Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shakespeare's Invisible Hand

Merry Devil was written in 1603, so goes the theory, and was performed at The Globe, by the King's Men. In an environment where a company could and did edit the text of a play to suit the needs of their performance of it, this almost begs the question: why not bring in your best playwright to make the edits. There's ample evidence to suggest that Shakespeare didn't write The Merry Devil, but at the same time, there's every reason to think that he would have had at least a small hand in revising it to meet the needs of the company. Remember, the script we have is probably a cut version; someone had to do the cutting.

This isn't to say that there is any way to track Shakespeare's hand in The Merry Devil. Nor can anyone actually prove that he had any hand in editing the text, revising the text, or playing in the text. It might have all been done by Cuthbert Burbage, the company bookkeeper. For all we know, Shakespeare had a nasty case of the flu when the company was preparing the play for stage or tour. Or maybe Shakespeare's edits made the cutting room floor. There's just no way to know.

I'm going to lean on the side of Shakespeare's invisible hand guiding the text of Merry Devil, even if it didn't write all, most, or even much of the script. It doesn't really tell me anything useful about the play mind you, but it's nice to think about.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What Greg said

I've mentioned W.W. Greg's name before, but perhaps not as central to my inquiry into the text of Merry Devil as I should have. When it comes to bibliographical studies in the first half of the twentieth century, Greg was, as the kids say, "the man." I'm sure someone out there would disagree with me, but he was one of those most responsible for the newness of the "New Bibliography" movement, and so it just makes sense to consult him whilst developing my own edition of the work. So let's see what he has to say.... hmmm......

"It would be difficult to find a play that presents a greater variety of difficulties to an editor."

That's hard. In "The Merry Devil of Edmonton," from The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society (1944, pages 122-139) Greg does a decent job of eviscerating William Amos Abrams' 1942 "definitive edition" of The Merry Devil. Certainly, this has given me much to think about. Maybe too much.

Authority, for Greg, means something strictly from the author's hand; that's impossible (and he knows as much). In so far as the old New Bibliographers were interested in bibliography as a tool to see through "the veil of print" (borrowing that term from Dr. Menzer), no one is really sure whose hand to look for in Merry Devil.

Greg dismisses the work as being a collaboration, but he admits that the comparatively short line count indicates this is an abridgment. Greg cites Abrams' opinion that the extant version is possibly cut for touring purposes (129), but he goes on to say that
if a rough author's draft (after having served for the production of a regular prompt book) had been severely cut with a view to preparing an abridged version of the play, and had then come into the printers hands, the resulting edition might have been something like what we find in the extant text (130).
Of course, what Greg refers to as "corruption" I might be inclined to call "collaboration." Have you ever seen the directors cut of a film when the director wasn't very good? It makes you wish you had watched the studio cut. In a modern theatrical environment, directors, actors, designers, and even stage managers and hands all bring something to the table that influence the performance, and sometimes that means cutting an over indulgent text. Who really wants to sit through a four hour Hamlet anyway?

Greg approves of Abrams' selection of the first quarto as the copy-text, which is also the one I picked, so w00t, and goes on to praise Abrams for his investigative work into the connection between the play The Merry Devil of Edmonton and the chapbook The Life and Death of the Merry Devil of Edmonton, with the Pleasant Pranks of Smug the Smith, Sir John, and mine Host of the George, about the Stealing of Venison. Those early-moderners did love their long titles.

Anyway, Greg points out that while the chapbook is clearly inspired by the play, there are references in the play that are informed by the chapbook. The theory being that the chapbook is based on an unaltered version of the play text, and the references still in The Merry Devil that don't necessarily make sense at a glance, but are informed by the chapbook, are the result of uneven cuts. Think of the chapbook as an original novelization of a film, which is then cut before being released by the studio. The novel is based on the uncut script, and still has things in it that the studio release leaves off. Even so, Greg remarks that "the chapbook contains no hint of the main plot of the play" (134-135), so how much can really be lost?

Sarcastic yet true answer: for a 1500 line play, maybe about 1000 lines or so.

