The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0462  Monday, 19 November 2012


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

Date:         November 16, 2012 10:16:05 PM EST

Subject:     SHAKSPER: Play Length and Commonplaces of Humility?   


More about play length?    


I do like Dom Saliani’s jaunty confidence; I just find that (like some of my own jaunts into speculative scholarship) they may crash splat into disagreeable data or into contrary opinions held with equal enthusiasm.  


From the top: he wonders if Shakespeare would actually write extended material that would have to be presented to intellectually incapable groundlings. My own life as a groundling convinces me that even twenty minutes of b-o-r-i-n-g presentation is over my limit, two hours would be stretching civility, and three a form of cruel incarceration. But Shakespeare’s playhouses weren’t filled with hostile or resistant audiences.  They weren’t school-groups on a theater-outing.  People self-selected their entertainments, especially those that they paid for. If you didn’t want to hear a Shakespeare play, then you patronized another playhouse.    


And, though comments by anti-populists might protest otherwise, it seems that lots of people in London LIKED long, linguistically complex presentations. For instance, Paul’s Cross, in a courtyard outside of St Paul’s Cathedral, would pack in standees in all kinds of weather (though sometimes adjourning back into the cathedral) for sermons that ran two hours of a single voice’s talk from the pulpit plus another hour for an opening procession and time for psalm singing. This doesn’t mean that two hours sermoning necessarily should be extrapolated into an even longer length for plays, but we should consider that although the “normal” sermon ran one hour, the star-turn sermons at Paul’s Cross were twice as long. So if you’re vaulting into the land of Extrapolis with me, let’s hold hands and IMAGINE that the “normal” two hour play-length could be stretched to three hours if it’s one of those fabulous Shakespeare plays.  


Dom Salieri talks about cutting plays to “an endurable length.” Stephen Orgel’s “Authentic Shakespeare” essay makes the same point. Orgel cites as his prime example the Dering manuscript that deeply cuts Henry IV parts 1 and 2 for presentation as a single play.  But (as I point out in my “Did Shakespeare’s Company Cut Down his Plays . . . .” essay in the most recent SHAKESPEARE BULLETIN), the script they ended up with was not an “endurably short” thing but rather a full 3100+ lines of  drama.  (My essay offers some other examples of similar cutting that leaves a l-o-n-g residual play. And I show also that the instances of cutting where we have documentary evidence of how much was begun with and how much left after the barbering gives numbers like 6 % or 9 % or maybe 11% reductions. King Lear? Three or four hundred lines cut from Q1, maybe 10%, but 100 lines added fresh appearing for the first time in F. But chopping 30% of Q2 Romeo & Juliet to get to the length of Q1 Romeo and Juliet? That’s three times the degree of trimming. 


If you can’t endure an uncut Romeo and Juliet in its Q2 form, then let me suggest that you try producing it in close-to-original practices. No lighting changes to distract from the actors saying what is happening to the imagined light. No slow sets moving in for the ball-scene or the bedroom or the tomb. Actors alert as all get-out listening for their cues, primed to cut in with their next speech without knowing where their cue will come from. (Think as a modern analogy a basketball player or ice-hockey player who knows so much of what he has to do, anticipating but not really knowing where the next pass is coming from. They JUMP at opportunities. Sorry, but I’m still a groundling, happier at a good ballgame than at a sluggish production of even Shakespeare.) 


As for the “two hours” mentioned in various places. I finally did a count in one of Alfred Hart’s essays. He lists about a dozen over a fifty-plus year period, almost all in prologues and epilogues.  


I’d like to propose that the fictional character reciting the prologue or epilogue is doing something quite UNLIKE testifying at a court of law. A Prologue or Epilogue rather than a testimony of accuracy instead is a fictive apology, like, “Aw, shucks. I’m really sorry about this poor thing we botched up out of our dismal incapacities, and from your indulgence you won’t whip us, and besides we have a dance prepared to ease us back into your favor.” So a reference to the “two hours” could/should/would be seen as part of the pro-forma apologia.  


Meredith Skura’s brilliant monograph, Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing, opens with the image of Marlene Deitrich taking a magnificent bow, displaying at once a total command over her audience and an absolute vulnerability while appealing for their approving applause. Maybe that’s how Shakespeare is using his reference to two short hours of what is to come in R&J or Henry VIII, a modesty commonplace, like “Please excuse the disorder of my house” intoned humbly at the threshold of a polished and exquisite home. Like us, the Early Moderns exulted in these kinds of ironic-and-sincere roles and postures, gracefully assumed, easily doffed. We can see it in their giddily inventive and often absurdly posturing writings. Could they have been INSINCERE about how long a play might take? Ye gads, I think they may have been ! Come on, Dom. Don’t take those old guys so seriously. Some day we might be old ourselves.  


I offer these suggestions again in the hopes that we are expanding the discourse of how we imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear, just as we try to expand our imagination of what is possible in these thrilling days of today.


Steve Extrapolitz

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