Main Menu - HomePage - Teacher's Guide

Writing and Using Reviews of Shakespeare Productions: Problems and a Few Suggestions

by Alan C. Dessen

Over the last twenty years I have had considerable hands-on experience in both writing about performances of Shakespeare's plays and using what others have written. Between 1975 and 1980 I reviewed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival season for Shakespeare Quarterly (a review that appeared six months or more after the shows had closed); more recently I have contributed essays to SQ and Shakespeare Bulletin that build upon choices or problems in productions I have seen. In addition, I have done a short book of performance history on Titus Andronicus for a "Shakespeare in Performance" series (Manchester U.P., 1989). On a related front, I have also had a lot of experience in widely varying venues (e.g., courses linked to the Oregon festival, an NEH Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library, weekend Humanities seminars on my campus) with post-show discussions involving either non-academics or academics. And since 1974 I have seen too many productions of Shakespeare's plays--i.e., more than is healthy or advisable.

Ideally, from all this activity should emerge positive results--if not wisdom then at least sage counsel about playgoing and writing about that experience. Alas, such is not the case. Yes, after many stumbles I have learned to be cautious about Making Pronouncements about what happened on a given stage, but I find myself falling into the same traps that caught me in the 1970s and in the process missing things glaringly obvious to other viewers. As a result, I have lost the confidence I used to have when providing in print my reactions as a playgoer.

An anecdote can help to pinpoint one of the problems linked to the playgoing experience, for many variables (e.g., fatigue, jet lag, where you are seated, who is sitting in front of you, time of day, the weather) can play a major role in what one sees or remembers. In summer 1976 I arrived a bit early for my two-week stint in Ashland, Oregon and, although badly jet-lagged, got a last-minute ticket for King Lear that placed me in one of the worst seats in the house (far left, in the next-to-last row). Early in the show I and a few others in my vicinity then chuckled at the fool's line to Lear "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise"1 (1.5.38-9--it can be a funny line). Three nights later and seated in the fifth row center I saw Rex Rabold, seated on the stage railing, deliver the line with tears in his eyes so as to make it one of the most powerful moments in the show, and I could not imagine what those idiots back on my left were laughing at. What, I now ask myself, if I had based my assessment of this production on that first viewing?

My response to the provocative questions raised by our seminar leader will therefore be tentative, not authoritative. What I can offer are some distinctions (and compromises) I have worked out for myself, with a particular emphasis upon questions linked to evidence and to what should be included in the ideal review. I have devoted considerable energy to the even trickier problem of what constitutes evidence for reconstructing those first performances in the 1590s and early 1600s, but writing about productions since the 1960s can pose comparable problems that often go unacknowledged.

First to be confronted is the question of the goals or agendas that lie behind one's writing about performance. To cite only a few of the many possibilities, the overt or covert purpose behind an account of a given performance may be 1) to guide someone else as to whether or not to invest money in a ticket; 2) to provide a record of what is memorable or distinctive for those unable to see the show; 3) to place the particular production somehow in the performance history of this script; 4) to evaluate the production in terms of some Platonic ideal; 5) to demonstrate that the reviewer knows the play in question better than the director, designer, and cast. I, for one, have rarely done the kind of timely writing associated with #1 (a task extremely difficult to do well), have attempted to review "for the record" as in #2, have tackled #3 in my Titus book, and have fallen into the traps represented by #s 4 and 5.

One way to heighten awareness of the problem (or the problems behind the problem) is to survey at length what others have written about a given production, for being forced to read a large number of reviews can be a chastening experience. In doing the research for my Titus book (in the light of #3) I did a lot of such reading, occasionally for shows I had seen (and here an excellent production such as Deborah Warner's for the RSC elicited some informed and very useful responses) but more often for shows I had not (going back to the 1923 Old Vic, the 1955 Peter Brook-Laurence Olivier, and the 1967 New York Shakespeare Festival productions). Similarly, in recent years after seeing a RSC show in Stratford I have forced myself to skim the reviews collected in the Shakespeare Centre library (not one of my favorite experiences).

The limitations of the review-as-evidence become apparent from such reading. Most newspaper reviews are linked to agenda #1 and are therefore written under a time limit by reviewers sometimes unfamiliar with the script. Especially with the less often produced plays such as Henry VI, Titus, Troilus (as in Stratford 1996), and Cymbeline the results can be uninformative and therefore unsatisfying, a combination of plot summary and misconceptions with little attention to what made the production distinctive. Reading through a large batch of such reviews often cannot answer a performance historian's questions about key scenes or choices (e.g., how was Gloucester's "fall" at Dover Cliffs staged? was Helena visibly pregnant at her final entrance?). I was especially frustrated in my attempt to find out more about the 1967 Titus production (a significant event in the performance history of that play), for, even after a visit to the festival archives, I was forced to depend primarily upon uninformative newspaper reviews (as opposed to the 1955 Brook-Olivier production which has been discussed at length). The best of such timely reviews provide in a relatively brief format a few telling details along with a strong sense of the wit and tastes of the reviewer, but few reviewers are adept at this medium (a Michael Billington is a rare bird).

