Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre
by Evelyn B. Tribble
Palgrave MacMillian. New York, 2011. 200 pp.

Theatre practitioners accustomed to dramatic analysis of Shakespeare’s work – what does Macbeth want? how to stage the moving of Birnam Wood? – have a fascinating new viewpoint in Evelyn Tribble’s Cognition in the Globe, one of the more recent additions to Palgrave’s series Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance. In concerning herself with the question of how early theatre companies carried the mnemonic load associated with performing several new plays a month, Tribble has created a treatise that sheds light on the historic even as it provides new insights to those producing theatre today.

The modern theatre artist may be more concerned with how to produce Shakespeare’s work today, but Tribble, who holds the Donald Collie Chair of English at New Zealand’s University of Otago, sees the past as more than just an esoteric discussion. For her there is modern relevance in the study of past dramatic systems and she engages the reader in a revealing discussion of how the artifacts and social structures of early theatre companies were instrumental to the performance.

The process by which this happens, according to Tribble, is Distributed Cognition, a dynamic interdisciplinary theory concerned with how humans think. Rather than accept cognition as an internal activity, Distributed Cognition argues that the art of thinking is dependent on our environment. Our cognitive process – memory, attention, learning – are all influenced by the various external stimuli, be there social, technological or environmental. Studies in this field have had implications for worlds as diverse as business, anthropology and artificial intelligence;.

Brought into the world of theatre, Tribble’s analysis concerns the environment that surrounded the 16th century actor. This goes further than just the playing space itself. For her, an actor’s performance was entirely dependent on a subtle ecology of action, text, education and physical objects (comprised of parts, plots and playbooks). She stages a clever defence of the stock gesture, those formalized movements long mocked as an embarrassing aspect of Shakespeare’s day. Tribble, though, sees the gestures as an essential mnemonic device and considers the art of movement crucial to the dramatic system of the day.

Equally convincing are her striking observations about Shakespeare’s text. In the modern world, textual fidelity is strictly observed but Tribble makes the salient remark that “verbatim recall is a product of literate culture” (pp 72). Shakespeare’s actors would have had limited exposure to the printed world and to compensate for this, Tribble suggests that Shakespeare structured his dialogue to make it easier to remember. This goes beyond using iambic pentameter, although that was his chief tool; Shakespeare’s plays are embedded with a host of mnemonic devices, such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and repetition.

Here we begin to see the ways that Tribble’s exploration can be of practical use. As the author herself remarks, one of the great gaps in modern theatrical education is the lack of discussion regarding memorization. Pity the student with a poor memory: they are left to struggle on their own for though learning lines is expected, teachers rarely offer clues into how it might be done. Tribble fills this void by revealing the techniques employed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, allowing the modern actor insight into their own skill. Modern writers may not consciously create mnemonic text and directors may eschew stylized gesture, but actors can still employ Tribble’s basic principle: within their dialogue and blocking are mnemonic patterns that may be of use.

Another notion that connects our two eras is Tribble’s concept of “fluent forgetting”. A term she herself coined, it’s defined as the substitution of words within the rhythmic framework while still staying within the playwright’s intent. Rather than fall apart over the struggle to learn a speech verbatim, the skilled actor in Shakespeare’s day most likely had a “fluid ability to adapt and shift within a highly constrained structure” (pp. 76). In many ways, this is simply an extension of the old chestnut: the show must go on. Shakespeare himself seemed to endorse this theory; Tribble points out that in the inset plays performed in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labor’s Lost, the amateur actors flounder because they cannot cope with being heckled. They lose their lines and are unable to adapt, resulting in humiliation.

For the modern actor, the question of fidelity is not as important as that if adaptability. As Tribble remarks, the neophyte’s concern with total recall could come at the expense of the production. Actors in Shakespeare’s day had to deal with a myriad of distractions, any of which could disrupt their cognitive ecology. Part of an actor’s training was learning to cope with the unexpected. This is hardly an idea whose time has passed; as anyone who has performed while a cellphone rang can attest, the modern actor’s cognitive ecology is just as tenuous as ever.

Given the relevance of Tribble’s work, it’s unfortunate that her prose itself is focused so squarely at academics. Although generally low on jargon, much of Tribble’s arguments are based on other studies into cognition and she spends a great deal of time either championing the work of others or (politely) explaining why she disagrees with their position. This brings a bibliographical aspect to the work that sometimes muddies the clarity of the writing, especially for the layperson interested in Tribble’s ideas and not necessarily concerned with how they fit into the larger school of cognitive scholarship.

Ultimately, though, Tribble’s book is a welcome affirmation of the notion of theatre as group art. Theatre has long relied on the collaboration of designers, authors, actors and even audiences themselves. The concept of a cognitive ecology is a reminder to all theatrical artists that each individual is dependent on a greater whole. This is the true benefit of Tribble’s application of Distributed Cognition to the stage. Should we as theatre practitioners follow Shakespeare’s cue, we could soon train our own actors the way Shakespeare trained his.                                                        

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