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The Tie Between English Nationalism and American Racism by Madagan Riley

Posted by on Tuesday, September 22, 2015 in Blog posts, , , , .

Over the past month, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival (NSF) produced Henry V as their 28th annual Shakespeare in the Park in Centennial Park of Nashville. Following the last two summer productions of A Mid-summers Nights Dream and Much Ado About Nothing that the company both set in the American South, no one was extremely surprised when director Nat McIntyre chose to set the tale of the budding monarch and the Battle of Agincourt on a Nashville farm; but interestingly enough, his purpose was to interweave the 100 Year’s War and our own American Civil War. However, despite extremely compelling performances, the directorial choices proved to actually target the audience with an extremely loose tie between nationalism and racism that left the audience confused and demeaned rather than engaged in a salient discussion about the lingering effects of the search for power over other human beings.

Speaking culturally, this is a very important company in Nashville and in the surrounding area. According to the company’s website, they produce two large productions per year, plus hold classes and workshops throughout the year. They claim that “the mission of the NSF is to educate and entertain the Mid-South community through professional Shakespearean experiences” (History 1). We are meant to perform and interpret Shakespeare. The company does their summer production in the park, plays live music, has food trucks. Everything is working together to make Shakespeare and live performance a part of modern, Nashville culture; it is an experience. That is why people keep going back. NSF keeps Shakespeare and the act of performance alive in a way that people will attend and continue to attend in the future. Slowly, it has become part of the culture of the city.

Henry V speaks directly to this goal as well, as Shakespeare wrote it with a chorus that McIntyre used repeatedly to emphasize the audience’s role in live performance. As the NSF becomes a cultural event that celebrates ancient art in a modern way, Henry V buttresses artistic liberties and encourages interactive participation in the arts. Furthermore, live performance should “be understood as historical and contingent rather than determined by immutable difference” (Auslander 8). Part of the magic of live performance is that it doesn’t hit globally, it only aims at the people in the seats. This is where the directorial choices came into play, setting the young monarch in the Civil War. Henry V deals greatly with power, as Henry seeks to assert both himself and England in a position above men and France respectively.

McIntyre clearly was looking to connect with the southern audience by using an American War. Designers Morgan Matens’ had a scorched farm setting with canons visible, Anne Willingham set deep colored lighting for brooding themes, and June Kingsbury crafted 17th century costumes so that the overall sense of the production would be relatable to a southern audience’s perceptions of a war and how that affects individuals, families, and nations. So visually at least, the analogy set a relatable tone. The problem is that while something may be relatable culturally, that doesn’t automatically make it effective and convictive thematically for the audience.

McIntyre chose to begin the play with a scene, mostly nonverbal, that set up a soldier returning home to his Nashville farm after fighting in the Civil War. McIntyre barely even communicates this story within a story to the audience, not to mention the whole reason this returning soldier and his family start re-enacting Shakespeare is because men force a black slave to read it aloud. One would think that the production was going to speak to power relations amongst men, which is does to an extent as Henry takes a country to war so that he may be taken legitimately as a ruler. However, the strange beginning misdirects the audience to power relations amongst cultures rather than nations. When the play neglects that issue moving forward, it seems like the director was going to speak to a relevant issue of racial discrimination still lingering in the Southern air despite all the efforts in the Civil War, but as an audience member, I was more confused as to who was even telling this story.

Ultimately, NSF crafted the facade of a relevant Henry V that addresses relevant power relations among races, but Nationalism between England and France isn’t the same thing as racial tension during the Civil War. This linking illustrates a bricolage, or oppositional reading to the original text. Bricolage “literally means ‘making do’ or piecing together one’s culture with whatever is at hand” (Sturken 64). The two wars aren’t closely connected at all really, and the pairing seemed to be an attempt to show how war lingers on, regardless of time period. Yet, the Battle of Agincourt was a war between two sovereign nations, whereas the Civil War was amongst one nation divided, making subsequent themes very different.

The problem is that connecting the two wars as McIntyre did, didn’t elevate any themes specifically. It came across as a worthy attempt to show how war can affect people and the nation as a whole regardless of time; yet the two wars are so different, it came across as the director patronizing his target audience rather than relating to them. Making a play relatable doesn’t necessarily mean putting it in the exact geographical location that it is being performed, a pattern made all too clear considering this is the third park performance taking place in the south. An audience can understand the complexities of war without it being a specific war connected to their region’s history.

The production attempted to bring up how issues causing war can affect society outside of the war, an attempt made clear by the distinguished switching lighting and music tones between Henry and his soldiers. Henry was always elevated above others with swelling music and full lighting, whereas the soldiers were always low down with darker lights and more melancholy music. Yet, the issues in that war were why fight over sovereignty of nations, while the Civil War was more a conflict over the sovereignty of races. The linkage didn’t translate well, although the cultural attempt was appreciated.

This production concept would have been more relevant if race was a theme throughout the play, which it wasn’t. Therefore linking the two wars together was just putting a production twist on the show because it was being performed in the south. The tie wasn’t strong enough to match such a culturally advanced and successful company, and their Civil War setting confused the plot without adding any emphasis to current themes in society then and now – making the southern setting for a southern performance patronizing at best.

 

Works Cited

 

1) Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

 

2)  “History.” Shakespeare in the Park. Nashville Shakespeare Festival, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2015. <http://nashvilleshakes.org/history.htm>.

 

3) Sturken, M, & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

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One Comment on “The Tie Between English Nationalism and American Racism by Madagan Riley”

Madagan brought up several pertinent points that I had not considered previously. A main one dealt with the connection between the Hundred Years’ War and the American Civil War. The juxtaposition of the wars struck me as novel when I saw the play, and was good in theory, but in actuality the two were fought for rather different reasons. (From a personal perspective however, I still appreciated the edification that came with the linking of the wars, as their being mentioned on stage encouraged me to do further research on their histories afterwards). She also highlighted some very important concepts we learnt in Theatre 1010, including: the audience’s role in live performance, the use of set, costume and lighting to reinforce the theme chosen (war), and that live theatre “only aims at the people in the seats”. Interactive participation in the arts was encouraged, as the acting was done throughout the audience, not just on the main stage. The ephemerality of theatre was also discussed in class, and from reading Auslander’s Liveness, we learned that theatre can break “the code” that mediatized performances subscribe to because it does not care about reaching more people that it can fit in its seats. Based on the company’s mission “to educate and entertain the Mid-South community through professional Shakespearean experiences”, I would say that this is its objective. The theming might not have been an ideal choice, but I think the production achieved its overall aim. As a spectatorship, we go to theatre performances for an experience, and the NSF is doing a good job of bringing the necessary elements together to make their performances exactly that.

Ruisa Hinds on October 13th, 2015 at 4:58 pm

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