Friday, October 1, 2010

Notes on "The Kindest Cut"

Stage Directions magazine published their Guide to Shakespeare in 2000, and while a quick skim of the book revealed it to be full of things that I likely already knew or considered, two chapters grabbed my attention, and thus I will offer my notes on the first of these here. "The Kindest Cut: Practical Advice on When and How to Trim Shakespeare Down to Size," by Washington Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director James A Van Leishout is geared more for the director than for the editor, but as my recent (and ongoing) reading of Dessen's book (and my won experience) reminds me, those two functions are often linked. While I was never going to have to cut Merry Devil, I did need to emend it at points, and those two techniques are often related. So lets see what Leishout has to say...

"For better or for worse, most modern productions of Shakespeare are not presented whole" (38). The truth of that may be obvious, but it's always nice to hear someone say it.

Shakespeare's plays were probably cut cut and re-written in his own lifetime, and the lack of copyright protections on the text free the director to cut, edit, and adapt as they see fit, but it is still essential to understand what the received text communicates and how it does so (38).

"The first responsibility of a director is to honor the playwright's intentions" (39). I respectfully disagree with that statement, especially in the case of Shakespeare, whose intentions are unknown. All we can do is surmise what his intentions were, and if his intentions with Othello really are in propagating a racist agenda, or his intentions in Taming of the Shrew are in propagating a misogynist one, than we ought not honor those intentions.

Van Leishout presents five guidelines to cutting a text, and while the first of these, "Have a clear understanding of why a line, scene, or character exists before cutting," makes good sense, he builds upon some contradictory evidence. He recommends David Ball's excellent Backwards and Forwards  as an introduction to reading texts, but then discusses how the Reynaldo scene can be easily cut from Hamlet; it's been some time since I read Backwards and Forwards, but I remember Ball making a very clear and excellent point over several pages that the Reynaldo scene is essential to a proper understanding of Palonius' character (39 - 40). I fully realize it will often be absent from modern productions, but Van Leishout seems to be contradicting himself here.

The next piece of advice Van Leishout offers is to "be aware of emendations" (40). The emendations he is speaking of are of the variety that come from Shakespeare's editors over the past few centuries, and he recommends checking against the Folio text to get a clearer picture (40). On the whole, it's not bad advice.

Examine cuts that other directors have made, but beware of being caught up in another director's concept (40 - 41). I'm not sure how useful this advice is to anyone. While studying the work of others in your field is always important, there could be any number of reasons why a director cut a particular scene from their production, and it is also important to examine how those cuts were received. If a local reviewer talks about how the play doesn't make sense and feels like it's missing scenes, they may have cut unwisely. In the end, this technique would, to be useful, require more effort than it is probably worth.

I agree with the next point that directors should know the logic behind the order of the scenes in the received text; knowing the function of the court scenes in opposition to the forest scenes in As You Like It is essential before changing their order (41). Even if the director does persist in changing the order, they should at least be aware of what they're losing for what they're gaining: this is a point that Dessen makes regularly as well.

"Don't cut famous lines" (41). Always good advice, but I didn't have to worry about that in Merry Devil.

Van Leishout urges the director to check their cuts after they have finished to make sure that what they have created still makes sense, is what they want, and is still recognizably Shakespeare's: he further offers that if the result is radically different, you may wish to consider noting that your creation is based on Shakespeare's work (41).

I like this last point that Shakespeare wrote to please audiences, especially the note that a short play is not a guarantee of success, and that a slightly longer well done production will be better than a shorter and less well done production every time (41).

All of this seems fairly straightforward, aimed at someone with a little bit less of a background in both text and performance in mind, and with Shakespeare's plays too specifically targeted for me to apply this much to the broader context of Merry Devil.

Van Leishout, James A. "The Kindest Cut: Practical Advice on When and How to Trim Shakespeare Down to Size." The Stage Directions Guide to Shakespeare. Stephen Peithman and Neil Offen Ed. Postmouth. Heinemann. 2000.

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