Michael Dobson’s Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History addresses an area of Shakespearean studies that has received scant critical attention. Dobson seeks to redress this omission, but, as his introduction clarifies, his intention is not to merely provide reflections on charming amateur productions, nor is it to snidely deride “non-professionals” in their theatrical endeavors. Dobson’s accessible, witty text instead convincingly contends that amateur stagings of Shakespeare have indeed been unfairly marginalized.
Dobson begins his analysis with an examination of “private theatricals.” Dobson contends that these performances, set within the home, contributed as much to the transmission of enthusiasm for Shakespeare as any productions staged within educational institutions. Sir Edward Dering’s seventeenth-century private performance of a conflated version of Henry IV, Parts One and Two, reveals a political motive for a private staging of Shakespeare. Dering, an ambitious courtier, radically cut portions of the plays not dealing directly with kingship and succession, removing several of Falstaff’s unsavory accomplices from the play altogether.
A 1774 domestic performance in Salisbury of an excerpt from The Winter’s Tale, “the first recorded all-female production of any Shakespearean play,” received censure from a local journal that chastised the participants for their boldness and nostalgically recalled the “decent and virtuous age” of Queen Elizabeth in which “no female appeared on stage” (30, 45). Anxieties surrounding young women’s amateur theatrical endeavors only intensified during the early nineteenth century. The Kilkenny Theatrical Society, a “confederation of wealthy non-professional thespians,” found itself enmeshed in a morality debate regarding the inclusion of amateur actresses in their productions (55). The local vicar claimed the performances were “calculated to banish from the mind every chaste, every correct…thought” (58). In defense, the Kilkenny performers maintained that their productions were morally instructive and artistically necessary; Kilkenny’s “wholesome selection” of plays inculcated empathy in its audiences (59).
Chapter two’s title, “Shakespeare in public: the resisted rise of the amateur dramatic society,” indicates the perils that continued to confront early amateur dramatic organizations. Following the Restoration in 1660, the Theatres Royal enjoyed exclusive rights to perform straight drama in London; amateur societies, therefore, tended to perform only burlesques of Shakespeare plays. Yet, these amateurs still drew the ire of the press who considered amateur theatrical endeavors salacious and presumptuous. Perhaps because of the vitriol such societies confronted, even following the abolition of the Theaters Royal monopoly in 1843, amateur societies still hesitated to perform full length Shakespeare plays. In 1864, however, the Cambridge Amateur Theatrical Society celebrated Shakespeare’s tercentenary with two full performances of his plays. These productions, unlike those burlesques performed by London’s amateur societies, featured “lower-class amateur actors” (88). Their audience was more heterogeneous than the typical London amateur productions as well—performances were “aimed not at a network of like-minded social equals but at an entire local community” (88). These “lower-class” actors, unintimidated by the politics of Shakespearean performance, firmly appropriated Shakespeare as their own.
Building on a burgeoning enthusiasm for amateur Shakespeare, the Stockport Garrick Society, established in 1901, ushered in a new era of amateur theatricals in Britain known as the “Little Theatre” movement. Stockport Garrick was the first dramatic society to purchase its own playhouse, and other societies of its ilk soon followed. By 1934, 2,300 amateur dramatic societies were associated throughout Britain. Many of these societies prided themselves on rescuing Shakespeare from the commercial clutches of the professional stage.
While Dobson’s first two chapters provide an incisive examination of private theatricals and the ascent of the amateur dramatic society, the litany of production details veers into tedium at times. Dobson, however, shifts to “expatriate performance” in his third chapter, and here, the monograph hits its stride. In considering military personnel’s engagement with Shakespeare, the text pays particular attention to the political implications of Shakespearean performance, particularly in enemy territory. During the American Revolution, British military authorities assumed control of a Philadelphia theatre and proceeded to stage Richard III and Macbeth, plays that conspicuously feature the quashing of usurpers. American soldiers, on the other hand, staged Coriolanus and emphasized Shakespeare as a great lover of liberty who understood the “necessity of tyrannicide” (132).
The remainder of the chapter focuses on Allied prisoners of war of World War II who, remarkably, found the fortitude to stage full Shakespearean productions. Dobson’s account of these sophisticated productions, in the most unlikely of environments, makes for compelling reading. As Dobson explains, the European POW camp authorities were on the whole permissive, even encouraging, of Shakespearean productions since such humane undertakings garnered the approval of the Red Cross and kept prisoners occupied. This, the most riveting section of Dobson’s work, prompts as many questions as it answers. Were these performances in fact deterring Allied prisoners from their primary objective—to escape? Or did performing serve to boost morale and sustain POWs during their captivity? Nowhere is the question of agency more significant than in Dobson’s discussion of POW camp Stalag 383’s staging of Merchant of Venice. The play’s problematic anti-Semitic bent takes on chilling significance staged, as it was, a mere 50 miles away from Dachau, the notorious Nazi death camp. In hindsight, one of the POW performers praised the Australian actor who played Shylock for giving him a “fine dignity rather disturbing to the Germans in the stalls”; the humiliation of Shylock, however, no doubt pleased Nazi audience members (145).
With his final chapter, Dobson returns to amateur performances staged on British soil. While in the early twentieth century, amateur theatre became the site of daring, even avant-garde productions of Shakespeare, following the establishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre in the 1960s, amateur productions became a repository for conservative productions of Shakespeare, hearkening to the past. Open-air productions became especially integral to this project, and Dobson’s fourth chapter considers why “the total number of performances of Shakespeare given outdoors in England every year now exceeds the number given indoors” (155). The popular Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London along with the Minack Theatre, a venue beautifully carved into the Cornish cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, are just two of the outdoor theatres that stage Shakespeare each summer for audiences who “rarely see Shakespeare performed anywhere else” (181).
With his conclusion, Dobson circles back to the derision that amateurs often suffer in their efforts to stage Shakespeare. Like the well-meaning mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, amateurs are scorned at times for exceeding their “social and intellectual” stations (198). Yet as Britain faces current economic pressures that threaten the existence of subsidized professional theatres, amateur theatres may be called again to “step into the breach” (212). The incorporation of amateur performers into the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival of 2012, part of the London Cultural Olympiad, speaks to the ongoing significance of volunteer contributions to the preservation of Shakespeare. Though Dobson’s litany of performance details may at times obscure the overall significance of his enterprise, his project is an important one—and his work, as well as the amateur performers he fondly considers, are more than worthy of your attention.