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Home :: Archive :: 1991 :: November ::
Cuts & Interpolations in Performance
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 2, No. 288. Tuesday, 5 Nov 1991.
 
 
Date: 		Mon, 4 Nov 1991 14:18:37 -0500
From: 		Roy Flannagan <FLANNAGA@OUACCVMB.BITNET>
Subject: 	Additions and Subtractions
 
     After Dryden, Davenant, and several composers diddled with
{The Tempest} in 1667, ridding it of about a third of Shakespeare's
text and balancing asymmetrical plot elements with symmetrical ones,
the play became a musical spectacular in the eyes of the public, for
over seventy five years.  The Dryden and Davenant adaptation is
fun to watch: I have seen it, and it is charming fluff--appealing for
its songs, for the on-stage spectacle as in the opening scene, even
for its perfectly-balanced plot.  But it is not what Shakespeare wrote.
The assumption of the collaborators must have been that Shakespeare
wouldn't have held the stage and sold tickets in 1667, and that
therefore he must be improved.  The adaptation did quite well.  It
was the only {Tempest} available in London (according to Orgel)
until Garrick's 1757 production, which itself cut over 400 lines.
 
     Dryden and Davenant were doing what in the U.S. in the
Sixties would have been called "making Shakespeare relevant," as
with {MacBird}, the parody of {Macbeth} and the satire of Lyndon
Johnson's White House.  Directors of Shakespeare on stage and
in film, from Max Reinhardt to Laurence Olivier to Peter Brook, have
also tinkered with various plays to make them palatable to the audiences
of the various eras. Reinhardt decided Mendelssohn's music and ballet
were as necessary to {Midsummer Night's Dream} as any other element: his
movie is about 20% ballet; it uses the film medium for special effects,
such as the illusion of fairies flying through clouds.  In the brilliant
movie of {Richard III}, Olivier decided to leave Queen Margaret out of
the action, and, just like that, Richard's antagonist was gone from the
film, as if she had never existed in the play.  Olivier of course had to
shorten the play to fit the expected two hours of a popular film, but he
also added scenes such as the drowning of Clarence or the smothering of
the little princes, dramatizing narrative.  In his less-successful
{Hamlet} Olivier also cut much but dramatized the drowning of Ophelia.
In cutting or augmenting what was in the text, Reinhardt or Olivier
seemed to date the production according to the era in which it was
filmed.  Reinhardt's {Midsummer Night's Dream} has affinities with
{The Wizard of Oz} and American vaudeville; Olivier's dreamy Hamlet,
who "cannot make up his mind," is on a psychoanalyst's couch for his
problems with his mother because Olivier was reading E. Jones.
 
    I have been reading the manuscript of a new book on Peter
Brook that shows how and where he cut lines from {King Lear}, lines
that help create sympathy for Cordelia or Lear, deliberately, in
order to stress the Brechtian or absurdist or cruel elements in
the play.  But the deliberate removal of sympathy from tragic characters:
that struck me as manipulative directing.  Brook imposed a kind of
cold will on the play--Scofield speaks in a slow voice that seems
to indicate either that Lear is emotionally deprived or that he
has already had a minor stroke--that removed sympathy from the main
characters, even from Kent.  Brook took away certain elements of
stage-craft, varied lighting, for instance, in order to emphasize
others, such as the metal thunder curtain that appeared on stage and
was visibly rattled to create the sounds of the storm.
 
    The effects of Brook's production on stage and in the subsequent
movie were startling and emotionally wrenching, especially with
Scofield as Lear, and Brook did create a great moment in modern theater,
but the removal of sympathetic lines and the very starkness of the
production date it today as "Sixties stuff," rather than timeless art.
Brook's production is part of theater history, but it is trendy and
dated, no longer as powerful as it was when you first saw it.
 
     Who am I to criticize Dryden, Reinhardt, Olivier, and Brook?
I am not a director, nor am I a Shakespearean scholar, not having
published much about his work.  I have just independently
decided that it is dangerous to assume that Shakespeare did
not know what he was doing on stage, and thus has to be "improved" for
each generation.  I feel the opposite: if a director recreates the text
successfully, the play will have the vitality and appeal to its audience
it first had on the stage--when Shakespeare and his company either
flourished or starved by how they presented their collaborative work
to the Elizabethan or Jacobean public or aristocratic audience.  Also,
if a director tampers with Shakespeare, the tampering will almost
inevitably reflect worse on the director than on Shakespeare.
Students of mine invariably laugh with embarrassment today when they
see the "page" in Zeffirelli's {Romeo and Juliet} singing that silly
romantic Sixties song at the Capulet feast (though they do cry later
with that same theme music prompting them to do so).  They might
be equally embarrassed to see the naked Lady Macbeth in Polanski's movie,
and they might be even more embarrassed to see Nicol Williamson's
Freudian entanglement with Gertrude or Laertes kissing Ophelia with
incestuous passion in the same production.
 
    There are the kinds of problems Steve Urkowitz points out between
Folio and Quarto.  Which published text should be considered the
acting version, the one that worked on stage, and which even in 1623
would have been considered a "literary" version, a reader's Shakespeare
as opposed to a dramatic Shakespeare?  Directors often argue that the
plays that we have in modern editions are impossibly long because
they do represent conflations of acting texts, either by the Folio
editors or by modern editors erring on the side of inclusiveness.
 
    Also, we might assume that Shakespeare learned by his own mistakes,
since his later plays are more economical, they use fewer cheap
effects, their poetry is more varied, more immediate, less
rhetorical, and less declamatory.  Shakespeare must have at one
time decided to remove most of the bombastic language and Grand
Guignol effects of Marlowe from his own plays, and he obviously
removed couplets from the speech of his characters except to
mark scene changes or exits and entrances.  Perhaps that is an
argument that "early Shakespeare" should be acted differently
from "late Shakespeare," but in the case of plays for which we
have no certain dates, the logic won't hold.
 
     *Perhaps* Shakespeare's audiences could sit patiently
longer, perhaps they could listen to declamatory speeches longer,
not being attuned to the brief attention-span that watching
television promotes; perhaps they liked outrageously extended
conceits and puns more than does a modern audience that can't
catch much of the double entendre.  But Shakespeare's audience
had the good taste and discretion to applaud and support Marlowe,
Jonson, Marston, and Shakespeare, among others: they were a
demanding audience, they liked variety, and they were bright.
 
     Get to it, Flannagan: what's your point?  My point is that
directors had better not make idle interpolations or excisions from
the text of Shakespeare's plays, lest history laugh at them
or be embarrassed for them.  Brilliant directors or actors
like Olivier will certainly add meaningful gesture or nuance to
the words, as when Olivier as RIII gave the fierce glare to the
Prince of York when the little Prince joked about riding
on his crippled back.  But beyond that point, for instance
when Olivier ate the rabbit guts in {Lear}, the director may be
laying himself open to ridicule for messing with Shakespeare.
 
Roy Flannagan
 

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