The Director's Tragedy Or, Approaches To The Really Obscure Play

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Director’s Tragedy, Part One. One day, an idealistic director named Stanislavska meets an academic (probably me) who tells her that it’s her duty to revive Shakespeare’s lesser-known but deserving contemporaries. Looking through the extant drama, she picks something that hasn’t been produced since the seventeenth century. It turns out to be a text of fiendish difficulty, evidently the work of Compositor ZZZ, and its only edition is the work of an old-fashioned textual scholar who has lovingly preserved all the original misprints, noted every press variant, but didn’t deign to indicate asides or explain lines like “marry gip with a wannion”. So Stanislavska produces her own edition. The next step is to make it coherent to the actors. Maybe she recalls that Barry Kyle, when he was directing Shirley’s Hyde Park, “wouldn’t let the actors do a read-through for two weeks, out of the fear that they would get so depressed.”1 She may even go as far as John Caird at the Swan (Stratford-upon-Avon), who sent the actors of Every Man in His Humour and The New Inn to do individual research projects about Renaissance daily life.2 To help the audience, she arranges for the program to include a glossary and helpful scholarly-critical tidbits, even though most of the audience won’t read any of this until after the performance, if ever.

The Director’s Tragedy, Part Two: And then, when the play finally reaches its first night, the reviewers unanimously declare that: 1.) it isn’t as good as Shakespeare; 2.) when something hasn’t been produced for four centuries,there is usually a reason. Worse still, the academic (me) may double (-cross) as a reviewer, trashing the production because it was too funny, or ideologically unsatisfactory, or given at an “establishment” theater in tourist season. Although I probably don’t understand every line in the play as well as the director does, I have managed to find one that she got wrong: “Stanislavska,” I write happily, “apparently does not realize that…”. Then I wonder why it’s so hard to find directors who will do such plays.

The academic reviewer may be two-faced, but the two faces go with two minds, and I am in both of them. On the one hand, I don’t think we should lower our standards just because the production under review is likely to be the world’s only chance to see All’s Lost by Lust. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed by anyone who takes on the real rarities in the first place. By rarities, I mean anything except the perhaps ten non-Shakespearean plays that are frequently edited, have performance histories, and are thus beginning to acquire something of the aura (made up of multiple page and stage interpretations) that makes Shakespeare’s plays seem so complex. Other plays may get one annotated edition every fifty years. They are probably not neglected masterpieces. Usually the sort of production they get is the sort that no one reviews in the commercial press. Even when they appear i.n a Revels edition, the editor will probably know nothing about a revival except that it took place.3 In many cases, I would agree that the best place for them is my living room, where they often provide an enjoyable play reading. Yet they are the plays that I always rush off to see, because it’s impossible to predict which performance will turn out to be a genuine illumination.

Working toward a world premiere of a four-hundred-year-old play may not be too bad at Stratford’s Swan Theater, with first-rate resources on which to draw. The director at a smaller theatre, with less time and knowledge, is likely to fall back on preconceived ideas about the dramatist, his period, or his subject matter. In practice, this usually means the same division of Renaissance plays that used to be taught in literary histories: Elizabethan-Wholesome versus Jacobean-Decadent. This division does not depend on chronology. It relies much more on biography, which is why Marlowe, despite his dates, is a prime candidate for “Jacobean” treatment.

For example. In 1981 I managed to see Philip Prowse’s production of The Massacre at Paris in the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow (it meant a local train from Leicester to Birmingham, plane to Glasgow, night train back to Birmingham, local to Leicester), only to find a high camp interpretation, seen as if from backstage, with a small company of cross-dressing actors playing for a solitary and sinister spectator, Queen Elizabeth I. I was annoyed that, instead of confronting the problems of the text, the production had evaded them either by cuts or by making the performers incompetent and cynical sycophants -- there are enough opportunities to see incompetent actors as it is. In retrospect, I can see it as a perfect example not only of Citizens' Theatre style but also of the "Jacobean" approach, with costumes in what's been called the “decayed-peacock style”.4 It was the kind of production that rounds off Antonin Artaud’s list of future works for his Theater of Cruelty: Renaissance tragedies, minus their texts, but retaining their plots, costumes, and period flavor.5 What suffers most in this approach is comedy, something that Artaud probably did not even notice. Some directors still remove all the laugh lines in the interest of stylistic unity. Working out the balance between the comic and the horrific is the chief problem for most directors of “Jacobean” tragedy.

