Susan Bennett. Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. New York: Routledge, 1996. 199 pp. ISBN 0415073251 Cloth; 041507326X Paper.
Robert Grant Williams
Nipissing University

Williams, Robert Grant. "Review of Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 10.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_wil1.html>.

  1. Just when you thought that Shakespeare studies -- after the developments of post structuralism, gender studies, new historicism, and post colonialism -- could not be radicalized any further, Susan Bennett's Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past comes along to invigorate discussion of the post modern bard. Her work accomplishes a theoretical and critical vindication of performance by boldly undermining the assumption that a dramatic presentation of a Shakespeare play must remain faithful to a "source" text. What enables Bennett to release critical inquiry of Shakespearean performance from the stranglehold of the text is her emphasis on nostalgia, the desire for the past. She contends that the directorial duty to recreate the past, whether a fidelity to an original script or to an originary Renaissance, is not motivated by an innocent commitment to any previous culture, event, or person, but is driven by a nostalgia for that which is not possibly retrievable -- not only because the authentic or original past cannot be empirically accessed, but also because "authenticity" by definition exists in a privileged yet unapproachable imaginary time, forever distant from the present moment. In other words, nostalgia is driven less by an object of desire than by the insatiable process of desire itself.

  2. More significantly, Bennett's argument has political ramifications. Nostalgia quite frequently -- though, as Bennett cautions, not exclusively -- plays into a right-wing agenda by promoting a stable past that in turn promotes stable political identities in the present. As in Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company world tours that present Shakespearean (re)productions, nostalgia gives a false sense of a homogenous English community on a national and even a global level. Thus the duty to recover the past in producing an "authentic" performance of a play harbours a conservative desire to bleed the performance of all contemporary political efficacy -- the ability to resist the hegemonic and to disrupt the bourgeois status quo.

  3. In exploring performances that some deem unfaithful to Shakespeare, Bennett's study also considers the "emancipatory potential" (27) of performing nostalgia. She finds in numerous performances throughout the last decade a markedly queer nostalgia, that is, a use of the past that stages a "creative vandalism" (1) antagonistically opposed to the source text. Her entertaining and instructive analyses draw on a diversity of examples from theatrical "proliferations" of Lear -- such as Lear's Daughters by the Women's Theatre Group and The Tragedy of King Real by the Welfare State -- to cinematic meta-stagings -- such as Godard's King Lear and Greenaway's Propero's Books. Her analyses compellingly suggest that queer nostalgia shatters a monolithic past into counter-histories and thereby transgresses the hegemonic identity formations of the present. In effect, such performances, exemplified by Jarman's Edward II and Osment's This Island's Mine, permit contemporary transgressive desire to be staged openly rather than concealed behind a screen of conservative nostalgia. And in some cases, as in Welfare State's production of The Tragedy of King Real, a performance may lead to micro-political engagement with the community, resisting the globalization and standarization of desire.

  4. As Bennett's study unfolds, the reader discovers that the imaginary past embodied by an authentic Shakespeare is not the only site that shifts. In both her theory and practice, the entire notion of performance also shifts its ground. In her theory, performance does not amount to a lackey-messenger bearing the script of the Shakespeare text. The performance becomes a performative in its own right, a dissident act of contemporary desire. As well, in her critical practice, she brings together so many diverse theatres of reference -- the domains of academic critic, reviewer, actor, director, spectator, and kitsch souvenir -- that the site of the Shakespearean performance cannot be confined to the physical stage or movie set. Performance as performative truly extends to numerous discourses of the past, including her own work, which in energy, scope, and wit is nothing less than a kind of performative criticism. But, by implication, the shifting site of performance challenges the leading role the text has played for so long in Shakespeare studies. And herein lies the radical nature of Performing Nostalgia. The latter part of her book is justified in gravitating toward postcolonial issues since the imperial relation of the past to the present, the colonizer to the colonized, and the master to the servant precisely replicates the traditional relation of the Shakespeare text to the Shakespeare performance. By trangressing the nostalgic reproduction of the text, performance emerges as a site of postcolonial interrogation, where cultural difference unsettles imperial identity. By going back not to repeat the past but to get somewhere else, a performance allows history to unthink its previous power relations and stage its contemporary desires.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)