Several years ago I witnessed a subtle choice in a production of Hamlet that has fundamentally changed and shaped the way I think about the play. It was at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia. The stage, and in turn the experience of watching a play in this space, is certainly different. Over a decade ago, the ASC successfully built an approximate reproduction of the Blackfriars Theatre—one of the two main playhouses The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s playing company) frequented. The playhouse is small (see the link above), but that is not what makes the experience unique. The unique ethos at Blackfriars is the product of the theatrical ideology that values a seemingly Bakhtinian embrace of the Carnivalesque. For Bakhtin, the Carnivalesque is a stylistic literary modality that values the subversion of hierarchy through chaos (in particular humor, farce, and laughter). This is what the ASC does so well. Through humor, farce, chaos, and laughter they challenge conventional assumptions of what theater (and Shakespeare…you know, that pillar of the Western canon) can be.
To be clear, the ASC is not reductive in their provocations. That is to say, they are not provocative for the sake of provocation. My sense is that such an approach would devalue the political impact of provocation by shifting it to the realm of spectacle, which from my experience, the ASC is not.
In the Carnivalesque, Bakhtin emphasizes the importance of free interactions between discourses. For Bakhtin, the Carnivalesque is a unique space where socially acceptable rules regarding etiquette and proper behavior—typically reified through a ruling or dominate class—are subverted. Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque is a state-of-play that perpetually challenges, tests, and complicates hegemonic assumptions.
I mention all of this because the theater (with some notable exceptions) is a discursive space that clearly distinguishes between those that consume a cultural thing (the audience) and those that produce a cultural thing (the actors, directors, etc.). I want this post to be brief, but I argue, quickly and perhaps reductively, that there is an interactive disconnect in the theater that the ASC attempts to subvert. Even though film doesn’t have theater’s productive immediacy, audiences seem more inclined to cheer, celebrate, protest, or disrupt for no other reason than because they are not in direct contact with those that produced (past tense) the cultural product they consume. The ASC does this in several fascinating ways, but the one I want to mention is the proximity of the audience to the actors on stage. Unlike any other theatrical productions I have witnessed, the ASC positions audience members on stage (at times, mere inches away from the actors themselves). In doing so, this gives the actors the opportunity to interact with the audience members on stage in addition to audience members positioned throughout the playhouse. But what I find so intriguing is the way in which this choice to have audience members sit on stage “shares” the space conventionally reserved to those producing the cultural product. Audience members are used as prompts (occasionally actors will hide behind audience members if a stage direction or interpretive choice dictates), but in addition, audience members are also mobilized. My wife and I saw a production of As You Like It this past weekend where several audience members where brought on stage to dance with the actors.
But back to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph. So in this production of Hamlet the actor playing Hamlet delivered the opening line to the often overwrought “To be, or not be” soliloquy not rhetorically but literally. As he positioned himself to begin, he paused, turned to his left, and locked eyes with a boy sitting to my right. He walked over to the boy, bent to a knee, and waited for the boy to return his gaze. Once the boy unenthusiastically obliged, he began: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” The boy was speechless and understandably petrified. Hamlet said nothing. He waited. After a beat, Hamlet gestured exasperatedly with his left hand as if to say, “well, what would you like me to do?” The boy said nothing, but he smiled. Thus, Hamlet continued, “…Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…” and you know the rest. It was as if the boy, not Shakespeare, granted him permission to proceed.