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Play Length

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0471  Saturday, 24 November 2012

 

[1] From:        Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 23, 2012 4:24:51 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length 

 

[2] From:        Steve Urkowitz < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         November 23, 2012 11:15:19 PM EST

     Subject:     Play Length, A Speculative Excursion 

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Harry Berger Jr < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 23, 2012 4:24:51 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Play Length

 

“Shakespeare wanted his works to be read and not just seen.”

 

Who knows and who cares? 

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Steve Urkowitz < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         November 23, 2012 11:15:19 PM EST

Subject:     Play Length, A Speculative Excursion

 

I want to thank all who have been continuing this discussion. It’s fun, and seems to be getting better and better. Hoorah for civil discourse! That said, now I can go back to gleeful mud-wrestling.

 

My disagreements with various people spring from our quite incompatible formulations of what might have been considered as normal operating procedures in Shakespeare’s theatres. How do we imagine what may have been going on there, and what facts, factoids, or fabrications do we want to weave into our stories? Today’s episode begins with the ways Shakespeare-at-work is conceived by Stephen Orgel, Andrew Gurr, Lukas Erne, and Alfred Hart (each of whom I address in my SHAKESPEARE BULLETIN article) and Dom Saliano and Steve Roth (dancing here in SHAKSPER).

 

They project an image of Shakespeare scribbling away to create scripts as long as he thinks fit, but then the players take the too-long versions and cut them down to fit into two-hour presentations. Now, I’ve worked on cutting scripts. It takes time. Paper, back then, was costly, too. But we’re supposed to imagine that Shakespeare couldn’t control himself when working on those history plays and tragedies that built themselves to over 3000 lines. Okay?

 

Dom Saliano suggests that the playwright’s “shadows (who were fearful of offending groundlings who were challenged by anything more than “dumb shows and noise”) would have presented on stage  . . . far less than what was printed.”   

 

Dom’s “shadows,” the actors, weren’t vague zombies, though. They were the same guys who Shakespeare climbed on stage with every day. Day after day, for decades. Collaborative enterprises don’t really go for years and years if one guy on the team is pulling it in directions that discomfort everyone else.  

 

Further, I have to repeat my earlier observations that the differences between the longer and shorter versions of Shakespeare’s plays cannot be accounted for by cutting to achieve brevity. Want to see abbreviating?  The fascinating Padua Promptbooks which were edited by G Blaskemore Evans and are discussed (and reproduced in part) by Stephen Orgel in his “Acting Scripts/ Performing Texts” in THE AUTHENTIC SHAKESPEARE (2002), show clearly what Early Modern cutting looks like, and it ain’t no-way like what shows up when you hold Q1 against Q2 Romeo and Juliet.  Please look at my yummy essay, “Five Women Eleven Ways” in W Habicht, et al., IMAGES OF SHAKESPEARE (1988), 292-304 to see how those ladies in five different plays change through richly imagined and intricately configured re-writings of character, dialogue, and stage action. If you limit your analysis of the changes to include only line counts, then you are missing the soul of the enterprise.  

 

Steve Roth raises several important aspects of the crucial question of Shakespeare’s attitude towards his literary legacy (outside of but joined at the hip to our discussion of play length). And here we may be on the Extrapolis Express, chugging blithely out onto the Bridge of the Unknown spanning the Gulf of the Unknowable. Erne and others are confident that Shakespeare wrote his too-long scripts as literature to be appreciated by and passed down for discerning readers. Okay. So our Will is a little impractical, and he and the company had to perform extra labor to do that cutting. Sure. So the long versions would still be printed. Right.

 

So then why-oh-why, oh pray tell me why did this luftmensch-impractical author with literary aspirations actually fail to get half of all his plays into print?  

 

It’s not as if he didn’t have experience AND easy contacts with printers. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece demonstrate that he could generate literature with the best of them out there. This is the same guy who could negotiate with the Heraldry office for a coat of arms, who made big bucks as one of the sharers in the most successful theatrical troupe in London and as one of the owners of the Globe, and who dealt in commodities and real estate back home. (And although details are not altogether clear, he likely had the right to get his plays printed if he so desired.) After he stopped acting, he had three whole years before he died. Not one previously unpublished play appeared to nail down his literary legacy.

 

I don’t want to carry on a debate about whether a printed Shakespearean script is or is not literature. What is “is” but “is”? Actually, as I’ve said in this very forum, the distinction between a script and the experience of a play for an audience member is like that between a musical score and a musical performance of that score and between a recipe and the piping hot rendition of that recipe with its four-and-twenty blackbirds en croute set before the king. I cook, I direct plays, and I coach singers in how to perform their scores. The score ain’t the music, the recipe ain’t the pie, and the literary text (pace Lukas Erne) sure ain’t the play. If you want your students to love Shakespearean scripts as if they were literature, then you really MUST teach them how to cook a pie, how to sing a song, and how (by golly) how to direct a play—or at least how to read imaginatively like a director. “Who is speaking? Who is listening? Who else is on stage, maybe not listening? Who just left?”  

 

So if meant as literary documents, why didn’t the plays get published by that literateur, Wm Shakespeare? Here’s a maybe, a what-if: 

 

When you’re up to your ears in the production of events that are ineluctably ephemeral, the way Shakespeare was for his whole working life, maybe when you stop writing and acting you decide that the bare script is NOT what you want to leave behind. And maybe instead you go home to the country, tend your garden, and savor the memories of the packed-to-the-rafters Globe or the fancy-pants Blackfriars filled with laughter, audiences gasping, actors glowing with the magic of a great performance. And you grin. And say, “Enough.”

 

And then the rest of us give greater thanks to his buddies Heminges and Condell who, without his instructions, nevertheless hand down to us what Will in the pure afterglow of his Dionysian ecstasy had evidently stepped away from.

 

That’s a narrative I think about.

 

Steve Groundless Speculatowitz

 

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