Of course, while The Life and Death of the Merry Devil may inform the action in The Merry Devil, there really isn't any way of constructing the original text based on that. If Greg and Abrams are right, the original, uncut play must be considered lost. Of course, that doesn't mean that the extant text isn't funny, and quite honestly, maybe being shorter makes it funnier. It was cut for a reason, after all. Maybe it's better that someone cut them back in the early 1600s: I won't have to worry about cutting them for my production in Philly.

Greg goes on to say that all an editor can "legitimately aim at is to repair corruption that has arisen in the course of printing and remove minor contradictions." As much as the editorial job is difficult, it is difficult beyond the ability of anyone to achieve definitively, and that actually makes my job as an editor easier. Of course, that makes my job as a director that much harder, but I'm a better director anyway.

Works Cited
Greg, W. W. "The Merry Devil of Edmonton." The Library: Transactions of the Bibliographical Society. 1944. London. Oxford UP. vol. s4-XXV 3-4 p. 122-139. 

Friday, February 5, 2010

On whose authority?

We don't know who wrote The Merry Devil, as I've previously pointed out, which raises the question, on whose authority do we authorize a text? This same question, of course, can be turned to the plays of William Shakespeare himself. The theatricians of Renaissance London didn't know or care about our post-enlightenment concept of the author, that solitary genius motivated by the divine spark to create "art." They cared about putting on a good show, defined as one which would make money.

If Mr. Henslowe buys a play and decides it needs some fixing, great. He'll probably hire someone to do it. He did it with Dr. Faustus, afterall (and documented the transaction), and there's no reason to think that the Chamberlain's/King's Men didn't do exactly the same thing. Remember, Shakespeare produced about two plays a year, and the playhouses (when not closed due to plague) liked to perform 6 days a week. They performed many more plays than Shakespeare could have possibly written. Merry Devil was one of them.

So here's the thing; if one of the reasons that Shakespeare's plays are so good (as Gary Taylor would argue) is that they were the product of the best playwright working with the best players; in other words, if the company revised Shakespeare's plays while performing them (as is not uncommonly done today), they would have most assuredly done so with another playwright. Like whomever wrote Merry Devil.

So when this play is finally published in quarto format in 1608, how did they "authorize" it? In other words, how did they establish it as a piece of work worth paying money to own? Dr. Menzer directed me to look at the title page, so lets see what that says....


The line I want to draw your attention to is the one that reads "As it hath been sundry times acted, by his Majesties Servants, at the Globe, on the bank-side." The authority this play is claiming is not that it was written by a specific individual, but first that it was performed "sundry times" (and plays that suck don't get sundry performances), second that it was performed by the servants of the king, and third that it was performed in their large, public theatre. In other words, both the audience and the king are implicitly referenced as the authorizing authorities for this publication. 

I'm finding that there are two primary types of editions of a text that I'm likely to work with: documentary editions, which seek to re-create the specific instance of a specific text (like the first quarto, completely disregarding anything that might have happened in the five subsequent quartos). That type of edition is authorized by the fact that it is a preservation of the way the text once looked, no more no less.

The critical edition is the one we're more familiar with. That's the kind where, in an ideal world, an editor has examined all possible editions of a text and based on sound logical judgment creates an accessible version replete with foot and end notes for the modern reader. The authority of this type of text derives from it's having compared and contrasted several different printings.

When I started this project, I was aiming towards the latter edition, and to some degree, that's still the trajectory that I'm following, but creating a text for performance is a little bit different than a text for study. To be sure, the performance text usually derives from the critical text (at least in my productions), which requires an appeal to another sort of authority: my experience as a director.

Here's the rub: I trust myself more as a director than I do as a scholar. My performance text of this play will therefore speak with more authority to me than my critical text will. That just gives me more of an incentive to make sure that I've looked at as many editions of this text as possible, and that my judgment in making emendations is very, very sound.

That said, I've just finished going over my transcription of Q1 with a fine tooth comb, and notating it liberally where something even seemed a little bit odd to me. Next, I'll be moving on to a line by line comparison between my Q1 transcription and, you guessed it, the second quarto (Q2) of 1612. I read somewhere that Q2 and Q3 were little more than reprints of Q1; if so, that may be even more reason to go over them with a fine tooth comb as well: what better way to make sure I have missed, or misinterpreted, anything from my Q1 transcription?