Saturday, October 2, 2010

Notes on Rescripting Shakespeare - Chapter 6

In this chapter Dessen treats on stage directions. As a director, I have tended to treat stage directions as almost wholly disposable. They are sometimes good and useful, but sometimes will inhibit the action or character choices available; very rarely have I worked with a play that was written specifically for the circumstances for which I was directing, and if our recent adventure touring to Philly was any indication, Shakespeare & Co would have to remain flexible in their staging. Performance at the royal court or on tour would mean having to adapt their performances, if not their texts, to the spaces they found. That said, Professor Cohen believes that something can be learned from the stage directions that we have received, and as such, I have tried to use them as much as possible in my work here.

Dessen begins by noting the history of editors considering the stage directions as non-authorial, and therefore more dispensable than the dialog portions of the text. Malone and Honingmann were both particularly eloquent in their dismissal of stage directions (136).

Modern productions will tend to treat stage directions as flexible, especially in the case of weaponry, which may be inconsistent with the weaponry of a new period or setting of the production (136). Often times, a desired effect or production concept will take precedence over received stage directions, as will more modern sensibilities of the spiritual or of psychological realism (137). Also, let's not forget that a frightening and impressive effect in one generation is ridiculous in the next. I seem to recall Garrick  having a pneumatic wig fashioned for his portrayal of Hamlet, to show appropriate fright at the appearance of the ghost. Today, that would likely garner a laugh.

Changing the period will make certain elements, such as Richard's entrance in "rotten armor" in 3.5 of Richard III irrelevant or anomalous (137).

A powerful rescripting of stag directions occurs in the Shakespeare Santa Cruz 1984 modern dress of 1 Henry IV, where, instead of throwing the bottle back to Falstaff during the battle, Hal takes it with him, depriving Falstaff of refreshment. He then stops to drink it, and is discovered by Hotspur, who trains a pistol on him. Hal coolly takes another drink and offers the rest to Hotspur, who accepts it and puts aside the pistol to engage the prince in single combat. A clearly scripted original stage direction, and originally intended symbol, was excised in favor of one that would create a chivalric bond between Hal and Hotspur for a modern audience (138 - 140). On the last page of this description, Dessen notes that he wouldn't want to lose the new image for the old one, and I agree: consider that stolen.

Rescripting stage directions linked to imagery that is signaled in the received texts but either contradictory to concepts envisions by modern directors or contrary to modern sensibilities is some of the most common (140).

For Katie Mitchell's 1994 production of 3 Henry VI at The Other Place, the intimate size of the stage did not allow for the son to bring in the body of his death father and the father to bring in the dead body of his son for 2.5, so the direction was rescripted so that each brought in, in place of a body, a rose wrapped in a handkerchief, which was then deposited upstage in keeping with a motif of accumulating roses on crosses (142 - 143). Dealing with rescriptings due to reduced size in performance space is, of course, particularly interesting to me. At the Globe, it would be perfectly plausible for characters to not be able to see each other at night because of the distance, but then be able to see each other when they were close. We didn't have that luxury at Studio 1831, so had to provide physical obstacles in addition to the darkness.

Certain images, such as Titus dressed like a cook, can provided valuable sign posts to audiences in the 1590s, and when directors cut those images in favor of modern senses of realism, they also remove key images and literary signposts to help their audiences understand larger themes (146). Dessen spends several pages here discussing directors who are too quick to dismiss the image of Titus dressed as a cook because they fear that it's too ridiculous or nonsensical for modern audiences, but in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Titus Andronicus last season, James Keegan in the title role entered as a cook, which was regularly received a laugh, but this also made the violence of the scene all the more horrifying. Like I'm sure I've said before, laughter helps the audience let their guard down, and if Titus looks a little ridiculous to the audience, let us recall that he also looks a little ridiculous to Saturninus ("Why art thou thus Attir'd, Andronicus?").

Directors who remove visions and instances of supernatural effects, or attempt to incorporate the characters into the world of the supernatural, run the risk of detracting from the power of these scenes: in Katherine's vision in Henry VIII and in the appearance of Poshthumous' ancestors and Jupiter in Cymbeline, the supernatural elements exist outside of the realm of the characters, and either removing them or linking them to the "real" world reduces them to a more natural function and removes the romance of these scenes (147 - 149).

While it has become common practice to cut all or part of the "quaint device" through which Ariel is able to remove the food from the banquet table in The Tempest, doing so robs both the characters and the audience of the surprise of seeing something substantial vanish into thin air. This deprives the audience of access to a key symbol of impermanence on Prospero's island (152).

As described in the original stage directions, the appearance of the apparitions when Macbeth returns to the Witches ca prefigure moments of the play, and failing to include them in favor of effects that have a more cinematic flavor will often lack the intended payoff and deny the audience the opportunity of witnessing Macbeth unable to confront (or comprehend) the reality that is standing right before him (158).


There are precious few stage directions left to us from the early modern period, and Dessen's desire "to get as much mileage out of them as possible" is something that actors and directors alike should consider (165). Ultimately, this attempt to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of stage directions enabled some of the funnier moments in our production of Merry Devil. For example, Kim played both the Host of the George and the Chamberlain at the Inn across the way. The stage direction for the final scene indicates the Host enters "trussing his points as if new up." This is something that we would not have been able to achieve, even using period costumes, without resorting to costly original practices costumes. Points are what the early moderns used in place of a belt, literally to tie their pants to their jacket. Instead, when the Host enters in the final scene, Kim entered in the process of changing her costume from the Chamberlain to the Host so the audience could see the effect of the character entering in a the process of dressing themselves.

As I said previously, I used to feel free to ignore the stage directions, and for many of the reasons that Malone and Honingmann cite. Professor Cohen has made a believer out of me though, and I agree with Dessen's final sentiment. If we can't honor the letter of the stage direction, we should try, as best as possible, to honor its spirit.

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