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. 

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