If she’s right, Tiffany Stern has cracked a theatrical mystery: how companies rehearsed — or didn’t — between 1567 and 1780. Her book, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, first appeared in 2000. Reactions to it, including this belated review, find her views both illuminating and unsettling.

Imagine Shakespeare or Ben Jonson rehearsing a new play. The cast sits onstage, bathed in late-morning sunshine, and reads through the script, the actors exploring motives and relations, savoring lines, nuances. They stop, ask questions. The playwright proffers gleaming insights. Actors quill pen notes in the margins. By the end of the read-through, everyone has a general sense of the enterprise.

That’s a best-of-all-possible-worlds, Shakespeare in Love version. But if Stern is correct — and recent research supports her thesis — actors from Shakespeare to Richard Brinsley Sheridan had little time to rehearse. To make ends meet, a company had to perform almost daily, and a tight repertory schedule prevented off-hours gathering. Plus many actors, if not all, had no idea what the play was about.

The most famous example: Hannah Pritchard gained fame for her Lady Macbeth, even though, wrote an astonished Dr. Samuel Johnson, she “had never read the tragedy…all through. She no more thought of the play…than a shoemaker thinks of the skin [from which shoes] are cut.”

Actors had to perform well, writes Stern, but “not to make the play a success. The play and the actor were naturally opposed.” Sometimes, if the company could spare them, tutors helped individuals learn approved behavior. And people judged a performance on how closely it matched the type.

Emphasis was on parts, today called “sides.” Actors saw only their character’s dialogue and the preceding cues; these ranged from a sentence to a single word. They grafted the emotions and gestures of a specific type (or “line”) into the role. Originality, or even in-depth exploration, be damned.

“Hence the term ‘part,’ ” writes Stern, “each actor received only a fragment, a ‘part’ of the play.” And each studied in private. “Although major roles might be taught or ‘instructed,’ ” she adds, “this too happened separately, away from the other actors or the full text.” An actor, in short, “had not learnt to think of the play as a unity.”

This fragmented approach continued, says Stern, into the 18th Century, when David Garrick ruled the stage. “Garrick’s innovations,” she says, “simply replaced the old prototypes with new ones. He did not change the way actors thought about or dealt with inherited parts.”

Understanding this process requires a paradigm shift. In today’s theater, rehearsals begin with read-throughs, even “tablework” research (when the North Coast Rep staged Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia some years ago, the cast and director discussed the play for the first two weeks). The group gathers a collective understanding, then rehearses each scene, exploring, discovering, honing.

Stern’s early-modern hypothesis is today’s actor’s nightmare: you know your lines but go on with no sense of where you are or why you’re there. You enter, stay alert for cues, and speak your lines with appropriate flourishes. A prompter moves you on and off (Shakespeare’s first job in the theater, legend says, was as a prompter’s attendant; he stood backstage and readied actors to enter).

Some reviewers of Stern’s book, bolstered by contemporary notions of ensemble acting, rankle at her findings. One couldn’t accept early-modern theater as “chaos and rampant thespian individualism.” Others point out that, during the Restoration and 18th Century, authors occasionally read to the assembled cast (true, says Stern: but actors and prompters would revise it during performance). Because Stern’s research is so extensive, reviewer Andrew Fleck says, “It may be possible to know more about the preparations for an early-modern performance than the performance itself.”

And there’s the rub. Just what did a performance of, say, Jonson’s Volpone or Shakespeare’s Othello look like? No one knows, and we may never. Stern’s findings, however, open possibilities.

For the first 200 pages, Stern only mentions blocking a scene once. And — except for the rehearsal of songs, dances, battles, and “slapstick” beforehand — she never discusses stage movement. So what did early-modern actors do?

If Stern is right, performances were largely verbal. “Acting was far from being a representation of any kind of reality.” The actors stood in formal patterns (leads up front, or back upstage, the others flanking them, like a curtain call, in order of importance). Speeches were isolated. No one responded to each other. An actor’s task was to stand and deliver and, when not in the spotlight, stand down and await the next cue.

(Richard Burbage, who performed Shakespeare’s tragic leads, received praise for staying in character when not speaking. Many actors, apparently, did not.)

We’re ingrained in “realistic” theater. Since the advent of movies and TV — whose ruling deity has become stampede pacing — we’re so reliant on the visual it’s unsettling to imagine such a static scene (of course, early-moderns would object to our addiction to speed and, compared to their theater, decimation of the spoken word). Plus, the prompter, who had the only complete copy of the play, was probably an accepted part of the event. Like a conductor cueing soloists, the prompter waved in actors, pointed where to stand and move. The half-hidden prompter “directed basic blocking during the play’s enactment.… Much of what was necessary for performance would be prompted within performance itself.”

In effect, an early-modern opening night resembled today’s first “on your feet” rehearsal.

Language created action. “Word scenery” painted stage pictures, as when Trinculo says of Prospero’s island, “Here’s neither brush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all.” Playwrights also embedded directions into the dialogue, telling an actor what to do.

The famous prologue to Henry V encourages the audience to “piece out” — i.e., make whole — “our imperfections.” As opposed to today’s passive audiences, early-modern theatergoers were much more active. Quite often, says Stern, first-nighters also determined the play’s future.

By definition, a performance was a rehearsal. The aim: a full staging for the king and queen. Until then, scripts were works-in-progress, often lucky to make it through opening night.

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