Reviewers "for the record" (#2) not working under a severe time limit have certain advantages (though the payoff from those advantages is not always apparent). In the 1970s in Oregon I, for one, was able to see the productions more than once, talk to key personnel, test my reactions against those of other playgoers, and then, when my muse chose to sing, write my essay. The advantages that accrue from the absence of a deadline, however, only spawn a new set of problems, for the reviewer who is addressing not a potential playgoer but a reader who will not have seen a production must wrestle with the question: what should a review "for the record" do, say, or record?

Granted, journals such as SQ and SB offer guidelines in such matters. In the early 1980s (when SQ devoted a great deal of space to such reviews) reviewers were told that a review that will not appear until months after the performance "must serve a purpose somewhat different from that of a newspaper or magazine review that appears shortly after a production opens and guides a potential playgoer as he decides whether or not to attend it." Rather, a review for the record should achieve some "distance" by "placing the production under consideration into a larger context that will illuminate its contributions to stage-history." Similarly, the current SB guidelines note the difference between "daily newspaper reviews" that "offer briefly-sketched impressions and 'timely' recommendations to the theatregoer as consumer" and SB reviews that "frequently cover productions that have already run their course or that prove otherwise inaccessible to interested readers." Reviews in the latter category should concentrate upon "the interpretive approach to the script" and "production details that show how the approach is realized by director, designers, and actors," for "this is the kind of information that will be of use or value to performance criticism and theatre history." Not appropriate or helpful are "1) plot summaries; 2) routine headnote material, such as may be found in any paperback edition; 3) extended recapitulation of program notes; 4) unsupported generalities and abstract epithets to 'describe' a production; 5) thumbnail evaluations of individual performances, presented seriatim; 6) the dogmatic airing of prejudices in the service of praise or blame."

From such guidelines emerge an image of an ideal reviewer who should know as much as possible about the play or plays in question (e.g., major critical interpretations, textual peculiarities, performance history, dominant image patterns) and should provide as much background information or context as possible to indicate what is distinctive about a particular production. Central to these guidelines is the injunction that the review should offer both an accurate record of a show and an objective assessment. Who could quarrel with an "in depth" review, addressed equally to the general reader and the specialist, that places a production in the stage history of that play so to provide both a detailed historical record and an astute evaluation?

Alas, such reviews are rare--as any performance historian will testify. Many academic reviewers for the record are neither stage historians or veteran playgoers or even widely read, seasoned critics, so what seems striking and "new" to one enthusiastic reviewer (e.g., Isabella not accepting the hand of the duke at the end of Measure) may appear familiar, even trite, to many readers. Equally damaging is an addiction to a one-dimensional judgmental approach (the reviewer as Angelo), with most of the space devoted to statements such as "Actor A was good but Actor B was not," with no analysis of why some things succeeded and others failed, no substantive account of exactly what was good or distinctive in an individual performance or a production as a whole. To the reader who did not witness the show, scorecard evaluation (hits, runs, and errors) without the attendant details and analysis provides little help or insight. Such accounts fail to confront some key questions. What would a spectator who has seen a show want to hear a year later? What would a stage historian, critic, or director who has not seen a production want to know? Perhaps most basic, why, many months later, should this show be reviewed at all? Will the Mount Everest response ("because it was there") suffice?

To set up general guidelines is therefore relatively easy, but, as I have discovered year after year, a series of basic problems and pitfalls continue to bedevil the reviewer for the record. Consider first a problem inherent in all writing but particularly in writing theatre reviews: the need for a balance between the general and the specific so as to combine inclusiveness (coverage, abundance of detail) with selectivity and control (not all details are significant or useful). At one extreme lies a verbal account equivalent to a film of the show (an iamb-by-iamb description)2. Thus, Cary Mazer once suggested to me that my discarded notes (the material I chose not to include in my reviews) be kept available somewhere for scholars working with a given play (an analogue to cinema outtakes). At the other extreme lies the highly selective critique that includes only what the reviewer deems significant or interesting. Accounts in this latter category can become judgmental police court reviews (x is innocent, y is guilty) that provide no sense of the performance at all but reveal a great deal about the reviewer's likes and dislikes. To be readable, even a review for the record must have some limits, but what are to be the criteria for inclusion or exclusion? This problem may be inherent in all kinds of criticism but is especially thorny when dealing with a rich, "busy," three-hour-long production that most readers will not have seen.

