Thursday, September 30, 2010

Notes on Rescripting Shakespeare - Chapter 2

Directors tend to feel more comfortable rescripting works by Shakespeare's contemporaries than they do by Shakespeare, and can more comfortably fill the role of a director shaping the raw material provided by a playwright. They run the same risks as those who rescript the works of Shakespeare, however, and run the same risks as those directors who rescript the works of the more famous playwright (38).

Topical material relevant to the period in which the play was written is routinely cut or changed to be more understandable to a modern audience (38 - 39). Note that, from Stern's arguments, this is consistent with the practice in Shakespeare's time, especially for popular plays that had entered the repertory.

Directors who do not find ways of telling stories to their audiences clearly are not likely to keep working as such for very long, but they would do well to note the difference between cutting topical references and eliminating characters and scenes that are necessary to the plot (42).

A common, necessary adjustment made to scripts from this period is the insertion of an intermission that lasts for 10 or 15 minutes. The plays were not designed for this, and the director must choose not only an opportune place to stop the action for the interval, but also must be conscious of the appropriate place of starting it up again, which sometimes requires shifting scenes around to re-start with something that will grab the audience's attention (43). Of course, for a play as brief as Merry Devil, this was not an issue.

Problems notes by editors will sometimes lead to directors making improvements to the text in their productions. Dessen cites specifically the 1979 Oregon Shakespeare Festival Doctor Faustus, where director Jerry Turner filled in the gap of the alleged "missing scene" between scene 5 and scene 6 by re-arranging the order of Faustus' books so that the last book he examines is the book describing the heavens, which inspires Faustus to look up, see what he has just signed away, and repent (44). This is of special interest to Merry Devil, as there does seem to be at least one missing scene, and possibly even two or three. I needed to adjust some lines at the end of the play to avoid concluding the play with a punch line to a joke that was never told AND to account for the practicality of having had Victoria double Bilbo and Smug.

Directors will commonly rescript plays to make the imagery more accessible to modern audiences or to conform with the period in which they have set the production (44 - 45).

When multiple "authorial" versions of a text are available, it is important to remember that creating them effectively creates a new text (51).

Where changes to a text to eliminate obscure topical or mythological references, or ameliorate tricky language are quite common, it is sometimes also necessary to alter a play for reasons related to theatrical convention. Where a 16th century audience might easily understand a comic sub-plot hearkening to a main plot and foreshadowing its consequences to that main plot, this is not a device that modern playwrights tend to employ, and so the scene may need to be either eliminated or have its logic altered so that it serves some other purpose (54).

Giles Block, in his 1983 production of The Fawn at the Royal National Theatre Cottlesloe had to work with a script that is largely silent about how the allegorical pageantry, the Ship of Fools sequence in particular, should be staged, and as he was directing a show for an audience unfamiliar with allegory and Parliament of Love conventions, was required to manufacture an ending that was an interpretation, rather than a literal staging, of Marston's intent (55 - 57). This has implications for the missing scenes in Merry Devil, especially The Globe's workshop, which provided for the baffoonary of Smug on the sign via a dumb show, but in that case it is an interpretation of an altogether missing passage. Is that any better or different?

Directors ought to be wary of sacrificing early modern staging techniques for shreds of psychological realism. Early modern techniques of repetition can illuminate the works performed in ways that might conflict with attempts at cutting these sequences in favor of attempting to create a mood different from the one that arises. A director might do well to consider that the scene they have read as a serious one may have been scripted as a comic one, or that the use of comedy within an otherwise serious scene may create powerful effects on stage (58 - 59). Like the saying goes, a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down. When an audience is laughing, they've let their guard down, which is the perfect opportunity to pull the rug out form under them and change the mood of the scene to something more closely resembling tragedy. They'll feel the impact much more intensely that way.

Early modern audiences had access to linguistic and cultural signified that we do not, and given this reality, a certain amount of rescripting is to be expected, but when the process is initiated it is possible to go too far. Directors may be too quick to cut through rather than solve the problem, and it is worth considering whether these plays can still speak to audiences on their own terms: "do they reveal something distinctive about their world or is the goal to adapt them so that they reveal (or appear to reveal) something pointed about ours" (63)?


Largely a re-hash of the first chapter, citing different examples, and calling attention to the fact that directors may be less intimidated to rescript works that are not Shakespeare's. What Dessen seems to be getting at is that there is a fine line between editing and adapting a work for the stage, and despite his claim to trust actors and directors in the first chapter, he very clearly finds problems with some of the productions that strike him more as adaptations. His final note, asking the question "why stage them at all" could be taken either as philosophical meditation or as something more passive-aggressive. Ultimately, though, I think that is a good question for any director to ask before tackling a project that will require changing the through line of the play.

For my part, I think my edits to Merry Devil were conservative enough that I would have fallen into the category of mild rescripting as opposed to out and out adaptation, but some other plays I've worked on (most notably Macbeth and The Tempest with the Bakerloo Theatre Project) were decidedly on the heavy adaptation side of Dessen's line. Audiences tended to respond well to these productions, and the new through lines created have had a tendency to illuminate parts of the script that might otherwise go unnoticed to a modern audience. That is where I see a real strength to adaptation: illuminating some of the dark corners of these works.

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