A beautiful book, Shakespeare in Ten Acts by Gordon McMullen, has been donated to our Club by former Secretary Roy Shannon. It has many fascinating accounts and discussions of all sorts of topics relating to Shakespeare's writing and its staging. This includes an account of the first performance of The Tempest in 1610 or 1611, and goes on to trace the 400 year history of the play's production with special reference to the staging and to the interpretation of the text.
The Tempest was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be written specially for the new indoor Blackfriars Theatre. McMullen considers the main differences between the Globe and Blackfriars, which would influence the writing and presentation of plays.
First, the question of light: the productions were no longer reliant solely on daylight, since the use of candles allowed night performances. The artificial light led to an awareness and consideration of which colours and textures would show up best. As well, sequins and other accessories were used more freely, thanks to their sparkling and reflecting qualities.
The sound and acoustics differed. The huge, open Globe required loud and relatively unsubtle noises, but in the confined and more intimate space of Blackfriars it was possible to introduce a greater range of more delicate sound effects. This is particularly striking in The Tempest, which employs many different noises, both pleasant and chaotic. Music became a much more important feature, with many and varied purposes for both instrumental music and song in The Tempest.
Because candles needed regular trimming it was convenient to break the action into scenes. While the candles were attended to, it was possible to introduce entr'acte music, and there was the chance to change hangings or scenery.
In Blackfriars there were various new stage tricks available, for instance allowing characters to disappear (or appear) from below or above (such as the goddess Juno descending to bless the wedding). Although we don't know exactly how it worked, there was also the ‘quaint device’ by which the magic banquet vanished before the courtiers could eat.
After this summary, McMullen, describes three landmark productions:
a) In 1667 a free adaptation by Davenant and Dryden had many changes of characters and plot, but it retained a lively awareness of the importance of special effects.
b) In 1857 Charles Kean's production had such complex scenery that 140 plus stage hands were required to move it. At that time most observers agreed that elaborate spectacle was essential, but there was an interesting divergence of opinion from Hans Christian Andersen, who said: ‘Everything was afforded that machinery and stage direction can provide...(but)...Shakespeare was lost in visual pleasure; the exciting poetry was petrified by illustrations; the living word had evaporated.’
c) The 1904 production by H. Beerbohm Tree was the first to use electric light. Tree said that ‘The Tempest most demanded the aids of modern stage-craft.’ (Interestingly, in this production Caliban was portrayed sympathetically, not, as traditionally, a clown.)
McMullen surveys the modern era, with its continued use of spectacular effects, but evolving to more sophisticated political interpretations of the text. He notes that since 1950 productions have aired questions of colonialism, racism, sexual and familial psychology.
He concludes: ‘The tradition of The Tempest spectacle has ... retained its hold, in one way or another, to the present.’