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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: June ::
Re: *Comedy of Errors*
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0679.  Wednesday, 18 June 1997.

[1]     From:   Daniel Lowenstein <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 09:45:13 PST
        Subj:   A good test case

[2]     From:   W.  L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 16:47:10 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0674  Re: *Comedy of Errors*


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Daniel Lowenstein <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 09:45:13 PST
Subject:        A good test case

In a recent posting, Cary Mazer suggested that "Comedy of Errors" be
staged by framing it in the manner of Bierce's short story, "An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."  When the play ends, it would be
revealed that it was all Egeon's instantaneous dream, and the ax would
fall on his head.

I believe Mazer's suggestion poses an excellent test case for discussing
the responsibility, if any, that a director of Shakespeare's plays has
to an audience to remain faithful to Shakespeare's script and, as best
it can be gleaned, Shakespeare's conception.  (I have been a subscriber
to this list for a year or so.  If this issue was debated at length
before I joined, please forgive me.)

The reason Mazer's suggestion is such a good test case is that it is
devoid of some of the considerations that sometimes cloud the debate.
Those, such as myself, who tend to the traditionalist side of the
question, are likely to believe that usually, a director's "creative
innovations" will detract from the play and, in any event, will run into
innumerable small and large conflicts with the script.  Pretty clearly,
these drawbacks do not apply to Mazer's suggestion, which would greatly
change the experience of the play, but cannot, in my opinion at least,
be said to detract from it.  Bierce's idea was a good one that has
intrigued numerous generations of readers, and Mazer seems correct that
"Comedy of Errors" lends itself very nicely to that idea.  Furthermore,
because the innovation applies only to the framing and not to the body
of the play, there should be no conflicts with the script at all.

On the other side of the debate, a common claim is that we don't know
what Shakespeare intended anyway and, even if we did, we could never
reproduce the effect he intended because current-day audiences bring
such different assumptions and expectations into the theater than did
Shakespeare's contemporaries, that a production that was physically
identical to the original production would produce a completely
different (and possibly incomprehensible) experience in the onlookers.
But one's relativism would have to be pretty extreme to apply this
argument with a straight face to Mazer's suggestion.  If Shakespeare's
production had an ending that cast the whole play retrospectively in an
ironically tragic light, there is no reason why the script should not so
indicate.  And audiences at both ends of a span of 400 years would
surely sense that Mazer's proposal is a drastic change in the play.

Thus, if anyone is inclined to engage this discussion, I think it could
go forward on two assumptions: 1) that Mazer's suggestion does not
detract from Shakespeare's play and arguably improves it; and 2) that
Mazer's suggestion radically changes the nature and experience of the
play, as Shakespeare intended it, as his audiences received it, and as
all directors and audiences since then have understood it.

Since Mazer's suggestion sounds to me like good theater, I am reluctant
to assert that a director who accepted it would be acting
irresponsibly.  Nevertheless, a large percentage of any audience
(especially a summer festival audience) is likely to be seeing the play
for the first time and to have little or no background.  Shouldn't an
audience that pays to see a play by Shakespeare get to see a play by
Shakespeare?  Of course, there is a virtually infinite number of
possible conceptions of what the play by Shakespeare is, but isn't the
audience entitled to what the director genuinely believes is the best
conception, by whatever lights?  If Mazer's suggestion is
folloWednesday, should the play be billed as an adaptation of "Comedy of
Errors"?

-- Dan Lowenstein
    UCLA Law School

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W.  L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jun 1997 16:47:10 -0400
Subject: 8.0674  Re: *Comedy of Errors*
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0674  Re: *Comedy of Errors*

Cary Mazer asks:

>Why not stage the whole play after 1.1 as a fantasy, a la Ambrose
>Bierce's "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge?"  Egeon learns that he is to
>be put to death, and his quest to reconstitute his family will remain
>unfulfilled.

Very nice idea.  I suppose there would have to be an extratextual dumb
show after the first scene, a dumb show in which Egeon goes to sleep,
and another at the end of the play where the audience sees him wake up?
Anyway, I'd use the concept-were I a director.

Yours, Bill Godshalk
 

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