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Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History

by Paul Menzer
bloomsbury, 253 pages, $29.95


id you hear the one where . . . ?
Paul Menzer has heard it. He’s heard the one with the drunk Richard III, the one with the fat Ghost of Hamlet’s Father stuck in the trapdoor, the one with the father–daughter pair playing Romeo and ­Juliet, the one where Othello’s makeup rubs off on Desdemona’s face to give her a beard. In fact, he’s probably heard several variations on any given Shakespearean anecdote, a handful verifiable, but most patently recycled, exaggerated, or apocryphal—yet in a different sense, in Menzer’s paradoxical view, no less true.

What he’s set out to do in his Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History is not simply catalogue these scurrilous or whimsical bits and bobs of backstage gossip. Instead, Menzer’s subtitle proclaims his hope that he can compose A New Performance History out of this “fugitive chronicle of exploding wigs, loutish drinking, petty rivalries, and priceless put-downs.” For Menzer, the anecdote is a subtle breed of theater criticism, a way for actors to say what plays come close to but never quite say about themselves. Tales of casting actors who, as a couple, would be incestuous make Romeo and Juliet as shocking to us as they’d be to the Montagues and Capulets; stories of ghosts that are too, too solid give us a humorous version of Hamlet’s disgust with the flesh.

Moreover, he notes that anecdotes repeatedly deal with productions going off the rails, as actors break character and characters break the fourth wall. Menzer points out that there are a million variations on a story about Guildenstern’s going off script and, relenting to Hamlet’s repeated request that he “play upon this pipe,” trilling out “God Save the Queen”—which of course causes the English audience to rise from their seats. In many anecdotes, disrupting the play’s progress is the point, because “no one lives more teleologically than actors, obligated by their occupations to live out the whole journey every Tuesday through Sunday night, and twice on Saturdays.” Anecdotes seem to cluster mainly around tragedies, serving as comic miracles that defeat (or at least delay) the fated, bloody end. “Every anecdote is a bleat of protest, a resistance against the dramatic death wish. And if that sounds overly melodramatic, we’re talking about actors.”

How does Menzer establish this grand reading of idle words on plays? Mostly through plays on words. Menzer is a writer sure never to shun a pun or fail to say oui to a bon mot. A sampling of his chapter titles illustrates this proclivity: “Hamlet: Skulls are good to think with,” “Richard III: Oedipus text,” “Macbeth: An embarrassment of witches.” One is tempted to think of the theatrical anecdote itself as a long-form pun, a story that draws its power from double meanings: Richard III is both a Machiavellian king and a visibly drunk Peter O’Toole. Whether the anecdote depicts an actor playing a role badly or too well (in the case of Macbeths, so frightening that they scared the lines right out of the extras they addressed), the narrative calls attention to the act of impersonation, the doubled reality of the stage.

—Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.

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