Friday, May 09, 2014

Anne Righter: Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962)

Anne Righter (née Bobbyann Roesen, later Anne Barton, 1933 - 2013) is mainly remembered for this book, her first.

When I bought it recently (from Oxfam, because it was the cheapest book in the shop), I imagined hopefully that it would talk about the conception of the play that was shared by Shakespeare, his fellow-actors, and their audiences. Of course that conception could only be discovered by inference. But Righter sticks to a narrower and more directly accessible topic, Shakespeare's use of the play-image within the plays themselves. And, after all, this rigorous concentration does lead to interesting results. The principal one of which, is that Shakespeare's play-references grow to a sort of apotheosis of positivity around 1600, with the chorus speeches of Henry V* and the troupe of players in Hamlet, before then turning negative in character (the poor player who struts and frets). The negativity being especially apparent in Troilus and Timon.
Righter concludes that after 1600 Shakespeare experienced a growing disillusion with the stage; so her book is in effect a late contribution to the Victorian notion of Shakespeare's "dark period". But she links this observation to the history of the Elizabethan drama as a whole. After a long period of development from medieval drama, involving both disintegration and reintegration, a certain high point of naturalistic drama was attained (above all in Shakespeare), then something curdled and then came the transformation into masque which is echoed in certain ways by the elimination of naturalistic illusion in Shakespeare's last plays.

*To be accurate about this, Righter suggests that the Chorus's self-deprecating references to the "Wooden O" etc might mark the beginning of Shakespeare's disillusion with the stage. But I see the speeches as really glorying in the incredible things the stage can do, albeit by recruiting the audience's imagination.


When Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play was published Anne Righter was only 29. The book had started out as her PhD thesis, and it shows. The promise of the opening pages (she begins in Elsinore) is misleading: the book isn't a triumph of style. She went from play to play jotting down self-referential quotes, and then bolted them together into a sort of continuous narrative by using connective sentences like this:

Even more interesting than the straightforward imitations of Seneca or Plautus are those experimental plays of the second half of the sixteenth century... [in which comedy and tragedy are mixed] (p.50)

Stevenson does not seem to have been the only dramatist of the mid sixteenth century who found this particular kind of play metaphor attractive... (p. 62)

And even within a single sentence, she has a tendency to make her point several times over. For example, someone in Terence stops a narrative in its tracks:

There's no need to breathe a syllable of it. I have no wish for it to be as in the comedies, where everybody gets to know everything.

Righter comments:

The remark cleverly obviates the necessity for a dull, repetitive explanation of something already known to the audience. (p. 61)

She's also strongly addicted to the "serves to"  mode of commentary. This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing; the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. Perhaps this appearance of knowingness is not entirely intended. Maybe "serves to" does not necessarily imply insight into authorial intention. But that's how it strikes me.

And then I think that the insight is a bit awry. I mean, just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? On the contrary, isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's so intuitive? That "make-believe" is something that a young child just "gets" without any help whatever?


Ultimately I think Righter's presentation of the history of 16th C drama in relation to the growth of the self-contained play presents too neat a picture, but even if it weren't too neat it's limiting. She can't account for the excellence of e.g. Mankind, Ane Satyre of the Thre Estatys, or The Play of the Wether, because in this context she presents them as helplessly transitional. She didn't have time to be interested in what the plays are about. Even though I'm hugely impressed by the number of plays she read for this book, I do sometimes wonder if the right word is not "read" but "scanned".

Viewing drama through this single topic of the play metaphor is like viewing different houses through their letterboxes. That intense but narrow focus, too, would tell us something, e.g. about the floor tiles. And I certainly learnt some interesting things. Here are two more of them:

1. Shakespeare's glorifications of the stage are almost unique in his time. Also the way he refers to the stage, both when glorifying and when disparaging, are very generalized (as of someone conscious of writing for all time). In contrast, many of his contemporaries make slily specific references to actual London theatres and actors, which Shakespeare doesn't.* Clearly this is connected with his avoidance of the city-comedy genre. Shakespeare does indeed write specifically of London life, above all in the low-life scenes of Henry IV, but in a way these are exceptions that prove the rule. Because in Henry IV and the other history plays London is distanced and abstracted by being portrayed in a historical context. One way or another Shakespeare had an instinct that the locus of his self-contained plays needed to be kept distinct from the actual locus of the performances: whether by setting them in exotic locations or in distant times or both.

In that respect modern-dress performances of Shakespeare are un-Shakespearian in spirit.

* Some of the theatrical chatter in Hamlet ( e.g.about the children's companies and the sample clown-phrases)  looks like it might be aimed at very specific London targets. Though even here there's a reluctance to make the topical allusion quite definite.

2. Considering that Righter 's book aims to tell, from its narrow-focus perspective, the story of the development of sixteenth-century drama, the almost total absence of Marlowe from its account is remarkable. Marlowe apparently wasn't very interested in using the play metaphor, which I think tells us something about him as an artist. In the end the play metaphor depends on a sort of consensus between author and audience that I think was alien to Marlowe's approach. His amoral soul-dramas don't care to acknowledge that consensus.

Anne Righter, c. 1965

(Image from the website of Trinity College Cambridge,



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