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Book Review : Reinterpreting Shakespeare et al.--Grist From Miller

October 31, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Subsequent Performances by Jonathan Miller (Viking: $25; illustrated)

In the jargon of the trade journals, Miller would be a sextuple hyphenate--actor, writer, director, producer, editor and medical doctor. In the quaint but precise language of Webster's 2nd, he's a polymath: "very and diversely learned." During his enormously varied career, he has been responsible for 47 stage productions, specializing in Shakespeare for Britain's National Theater while he was associate director but also working wonders with an eclectic assortment of other writers.

Since 1965, when Miller edited the distinguished BBC program "Monitor," he's frequently lent his prodigious gifts to television as well, producing the superb series "The Body in Question" and writing the sound and witty book accompanying the project. He is also the author of a study of Marshall McLuhan, of "The Facts of Life" and of "States of Mind: Conversations With Psychological Investigators."

Exploration of 'Afterlife'

This thoughtful new book is an exploration in depth of what Miller calls "the afterlife" of a dramatic work. Here he is dealing with the challenge of staging a play or an opera that has outlived its creator and milieu; taking as his point of departure the moment at which the director must assume the burden of reinterpretation in the light of subsequent knowledge. Since the early '70s Miller has become increasingly involved with opera, directing Verdi, Mozart and Beethoven as well as the works of recent composers. All this knowledge, experience and enthusiasm is brought to bear upon "Subsequent Performances," easily the most elegant, scholarly and lucid book on drama currently available.

Approaching his material from a highly original perspective, Miller discusses costume and set design, the adaptation of works from one dramatic or literary medium to another and the various ways in which the language of the piece may be spoken to enlarge and enrich the explicit meaning. Though he concentrates upon Shakespeare, Mozart and Chekhov, who have been the major beneficiaries of his insights, he discusses theater in the far broader context of painting, sculpture and science; always taking into account the political and social conditions prevailing when the work was first produced.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs and drawings, "Subsequent Performances" is a one-volume theatrical library--delightful, informative, immensely valuable to anyone who works in the theater and, as a bonus, amazingly modest. Entire pages go by without a single subjective pronoun, just meticulous description and demonstration of innovative theory and how it may be put into practice.

Change of Character

Let Miller himself explain the idea of dramatic afterlife. "By submitting itself to the possibility of successive re-creation, the play passes through the development that is its birthright, and its meaning begins to be fully appreciated only when it enters . . . its . . . afterlife. . . . If (works of art in general) are rediscovered after a long period of being lost or neglected, it is as if they are perceived and valued for reasons so different from those held originally that they virtually change their character and identity. . . . While (Shakespeare's) plays are apparently open-ended . . . I admit that they are not totally malleable and should not be subject to an infinite number of possible interpretations. . . . So that although I sponsor the idea that the afterlife of a play is a process of emergent evolution, during which meanings and emphases develop that might not have been apparent at the time of writing, this does not imply that the text is a Rorschach inkblot into whose indeterminate outlines the director can project whatever he wants."

No Malibu 'Sisters'

Without his ever saying so, one suspects that Miller would reject a punk-rock Hamlet or a sci-fi Lear; frown darkly upon a "Three Sisters" set in Malibu. "Such productions are so fractured that it becomes impossible to map them onto anything inherent in the text."

Think of Miller as a progressive conservator, dedicated to the preservation of a work's fundamental quality in an ever-changing Zeitgeist; to forging new connections ot replace those frayed by age, to establish the relevance of a lost past to a confusing present. He describes the complicated process in detail, conscientiously acknowledging his frustrations as well as his triumphs. Gently and tactfully, he fills in the gaps in our knowledge so that we feel like partners in a dialogue rather than students in a classroom. Fascinated and beguiled, by the end of "Subsequent Performances" the reader has become the director's ideal audience--appreciative, comprehending, and impatient for the play to begin.

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