Alan Dessen is most noted for his Dictionary of Stage Directions, but in Rescripting Shakespeare he examines the editions that directors and actors create for their own individual productions of Shakespeare's plays. Whether to cut the running time down to something that lets the audience catch the train home or to conserve on personnel, or sometimes to correct the text of the play to make it more consistent with the conventions of modern theatre (like what I did for R.U.R.) a few years back. Lets see what Dessen has to say about this process.
Modern technology, audiences, and conventions will dictate how a play text is received, and in treating new productions of old plays, it is necessary to remember that plays are always of their time, and incorporate literary technologies to cope with issues they might face. Lodovico's line in Othello to "let it be hid" exploits a technology (curtains on beds) to remove a tableau of death and is unaware of the modern technology afforded by electric lights to remove the spectacle. A choice to remove the bodies, to direct the line to Iago, or to leave everyone on stage as the lights go down is not necessarily superior from another (1 - 2). It must be recalled that a play text is generally a product of its stage life, and where Shakespeare did not imagine that electric lights would be employed to allow directors to craft darkness, a modern director must actively choose to employ that technology or not. There is no default correct answer.
Where the line is drawn between doing original Shakespeare and a modern adaptation is largely to the mind of the audience. For some, "original Shakespeare" means employing costumes of that period, where for others it would mean presenting an uncut text from the Folio (or one of the quartos) and using modern dress (3 - 4). Honestly, you'll never be able to please anyone all of the time.
Production costs are a powerful motivator for rescripting any play (5).
Where an editor is able to gloss references with explanatory notes, a director will often shy from presenting any material that might take the audience out of the narrative (7). The "steady flow of communication... takes precedence over textual purism" (7). The formulation of Tom Markus, in his preparation of 2 Henry IV for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, was to "shorten each scne as much as possible...eliminate everything that might confuse an audience...cut all characters who are unnecessary to the scene...cut all scenes which do not advance the story...cut or change all words that are archaic or obscure" (qtd on page 6).
Directors will commonly edit words that might be offensive to modern audiences, but sometimes lines are excised because they become inappropriate given a certain casting (references to Othello being old can be cut when he is played by a younger actor), to account for changes in gender, an actor lacking facial hair, or for younger audiences who would may lack the maturity to take certain lines in their proper context (9).
Other rescriptings can be made for practical reasons related to descriptions of costumes, set pieces, and props that can arise when the play is set in a non-early modern period (10).
Some actors and directors will insist on textual purity, and find ways of making obscure words, universally accepted as misprints, work in their interpretations. This has included the 1992 Oregon Shakespeare Festival's As You Like It leaving Corin's Folio Line "pood pasture" intact, with actor Barry Kraft playing the action to indicate the bad smell, and the Homer Swander's 1991 The Taming of the Shrew where Petruchio's reference to Butonios was not amended to Antonio, and the line was played as a joke (11 - 12).
"What is bedrock to one director may be disposable to another" (14).
The casting pool can effect the relative dispensability of some lines or scene. An actor that has distinctive facial features and who appears regularly might lead the director to try to draw attention away from him, for example, and thus remove or reduce lines that the actor appears in. Likewise, a reduced cast version of the plays will often necessitate a shift or exition of certain lines or scenes (19 - 20).
Whereas the London companies of the early modern period could count on a regular compliment of boy actors, modern companies cannot, and thus scenes with children will sometimes need to be cut or otherwise edited (21). Rarely do two pages sing "It was a Love and His Lass" to Audrey and Touchstone, as the Folio reading of As You Like It directs, and while Desson offers a survey of some interpretations he has seen staged, even an original-conditions company like the ASC would find it difficult to reproduce this original condition (22).
Even if casting boy actors in roles Shakespeare designed for boys was practical, it would lack theatrical effect. Theatrical practice and audience expectations have changed (24). Some would argue that the role of children in society has changed as well, or more specifically the way in which we view children. Certainly, it is no longer customary to surrender the care of one's child to an unknown man for the purpose of teaching one's child a profession.
Especially in Roman and History plays, speeches are sometimes assigned to new characters. This can be done to enhance a role that someone perceives as being too slight, provide a performance effect that would be otherwise absent, or as is mostly commonly the case, to enable a reduced-cast version of the play. Sometimes this can produce a new character through line over the course of the play, and create effects interesting to modern audiences (24).
Compressions of this sort are commonly found in plays that feature a significant number of named characters in less familiar scripts (25).
It is common practice to rescript Shakespeare's plays for a variety of reasons, but directors should be aware of the cost of cutting certain lines and images from the text, such as the Venetian's conscious impulse to look away from the distasteful sight of the bodies at the end of Othello (37).
Dessen's subtitle to this book is "The Text, the Director, and Modern Productions," and he certainly follows through on that. Through this first chapter, Dessen presents a list of general ways and reasons where directors (or their superiors) will feel compelled to cut Shakespeare for logistical and artistic reasons, and delivers an expansive laundry lists of specific examples he has seen staged, and where some worked well and others did not.
The fact Dessen never loses sight of is that directors rescript Shakespeare because they have to. The reality of modern culture is different from the reality of Shakespeare's, and thus images and symbols will have different meanings, and where the editor has the ability to set down foot-, side-, or end-notes in their editions, the director-as-editor does not have that luxury in bringing the performance to the stage. Still, the director-as-editor needs to be wary about the changes they make. While creating an edit purely for the sake of necessity is sometime unavoidable, every cut line or scene has the possibility of removing the resonance of a theme. Still, when done well, this type of editing can create an "interesting" through line for an actor or character that may not be apparent in the original script, or can highlight a particular theme that the director wishes to explore.