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Margaret Webster talks with Studs Terkel

BROADCAST: Apr. 21, 1961 | DURATION: 00:33:40

Synopsis

Terkel interviews American-British actress Margaret Webster while she was in Chicago.

Transcript

Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.

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Studs Terkel We're seated in one of the new dormitories at the University of Chicago campus, the lounge, and across the microphone the distinguished theater director, actress, Shakespeare scholar, Miss Margaret Webster, who this afternoon offered a lecture at the University. "His Infinite Variety" was the name of your talk about Shakespeare, Miss Webster, and a number of the critics have said of you, of your contributions as a director to the theater and Shakespearean plays, you've made him a living playwright. You call him a living playwright. Why do you call a playwright who has lived 400 years ago a living playwright?

Margaret Webster Well, because it seems to me that his plays still live, and live in a sense--I was talking to some of the boys about that this evening--in the sense that they can be reinterpreted in terms of our own feelings and understanding and approach to them, whereas this was the discussion that I had with the fellas. A movie, once it's shot, is shot, and it may be shown 50 or 200 or as you say 400, 350 anyway, years from now, but it'll be the same. It won't be able to be modified and changed and modulated like living material, and a play, after all, that has lasted that long is living material.

Studs Terkel You say it can be reinterpreted, reinterpreted according to our [lifes? likes? lights?] today,

Margaret Webster I don't mean adapted in the sense of put into modern dress or trying to make it like us or all of those which seem to me false and denigrating, belittlement, really, of the plays themselves, but passed through the crucible of an actor's, of different actors' creative ability and understanding and a different audience's receptive ability and understanding.

Studs Terkel It's eternal truths, then, he's speaking.

Margaret Webster Yes, eternal truths and that aren't frozen, that aren't in a straitjacket, that aren't fossilized. That are alive.

Studs Terkel The "Hamlet" is a figure of the 20th century

Margaret Webster Yes. Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel To the 16th century. What of the matter of audi--Shakespeare today? Would you say the Shakespearean tradition? You inferred this once and you have several opinions about this perhaps, the Shakespearean tradition, is it, has it lost or is it gaining in its hold, or is there such a thing as the Shakespearean tradition in America?

Margaret Webster I don't think there is such a thing as a Shakespearean tradition in America. I'm not quite sure that there is one in England, although of course there is a much greater--Shakespeare's played there much more often--and the fact that the Shakespeare plays are seen much more often by young people, whether actors or audience in England, means necessarily, I think, that there is a certain continuity in England more than there is here, because here they are professionally done so very seldom, and so very, very, very few people now throughout the length and breadth of the United States ever get to see them done professionally. And that necessarily means there is no continuity, and as far as that goes, no tradition, but tradition works two ways. I think it gives a certain stability, a certain continuity to the prolongation of any [art? arc?], not only the playing of Shakespeare but at the same time it generates revolt, which is also good.

Studs Terkel You say it

Margaret Webster generates-- It stimulates young people to do something different just because they want to do something different.

Studs Terkel It generates revolt, you say.

Margaret Webster I think it must, don't you?

Studs Terkel I will come back to that in a moment. There's another thought occurs to me. You speak of the tradition in England to some extent has it more than America. Here there is none. Audiences. I think of matter of audience as you yourself have been so directly involved, you're the involved, the engaged artist as far as Shakespearean plays are concerned, your "Richard II", your "Macbeth" with Judith Anderson and Maurice Evans, a number of your other works, your "Othello" with Robeson, Ferrer, Uta Hagen, the audiences. In more recently than these works, you travelled with a company of non-stars. Am I right, non-stars?

Margaret Webster Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel With truck in various small communities. Does Shakespeare call for a sophisticated audience?

Margaret Webster No, I think it's much better with an unsophisticated audience. I thought, indeed, when I very first came to America, came back to America, which is my native country, but I've been brought up in England and done all my early work in England, and when I came back to do "Richard II" with Maurice Evans, I thought that American audiences were in a sense greatly preferable to English ones for Shakespeare because they were perfectly fresh. Many of them were scared of coming to see Shakespeare, thought it would be a bore and cultural and dull, you know, but having got there or being got there, they were more in a way I thought more perceptive and more lively than English audiences, and more truthful, and the tradition thing that you were speaking of works that way, too. I think that in England the temptation to try to do something different with Shakespeare just for the sake of doing something different is enormous, because I've done a couple of them myself not so long ago. You are tremendously aware that the play has been played by so-and-so and produced by somebody else and directed by somebody else, and this and that, and there have been six different productions within the last five years, and you almost inevitably think "What can I do that hasn't been done before?" instead of thinking "What can I truthfully do to interpret what appears to me to be the author's intention?" And in America, though that temptation of course exists and it has been raised to the height of a philosophy almost, I think, in some instances, you are not driven in the same way to try and be different just because the plays are done so much less often.

Studs Terkel Isn't this, aren't you really striking one of the carbuncles of our day, that the play itself, the play of this genius or any other great play, is given second billing to the performer, the personality, the star? Hasn't this been a problem from time to time with Shakespeare? You mentioned that when--

Margaret Webster It's often been a problem with the star. I think nowadays the novelty is that it's begun to, the plays have begun to appear as vehicles for directors.

Studs Terkel For a director.

Margaret Webster And if they've got to be made vehicles for somebody, I'd really rather it was the

Studs Terkel Well, how will a director, you say a vehicle's for the director, the director's job, well, you, Miss Webster--

Margaret Webster But I don't look at it that way, you see, but I think there are directors who think as I say, "What can I do that's different?" Because then it must be the director that's done it. There can be no question that it's the poor old author or even name actors, however gifted, it's got to be the director that thought up that gimmick. Therefore you kind of give yourself billing, but I think, too, that some directors feel that in order to make Shakespeare comprehensible to a modern audience and make it real and alive to us, they have to, well, not necessarily put it in modern dress, but put it in some sort of different dress or do something that.

