Ada Rehan, Shaw, and Shakespeare

Ada RehanLast night, I read a review of a production of As You Like It in 1897. It was written by George Bernard Shaw and the focus was on Ada Rehan in the part of Rosalind. He’s very fond her. I would even go so far as to say that he might have a bit of a crush on her. But much of the review is about how he doesn’t actually know if she can act. And the reason he doesn’t know if she can act is that he always sees her in the same part, just with a character of a different name in a different play.

He wrote of Rehan, “I must live in hope that some day she will come to the West End of London for a week or two, just as Rejane and Sarah Bernhardt do, with some work of sufficient novelty and importance to make good the provincial wear and tear of her artistic prestige.” This rather reminds me of William Goldman’s contention that the only thing that matters in a screenplay is structure. And before film, I think that was largely true of the theater. Thankfully today, the theater is more likely to produce actual interesting characters.

One of my biggest complaints about the way people idolize Shakespeare is that they will gush about the great characters that he created. To this, I always respond, “And what characters would those be? I would certainly like to know.” Yeah, in some of the tragedies there are some characters that begin to be something other than standard parts going back to the ancient Greeks. But in the comedies? Come now!

Shaw loved Shakespeare (As do I!) but he wasn’t blind his many weaknesses. In his discussion of Rehan, he wrote:

But when I think of those plays in which our William anticipated modern dramatic art by making serious attempts to hold the mirror up to nature—All’s Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and so on—I must limit the tribute to Shakespeare’s popular style. Rosalind is not a complete human being: she is simply an extension into five acts of the most affectionate, fortunate, delightful five minutes in the life of a charming woman. And all the other figures in the play are cognate impostures. Orlando, Adam, Jacques, Touchstone, the banished Duke and the rest play each the same tune all through. This is not human nature or dramatic character: it is juvenile lead, first old man, heavy lead, heavy father, principal comedian and leading lady, transfigured by magical word-music. The Shakespearolators who are taken in by it do not know drama in the classical sense from “drama” in the technical Adelphi sense. You have only to compare Orlando and Rosalind [As You Like It] with Bertram and Helena [All’s Well That Ends Well], the Duke and Touchstone [As You Like It again] with Leontes and Autolycus [The Winter’s Tale], to learn the difference from Shakespeare himself. Therefore I cannot judge from Miss Rehan’s enchanting Rosalind whether she is a great Shakespearean actress or not: there is even a sense in which I cannot tell whether she can act at all or not.

Yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim about Sweeney Todd, and he talked about how for over a hundred years, the title character was just this evil man. It wasn’t until 1970 when the British playwright Christopher Bond took the character and provided him with motivation. In other words, he turned it into a revenge play. The revenge play was around in Shakespeare’s time, of course. That’s what Titus Andronicus is, after all. But Shakespeare’s plays do an especially bad job of providing motivation for female characters, who are basically just four types: passive youth, quick witted youth, whore, and old hag. And as much as I love the dialog that Shakespeare wrote for Beatrice, once in love, she is not much different than Hero.

Above all, I hate the idea of Shakespeare as theatrical or literary broccoli. My impression is that most people who claim to like Shakespeare don’t appreciate it enough to much enjoy it. And fundamentally, we keep seeing the plays and movies because the performers love them. And it is true now if it wasn’t in Shaw’s time: actors commonly turn standard parts into something much greater. Certainly, Kenneth Branagh did that for Iago in Othello. But even Ian McKellen couldn’t overcome the Snidely Whiplash depth of his character in Richard III. It’s all still very much enjoyable. But great and edifying? Rarely.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Ada Rehan, Shaw, and Shakespeare

  1. Mavolio always struck me as an interesting fellow – funny but a seemingly heartbroken man who covered his feelings with witty, cynical commentary. And does Lady Macbeth not qualify as a provocative character? Ditto for Caliban, I’d say, but I’m certainly not a close reader of any of the plays.

  2. @R.Ward – I know what you mean, but I’ve always found <i>Twelfth Night</i> to be a total muddle at the end. Malvolio is a good example of how the actor and director decide to do him. In general, I find him a sympathetic character and it rather takes away from me the joy that I would get from the others’ torment of him. But fundamentally, he’s just the officious killjoy character. And what they do to him is exactly what everyone does to Benedick, and be behaves similarly foolishly, except that Beatrice does actually love him. (The other characters don’t seem to know that the two secretly love each other, even though it seems pretty obvious.)

    I did make an exception for the tragedies. And Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is Lady Macbeth but a power hungry woman pushing her basically decent husband to do terrible things he would not normally do? She lacks real motivation in the play.

    Caliban is more or less Cyclops from [i]The Odyssey[/i]. Horrible and yet fragile. In general, I think Shakespeare does a better job when he is dealing with the mythical. I’m pretty keen on the Three Witches. I don’t have a problem with Oberon and Titania the way I would if they were humans. This is one of the reason that I so liked the 1996 version where the same actors also played Theseus and Hippolyta. If you haven’t seen that version, I highly recommend it, [url=http://www.franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=7326]A Great Filmed Midsummer Night’s Dream[/url]. It is [i]so[/i] much better than the well known 1999 version.

    Regardless, the primary problem here is with women. And I don’t want to claim to be an expert. I know Shakespeare only well enough to feel comfortable ranting about him. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but for me, Shakespeare is a lot like Orson Welles: there is nothing that completely works, yet the highs are so high that you can’t help but love it. (That’s not exactly true: Welles made a few perfect films, but much of his work is like that.)

    One thing I say all the time is that Shakespeare greatly benefits from the best editors, directors, and actors in the history of theater. Everyone really tries to make the plays work for modern audiences. And to a large extent, they do.

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