My only "answer" to such a question (an answer that likely will not satisfy anyone else) is to showcase not my evaluation or interpretation but rather the choices made by actors and directors with an emphasis upon "discoveries" (a vague but nonetheless useful term that encompasses "new" insights or solutions provided by those actors and directors). Again, if one is selective rather than inclusive one can describe and categorize various directorial moves, including script choices (cuts, transpositions) where the written record is somewhat reliable (though even here a promptbook or a published version, as with Adrian Noble's The Plantagenets for the RSC, may not be in sync with the version actually performed). Ironically, I find it easier to document and discuss x when it is missing or moved than when it is performed, perhaps because the absences or transpositions can be easily pinned down but the presences, the actual onstage choices, are so difficult to describe or categorize.

But invoking discoveries and a selective approach does not answer the nagging question: what constitutes a "discovery" or notable choice that should be "on the record." How small is too small? If most productions act out the "buttery bar" exchange between Maria and Sir Andrew (Twelfth Night, 1.3.63-72) the same way but one does it differently (or cuts it as in the Trevor Nunn movie version), should the world take note? What if a Lear in his final speech plays his climactic "Do you see this?" by shaking his fist at the heavens? Should the record note when Jane Shore and George Stanley are actually introduced onstage in a production of Richard III or Hecate and the English doctor are included in Macbeth? A reader may wonder why in Richard III, 1.4 Clarence is both stabbed and drowned in the malmsey butt; the problem was "solved" in Stephen Pimlott's 1995-96 RSC production where the murderer's blow was not fatal so that a wounded Clarence moved towards the door, thereby providing the logic for an offstage death by drowning. Of interest to me is what happens to the glove Cressida gives Troilus as a token (4.4.70) as opposed to the sleeve he gives her which serves as an important prop in 5.2. In his 1996 RSC production Ian Judge had his Cressida present Troilus with a scarf, not a glove, a property which Troilus discarded in 5.2 so that it ended up in the hands of Thersites. Are these or comparable choices of sufficient importance to be included for the record?

To draw upon recent experience, I chose (perhaps whimsically) to include in my account of 1996 shows for SB a small but nonetheless practical problem for the editor and director of Julius Caesar: should Cassius appear in 2.2 (he is not cited in the stage directions or dialogue of the First Folio) as part of the group that escorts Caesar to the Capitol? The scholarly explanation for this silence is that the actor in the original productions who played Cassius was needed to play Caius Ligarius and therefore was not available for 2.2 (Ligarius' presence is scripted here). But should such a scholarly-historical explanation linked to a theatrical exigency that no longer exists pertain to a 1990s production? In his 1995-96 RSC production Sir Peter Hall chose to include both Ligarius and Julian Glover's Cassius in 2.2 so that a problem (why would Cassius be present but not mentioned) had to be solved. The solution was to have Caesar greet all the senators named in his speech but snub Cassius by walking right by him. This choice made sense out of Caesar's failure to include Cassius in his greetings and fit neatly with both Caesar's comments about Cassius and Cassius' resentment of Caesar in 1.2. I chose not to provide a critique of this production (which I did not much like), but I did find this moment worth noting (although I would be hard pressed to defend my decision).

These kinds of choices (to include or not to include...) are the heart and soul of writing about performance, especially for the record--as opposed to alternatives such as value judgments with few details or that iamb-by-iamb Total Review that would be mind-numbing to anyone but the most indefatigable performance historian.3 As both an author and a user of reviews I have come to mistrust completely the Sensibility Game (wherein my tastes or those of another reviewer are the true subject) and the Total Review that purportedly covers everything (a convenient fiction that quickly wears thin). But the via media between such extremes is linked to choices and selectivity and, as a result, to a range of individual decisions that are hard to justify or even characterize.

Similarly, the notion of "placing" a given production in the performance history of that script is attractive but problematic, especially for North American playgoers who lack access to theatrical centers and therefore have trouble logging a significant number of shows. Here my saturation in Shakespeare performed over the last twenty years would seem to be a distinct asset, and I do find myself regularly drawing upon choices in other productions of the same script and upon what I have learned from workshops or other interactions with theatrical professionals I admire. Nonetheless, here too there be dragons. Seeing Cymbeline for the eighth time can be an asset (a seasoned playgoer is aware in advance of especially problematic moments or choices) but seeing Dream, Twelfth Night, or Macbeth for the fiftieth time can be a distinct liability. What is fresh and meaningful for a normal playgoer may (unfairly) elicit a jaundiced reaction from a jaded palate. Miranda's "brave new world" can easily be overshadowed by Prospero's "'Tis new to thee."

