Shakespeare's Staging
General Studies (Performances from 1660 to 1837)
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Monday, 28 March 2005 06:40


Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) was the outstanding actor of the post-Restoration period. In appearance he was athletic, slightly above middle height, with a tendency to stoutness; his voice was strong rather than melodious, but in recitation it was used with the greatest dexterity. Pepys, Pope, Steele, and Cibber all bestow lavish praise on his acting. His repertory included a large number of Shakespearean roles, many presented in versions adapted by Davenant, Dryden, Shadwell and Nahum Tate. Portrait by Godfrey Kneller. Picture and some data courtesy of the Yorck Project (Wikipedia) under Creative Commons Share Alike License.


This period saw drastic changes in the understanding and performance of Shakespeare. Theatres were tightly controlled and dominated by individual managers. Shakespeare was regarded as a resource rather than an authority and was boldly revised: King Lear was rewritten by Nahum Tate with a happy ending. The plots of many of the comedies and romances were similarly rebalanced. A history play like Richard III was refocused by Colley Cibber on Richard's dominance. Many lesser plays were rarely if ever performed. Productions were dominated by stars such as Thomas Betterton and David Garrick and actresses such as Mrs. Betterton early on and Sarah Siddons who later also achieved prominence. The production values of open-air theatres such as Shakespeare's Globe were abandoned in indoor theatres with sophisticated scenery. Only Henry VIII continued to be produced largely as first written and staged. The number of theatres and the range of audiences were severely limited. Professional consistency was rarely achieved and training was erratic—Garrick's first success as Richard III was claimed to be without previous stage experience. As early as Garrick, attempts were made to recover more of the original scripts, coupled with increasing respect for their author's professional insight. The Kembles increased this recovery. More intense performances such as those of Sarah Siddons and Edmund Kean characterized the Romantic Age.




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Macbeth: Mrs. Yates as Lady Macbeth, London, Covent Garden Theatre, 1769.

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