Prefaces to Shakespeare

Tony Tanner was the greatest talker of all the literary critics I have known. His hands working like a virtuoso conductor, he would keep five or six thoughts in the air, quoting, confiding, denouncing as he used the full range of both the learned and demotic tongues.

To read this collection of introductions to Shakespeare's plays, more than ten years after Tanner's death, is to be reintroduced to his conversation. For in this, his final and finest critical work, Tanner's writing is at its most brilliant: he can summarise with the utmost economy; he can describe sources with the deftest of touches; he can, in sentences bristling with parentheses and boiling with quotations, develop the most complex of arguments, his own language engaging with Shakespeare's in a graceful dance.

These essays first appeared as introductions to a complete Everyman edition of Shakespeare's plays. David Campbell, who had relaunched the imprint, must be congratulated on his slightly idiosyncratic choice, as Tanner was not a Shakespearean scholar. He was, however, of a generation in which to be a university teacher of English was to lecture on the full range of English literature, from Shakespeare to the present day. And Tanner was the most important figure of his own generation to expand that range.

Having completed his undergraduate education at Cambridge in the late 1950s, he spent two years at the University of Berkeley, California on a Harkness scholarship and discovered the extraordinarily fertile world of postwar American literature. When he returned to Cambridge to both a fellowship at King's College and a lectureship in the English faculty, he became a leading figure in efforts in Britain to introduce American literature on to reading lists. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Tanner turned out books and articles on every aspect of American literature and then, in 1976, after years of hesitation, he finally accepted a post at an American university. This was a disaster, from which he fled back to England almost immediately.

As his much-loved senior colleague George "Dadie" Rylands waspishly remarked: "Ah yes, Tony - went to America the first time, came back with a beautiful American wife and wrote a book called The Reign of Wonder, went off a second time, came back without the wife and wrote a book called Adultery and the Novel." Indeed, the Tony who returned was in many ways a depleted figure. His savage drinking, almost certainly the main factor in him losing his balance, developed into debilitating alcoholism. His case seemed hopeless.

Then a miracle happened - he stopped drinking, reinvented himself as a bachelor don at King's College, Cambridge, and began to write across the range of English literature, notably with books on Jane Austen and Henry James. It was at this moment that the commission from Everyman arrived, and in four years of intense scholarship from 1992 to 1996 he wrote an introduction to every one of Shakespeare's plays. Arguably this was the happiest period of his life. Tanner had always hoped that the introductions would be gathered together into a book and now, 12 years after his death, Harvard University Press has recognised their importance.

Perhaps the first question to be asked is: will anybody ever read the book in its entirety? Certainly it can be recommended as a book. It is an impressive introduction not only to the plays, but also to the whole tradition of Shakespeare criticism from Dryden to Stanley Cavell, from Johnson to Kermode, with Coleridge an especial favourite. There is very little repetition and almost every page contains illumination, from the critical tradition, from the historical context, from contemporary debate.

However, the book's most important uses, and one can imagine this far into the future, will be occasional. If you are an A-level student starting a set text or a Shakespearean scholar preparing a learned lecture on a particular play, if you are a tyro directing your first Shakespeare or a master returning for the umpteenth time to one of the great classics, your first port of call should be Tanner's essay on the Shakespeare play in question.

Tanner's method is to start with the words - counting them, exploring their philology, analysing their place in the play. This goes hand in hand with a gift for quotation. His readings shy away from direct interpretation, but always attempt to emphasise what is being dramatised. To take one example, he starts his analysis of The Merchant of Venice with Portia's question at the beginning of the trial scenes: "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" This question makes no sense in relation to a Venice in which Jew and merchant are easily distinguishable by dress, but every sense in relation to a play that constantly explores their equivalences in a new, commercial culture.

Tanner is a generous critic and others are quoted in agreement rather than dispute. But there is a polemical edge very clearly stated in his analysis of Hal's soliloquy in Henry IV Part 1 when the prince reveals that, in consorting with Falstaff, he is merely plotting a more spectacular redemption: "It is, I think, unarguably unpleasant and if it is so for us it is simply calumny to think it wasn't for Shakespeare."

Tanner has no time for historicism either old or new. Neither the conservative idiocies of the Elizabethan world picture nor the radical stupidities of Elizabethan cultural power have any place in Tanner's analyses or bibliographies. This does lead to the one continuous weakness of his readings - almost no role at all for the changing forms of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. But although important, this does not detract from the value of the book. If you ever go to the theatre to see Shakespeare, or even just read the plays at home, Tanner's introductions are an indispensable guide.

Prefaces to Shakespeare
Tony Tanner
Harvard University Press, 848pp, £29.95

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and film at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.