as she spoke “Even so it was with me when I was young” to Zoë Caldwell’s Helena. And in the closing scenes she sparkled in bejewelled grandeur.

(I never saw Edith Evans on the stage, but she saw me, once: she honored me by coming to Cambridge, England when I delivered, sometime in 1962, the Judith E. Wilson Lecture on Poetry and Drama—mainly on Harold Pinter, as I recall.)

Wells has many eloquent passages on other performances he has seen: one of his favorites is Peggy Ashcroft’s Kate in John Barton’s “witty yet richly romantic” production, in 1960, of The Taming of the Shrew:

A great moment came on their journey back to Padua when, apparently subdued to her husband’s will, she apologizes to old Vincentio for addressing him as a woman.

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the . . .

Turning her head, she then spoke “sun” with a cheeky upward inflexion as if seeking her husband’s agreement that it was indeed not the moon while at the same time making it perfectly clear that they were now in full accord.

Sometimes Wells allows us to feel, in a few sentences, his immense experience in the theatre:

I first saw Olivier during the Old Vic season of 1949, from a seat in the gods, in a revival of Richard III which had opened in 1947. . . . As was the custom then, the theatre orchestra played till curtain up. We settled down, a spotlight shone, and he emerged, humpbacked, at the right of the stage from a door which, with a complicit glance at us, he locked behind him. He loped forwards, and “Now is the winter of our discontent. . . .” We were off, and I was hooked for life.

But my choice moment in the book comes when Wells recalls a conversation he had with Judi Dench before she was to play Beatrice in Barton’s 1976 production of Much Ado About Nothing. Scholar meets player in mutual amity:

She softened the character’s asperities by picking up on the suggestions in the text that Beatrice and Benedick had had a love affair in the past. The key line comes in response to Don Pedro’s words “Come, lady, come, you have lost the heart of Signor Benedick.” “Indeed, my lord,” she replies, “he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice.” When, talking to [Judi Dench] before the production opened, I mentioned that the line was often omitted, she replied that she had agreed to take the role only on condition that it was retained. It was part and parcel of her portrayal of Beatrice as a woman of some maturity, of a wisdom born of not entirely happy experience.

Such anecdotes show Professor Wells at his ease.

He has only one literary quirk, a small tendency to use what I think of as the secretive adjective. Normally, his adjectives do standard work, offering a limited attributive relation to the noun they qualify. But sometimes Wells chooses an adjective that claims definitive force, complete knowledge which he is not willing, on this occasion, to divulge. His motto then seems to be: I could a tale unfold were I so minded, but just now I am not so minded. “Gielgud’s ill-judged Othello” left me wondering, in dismay, how the great actor could have ill-judged him. “Olivier’s sadly misconceived opening production at the National Theatre, in 1963”—same question. “The ubiquitous Trewin.” Again why? “Peter O’Toole’s disastrous Hamlet.” I need some evidence of the disaster. William Poel’s “characteristically odd production of Troilus and Cressida.” Normally, Wells quotes a few critics of a production that he could not have seen; but not here. He lets adverb and adjective together do the damaging work. “Odd” is harsh enough, but ”characteristically odd” is a life sentence.

The arrangement of chapters in the book favors the stars rather than the ensemble. That is inevitable. It also accords with the quality of Wells’s memory. Speaking of Peter Hall’s direction of Coriolanus in 1959, Wells immediately remembers three moments in Olivier’s performance—I quote him again for the pleasure of it:

I hear still, after half a century, “The fires i’ th’ lowest hell fold in the people,” with a great vocal leap on the last syllable. And he achieved a stunning effect by silently mouthing rather than voicing the final word in “mildly be it then, mildly” in response to Volumnia’s plea that he moderate his anger. He held a long, long silence with profound intimations of inner conflict as, holding Volumnia’s hand, he yielded to her entreaties in behalf of his family and of Rome. In the final moments his voice soared with immeasurable contempt in “tis there / That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I / Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles,” elongating “I” in a way that threw devastating emphasis on “Fluttered,” the syllables crashing against one another like squawking birds.

The book, like Shakespeare on Page & Stage, is alive with such passages.