Studs Terkel Is it a condescending attitude to have toward the audience, the fear the audience might not accept Shakespeare undiluted?

Margaret Webster I think it is, yes. But I think it's even more a condescending idea attitude towards poor old Shakespeare, who they think was always getting himself in such a terrible jam and we must be cleverer and rescue him, because after all we know more nowadays.

Studs Terkel You are, you say we know more nowadays--

Margaret Webster I mean this is them, I'm quoting them, I'm not saying--

Studs Terkel Oh, I see.

Margaret Webster This is the attitude. After all, 350 years we've learned a lot and we're so clever now.

Studs Terkel We know there was a man named Freud, Shakespeare didn't.

Margaret Webster Yes, exactly. After all, our theaters are different, we have lighting, and we don't have to have things in all those scenes, and.

Studs Terkel You speak of that in a very excellent book that's now available in paperback, "Shakespeare Without Tears", it's a premier book.

Margaret Webster Well, thank you for the plug.

Studs Terkel You speak of the, you spoke of the scenes, the sets and all. Granville-Barker came along and freed Shakespeare, you say, he freed the stage. Would you mind telling us a bit about that? In Shakespeare's day, was the stage pretty unfettered?

Margaret Webster Yes. Shakespeare did his plays in--the Elizabethan stage consisted of a platform now very popular in America, much more the theater-in-the-round type projecting right out into the auditorium, or most of his plays were done in approximately this kind of a theater, with what they call an inner stage and an upper stage on which the smaller scenes took place. Now there are, that is, nowadays a school of thought which holds that this and this only is the sort of stage on which Shakespeare's plays ought to be done. There's a replica of it, for instance, at the Folger Library in Washington. Only on a small scale. Shakespeare's playhouse was probably bigger than that, I think. But I don't think that that is necessarily true or indeed desirable because it seems to me that the Elizabethan stage itself was so familiar to the eyes of the audience that they took one look at it and forgot all about it and then concentrated on the play. That is no longer so for our eyes. If you build a replica of an Elizabethan stage, as they did for instance in the New York World Fair '39 to '40 where I did some Shakespeare, an audience becomes--it's strange to a modern audience's eyes and they, therefore it becomes too dominant in their looking and in their thinking. Its own, its value was that it was an anonymous stage, an uncluttered stage, and that Shakespeare wrote his plays not only for the free flow of that kind of a stage, but for its, as I say, anonymity. What Barker (sic) did was the first to clear away from the stages of his day before the First World War all the clutter of scenery and long waits between scenes that preceded his time. But I think that in the last 20 years we have grown a good deal beyond that. I think that we are now prepared to take the merest suggestion of a set and let the audience use its imagination from thereon, which is a very great gain both in the fluidity with which it enables the plays to be done and in the fact that in many cases an audience's imagination with Shakespeare's lines to start off, start them going, is likely to be very, very much livelier than anything we can actually put on the stage by means of painting some canvas and nailing it onto pieces of lumber.

Studs Terkel You speak of Shakespeare's imagination and its, this attracting the audience and moving the audience. There's something else you mention here that intrigues me very much. The audience of Shakespeare's day, it was a time of great ferment. We think of theater today as involving a minority of the audience. This is true, theater involves a minority of the audience.

Margaret Webster You mean a minority of the population goes

Studs Terkel A minority of the population. Now, what of the London of Shakespeare's day? I'm always curious about this. Was it the mass of the Londoners who attended Shakespeare and theater, or was it minority then?

Margaret Webster I wouldn't be scholar enough to answer that, but I would suppose, certainly, that the groundlings that we hear so much about were drawn certainly from the apprentices and the usual population of the city. It wasn't the only by any manner of means the court who kept the theaters going, it was the population. Of course, the population was a tiny one by our standards.

Studs Terkel But you feel there was far more than a small minority who were going to see Shakespeare's plays.

Margaret Webster I would suppose so, yes, indeed. Certainly a far greater proportion, far greater ratio than now go to see them in the living theater.

Studs Terkel I asked this for a specific reason. Or now go to see any play in theater.

Margaret Webster In the living theater,

Studs Terkel I have a very specific reason: the matter of the sophisticated as against quote, quote, as against the unsophisticated audience. Fact, you meant, you speak of his plays as being exciting theater, exciting entertainment, offered without his being--how did Shaw describe him? He stopped from being a divinity and a bore and made him a creature.

Margaret Webster Yes, that's right. Well, I don't, I think that--what do you mean, that because the smaller minority now goes to see them, that they are a sophisticated minority?

Studs Terkel No, I'm--no, the question I'm asking is whether something has been wrong with American theater or with theater generally that the patronizing attitude and putting Shakespeare on the pedestal and making him the divinity and the bore has been the reason, perhaps, that more people don't enjoy

Margaret Webster I don't think so. I think the only thing which is wrong with, which is the reason for our having so little Shakespeare professionally done now is dollars and cents and nothing else at all. I think the audiences are just as eager, just as receptive as they ever have been. I found them to be so when I had my bus and truck company that you referred to, and I find them to be so now when I do this program of mine which is not in fact a lecture but a sort of one-man recital, a little bit on the lines of Gielgud's recital, that sort of thing.

Studs Terkel It's the way you do it. The point I'm--I'm sure you're right, but isn't it the manner in which you do it, that you present Shakespeare as living theater and exciting rather than as a museum piece?

Margaret Webster That may be true, that may be true, but I think the museum attitude in the production of Shakespeare has gone, really, quite a long time. Shakespeare is still of course enormously done not only by college and university and community theaters, but is, if he received royalties from his television shows and movies and such, would certainly be the wealthiest playwright now alive.

Studs Terkel Isn't there a point you made about the difficulty of television production because you speak on behalf of the undiluted Shakespeare?

Margaret Webster Well, yes, I think it's better undiluted, of course, but it doesn't follow that it can't be done well in arranged form sometimes well, sometimes badly. It is a sobering thought. You asked me about the proportion of the population which saw Shakespeare's plays or any other place in his own day. But I remember Maurice Evans saying to me when he did "Richard II" on television which was, I think, the first of the series of plays that he's done with Hallmark since. But when he did that one, he said it's a sobering thought that "Richard II" was seen that Sunday afternoon in all likelihood by more people than have ever seen it in all the productions of "Richard II" that have ever been done on the stage in the world before.

Studs Terkel Think of what influence this can be for good.

Margaret Webster Yes, indeed.

Studs Terkel And how to a great extent it is not being used in that manner.

Margaret Webster Yes.

Studs Terkel Well, Miss Webster, the matter of audiences again, you speak of your own company. Perhaps some remembrances of this trip of yours with your truck company between the years 19--was it '48 to '50? Was it around then?

Margaret Webster Around then, yes.

Studs Terkel What about--where did you go, and who were the audiences?

Margaret Webster Oh, we went all over the lot, to places that I'm sure very few people have ever heard of. I probably know more people's hometowns and alma maters than anybody in America except, perhaps, Mrs. Roosevelt because we really penetrated. The first season I remember we played at one point seven shows in seven days in, I think it was seven states, or anyway six. I know it started from Detroit and took us way 'round through Indiana and Illinois and South Dakota and Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, I think that was a great bunch that we got through

Studs Terkel And a great number of these people, or these audiences had never seen theater before,

Margaret Webster A great number had never seen theater before, an even greater number had certainly never seen professional Shakespeare before, that but many of them had never seen live actors, what they call in Vermont, "meat actors" before. And sometimes they used to come up and say, could they really touch the actors to make sure they were there in the round.

Studs Terkel In the round. What were their reactions?

Margaret Webster They were astonishingly good. I was scared of it at first, because I knew that many of them didn't even realize that when they got into a theater it would be a good idea to be quiet, you know, they thought it was like a movie house, the movie would go on just the same no matter what they did and whether they crackled peanuts and--

Studs Terkel Hallie Flanagan--

Margaret Webster Potato

Studs Terkel In talking about federal theater years ago speaks of a similar experience. They were afraid to applaud at one time.

Margaret Webster Yes, they can be, they can be unpredictable a little. But once you get them started, wonderful.

Studs Terkel But they dug Shakespeare.

Margaret Webster Oh, they dug Shakespeare

Studs Terkel There it was again.

Margaret Webster But they always have. There's a story that I think I tell in that book I'm pretty sure, about when we did the uncut "Hamlet" in a city in the Middle West one Saturday afternoon when there was a strike of the local ushers, and the management was very disturbed lest the children should misbehave themselves without any ushers, show them their seats, or keep quiet or whatever. So he sent for a detail of cops, and the cops arrived, and the kids arrived, and the play began and everything was fine until Polonius' first scene, and when Polonius started to be funny the kids started to laugh immediately, and the cops said "Shhh!"

Studs Terkel So the kids are the ones who really knew the man.

Margaret Webster That the kids got it.

Studs Terkel They

Margaret Webster They were in no doubt.

Studs Terkel What of the matter of actors? This is a question that often comes up on American actors, British actors and doing Shakespeare.

Margaret Webster Well, I've found working in England again when I hadn't worked for a long time until fairly recently, that English actors are of course much more glib, much more facile, they speak the verse much more easily, they wear their clothes as if they belonged to them, but they tend, I think, this is fallible as all generalizations are, they tend to be very superficial, and it's altogether too easy and it's the, what you have to try and do is to make them dig down under it and really come up with some blood and some passion, you know? Whereas American actors I think have, tend to have, much greater vitality, much greater zeal, I think they work harder, and I think they come up with a performance which has, if I may say so on this instrument, much more guts than English actors in spite of the fact that they find the verse difficult and they kind of plow through it as if it were a muddy field, rather, and they don't wear the clothes as well, you have to show them how to wear the clothes, and you can't expect them to have a great deal of gloss and elegance and period style, but they can more often than not, I think, as a generalization come through with a performance which has more bite and more passion

Studs Terkel Isn't that interesting, that the English actors have more of the facade, but the Americans more of

Margaret Webster The Americans are apt to be crude in execution, but I think more vital in conception.

Studs Terkel I think Shakespeare might have liked their--

Margaret Webster Yes, I do think so.

Studs Terkel Possibly. What of some of the figures? The clown, I've always been intrigued by the Shakespearian clown. Is he, he's often, did he speak for the audience a great deal? He spoke--

Margaret Webster Very often. He was very often a commentator and did of course speak to the audience, I'm sure, very freely, just as, more like vaudeville in our day, or a revue, or Thornton Wilder did it, of course, in "Our Town", with the stage manager, that sort of thing.

Studs Terkel And the clown, too, could say things, couldn't he, that say, a more straight figure could not say.

Margaret Webster I should suppose that quite a number of the comedy lines that we have left were improvisations of the, Shakespeare's Will Kemp and [Arnhem?] and his other funny characters.

Studs Terkel No, I meant actually make commentary, make--

Margaret Webster As the play went along?

Studs Terkel I didn't mean improvise, no, I meant the clown, Shakespeare's clown figure.

Margaret Webster Could be used as a commentator. Yes, that's true. That's undoubtedly true.

Studs Terkel Because in the guise of the fool saying truths,

Margaret Webster Yes. Yes.

Studs Terkel Did the soliloquy--I'm thinking--did Shakespeare's use of the soliloquy--was this a new--his use of soliloquy interwoven with the action? Was this a Shakespeare innovation?

Margaret Webster No, not an innovation, but like everything else he shaped it to much more subtle uses than it had been put to before, much more than the straight talking to the audience. And I've been thinking recently in talking with someone about the adaptation, a possible adaptation of a book to the stage, that it surprises me that modern playwrights who are so modern so they think are still so old-fashioned in their retention of the, usually the three-act form and the certain limited number of set scenes and in not using the soliloquy. I would have thought that if, that modern playwrights would, as I think I should if I were a modern playwright, be as modern as Shakespeare and use soliloquies and use a stage freedom, a freedom of place and time also, but chiefly of use of place that is much more fluid. Instead of sticking with this old 19th century stuff which we abuse so in every other respect, abuse the ideas of playwrights and what they had to say would stick to the formula in which they said it, which seems to me very silly, because the soliloquy after all is no more than thought made audible. And this is a perfectly legitimate dramatic device, belongs to the drama, always has, apart from which, how many people do you suppose talk to themselves when they're by themselves? I should think a very great number.

Studs Terkel And there's a psychological truth here. Because you raise a fascinating point here, here's the greatest playwright of all time who lived 400 years ago who offered these devices, if you will, of his craftsmanship, not used, rarely used, but whereas a Chekhov or Ibsen apparently had a much deeper influence without being any Chekhovs and Ibsens in our day than the Bard himself.

Margaret Webster Yes, it's very strange.

Studs Terkel What of Shakespeare's women? Since--the fact that boys play the--this have any effect you think on his seeing women a certain way?

Margaret Webster To some extent I think yes, I do think so. And I think to some extent even at limited and there aren't very many older women, if you come to think of it, other than what we call character women, but there are very few apart from, for instance, Gertrude in "Hamlet" of women in the prime of life used for any other than noble mothers like Volumnia or character parts like the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet"--

Studs Terkel But not really as women--

Margaret Webster Or a couple of very amusing and robust full-blooded people like the "Merry Wives of Windsor" and Paulina in "Winter's Tale" and Emelia in "Othello", that sort, but the passionate ones were had to be practically the young ones, because for a boy to play a passionate woman of forty must have been a tough trick.

Studs Terkel So this in a sense may have to some extent kept him from delineating the--

Margaret Webster To some

Studs Terkel Woman in the prime.

Margaret Webster I think it may have, yes.

Studs Terkel There's something you said that intrigues me very much about Ophelia. Here's a little weak, seemingly weak shallow Ophelia, if she were stronger, there would be no "Hamlet". What do you mean by that?

Margaret Webster Well, I mean if Hamlet had probably had a woman that he could have talked to that could have understood him, that he loved and who loved him, and he could have poured it all out to her, obviously the whole thing would have been different. Maybe the end result might have been the same, but it wouldn't have gone the same way or for the same reasons, and one of the things it seems to me that throws Hamlet on to his lonely and wavering and course that goes first this way and then that way, is the fact that he was alone, and that he had nobody to talk to.

Studs Terkel So had there been a strong, full-blooded Ophelia, there may have been a wholly different outlook.

Margaret Webster It would, I think, have been a different

Studs Terkel I mean, this was probably deliberate on the part of Shakespeare.

Margaret Webster Oh, yes, of course.

Studs Terkel What of you, Margaret Webster, and challenges? Every play to you is a challenge, I'm sure every Shakespearean work to you is a challenge. Has there been one that intrigued you perhaps? Bugged you more than others?

Margaret Webster Well, it's a difficult question to answer, though the form in which you put it is a little easier than it is sometimes put, when they say, "Which is your favorite play?"

Studs Terkel

Margaret Webster

Studs Terkel We're seated in one of the new dormitories at the University of Chicago campus, the lounge, and across the microphone the distinguished theater director, actress, Shakespeare scholar, Miss Margaret Webster, who this afternoon offered a lecture at the University. "His Infinite Variety" was the name of your talk about Shakespeare, Miss Webster, and a number of the critics have said of you, of your contributions as a director to the theater and Shakespearean plays, you've made him a living playwright. You call him a living playwright. Why do you call a playwright who has lived 400 years ago a living playwright? Well, because it seems to me that his plays still live, and live in a sense--I was talking to some of the boys about that this evening--in the sense that they can be reinterpreted in terms of our own feelings and understanding and approach to them, whereas this was the discussion that I had with the fellas. A movie, once it's shot, is shot, and it may be shown 50 or 200 or as you say 400, 350 anyway, years from now, but it'll be the same. It won't be able to be modified and changed and modulated like living material, and a play, after all, that has lasted that long is living material. You say it can be reinterpreted, reinterpreted according to our [lifes? likes? lights?] today, I don't mean adapted in the sense of put into modern dress or trying to make it like us or all of those which seem to me false and denigrating, belittlement, really, of the plays themselves, but passed through the crucible of an actor's, of different actors' creative ability and understanding and a different audience's receptive ability and understanding. It's eternal truths, then, he's speaking. Yes, eternal truths and that aren't frozen, that aren't in a straitjacket, that aren't fossilized. That are alive. The "Hamlet" is a figure of the 20th century as Yes. Yes. Yes. To the 16th century. What of the matter of audi--Shakespeare today? Would you say the Shakespearean tradition? You inferred this once and you have several opinions about this perhaps, the Shakespearean tradition, is it, has it lost or is it gaining in its hold, or is there such a thing as the Shakespearean tradition in America? I don't think there is such a thing as a Shakespearean tradition in America. I'm not quite sure that there is one in England, although of course there is a much greater--Shakespeare's played there much more often--and the fact that the Shakespeare plays are seen much more often by young people, whether actors or audience in England, means necessarily, I think, that there is a certain continuity in England more than there is here, because here they are professionally done so very seldom, and so very, very, very few people now throughout the length and breadth of the United States ever get to see them done professionally. And that necessarily means there is no continuity, and as far as that goes, no tradition, but tradition works two ways. I think it gives a certain stability, a certain continuity to the prolongation of any [art? arc?], not only the playing of Shakespeare but at the same time it generates revolt, which is also good. You say it generates-- It stimulates young people to do something different just because they want to do something different. It generates revolt, you say. I think it must, don't you? I will come back to that in a moment. There's another thought occurs to me. You speak of the tradition in England to some extent has it more than America. Here there is none. Audiences. I think of matter of audience as you yourself have been so directly involved, you're the involved, the engaged artist as far as Shakespearean plays are concerned, your "Richard II", your "Macbeth" with Judith Anderson and Maurice Evans, a number of your other works, your "Othello" with Robeson, Ferrer, Uta Hagen, the audiences. In more recently than these works, you travelled with a company of non-stars. Am I right, non-stars? Yes, yes. With truck in various small communities. Does Shakespeare call for a sophisticated audience? No, I think it's much better with an unsophisticated audience. I thought, indeed, when I very first came to America, came back to America, which is my native country, but I've been brought up in England and done all my early work in England, and when I came back to do "Richard II" with Maurice Evans, I thought that American audiences were in a sense greatly preferable to English ones for Shakespeare because they were perfectly fresh. Many of them were scared of coming to see Shakespeare, thought it would be a bore and cultural and dull, you know, but having got there or being got there, they were more in a way I thought more perceptive and more lively than English audiences, and more truthful, and the tradition thing that you were speaking of works that way, too. I think that in England the temptation to try to do something different with Shakespeare just for the sake of doing something different is enormous, because I've done a couple of them myself not so long ago. You are tremendously aware that the play has been played by so-and-so and produced by somebody else and directed by somebody else, and this and that, and there have been six different productions within the last five years, and you almost inevitably think "What can I do that hasn't been done before?" instead of thinking "What can I truthfully do to interpret what appears to me to be the author's intention?" And in America, though that temptation of course exists and it has been raised to the height of a philosophy almost, I think, in some instances, you are not driven in the same way to try and be different just because the plays are done so much less often. Isn't this, aren't you really striking one of the carbuncles of our day, that the play itself, the play of this genius or any other great play, is given second billing to the performer, the personality, the star? Hasn't this been a problem from time to time with Shakespeare? You mentioned that when-- It's often been a problem with the star. I think nowadays the novelty is that it's begun to, the plays have begun to appear as vehicles for directors. For a director. And if they've got to be made vehicles for somebody, I'd really rather it was the star. Well, how will a director, you say a vehicle's for the director, the director's job, well, you, Miss Webster-- But I don't look at it that way, you see, but I think there are directors who think as I say, "What can I do that's different?" Because then it must be the director that's done it. There can be no question that it's the poor old author or even name actors, however gifted, it's got to be the director that thought up that gimmick. Therefore you kind of give yourself billing, but I think, too, that some directors feel that in order to make Shakespeare comprehensible to a modern audience and make it real and alive to us, they have to, well, not necessarily put it in modern dress, but put it in some sort of different dress or do something that. Is it a condescending attitude to have toward the audience, the fear the audience might not accept Shakespeare undiluted? I think it is, yes. But I think it's even more a condescending idea attitude towards poor old Shakespeare, who they think was always getting himself in such a terrible jam and we must be cleverer and rescue him, because after all we know more nowadays. You are, you say we know more nowadays-- I mean this is them, I'm quoting them, I'm not saying-- Oh, I see. This is the attitude. After all, 350 years we've learned a lot and we're so clever now. We know there was a man named Freud, Shakespeare didn't. Yes, exactly. After all, our theaters are different, we have lighting, and we don't have to have things in all those scenes, and. You speak of that in a very excellent book that's now available in paperback, "Shakespeare Without Tears", it's a premier book. Well, thank you for the plug. You speak of the, you spoke of the scenes, the sets and all. Granville-Barker came along and freed Shakespeare, you say, he freed the stage. Would you mind telling us a bit about that? In Shakespeare's day, was the stage pretty unfettered? Yes. Shakespeare did his plays in--the Elizabethan stage consisted of a platform now very popular in America, much more the theater-in-the-round type projecting right out into the auditorium, or most of his plays were done in approximately this kind of a theater, with what they call an inner stage and an upper stage on which the smaller scenes took place. Now there are, that is, nowadays a school of thought which holds that this and this only is the sort of stage on which Shakespeare's plays ought to be done. There's a replica of it, for instance, at the Folger Library in Washington. Only on a small scale. Shakespeare's playhouse was probably bigger than that, I think. But I don't think that that is necessarily true or indeed desirable because it seems to me that the Elizabethan stage itself was so familiar to the eyes of the audience that they took one look at it and forgot all about it and then concentrated on the play. That is no longer so for our eyes. If you build a replica of an Elizabethan stage, as they did for instance in the New York World Fair '39 to '40 where I did some Shakespeare, an audience becomes--it's strange to a modern audience's eyes and they, therefore it becomes too dominant in their looking and in their thinking. Its own, its value was that it was an anonymous stage, an uncluttered stage, and that Shakespeare wrote his plays not only for the free flow of that kind of a stage, but for its, as I say, anonymity. What Barker (sic) did was the first to clear away from the stages of his day before the First World War all the clutter of scenery and long waits between scenes that preceded his time. But I think that in the last 20 years we have grown a good deal beyond that. I think that we are now prepared to take the merest suggestion of a set and let the audience use its imagination from thereon, which is a very great gain both in the fluidity with which it enables the plays to be done and in the fact that in many cases an audience's imagination with Shakespeare's lines to start off, start them going, is likely to be very, very much livelier than anything we can actually put on the stage by means of painting some canvas and nailing it onto pieces of lumber. You speak of Shakespeare's imagination and its, this attracting the audience and moving the audience. There's something else you mention here that intrigues me very much. The audience of Shakespeare's day, it was a time of great ferment. We think of theater today as involving a minority of the audience. This is true, theater involves a minority of the audience. You mean a minority of the population goes to A minority of the population. Now, what of the London of Shakespeare's day? I'm always curious about this. Was it the mass of the Londoners who attended Shakespeare and theater, or was it minority then? I wouldn't be scholar enough to answer that, but I would suppose, certainly, that the groundlings that we hear so much about were drawn certainly from the apprentices and the usual population of the city. It wasn't the only by any manner of means the court who kept the theaters going, it was the population. Of course, the population was a tiny one by our standards. But you feel there was far more than a small minority who were going to see Shakespeare's plays. I would suppose so, yes, indeed. Certainly a far greater proportion, far greater ratio than now go to see them in the living theater. I asked this for a specific reason. Or now go to see any play in theater. In the living theater, yes. I have a very specific reason: the matter of the sophisticated as against quote, quote, as against the unsophisticated audience. Fact, you meant, you speak of his plays as being exciting theater, exciting entertainment, offered without his being--how did Shaw describe him? He stopped from being a divinity and a bore and made him a creature. Yes, that's right. Well, I don't, I think that--what do you mean, that because the smaller minority now goes to see them, that they are a sophisticated minority? No, I'm--no, the question I'm asking is whether something has been wrong with American theater or with theater generally that the patronizing attitude and putting Shakespeare on the pedestal and making him the divinity and the bore has been the reason, perhaps, that more people don't enjoy Shakespeare. I don't think so. I think the only thing which is wrong with, which is the reason for our having so little Shakespeare professionally done now is dollars and cents and nothing else at all. I think the audiences are just as eager, just as receptive as they ever have been. I found them to be so when I had my bus and truck company that you referred to, and I find them to be so now when I do this program of mine which is not in fact a lecture but a sort of one-man recital, a little bit on the lines of Gielgud's recital, that sort of thing. It's the way you do it. The point I'm--I'm sure you're right, but isn't it the manner in which you do it, that you present Shakespeare as living theater and exciting rather than as a museum piece? That may be true, that may be true, but I think the museum attitude in the production of Shakespeare has gone, really, quite a long time. Shakespeare is still of course enormously done not only by college and university and community theaters, but is, if he received royalties from his television shows and movies and such, would certainly be the wealthiest playwright now alive. Isn't there a point you made about the difficulty of television production because you speak on behalf of the undiluted Shakespeare? Well, yes, I think it's better undiluted, of course, but it doesn't follow that it can't be done well in arranged form sometimes well, sometimes badly. It is a sobering thought. You asked me about the proportion of the population which saw Shakespeare's plays or any other place in his own day. But I remember Maurice Evans saying to me when he did "Richard II" on television which was, I think, the first of the series of plays that he's done with Hallmark since. But when he did that one, he said it's a sobering thought that "Richard II" was seen that Sunday afternoon in all likelihood by more people than have ever seen it in all the productions of "Richard II" that have ever been done on the stage in the world before. Think of what influence this can be for good. Yes, indeed. And how to a great extent it is not being used in that manner. Yes. Well, Miss Webster, the matter of audiences again, you speak of your own company. Perhaps some remembrances of this trip of yours with your truck company between the years 19--was it '48 to '50? Was it around then? Around then, yes. What about--where did you go, and who were the audiences? Oh, we went all over the lot, to places that I'm sure very few people have ever heard of. I probably know more people's hometowns and alma maters than anybody in America except, perhaps, Mrs. Roosevelt because we really penetrated. The first season I remember we played at one point seven shows in seven days in, I think it was seven states, or anyway six. I know it started from Detroit and took us way 'round through Indiana and Illinois and South Dakota and Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, I think that was a great bunch that we got through in And a great number of these people, or these audiences had never seen theater before, I A great number had never seen theater before, an even greater number had certainly never seen professional Shakespeare before, that but many of them had never seen live actors, what they call in Vermont, "meat actors" before. And sometimes they used to come up and say, could they really touch the actors to make sure they were there in the round. In the round. What were their reactions? They were astonishingly good. I was scared of it at first, because I knew that many of them didn't even realize that when they got into a theater it would be a good idea to be quiet, you know, they thought it was like a movie house, the movie would go on just the same no matter what they did and whether they crackled peanuts and-- Hallie Flanagan-- Potato In talking about federal theater years ago speaks of a similar experience. They were afraid to applaud at one time. Yes, they can be, they can be unpredictable a little. But once you get them started, wonderful. But they dug Shakespeare. Oh, they dug Shakespeare all There it was again. But they always have. There's a story that I think I tell in that book I'm pretty sure, about when we did the uncut "Hamlet" in a city in the Middle West one Saturday afternoon when there was a strike of the local ushers, and the management was very disturbed lest the children should misbehave themselves without any ushers, show them their seats, or keep quiet or whatever. So he sent for a detail of cops, and the cops arrived, and the kids arrived, and the play began and everything was fine until Polonius' first scene, and when Polonius started to be funny the kids started to laugh immediately, and the cops said "Shhh!" So the kids are the ones who really knew the man. That the kids got it. They They were in no doubt. What of the matter of actors? This is a question that often comes up on American actors, British actors and doing Shakespeare. Well, I've found working in England again when I hadn't worked for a long time until fairly recently, that English actors are of course much more glib, much more facile, they speak the verse much more easily, they wear their clothes as if they belonged to them, but they tend, I think, this is fallible as all generalizations are, they tend to be very superficial, and it's altogether too easy and it's the, what you have to try and do is to make them dig down under it and really come up with some blood and some passion, you know? Whereas American actors I think have, tend to have, much greater vitality, much greater zeal, I think they work harder, and I think they come up with a performance which has, if I may say so on this instrument, much more guts than English actors in spite of the fact that they find the verse difficult and they kind of plow through it as if it were a muddy field, rather, and they don't wear the clothes as well, you have to show them how to wear the clothes, and you can't expect them to have a great deal of gloss and elegance and period style, but they can more often than not, I think, as a generalization come through with a performance which has more bite and more passion to Isn't that interesting, that the English actors have more of the facade, but the Americans more of the The Americans are apt to be crude in execution, but I think more vital in conception. I think Shakespeare might have liked their-- Yes, I do think so. Possibly. What of some of the figures? The clown, I've always been intrigued by the Shakespearian clown. Is he, he's often, did he speak for the audience a great deal? He spoke-- Very often. He was very often a commentator and did of course speak to the audience, I'm sure, very freely, just as, more like vaudeville in our day, or a revue, or Thornton Wilder did it, of course, in "Our Town", with the stage manager, that sort of thing. And the clown, too, could say things, couldn't he, that say, a more straight figure could not say. I should suppose that quite a number of the comedy lines that we have left were improvisations of the, Shakespeare's Will Kemp and [Arnhem?] and his other funny characters. No, I meant actually make commentary, make-- As the play went along? I didn't mean improvise, no, I meant the clown, Shakespeare's clown figure. Could be used as a commentator. Yes, that's true. That's undoubtedly true. Because in the guise of the fool saying truths, I Yes. Yes. Did the soliloquy--I'm thinking--did Shakespeare's use of the soliloquy--was this a new--his use of soliloquy interwoven with the action? Was this a Shakespeare innovation? No, not an innovation, but like everything else he shaped it to much more subtle uses than it had been put to before, much more than the straight talking to the audience. And I've been thinking recently in talking with someone about the adaptation, a possible adaptation of a book to the stage, that it surprises me that modern playwrights who are so modern so they think are still so old-fashioned in their retention of the, usually the three-act form and the certain limited number of set scenes and in not using the soliloquy. I would have thought that if, that modern playwrights would, as I think I should if I were a modern playwright, be as modern as Shakespeare and use soliloquies and use a stage freedom, a freedom of place and time also, but chiefly of use of place that is much more fluid. Instead of sticking with this old 19th century stuff which we abuse so in every other respect, abuse the ideas of playwrights and what they had to say would stick to the formula in which they said it, which seems to me very silly, because the soliloquy after all is no more than thought made audible. And this is a perfectly legitimate dramatic device, belongs to the drama, always has, apart from which, how many people do you suppose talk to themselves when they're by themselves? I should think a very great number. And there's a psychological truth here. Because you raise a fascinating point here, here's the greatest playwright of all time who lived 400 years ago who offered these devices, if you will, of his craftsmanship, not used, rarely used, but whereas a Chekhov or Ibsen apparently had a much deeper influence without being any Chekhovs and Ibsens in our day than the Bard himself. Yes, it's very strange. What of Shakespeare's women? Since--the fact that boys play the--this have any effect you think on his seeing women a certain way? To some extent I think yes, I do think so. And I think to some extent even at limited and there aren't very many older women, if you come to think of it, other than what we call character women, but there are very few apart from, for instance, Gertrude in "Hamlet" of women in the prime of life used for any other than noble mothers like Volumnia or character parts like the nurse in "Romeo and Juliet"-- But not really as women-- Or a couple of very amusing and robust full-blooded people like the "Merry Wives of Windsor" and Paulina in "Winter's Tale" and Emelia in "Othello", that sort, but the passionate ones were had to be practically the young ones, because for a boy to play a passionate woman of forty must have been a tough trick. So this in a sense may have to some extent kept him from delineating the-- To some extent-- Woman in the prime. I think it may have, yes. There's something you said that intrigues me very much about Ophelia. Here's a little weak, seemingly weak shallow Ophelia, if she were stronger, there would be no "Hamlet". What do you mean by that? Well, I mean if Hamlet had probably had a woman that he could have talked to that could have understood him, that he loved and who loved him, and he could have poured it all out to her, obviously the whole thing would have been different. Maybe the end result might have been the same, but it wouldn't have gone the same way or for the same reasons, and one of the things it seems to me that throws Hamlet on to his lonely and wavering and course that goes first this way and then that way, is the fact that he was alone, and that he had nobody to talk to. So had there been a strong, full-blooded Ophelia, there may have been a wholly different outlook. It would, I think, have been a different play. I mean, this was probably deliberate on the part of Shakespeare. Oh, yes, of course. What of you, Margaret Webster, and challenges? Every play to you is a challenge, I'm sure every Shakespearean work to you is a challenge. Has there been one that intrigued you perhaps? Bugged you more than others? Well, it's a difficult question to answer, though the form in which you put it is a little easier than it is sometimes put, when they say, "Which is your favorite play?" I You I

Margaret Webster I think that probably--I suppose "Hamlet" is in a way the most interesting of them because there's such an infinite number of ways of doing it. I thought when I'd done the uncut "Hamlet" with Maurice Evans which we did at a certain time in a certain way for certain reasons which were, I think, valid and which from my point of view came off very well in that it expressed what I had hoped that it would, fulfill the vision that I'd had of it, but the moment it was over, I thought now I would like to start all over again from the beginning and do it quite, quite, quite, quite differently. On the other hand, the "Othello", the Robeson, Ferrer "Othello" to which you've referred posed different challenges for different reasons, and the "Measure for Measure" which I did at the Old Vic only a couple of years ago I found extremely difficult, and from that point of view challenging and interesting.

Studs Terkel What--assume this is a hypothetical case, assume you had all funds at your disposal. All funds at your disposal. And that there was no economic problem.

Margaret Webster What?

Studs Terkel What sort of theater would you like to have? What sort of theater would you like to see?

Margaret Webster You mean in terms of the repertory that it would play, or what?

Studs Terkel Well, that's a question of several parts. This was in terms of repertory, let's say.

Margaret Webster Well, I think that is a difficult one. I would like to see or work in or have such of a theater I think as Tyrone Guthrie is currently proposing in Minneapolis, and I think it would be a great thing for the whole of the United States if his theater is a success and if two or three others of a similar nature could be started up in other cities, I think, outside of New York. The--I was considering such of a theater projected in another city only a few months ago. And the question of the repertory is, of course, extraordinarily difficult because you have to consider it in terms both of the audience and of the actors. And you must try to give the audience, I think, a well-balanced diet and yet you have to plan the repertory within the limits of a company which can play it. Now, it's very difficult to get actors like, let's say, Olivier who can play "Oedipus Rex" and Archie in "The Entertainer". Certainly in America and, I think now in England to some extent, too, actors are specialists more. Their range is not of that width, and either you have to have the money if you postulate that one has the money, well that's fine, because then, of course, you have a big enough company that it can divide up just as to some extent an opera company does into the Italian wing and the German wing and so forth.

Studs Terkel That's regional theaters you were speaking, to break the one-city hold. There's one further point and I won't hold you any further, Miss Webster, you just said something, you spoke of Olivier. They haven't the range, American actors haven't the range of British actors, you spoke of the vitality earlier. Now you come to the, here's a man, bang! I mean, whether it's "Oedipus Rex" or "Hamlet" or Archie Rice, and why don't the American actors have this range?

Margaret Webster Well, because of their lack of either training in or experience of playing or even of seeing the classic end of the range of the scale. They have a certain range of both playing and seeing and experiencing the contemporary end of the scale, but the classic end of the scale they never get a chance at. And if they don't see, they see practically no Shakespeare, they see absolutely no Greek tragedy or Ibsen or Chekhov or Moliere or Sheridan.

Studs Terkel So here we're going to come to the matter of the commercial theater and that's the problem that you touched on earlier, theater and the box office, theater and investment.

Margaret Webster Yes.

Studs Terkel Back to that again. I won't ask you about subsidies, that's a subject unto itself, but I can imagine how you feel on that subject. The need for it. We do have a--I won't go into it now. Miss Webster, one last question. Do you feel that Shakespeare is--unless you want to speak about it.

Margaret Webster Well, very briefly, because your listeners must be exhausted and I'm a little on the tired side myself. I do think that the theater should be considered as worthy of I don't say subsidy in the sense of its being federal subsidy, because I'm not at all sure that I think it should be, but of support in the same way as all the other arts are. I mean, you here in Chicago would be ashamed if you didn't have your own symphony orchestra, and you have an opera season, however brief, and you have a marvelous art gallery and innumerable public libraries, none of those things pay their way. They're all paid for either by taxes or by private contribution of some kind or another. And I think that the theater should be in that bracket. I know that for instance, as a tiny example of what can be done on however small a scale, in England one of the many stock companies, repertory companies they call them, but they play mostly what we would call stock, all of which have some kind of help either from the British Arts Council or from their local city or county, usually their city. None of them come out in the black without some help, however small. Well, for instance there's the Birmingham Repertory, which is one of the oldest and most distinguished of the English repertory theaters, and there the city gives them some very tiny sum, I think it's five thousand pounds a season, which heaven knows isn't much even in terms of British costs which are so much less than ours, but it gives its art gallery two hundred thousand pounds a season. However, even though the proportion isn't very high, at least it is something, it's an acknowledgement, a recognition.

Studs Terkel An acknowledgement and a recognition that theater is an important part in the lives of people, enriching the lives of all of us, as you have done and do, Margaret Webster as an artist, as a director, actress, scholar and may I again suggest this book, "Shakespeare Without Tears". I notice Mark Van Doren calls it "One of the best books written about Shakespeare in this century," and he's right.

Margaret Webster Well, I very much appreciate your having said that, and indeed all that you've said. It's been a very great pleasure having this conversation with you and with your audience.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much, Margaret Webster.