The (Anti-)Queer Legacies of Actor-Driven Shakespeare


More than pointing out a basic misogyny that runs through John Russell Brown’s book, however, I want to link this late-1970s interest in actor-driven Shakespeare to a larger point of contention within theatre and performance studies that was current in the 1970s, the efficacy–effeminacy braid so cogently described by Stephen J. Bottoms in 2003. Bottoms points out that “We tend not to talk about it much, but in the popular imagination, theatre is still linked integrally and stereotypically with homosexuality, and particularly with male homosexuality.” He notes that many critics in the 1960s and ’70s shared the belief that “To act, to play a part, to dress up in tights is not properly manly, entailing as it does the ‘unnatural’ construction of a presentational artifice (such ostentation being traditionally assumed to be more ‘naturally’ the preserve of women). To be involved in theatre is—ergo—to be feminized, if not downright effeminate,” and he argues—with careful documentation from the pages of TDR—that the emergence of performance studies as a discipline was linked to a scholarly aversion for what a certain group of scholars judged to be the distasteful effeminacy of theatre as such.

Richard Schechner and Donald Kaplan, writing in TDR, come in for the brunt of Bottoms’s criticism, and he is clear that their advocacy for performance studies is both antitheatrical and anti-gay, quoting both scholars’ explicitly homophobic rhetoric. Bottoms notes that as TDR turned its attention to “efficacious,” ritual-based performances such as those of the Open Theatre, the Polish Laboratory Theatre, and the Living Theatre, it turned away from the US American avant-garde performances taking place Off-Off-Broadway, many of which were focused on queer subject matter. As a discipline, performance studies turned its attention to direct, audience-interactive, ritual-based performance explicitly to avoid the effeminate performances on offer in theatrical venues.

The critiques of theatre directors in Brown’s and Styan’s Shakespeare books of the late 1970s are remarkably comparable to the critiques of the effeminate theatre in TDR, and in fact both are aimed at the established institutions of the theatre. This becomes easier to notice when one pinpoints the directorial choices to which The Shakespeare Revolution and Free Shakespeare particularly objected. Decrying the excesses of Freudian interpretations of Hamlet, Styan notes how the “closet scene” became “the bedroom scene” after John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet (1934), objecting especially to the sexual politics illuminated by productions following in the wake of Wilson’s book. Approvingly quoting Ivor Brown, Styan asks with him: “Does hesitation to murder need all the argle-bargle that the professors have bestowed on the psychology of Hamlet?” Echoing a common criticism, Styan goes on to describe the Ernest Jones-influenced production of Othello directed by Tyrone Guthrie in which Olivier played Iago as if “he himself possessed a subconscious affection for the Moor, the homosexual foundation of which he did not understand.” “The result was disastrous,” Styan declares, “since Olivier’s jaunty Iago seemed more of a practical joker than a tragic villain.” Throughout The Shakespeare Revolution, of course, one can find Styan objecting to specific choices directors have made, but these are especially notable, or he makes these choices seem especially absurd, when they relate to a play’s sexual politics.

The same thing happens in Free Shakespeare. Singling out Brook’s Dream for criticism, Brown objects especially to the director’s reading of the Oberon–Titania–Bottom plot as Oberon’s attempt “to degrade Titania as a woman” by having her “fucked by the crudest sex machine he can find.” Brown argues that Brook has “misinterpreted” the text; he and his actors have “discovered a concept of the play that is not represented in the play-text at all, but springs from reactions, predispositions, theatrical consciousness and fantasies of their own, and the director has used his authority to force this upon the audience’s attention.” Again and again in both books, the authors object to novel—feminist or queer—treatments of a Shakespeare play’s sexual politics. Against this, Brown places his “man-sized theatre”: the male actor speaking simply on a bare stage, undiminished by large auditoriums and the “theatre technology and design” of “spectacular ‘mega-musicals,’” and responding, instead, to the audience right in front of him. The theatre, in this configuration, is framed as effeminate or feminizing both in its technological apparatus and in its interest in the politics of sex, gender, and sexuality.

For both Styan and Brown, a return to Shakespeare’s language, to the primacy of the text, is a return to a purer, truer, more authentic—and more masculine—version of Shakespeare, a Shakespeare without all the argle-bargle introduced by directors, feminist scholars, and Sigmund Freud. Traces of this masculinist approach to performing Shakespeare necessarily appear in Cohen and Warren’s joint approach in the SSE/ASC. This is not to say that the ASC approach is or was misogynist or anti-feminist, but embedded in its goals is a mistrust of the (effeminizing) theatre and its embodiment, the director with a concept. Menzer’s history of the company in Shakespeare in the Theatre describes the way early critics of the SSE’s work in the late 1980s frequently mentioned that the actors weren’t wearing tights or using “stuffy” British accents. But these critics’ “light-hearted snarks,” Menzer tells us, quoting some early reviews, “could turn to heavy-handed sneers: ‘There were no boring moments with poncy men in tights’ or ‘poncy men in tights spouting off endless soliloquies in phony English accents.’”Menzer, creditably, decodes and points out the homophobia behind these critics’ anti-British jeers, but my point is that they’re not totally the provenance of the critics. Fundamental to the texts that inspired the founding of the SSE was an effeminate straw man: the actor in tights, speaking with received pronunciation, and enforcing a director’s interpretation of the play’s meaning on a submissive audience sitting patiently in the dark. This poncy straw man and his effeminate theatre were not only creations of J.L. Styan and John Russell Brown; as we can see from Bottoms’s essay, they were part and parcel of a much larger trend in performance scholarship that created an opposition between “potent virility versus showy sterility” that aimed to liberate performance from the theatre, to rescue action from its setting or background, to save Shakespeare from the Victorians and their crushed velvet.