Presenting old art ‘authentically’

Similar to the problem with translating poetry is the problem in trying to present old works of arts in modern times.

Many wish to present a Shakespeare play or Verdi Opera the way it was originally presented, and there are complaints about colorizing old black and white movies.

Advocates of original presentation often refer to a work of art presented in the original manner as being “authentic.”

There are a variety of problems in the presentation of old works. For example, the original work or presentation can be unrealistic to its subject. Shakespeare’s plays were written for and originally performed by male actors only. Juliet and Ophelia were performed by boys dressed as women. Even those who like the idea of original presentation prefer the inclusion of actresses, meaning they want a Shakespeare performance modernized.

A similar case is where a grandfather clock chimes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, yet the grandfather clock had not yet been invented in Caesar’s time. Some would argue that fixing this historical error would make the play more historically authentic. Others would counter that, while the grandfather clock clearly is a historical blooper, the play was intended as a work of art not a historical document, and ‘fixing’ every detail could lessen the play artistically. They might point out that a Paul Cezanne painting of an apple is supposed to represent an apple not look like an apple photographed, and those who criticize the painting for not being photorealistic miss the point.

Technical modernization can improve the audience’s perception of an old work. Improved technology makes Gone With The Wind look and sound clearer in the theatre today than in 1939. It would be a safe bet that Paul McCartney prefers listening to The Beatles on a CD player rather than on a 1965 record player. Listening to the 1965 record player is more authentic to a fan listening to the music on 1965 record player, but listening to a CD is more authentic to the music itself.

I’ll bet you that some old time Beatles fan has an unplugged vintage record player sitting on top of a CD player. This way he gets the old time look and the modern sound.

Presenting an old work must take into context the audience, its culture and sensibilities. A play, movie, novel or painting is continually presented to a modern audience. The language of Shakespeare was the language of the original audience. It is not the natural language of today’s audience. Today’s audience experiences the play differently. The use of boy actors in female parts won’t be viewed in the same way as an original audience viewed it. Boys playing girls and women would at the least distract most to all in a modern audience.

Even when presented ‘authentically’ (as originally presented), the modern audience won’t perceive an old work of art authentically, as they won’t experience it as the original (‘authentic’) audience did. Ironically, making modernizations can make the modern audience’s experience closer to the original audience’s experience. Making a work newer on one level can make it older on another.

Some recreations are less concerned with the art than the history. Even if the sound is considered unorthodox to modern ears, performing a Mozart symphony using period instruments, hall, dress and manners can be of enlightenment and enjoyment to a modern audience, especially if the audience itself participates in the recreation by dressing and acting historically.


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