“Elizabethan wholesome,” on the other hand, assumes the naivety of the author and audience, and consequently a certain freedom to adapt. Most directors recognize that music and a good fight will improve almost any play, and there must have been some permissiveness in this respect ever since John Rastell published his Nature of the Four Elements (c. 1517), assuring prospective performers that the dialogue can be cut by half if necessary and that “if ye list ye may bring in a disguising.” A tradition that I have no way of confirming says that nineteenth-century touring companies performing costume drama relied heavily on a character called the “Play-Saver”. His job was to wait in the wings, sword in hand; when the audience’s attention flagged, he bounded onto the stage, declaring, “Ha! I know what you would, but you shall not! Draw and fight!”6 There are times when one suspects that something similar lies behind revivals where the actors duel their way up and down the aisles or chase each other through the audience.

Trevor Nunn’s The Fair Maid of the West (1986), boiled down from two parts into one, is a good example of “Elizabethan-Wholesome”. To suggest the kind of audience for which it was written, Nunn opened with an imitation of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, showing the actors’ attempt to do Henry V derailed by a (planted) audience shouting for “Bess Bridges”. In rehearsal, director and actors became convinced that Heywood was “a nice man” and tried to make the play live up to its author.7 Nunn cut the appalling racist jokes in the Morocco scenes, taking the view that Heywood’s niceness was essential, whereas his racism was an accident of history. What remaind was a sense of “well-being and happiness and generosity”.8 Moments when the plot machinery creaked or the historical context was too obvious were delicately set in quotation marks: e.g., the hyperbolic speeches in praise of Queen Elizabeth or of the ethereal beauty of Bess herself (the down-to-earth Imelda Staunton). Thus the production good-naturedly patronized the “nice” Heywood who believed in idealized queens and stage heroines; perhaps it also patronized his original audience, who was assumed to have believed in both. Both author and audience might in fact have been as amused as we were (especially if, as I suspect, the play is post-Elizabethan). The Fair Maid was also typically “Elizabethan” in its use of music, even beyond what is indicated in the text. The next step is obviously to turn the plays into musical comedy; Julian Slade’s Nutmeg and Ginger (The Knight of the Burning Pestle) was a success at the Orange Tree, Richmond, in 1990, and other plays with large numbers of songs (The Rape of Lucrece, The Northern Lass) could benefit from this treatment.

Heywood's Jacobean career was in fact longer than his Elizabethan one, but his plays, like Dekker's, are usually given “realistic” period costumes, music, and a strong sense of social context. This is probably because Webster grouped the two dramatists with Shakespeare for their “right happy and copious industry.” Similarly, any other plays with possible Shakespearean connections get the chance to show how full they are of his famous humanity. The 1986 revival of Edmond Ironside (dir. Tim Heath), billed as “William Shakespeare’s Lost Play”, had been inspired by Eric Sams’s recently published edition making that claim. The possibility of Shakespearean authorship created immense respect in the director and cast. The play was uncut. The characters wore muted tones suggesting real life rather than the stage, the set was in simple, warm colors, and the acting style was naturalistic. Actors spoke with pauses and plenty of subtext, like tragic figures. Toby Robertson’s production of another possible Shakespeare play, Edward III, at Theatre Clwyd in 1987, brought the Countess of Auvergne back onstage before the walls of Calais to emphasize the thematic connection between besieging a woman’s virtue and besieging a city, thus paying homage to Shakespeare’s reputation for organic unity.

