Thursday, September 30, 2010

Notes on Rescripting Shakespeare - Chapter 3

While rescripting is commonly done in the service of personnel reasons, trimming the over all running time, or to cut through obscure language, directors will often rescript shows as a way of dealing with problems that have plagued editors and scholars for generations, and have done so with their own technological resources in mind (64).

In order to cover perceived gaps in scenes, directors have added what they perceived to be missing materials, such as a scene where Shylock observes Jessica escaping his house in Merchant of Venice, and a scene where the audience sees a glimpse of the false Hero at the window, or Beatrice walking alone at night in Much Ado (64 - 65). From what I understand it, the Globe added such a pantomime of Smug on the sign in their workshop of Merry Devil, of course no mention of it's placement occurs in Bennett's text. Likewise, Abrams is very clear on where he thinks the missing scenes should go, but does not go so far as to create and insert them into the text. Again, I think the play works fine without adding anything, provided a couple of lines are omitted at the ending; the rest of the references can be covered with good acting choices.

While one common method of dealing with perceived problems in a text is to cut them, other directors find they can solve problematic elements by repositioning some lines or scenes. Henry's order to kill the French prisoners can be cut, but it is also sometimes moved to the scene following Gower and Fluellen discussing the French killing all the English boys. This can make a troubling line less so, but at the sacrifice of a line that perhaps should be troubling, and perhaps at the risk of substituting a cause for an effect (68).

Dessen notes that the repositioning of scenes takes place most commonly to minimize the need to shift set pieces, of course Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for a stage that was both open and flexible, and relied on minimal and portable set pieces and props (71). Our production of Merry Devil, inspired by American Shakespeare Center practices in reproducing Shakespeare's original staging conditions, didn't suffer from this problem much. We used four acting blocks with open-able lids, and positioned them in a basic default position, which the Prologue than moved to re-create Fabell's study. The Host then moves most of the pieces upstage for the first scene at the George at Watham, and then moves the last block into its upstage position in the second scene at the George. The Host likewise moves the blocks into their forest brake position when the clowns come once more under the zona-torrida of the forest, while the rest of the clowns remain off stage making wild animal noises to scare him (the ruse is discovered when one of them moos like a cow). The sexton re-arranges the blocks upstage to form Enfield Church Porch, which has precisely the same configuration as the George at Waltham and the inn across the way (which, despite Abrams's analysis of Life and Death, I cannot think of as the White Horse). The scene shifts were in all cases except for one part of the scripted action of the play, and in the one instance where it was not, it proved to be an opportunity for a comic bit. The secret was to never let the audience think they were watching a simple scene shift, and so we didn't have any problems, but if we absolutely couldn't have covered the shift with the action (as they sometimes cannot at the ASC), we would have been able to use a brief musical interlude to do so (as they sometimes do at the ASC).

While most directors rescript in order to cut or streamline the text, others find it necessary to add new material to the received text in order to clarify - or make - a point they feel is important. This can include one off jokes (such as in CSC's 1986 Merchant of Venice, where Launcelot Gobbo makes a reference to his mother being named "Gretta," and thus "Gretta Gobo), or for some musical effect, such as in the case of RSC's 2000 Richard II, wherein Richard enters whistling "God Save the King." (73 - 74). Guilty as charged: to help cover one of Paul's costume changes from Sir John into Sir Richard, Victoria as Smug did an air guitar riff of "Runnin' with the Devil," Sir John called for Smug to follow him from off stage, and then Smug delivered her "Good night, Waltham!" line in the manner of a rock star exiting the stage. It gave us more than enough time to complete the change, and got a laugh.

Another common addition to plays in performance is including characters in scenes where they are not specified, but may be indicated by the action. While scholars may suppose that Cassius and Caius Ligarius were played by the same actor, for example, such conventions are often not necessary today, and Sir Peter Hall, in his 1995 RSC production, specifically included both, the result being that Caesar specifically snubs greeting Cassius (as no line is provided for such a greeting), and thus affirms both what Caesar had said previously about Cassius, and Cassius' own feelings (74 - 75). With one less actor than the script of Merry Devil technically calls for, this wasn't a luxury that we could afford.

Sometimes characters mentioned in the dialogue are included in the action, perhaps most notably the changeling boy in Midsummer (75). Personally, I agree with Ralph Alan Cohen's position that bringing on the changeling is a really bad idea, and is perhaps even contra-indicated by the script. Isn't it better if we see Titania and Oberon quarreling over nothing, literally, just like old married couples do? But I digress....

Directors will sometimes, for the sake of highlighting the brutality of a certain ruler, place onstage executions and violence where it is only implied in the text (78).

Directorial prologues and pre-show "dumb shows" are the most common insertion into plays of the period, some beginning at the advertised curtain time, others beginning when the house opens, and still others beginning somewhere in between. These can have an effect similar to an authorial induction, or can serve to blur the line between actor and character, performance and reality (81).

The use of pre-show and post-show dumb shows as framing devices have been regularly employed at the London Globe (83). Ah ha! So that's why Globe Education was so quick to offer that as a solution!

The combination of a prologue/epilogue as a framing device will generally be more effective than employing either device individually (83).

Sometimes directors prefer an interpretation of a given character that requires a certain amount of rescripting to maintain it. If, for example, Oberon is played as a devilish spirit, it might make sense to cut his "but we are spirits of another sort" line (86 - 87).

Dessen concludes whit chapter with a description of Michael Boyd's 1998 Measure for Measure at the RSC, which set the action of the play in a state reminiscent of an Eastern Bloc power, and shifted the focus of the action to averting a governmental coup. Reviews for this production were widely mixed, with some praising Boyd for taking new and bold directions, and other criticizing him for altering the text so thoroughly that original themes were barely recognizable (90 - 93).


Directors can do a great deal to improve the play to their own ends, but as Dessen so eloquently asks in the series of rhetorical questions that he poses consistently at the end of these chapters, "as who likes it" (93)? The answer can only be one of interpretation, and in the case of an early modern play, the director must choose early on whether they wish to trust their audience with the text they've received, and how much. Sometimes adaptations will work beautifully, and sometimes disastrously, whereas in other cases opinions will likely be split between textual purists and those more open to adaptation.

Again, the question seems to me, at what point does a director need to draw a line and say they have edited a text? At what point do they draw another line and say they've adapted it? At what point do they draw yet another and say they've written a new play inspired by an old one? Where does the line where hey cease to mention the source material come? And before we start enjoying the view from our ivory tower too much, let us recall that Shakespeare never once mentions Holinshead.

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