The Shakespearean Dramaturg - A Theoretical and Practical Guide

Andrew James Hartley
Palgrave Macmillan

What exactly is a dramaturg, with or without a final "e"? The author, who is now resident dramaturg with the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and has eight years experience in the field, ruefully admits that the job title means little or nothing to the general public. He defines the Shakespearean dramaturg's role as "a translator and - better - a negotiator between the academic and dramatic camps", putting specialist knowledge of textual variants, language, historical background and performance history at the service of the production, and providing timely (and tactful) assistance to the director and actors. He or she may also be called upon to write programme essays and notes, take part in pre/post show discussions and give lectures. It's an unglamorous and sometimes rather thankless task, but as Hartley points out, "When a production flops, no-one blames the dramaturg!"

In the "Theory" section of the book Hartley looks at the relationship between text and performance, the extent to which a text - particularly a familiar one - can be adapted without alienating the audience, and the dubious "authenticity" of Shakespeare productions seeking to recreate Elizabethan theatrical conditions. Hartley relates an amusing little anecdote which sheds light on a common misunderstanding of the dramaturg's role as Shakespeare's protector against the excesses of "director's theatre": "On walking into a rehearsal recently, the director, nodding towards me, said to the actors, 'Everybody stop what they're doing. We've been busted. The Shakespeare police have arrived.'" But the dramaturg's allegiance should be to the production in hand and its twenty-first century audience, not to the preservation of Shakespeare's status as a cultural icon; the fact that the plays were not written with modern sensibilities in mind should also alert him or her to issues of racism, anti-Semitism and so on raised by the text itself or by casting.

In the section devoted to "Practice" Hartley recommends that the dramaturg should join the production team as early as possible, preferably before rehearsals begin. The most important part of the dramaturg's job is script preparation, cutting and (judiciously) simplifying convoluted passages without resorting to "dumbing down", and the author gives examples from The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar. During rehearsals the dramaturg should be "unobtrusive without disappearing into the woodwork" whilst helping director and actors. Hartley offers many useful tips about writing play synopses and programme notes, preparing for pre/post show talks and dealing with questions from the audience, who will no doubt think the dramaturg is the least important member of the production team!

The Shakespearean Dramaturg is a mine of information for anyone involved in staging Shakespeare's plays. Few people can hope to earn a living as full-time professional dramaturgs, but armed with Hartley's book any well-informed Shakespeare lover can help to give a potentially run-of-the-mill amateur or school production a professional look.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson

Are you sure?