Middleton has benefitted enormously from a revaluation that really started in the theater, with exceptionally fine productions of The Changeling (Royal Court, London, 1960) and Women Beware Women (Arts Theatre, London, 1962). These two plays, which established his reputation for “modern” psychological realism, have now been staged often enough that they hardly count as rarities. I have seen a number of others: No Wit, No Help, Like a Woman’s (Bear Gardens, 1985), A Mad World, My Masters (Globe, 1998). Even his collaborations have benefitted from his rediscovery, as with The Roaring Girl (RSC, Main Stage, 1983), The Witch of Edmonton (The Mermaid, 1964, The Other Place, 1981), and The Honest Whore (Shakespeare’s Globe, 1999). To my mind, “realistic” treatment is usually a good thing, in that it forces the actors to understand their lines rather than burying them in a lot of “Jacobean” camp. In these complex, large-cast plays, simply working out who belongs where at any given moment can require as much effort as a scholarly article. Ralph Cohen’s brilliantly funny production of Your Five Gallants at James Madison University (1992), a spin-off from his editorial work on the Oxford Middleton, offered the kind of detailed understanding of the text that even Shakespeare plays rarely get, making me long for more editors who can direct, and vice-versa.

Deconstruction, spreading from criticism to the theater, has humanized the “Jacobean” style in many ways. A good example was the 1984 production of “The Tyrant, by Thomas Middleton” (aka The Second Maiden’s Tragedy by Anon). Director Andrew Wickes, with a company called “The Troop”, believed that the mainplot and subplot belonged to very different worlds and therefore accentuated the differences between them. The mainplot actors wore Jacobean costume and played their scenes under nocturnal lighting. When the first comic subplot scene began, the lights came up, the actors helped themselves to cups of tea as if at a rehearsal break, and the first subplot scene took place as if between the scenes of the “real” play. As these characters were gradually drawn into the tragic action, their scenes were given theatrical lighting and they occasionally wore bits of their costumes from the roles they had doubled in the main plot.

Jonathan Miller’s Malcontent (Nottingham and London, 1973) looked at first like another "decadent" production: the program cover was Bronzino’s Mannerist “Allegory” and the characters’ costumes made them look as if they were living underwater. One reviewer complained that the result was “an exercise in style divorced from substance."9 As I remember it, however, Miller was not concerned only to stylize and distance the play; he also had a saving sense of its comedy, especially the rapid-fire dialogue that looks lurid on the page but is hilarious when delivered with the right timing. Malevole (Derek Godfrey) asked Mendoza to lend him “rapier, pistol, crossbow” to assasinate Piero (3.3); At his next entrance, he had all three, plus a ball on a chain, which of course bounced. After this dazzling production, I expected to see Marston’s reputation take off as Middleton’s has. Peter Barnes’s condensation of the Antonio plays at Nottingham Playhouse (dir. Trevor Pitt, 1979) and the National Theatre Fawn of 1983 also made a case for him.

Chapman, like Marston, perhaps stands a better chance with his comedies than his tragedies. Clive Brill (who as a BBC director of radio plays had a particular feel for the language) described The Widow’s Tears (Bear Gardens, 1985) as “a study in irony”. He dressed the cast in modern clothes, with Thrasalio in leather biker’s gear. Its surprisingly zany ending, with the sudden appearance of the eccentric idiot-ex-machina Governor, made one forget the apparent misogyny of the rest. The lack of that over-the-top quality kept Jonathan Miller from succeeding with Chapman’s best-known tragedy, Bussy d’Ambois, at the Old Vic in 1988. Since Miller did not use the trapdoor that Chapman wanted for the illicit love affair in the Countess’s room and the underworld from which Behemoth emerges, a strong whiff of the supernatural was removed from the play. Obviously trying to avoid Alexandre Dumas, Miller had David Threlfall play Bussy in the snarling, world-weary style of Malevole, thus losing much of what once made the play so popular.