To avoid being totally negative or disheartening I can offer a few guidelines or suggestions. Thus, I have found that the best way to improve or expand my reactions to events onstage is whenever possible to use eyes other than my own, especially in areas where I am weak (costume, decor, popular culture, character readings). One method is to sit in on discussions or listen to what other playgoers are saying (my version of political exit-polling). If I am seeing a show only once and subsequently writing about it, I make more than the usual effort to check out key details so that I will not build an edifice upon a lapse of attention on my part or a one-time glitch. Consulting printed sources (reviews, program notes, promptbooks) can be instructive but can also be misleading,4 as can statements from theatrical professionals as to what they had in mind.5 Perhaps owing to my own lack of theatrical expertise I have often found promptbooks uninformative or cryptic; owing to printing schedules, program notes can be linked to a concept early in rehearsal that may have evanesced by the opening.

One further suggestion is linked to the use of both print reviews and the varying reactions of playgoers at the same show. In the spirit of Gerald Graff's "teaching the conflict"6 a focus upon divergent reactions and the basis for such variation can prove fruitful, both for insights into the particular production at hand and the larger process (e.g., why has the reaction to the Luhrman film of Romeo and Juliet been so diverse and what can that diversity tell us?). Not all the reasons for such variation are ideological in the usual sense, but those general audiences (at whom such professional theatre is targeted) always have a lot to tell the specialist about what is and is not working for them. I would not subordinate my firsthand reactions to the reactions of others, but I have learned to attend carefully to such reactions so as better to gauge my own.

When should exit-polling or its equivalent be invoked? As already noted, a concern of mine in reacting to a production is that my familiarity with the script makes me an atypical playgoer who not only knows the plot but also many of the stock choices in staging the events. I have seen numerous productions, especially in Oregon, where the director introduced some kind of pre-show sequence or narrative, with or without dialogue, that was obviously intended to set up the story to follow or otherwise prepare the spectator for what was to happen (one such Oregon sequence lasted almost eight minutes). In the 1996 All's Well at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. director Laird Williamson provided a lengthy pre-show sequence that started with a seated Lavatch and two children (younger versions of Bertram and Helena) who disappeared to be replaced by their adult counterparts. The end of this sequence in which an amorous Bertram made a move to seduce Helena and she pulled away then set up his displeasure with her in 1.1 and her virginity speech (and some by-play with Parolles and Lavatch also explained the latter's hostility towards the former). As one who knows the script well I had no trouble tracking what was happening, but I was not the targeted audience, so to evaluate the effect I felt the need to ask others if this directorial move helped their playgoing experience or was a source of confusion (the results of my highly unscientific poll were mixed, with a slight majority finding the effect more baffling than helpful).

To conclude, I have no neat answers to the many problems linked to reviews and the reviewing process. Indeed, in my own current writing about performances I no longer maintain even a pretense of reviewing for the record or providing an authoritative account of a show. E.g., in summer 1996 I collected an enormous amount of material on Stephen Pimlott's RSC Richard III and did write up for the record many distinctive choices, but, largely because I was put off by the heavy-handed concept and some of the acting, I ended up offering little in the way of evaluation or interpretation. Here and elsewhere, however, I do keep fairly detailed notes on such shows for my own uses with a particular emphasis upon stage business and what I find to be provocative or meaningful choices. I.e., I still see great value in playgoing as a way of gaining insights into the potential in the script, insights otherwise hard to achieve by a reader facing a printed page. How best to communicate those insights to others remains for me a puzzlement.


1. Quotations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1969).

2. Archival tapes from a fixed camera are available in the Shakespeare Centre library for many RSC shows, but potential users should be warned that the poor quality severely limits their value.

3. Such potential audiences however small do exist. E.g., Cary Mazer to my amazement actually read and digested the "coverage" reviews provided in the 1980s in SQ and presumably does the same for the material in SB, a task I would view as cruel and unusual punishment.

4. To cite a recent example, in my brief (two paragraph) account of a 1996 All's Well I made much of one choice, the insertion of sonnet 109 to bolster Bertram's notoriously brief "Both, both; O, pardon!" (5.3.305), but neither the local reviews nor a review for the record in Shakespeare Bulletin (Fall 1996, 22-3) mentioned this directorial move (that is presumably designed to set up a far more sympathetic Bertram). Had I not seen the show myself I would not have been aware of this distinctive choice. In such situations I see no alternative to Claudio's admonition (which he himself fails to follow): "Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent" (Much Ado, 2.1.160-1).

5. I remember an Oregon production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the director presented Oberon as malevolent, even diabolic, and also cut his "But we are spirits of another sort" that distinguishes these fairies from Puck's "damned spirits all" (3.2.388, 382). The director assured me that this omission was practical rather than conceptual, but I did not believe him.

6. See Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: Norton, 1992).

Main Menu - HomePage - Teacher's Guide