Friday, October 1, 2010

Notes on Rescripting Shakespeare - Chapter 5

Directors and actors tend to be dissatisfied with the endings transmitted in the received texts of these plays, and so the final act of Shakespeare's plays is especially likely to undergo some forms of revision, usually without notice or comment from audience members (109). Since the final scene of Merry Devil was where I would ultimately do the most rescripting (in order to fill in the textual hole and account for having one fewer actor than the scene calls for), this chapter is going to interest me a great deal.

Dessen notes instances of directors creating business before and after the curtain call to conclude with a final dramatic image, such as Harry speaking over the dead body of Hotspur in 1 Henry IV, or Viola looking very female in a wedding dress in Twelfth Night (110).

Directors will often rescript concluding scenes in order to heighten a particular sense or feeling. Directors of comedies may wish to heighten the positive resolution achieved by the characters (111).

Directors will similarly rescript the endings of tragedies and histories; a prominent example is that the comic business of Quickly, Doll, and the Beadle in 2 Henry IV is often cut to highlight Harry's coronation and the rejection of Falstaff, but some directors instead cut the line calling attention to the fact that Doll is faking her pregnancy in order to create the sense of a looming brutal and oppressive regime (114).

The removal of stage props originally specified for concluding scenes, such as Romeo's mattock and Paris' flowers in Romeo and Juliet will lead to the presentation of characters in a way that the props undercut: as specified by their properties, the audience will see Paris as the true and gentle lover, and Romeo guided by the force of his destructive impulses (117).

Some directors will choose to emphasize the presence of deceased characters, with cases of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar being some of the more notable (118). Dessen provides some examples of this achieved through doubling, but I don't think it's fair to count these. Doubling was part of the technology available to early modern playing companies, and making doubling choices to convey additional subtext is something well within the realm of what they would have achieved, and does not require any textual emendation. Thus, it is not "rescripting" in the sense where Dessen elsewhere uses the word.

When changing the time period in which a play takes place, it is unsurprising to find the final moments of histories and tragedies altered so that these figured fall victim to the fire of rifles, but if they chose to die, are surprised by their deaths, is a significant part of any interpretation. A director needs to consider the question of where Shakespeare's text ends and their interpretation begins (123).

American directors have a tendency to make 5th act adjustments based on the economy of their productions, and speeches recounting events already seen are some of the first to be cut (125). This is an interesting point because there are so many speeches that recount events that the audience has seen, and where Abrams argues strenuously for missing scenes based on events shown in Life and Death, I come back to the evidence offered in Merry Devil that these scenes are described and therefore do no need to be seen. It would seem as if my evidence is as shaky as his. Or, alternatively, did the same cutting logic for the modern American director apply to the Chamberlain's/King's Man responsible for making the cut script?

Of particular note is Sir Peter Hall's 1988 RNT Cottlesloe production of Cymbeline, where the narration of events that the audience already knows is specifically directed at the other actors on stage; the interesting show for the audience then comes in watching their reactions to the reception of, what is for the character, new news (127).

Fifth act changes, such as a Paulina who will not accept a marriage with Camillo, can be born out of modern senses of psychological realism, but are contra-indicated by the facts present in the received text. To change the text in such cases, even by omission of lines indicating this marriage, is to alter the logic of the text in crucial ways that highlight gaps between Shakespeare's reasoning and our own (130).

c.f. for doubling Meagher, John C. "Economy and Recognition: Thirteen Shakespearean Puzzles." Shakespeare Quarterly. Vol. 34. 1984. p 18 - 19.


If you want to change the way the play ends, change the final act. Everyone knows that. As a sound designer, I am especially sensitive to the track the audience hears over the curtain call because it can have such a profound impact on the way they view the play as a whole, which is why it is often times the very first thing I choose in my sound design. For the ending of Merry Devil, I had two problems that necessitated changes to the text: First, I didn't have enough actors, and Victoria was doubling both Bilbo and Smug in this last moment. Smug, however, leaves fairly early in the scene and then re-appears later, and Bilbo doesn't have any lines until later in the scene.

The resolution was obvious: Victoria enters as Smug and plays that role up through Smug's initial exit, changes to Bilbo, and then re-enters as Bilbo, paging the curtain/holding the door for Fabell, and thus still playing the role of the general purpose servant. Smug's appearance at plays end was excised. This was essential because Victoria also doubled as Dorcas Clare, who is forgotten at the nunnery halfway through the play: Sir Arthur sends Bilbo to ride to the nunnery to retrieve his wife, and Bilbo agrees to do so, but complains that he will miss "a good breakfast." Thus we see the character complaining at leaving to bring back another character when the actor is already present.

This actually helped solve my second problem: that is that there are references to Smug's adventures the previous night during the (cut) sign stealing episode. Removing Smug from the end of the scene made it easier to remove the lines that treat on his appearance as the second George, and thus the textual hole was patched.

I could have stopped there, but since the final lines of the received text are addressed to Smug, and comment on "concluding your night of merriment," I felt this needed to be cut for narrative sense, and Sir John's trope of "...and there's an end" bringing the play to a conclusion was too good to resist. Three clowns are thus left on stage: Sir John, the Host, and Bilbo, while the rest of the cast has exited to breakfast, and then all re-emerge to reprise the chorus from "Everything's Magic" as the curtain number.

In some cases, I was simply making choices of directorial interpretation, but a considerable amount of re-scripting was involved, and perhaps the most difficult decision that I now face is whether or not to include this as the conclusion in the edition I am preparing (of course, I would also include the received ending as an appendix), or to include my rescripting of the last scene as an appendix. Ultimately, that decision will be grounded in my answer to the question of "what is this text?"

Still, this chapter has been particularly useful in citing the ways that others have rescripted the works of Shakespeare to serve their purposes, in some cases subtly, and in other cases not. As I review Dessen's inevitable end of chapter questions, which boil down to "what is gained? what is lost?" I feel more confident that, in performance at least, I have made the correct decision. We gained resolution, we lost textual ambiguity, and by most standards we rescripted very conservatively.

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