Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Richard Schoch Revives Restoration Shakespeare


Richard Schoch graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1984 and is now a professor of drama at Queen’s University Belfast. This fall’s production of a Restoration-style “Macbeth” at the Folger Theatre was partially funded by a three-year grant  Schoch received from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the UK equivalent of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts. Schoch, lead researcher for the Macbeth production, spoke with the Hoya about his research and the Folger’s production of Macbeth.

How did you get to studying Restoration Shakespeare?

Undergrad, I always did a lot of work with M&B, Mask and Bauble, and I was always passionate about theater even though I was studying something else.

And after I graduated, I actually did want to work in the theater. So, I worked professionally as a director in Washington, [D.C.], including here at the Folger, and I worked at Wooly Mammoth, and I worked at the Source Theater, and then I went to New York for a bit, and then went to Stanford to do my Ph.D., and that’s where I really got into theater history and the history of Shakespeare on the stage.

I’m just fascinated by how each generation reads Shakespeare. You know a lot about Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s time,

and of course we know a lot about [William] Shakespeare in our own time, because we go to theaters like the Folger, or the Shakespeare Theater Company, but we don’t know very much about Shakespeare in other times. What was Shakespeare like in the 17th century, in the 18th century, in the 19th century? How did other people experience Shakespeare, how did they perform Shakespeare, and what plays were popular in the past and what plays were not popular?

And so, gradually, I worked my way back to the Restoration, which was the period from about 1660 to 1700. Puritans closed the theaters in 1642 and reopened in 1660. So, there was almost a generation where mostly theaters were shut down, not totally but mostly. So, when the theater reopened with the Restoration of the monarchy because the new king, George the II, was a big fan of the theater, so the theater was back bigger and better than ever. This was the first generation to do Shakespeare after Shakespeare. What was fascinating was that they changed everything. They didn’t say, “Well Shakespeare’s so great let’s honor the way he did it.” They thought, “Theater is new, alive; it’s fresh.”

RL: When you’re looking at theater history, how do you figure out what the set looked like?

RS: Of course there aren’t photographs, but there are some illustrations and some eyewitness descriptions. And the illustrations, you can’t trust 100 percent because people can embellish in pictures, but there are a dozen or so illustrations in books from the 17th century of Restoration scenery. And there are eyewitness accounts, like Sam Pepys’diary, and there’s a book called “Roscius Anglicanus” by the prompter John Downes in 1708. That contains a lot of eyewitness descriptions, including of Restoration Macbeth.

This production was never interested in recreating, down to the last detail, a resurrection of Restoration Shakespeare. We’re interested more in capturing the spirit of it or the flavor of it. But it’s not ’til the second half of the 19th century when you start to get photographs of stage sets that you actually have a pretty accurate idea of what it looked like. You just have to do your best with conjecture.

It’s sort of framed as a production done at Bedlam Asylum?

In Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, yes. That was the director’s decision, Robert Richmond; it’s not something William Davenant has in the play. This is the thing that directors do a lot, they have an idea for how to create a world around the play. And Robert chose to set it in the lunatic asylum called Bedlam in London in the 1660s during the Restoration, and the idea is that the inmates of the asylum do a performance of Davenant’s “Macbeth” before an audience, an unknown audience but it feels like the actual audience in the theater.

And, of course, at that time, Bedlam, some of the people who were confined to Bedlam were mentally ill, there was of course no understanding back then of mental illness. People were just thrown into institutions like Bedlam. So, some people in Bedlam were mentally ill. Others were not mentally ill; but were put there because either they had fallen afoul of the law or they had had a run-in with someone in power and they were just put away, and I think that gives an interesting dynamic.

It also creates a frame that can hold or contain the weirdness of the play and all of the strange music, the singing, dancing witches that it has, because it’s a very odd sort of “Macbeth” for 21st century people. How do we find a way to hold all of that oddness in a way that invites the audience to accept all of it and take all of it in? It’s a very interesting challenge for the theater. In Robert’s production interpretation, it’s a very, very dark. It’s not just the lighting that is dark: the lighting is very high-contrast almost like a Caravaggio painting, but it’s a very intense evening in the theater.

The acting style sort of shifts as the play goes on. I think the program describes the early acting as more in the Restoration style before shifting to a more 21st century style of doing Shakespeare. Was that to try and bridge the two styles between what the modern audience expects?

I think that’s right; we don’t know exactly what acting was like in the Restoration. We know it was very expressive, very gestural, very sculptural, people striking a lot of extravagant poses, which is very different than how we act today. So there was a desire to capture some of that flavor by having people be almost a little bit like statues come to life when it’s clearly the Bedlam frame of the 1660s, and then to transition into more modern, more natural expression and gestures. Then right at the end it gets a little more expressive and a little more vibrant, because the Bedlam frame comes back. So I thought that was a nice way of modulating from the 17th century to the 21st century and then back again right at the very end.

How different is the Folger Theatre from what you would think of as a classic Restoration theater?

The Folger Theatre is interesting because it’s not even a perfect Elizabethan replica of the theater. It’s kind of a hybrid of different conventions of the time. But a lot of the things in the Folger Theatre would have been recognizable to a Restoration audience. It’s indoors. It’s small. A Restoration theater would have been bigger, about 600 people. The Folger Theatre is about 250, but Shakespeare’s Globe was several thousand. So, it’s small, it’s indoors, it has candlelight, it has the audience on three sides, and it has something of a thrust stage. That is a stage that extends beyond the proscenium arch a little bit into the audience.

And the way that Tony Cisek has designed the set, there are moving parts; there are these gigantic drapes that move across the stage, and that is kind of a remnant of Restoration theater. It would have been painted scenery that moved the same way from stage left to stage right and back again opening up reveals or discoveries. So, that a Restoration audience would have recognized as well, they would have recognized the musicians; the musicians probably would have been at orchestra level like in a Broadway musical today. In this theater, they’re upstairs, but they would have recognized a lot of the music. So, a lot of the things would have been familiar to the Restoration audience.

Only a few things would not have been. The pillars are very Elizabethan. So there would not have been those pillars, and there would have been a proscenium arch, which is missing from the Folger Theatre. But if you go to a place like the National Theater or the Kennedy Center, those are proscenium arch theaters and most of the action is upstage on the far side of the arch. But most of the stuff in the Folger Theater, a Restoration audience would have been pretty familiar with. So if you kind of squint your eyes, you can get a sense of almost travelling back inside to the 1660s.

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