Friday, 2 February 2007

Barry Day: This Wooden 'O': Shakespeare's Globe Reborn (1996)

Published: Oberon, 1996

The story of how the Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare's most famous plays were first staged, was reconstructed in London near its original site is a fascinating one. From the dream first taking hold of American actor Sam Wanamaker to the completion of the project in the mid 1990s took around fifty years, meanly because of the disorganised nature of Wanamaker's enthusiasms combined with reluctance by the British establishment to take an American seriously - the assumption was that he wanted to create a downmarket Shakespearean Disneyland - and bad timing. The scheme came up against indifference to the heritage at the start, fears that it would be a distraction from plans to build a national theatre in the middle, the difficulty of fund-raising for a project which had nothing yet to see (especially as the plans kept on getting bigger with nothing tangible appearing), and the politics of developers and one of London's more extreme left wing councils throughout (leading to a massive lawsuit in the eighties).

Perhaps it would be better to say that the story "should be" rather than "is" fascinating. Despite the ringing endorsements, Day's telling of the tale is uninvolving, confusing, and riddled with irritating clichés and stylistic quirks. The illustrations exemplify the problems of the book: it is about a building project, but there are no pictures of the spectacular finished object. (Though to be fair, the book was written and published to be ready as a souvenir when the opening took place - but there are not even pictures of architects' models of the final design.) The first of these issues, that the narrative is uninvolving, stems to a large extent from the other two. Though we are told that Wanamaker was enthusiastic about the idea of reconstructing the Globe, it is never made clear to the reader just why they should share this enthusiasm. It is perhaps a difficult thing to convey in such a book - I became a convert to the idea through the revelatory experience that it can be to attend a performance in the theatre as a groundling in the pit. Generally, I seem to remember performances without much sense of their location: the interior of one West End theatre is, to the playgoer, much like any other. But at the Globe, particularly if you have a groundling ticket, the venue is inextricably and uniquely part of the performance.

The confusion in the story is due to the way that it has been structured. The individual chapters seem to take the history forwards, only for the next to leap backwards, and frequently go over some of the same events again. The narrative is also full of forward references, for example (one of many), "The Battle for the soul of the Rose Theatre was foreshadowed eighteen years in advance" (chapter 2, capitalisation Day's) is relating what is being discussed to something else that isn't described for another ten chapters, and is an unhelpful reference except to someone who already knows everything in This Wooden 'O' - who would not be in the intended audience. I did at times wonder if the book had been written as three or four separate long essays, which were then chopped up to make This Wooden 'O': one on London's Elizabethan theatres (which is very similar to the information found in the Everyman Companion to Shakespeare - had nothing new been discovered in the intervening twenty years?), one an obituary of Sam Wanamaker, one a description of the ideas of theatre historians about the layout of the Globe, and so on, but I have the feeling that even when re-ordered thematically like this the book would still be chronologically confusing. Much seems to be left out, too; aspects of the story that must have happened are glossed over. We learn, for example, of Mark Rylance's appointment as artistic director of the Globe from a caption to a picture, not from the text even though that quotes his ideas about the function of the reconstructed theatre at length.

Also confusing are contradictory pictures of Sam Wanamaker presented in This Wooden 'O'. The clichéd words "amiable eccentric" are used at one point, but Day gives little evidence in the rest of this book of his amiability. From Day's descriptions of Wanamaker's efforts to bring his vision to fruition, "complex, irascible, obsessed, disorganised eccentric" would appear to be more accurate; "amiable" seems to be an adjective used simply because eccentrics are frequently described this way.

The most irritating aspect of This Wooden 'O' is Day's writing style. The text is full of clichés of many kinds, so much so in places that it seems to be a parody of tabloid journalism. It becomes very wearing to read at the length of an entire book. The narrative flow keeps being strained to bring in some quotation or other, usually from Shakespeare; restricting their use to one per chapter - or even one per page - would help enormously with the book's readability. Some quotations should be even more restricted: how many times can the project really have experienced "the best of times, the worst of times"? Every second or third paragraph ends with an ellipsis, which appears to be Day's idea of how to signpost a remark he considers amusing: that is not the function of this punctuation!

This is a story that needed to be written, but it has been done here so poorly that this cannot be considered a definitive account.

No comments: