A Long Night’s Journey into Light, Alexander Nemerov’s Acting in the Night

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Written by Veronika Schandl

Alexander Nemerov: Acting in the Night. Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War.
University of California Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-520-25186-1

 

The reviewer should this time start with a fair warning to the gentle reader: Alexander Nemerov’s book is not about Shakespeare. Neither is it a historical treatise on Macbeth productions of the Civil War era, or an investigation into the theatre spaces of the nineteenth century. Alexander Nemerov, one of the leading researchers of American visual culture, instead, offers an unusual journey into the cultural history of the late 19th century of Civil-War America.

Following the idea formulated in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Anecdote in a Jar” that a work of art shapes space around itself, and a propos a Macbeth performance given for the benefit of the National Sanitary Commission on October 17, 1863 in Grover’s National Theatre, Washington D. C., Nemerov launches a mapping of the cultural spaces of Civil War America. The journey, primarily, is, however, inside Nemerov’s skull, a mapping of his own brain, since the book proposes an unconventional view on history writing. Disregarding teleological, linear or even straightforward narratives as the basis of a historical investigation, Nemerov envisages history in circles concentrically evolving around a single artistic experience, in this case the 1863 Macbeth production. The connections he establishes between events, people and places in nineteenth-century America may sometimes lack links based on historical data or supported by evidence. They are instead joined through the synopses of Nemerov’s brain, through unusual twists and turns, taking the reader on an incalculable joyride through internal and external landscapes. What Nemerov experiments here with is a more elastic form of scholarly discussion that would accommodate a holistic view of culture, politics and sociology through the discussion of the cultural places these aspects of life generate and operate in.

Claiming that because of its political stance as a benefit performance for a pro-Unionist cause the play that night carried “a vast field of ideological purpose” and thus “wanted to create a uniform space” (p.5). Nemerov discusses how the world outside the theatre walls, with a Civil War tearing the nation apart, splintered this unified ideological space into fragments and echoes of events close and afar. The protagonists of this struggle are, on the one hand, the play Macbeth and its heroine, played by America’s foremost tragic actress at the time, Charlotte Cushman, on the other Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, who attended the performance that night, since Macbeth was his favourite play and the war he commanded.

Nemerov details how Cushman wished to control space, way beyond her physical reach, through her presence and voice on stage, as well as through all the new media of the age: through telegraphs, letters and photographs. How the political connotations of the production incited the spectators to link the onstage world to the vast fields of Virginia stretching outside Washington D.C. Nemerov often ventures into “reading” Miss Cushman’s thoughts and emotions, a tactic performance critics would frown upon. However, the cultural links he establishes this way are worth the heresy.

Through her melodramatic acting style, so Nemerov suggests, Miss Cushman hoped to transform herself to a statue on stage, defying the temporality of performance. While she might not have succeeded, Lincoln, one of the most influential American presidents, leaning back in his box, thoughtful in the auditorium, seeking a private moment devoted to his thoughts while watching Macbeth, definitely managed to trespass the time-constraints of his existence. He, Nemerov asserts, used the power of the here and now, of personal presence of “extraordinary and lonely intensity” (p.59). Through his figure Nemerov manages to introduce questions of privacy and public functions, of offstage parallels between Duncan and the president, and of the importance of light (stage lighting, as well as celebratory patriotic fireworks) as Lincoln’s sign of presence. Contrasting the illumination of the celebrating city with Lincoln’s private darkness, the chapter raises the importance of illustration, and on what light is shed in that.

Opening his focus more, Nemerov goes on discussing the value of a life spent in private as opposed to one sacrificed for the common good, which he also sees manifested in the theatre’s double wish to shut out the outside world of D.C., but at the same time constantly referencing the events outside the theatre walls. One such event, the acoustic shadows of which resonated in the air of the night of the performance, was the Battle of Bristoe Station, which redefined stage action, such as the wounded soldier’s appearance, or Lady Macbeth’s reading of her husband’s letter, since they both echoed the everyday events audience members faced on a daily basis—losing their loved ones in battles and reading letters about the losses. Nemerov also detects how the registers of “high” literature were mingled in the production’s cultural echoes with sensational newspaper reports and telegraphs.

Furthermore, he demonstrates how Scottishness, linked to medievalism and slave ownership on the one hand, abolitionist sentiments and Unionist Scottish regiments on the other, effected the connotations the play conjured up. In a brilliant chapter Nemerov exemplifies these contrastive interpretative forces through the Unionist occupation of Castle Murray in Faquier County, Virginia, providing a spatial parallel to mental constructions. After aural and visual echoes Nemerov finally presents a bodily analogue to stage action, through the death of Colonel Thomas Ruffin, and shows how the play’s attempt to imprint itself on nature went astray.

This list, however, is far from conclusive—the book’s real value lies in its infinite richness of cultural data which provides a unique insight into American art history. The question remains though: what can this book teach to a Shakespearean performance critic like me? Performance and theatre history has for decades been struggling with the confines of traditional historical narratives, and the elusiveness of performance data. Nemerov’s experiment provides a possible way out from these limitations through shedding linearity as well as a strict reliance on material evidence. Instead it follows thought-processes and allusions as its main guideline, while it dares to speculate when evidence is lacking. Therefore, even if the book promises a journey into night, to the attentive reader it can shed some light on how to write about performances past.

Publisher: Pázmány University Electronic Press - Budapest, ISSN 1785-6515
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