Eleanor von Schweinitz pays tribute to Shakespeare’s Theatre by C Walter Hodges.
Built-in obsolescence seems to characterise non-fiction books today. Destined (or designed?) for a short print run and – replacement by a new title in yet another series, they appear to have no pretensions to lasting qualities.
Shakespeare’s Theatre by C Walter Hodges is one of the few post-war non-fiction titles to merit consideration as a classic – produced by a man with an extraordinary combination of talents: an acknowledged subject expert and an accomplished illustrator and writer of fiction and non-fiction.. He was awarded the 1964 Kate Greenaway medal for his illustrations to Shakespeare’s Theatre and must be unique in having his novel, The Namesake, in the running for the Carnegie medal in the same year. In 1966 he received international recognition – being placed on the Honours List of the Hans Christian Andersen award.
His reputation as an expert on Shakespeare’s’ theatre grew out of a passionate interest and wide reading rather than the conventional route of academic scholarship. In 1953 he published The Globe Restored, the first of his adult writings on the Elizabethan theatre. His expertise in the staging of Elizabethan drama found practical expression in his work with Bernard Miles at the Mermaid Theatre and his design of the Elizabethan stage for the St George’s Theatre. In the 70s and 80s he got drawn further into the world of Shakespeare studies, becoming well known on the conference circuit and taking up visiting lectureships at Cambridge and in the United States. Prominent in the current debate following the excavation of the Rose Theatre site, he worked closely with the Museum of London on their recent exhibition.
These are formidable credentials for producing a classic on Shakespeare’s theatre. Completely in control of his material, Hodges provides a wonderfully rounded treatment of his subject. The evolution of the Elizabethan theatre, the audiences and the players, the plays and their staging are not each filleted out and dealt with in a double-page spread but effortlessly interwoven, the audience seen as a vital element’ in the performance, the production, and staging an integral part of the drama.
Hodges is an expert and he respects his readers. He invites us to consider ideas, not just facts. Furthermore he unobtrusively reminds us that many of these ‘facts’ are no more than informed speculation – evidence resting on -a limited range of sources.
Although it is the illustrations which first catch the eye bustling with life and colour, conjuring up a vivid picture of the theatre and its multifarious audience – the text soon commands equal attention. This is due not merely to the careful integration of the text and illustration on the page but to the, unending interaction between them. The constant dialogue between visual and verbal is only possible because both have been crafted by a single creative personality.
Here is an example of how he talks us through a couple of his illustrations (imagine yourself turning the page at the second paragraph):
‘On this page we see a view of the auditorium taken from the stage. Notice the three spectator galleries, the yard, the two pillars which hold up the stage roof, and the main entrance, through which some children are peeping to see what is going on. What is going on in fact is a management discussion about the gate money.
Here now is a’ view from the other direction, showing all the stage. It is a very plain stage. The roof over it is thatched, though the posts that support it are elaborate and make a handsome show.’
The text bubbles with an infectious enthusiasm for its subject, and Hodges slips easily from one narrative mode to another – often addressing his readers directly and drawing us into closer and closer involvement with his subject – as when we observe a performance of Julius Caesar:
`From within the painted Heavens overhead a rumbling and rolling sound fills the house – drums and cannon-balls up there in the loft, but loud thunder down here in the streets of Rome, where Casca meets Cassius in the storm …’
Unlike so many books today, Shakespeare’s Theatre is designed to be read not dipped into. It develops its points at a relaxed pace, allowing facts to be absorbed and reinforced, ideas considered. It demands the same sort’ of commitment from its readers as a well-written novel – although it reads aloud well and lends itself to discussion (which widens its potential audience).
When it was published in 1964, Oxford University Press gave it the lavish treatment it deserved: full colour on every page opening; generous page layout with, most lavish of all, lots of open white spaces (which no editor today could resist cramming with yet more pictures and facts).
Shakespeare’s Theatre remained in print for over twenty years. If you find it on your library shelves, cherish it and draw it to the attention of any young person who will respond to Hodges’ enthusiasm. Like an inspired teacher it can breathe life into Shakespeare, showing his plays as part of a popular, living tradition.