At present, Chapman and Marston survive largely as two-thirds of the threesome (with Jonson) that wrote Eastward Ho. R.V. Holdsworth’s reaction to a production by the New Company, Newman Rooms, Oxford, in 1978¨-- “what a brilliantly funny class comedy this is, and how unjustly neglected on the stage”--was confirmed by the Swan theatre production of 2002.10 One reason for its unjust neglect is its three-fold authorship. The “Beaumont and Fletcher” plays also suffer from our unwillingness to pay attention to collaborative drama. Even with The Changeling, cutting the subplot is sometimes a way of removing Rowley, symbolically if not in reality. The popular Elizabethan device of having personified abstractions argue over the genre of the play (as in A Warning for Fair Women and Mucedorus) suggests that some dramatists at least wanted to emphasize the arbitrary nature of their plot and even to hint at the effects of collaboration. Academics are currently more interested in context than in close reading, and providing metatheatrical frameworks can incorporate dramatists’ biographies into little-known plays. A repertory theater with a reasonably loyal following can find equivalents for the in-house jokes of the past, as the Globe production of Brome’s The Antipodes (2000), with Mark Rylance in a series of cameo roles, reminded spectators of his earlier performance in Henry V and his current one in Hamlet.

The Director's Tragedy, Part Three: The above is, essentially, what I wrote 12 years ago, when the Globe and Blackfriars were both relatively new and the White Bear pub in south London hadn't yet become well known as a venue for offbeat revivals. Is my Elizabethan-Jacobean polarization still valid? Less so than before, I think, for several reasons. One is that Stanislavska and others now look beyond the obvious "Elizabethan" or "Jacobean" plays. Although the Globe has largely given up on the non-Shakespearean (at least until the Indoor Jacobean Playhouse opens), its staged readings have opened up the entire early modern theatrical repertory. The Swan Theatre's non-Shakespearean seasons have made some unusual choices, which in turn have inspired unusual productions. Although they sometimes look "Jacobean," the main influence is probably film's habit of making the verbal visual: hence the weird, scene-stealing costumes of Middleton and Rowley's A New Way to Please You (i.e., The Old Law) and, in Sejanus, the inclusion of a scene of sodomy that is only reported in the existing text. Greg Doran directed The Island Princess as a clash between European and East Indian cultures, the latter represented with visual and auditory beauty that showed respect for the play as well as a desire to bring out its potential anti-colonialist message. The Blackfriars Theatre in Staunton, VA, has also made some innovative choices in its annual "Renaissance season" (February-March), with splendid versions of A King and No King, Look About You, A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World, My Masters, and Philaster. (Like the Swan, it has also given good productions of The Tamer Tamed and The Malcontent.)

Stanislavska might have mixed feelings about some of this. During the Blackfriars "Renaissance" season, plays have minimal rehearsal time, with no director or designer (actors choose their own clothes from the company wardrobe). The Globe readings have a director but are rehearsed only on the day of perfornance. Both are really examples of the "actors' theatre" which both John Russell Brown and Robert Weimann have wanted to see as an alternative to directorial dominance. Can the revival of the full range of early modern drama come only at the expense of the director? Maybe it's time for me to apologize to Stanislavska.

  • 1. Barry Kyle, “The Director in the Swan”, This Golden Round, ed. Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (Mulryne and Shewring, Ltd., 1989), 75.
  • 2. John Caird, Ibid., 71-2.
  • 3. This is, fortunately, becoming less true, thanks to such publications as (among others) Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama (RORD); The London Theatre Record and its New York equivalent; The Shakespeare Bulletin; and the Listservs and websites to which volunteers send reviews. I should like to thank my research assistant, Mike Clody, for looking up some of these for me when I first wrote this piece. I am drawing, for the most part, on my own recollections and, in some cases, my own reviews, mostly for The Times Literary Supplement.
  • 4. Tony Howard, RORD XXII (1979), p. 79.
  • 5. See Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et son Double (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 152.
  • 6. Henry Marshall, “A Unique Fighting Lesson,” The Sword (xix: 2, 1967), 58.
  • 7. Trevor Nunn, “The Director in the Swan”, Golden Round, 64.
  • 8. Nunn, This Golden Round, 63.
  • 9. John Peter, Sunday Times, 22 April 1973, p. 38c.
  • 10. RORD, XXII (1979), 75. The play has had a couple of London productions, but the Mermaid one of 1964 dumbed down the text and the same theater’s 1981 musical version, which I did not see, seems generally to have been regarded as a disaster. See the review in RORD, XXV (1982), 123-4.