Shakespeare Uncut

February 02 1 Comment Category: On Shakespeare

Among the hundreds of amateur and professional Shakespearean productions every year few, if any, honor the exact text, or even ninety percent of the text.  When was the last time we saw Hamlet (other than Branagh’s film version) performed without cutting—make that hacking—it? With the exception of a few theatre groups committed to “complete text” productions, the practice of cutting Shakespeare has become almost de rigueur, a mandate handed down to us since at least The Restoration, and is now a virtual epidemic in Shakespearean production.

Ask any MFA directing student if she or he would even dream of leaving the text intact and you would probably be met with a look of horror.  Professional productions are just as bad, but the most egregious offenders are the Shakespeare Festivals all over the country, those Disneyesque pageants purporting to preserve the memory of the Bard yet systematically eroding his texts not merely by slashing the words but also by obfuscating them with a smorgasbord of multilayered effects and outlandish concepts.

I am aware of the derision awaiting my suggestion that we produce the texts the way they were written.  I’ve heard the arguments: more than forty percent of Shakespeare’s words have fallen into desuetude; we would never find audiences to sit through endless reams of blank verse (citing the success of Festivals as proof positive that the general theatre-going public loves the production re-formatted to fit “their screen and their time slot!”); the same tired approaches to the plays are boring and stultifying; we have to find new ways to make the plays relevant to our time; how can we do the same thing over and over again?…even Shakespeare altered his texts…remember Peter Brook’s Dream…on and on…

We know that all Shakespeare’s plays were constructed upon borrowed plots, a weak argument often used in favor of reconstructing, or deconstructing, productions (if he could do it, so can I…); which leads us to the next question: if the plots were not his, what then makes a Shakespearean play a Shakespearean play?  Among all the elements of the plays is there an essential quality that raises these works to dizzying artistic heights or does this question lead only to dissensus?  I suppose one could point to several aspects of the works—their penetration of the human psyche, the variety of characters, the sweep of emotions, the truth of the portrayed relationships; and the encapsulation of the sacred/profane, the beautiful/ugly, and the ridiculous/profound in a celebration of our essential humanity.  But the vehicle for all this, most Shakespeare aficionados would agree, is the language of the plays, or to be more precise, Shakespeare’s use of language.  This really is the intrinsic quality that sets his plays apart from the rest of the canon.

Shakespeare’s deployment of tropes, the rhythm and arc of his verse, the sounds of words echoing through a passage; rhymes, homophones, assonants, alliterations, and a magnificent array of figures of speech tumbling from the lips of the greatest gallery of characters in the history of literature elevate those borrowed plots from the simple contexts of their origins to the realms of dramatic art.  The keyword here is dramatic.  Wherever Shakespeare’s linguistic flights of fancy took him, he never lost sight of the dramatic—read action-oriented—impact of the moment.  A close look at the text reveals his remarkable understanding of action (pre-dating the Stanislavskian definition of the concept).  Whatever other motives he may have had for employing a particular speech or scene (to give actors time to don armor or anything else) he intuitively understood that if it did not further the action it did not belong in the play.

Obviously, one isn’t talking about simplistic definitions of Action.  Shakespeare was an accomplished raconteur, inventing ways to embellish an old plot to make it a new story.  Repetitions are the stock-in-trade of storytelling and he was unafraid to replay a moment from a slightly different point of view, thus giving us new insights into the moment or revealing a different aspect of a character.  These repetitions are often excised from productions on the pretext that the audience has that information, as if the whole point of a play is to disseminate data.  Beethoven spends the entire first movement of his Fifth Symphony repeating different forms of his opening theme, revealing tiny aspects of it each time and building it into a unified whole so that at the end the initial outburst is invigorated and energized into—well, a symphony.  In Beethoven’s piece we call them variations or motifs, in Shakespeare we cut them!

We appreciate the gestalt of musical composition, yet would refuse the same courtesy to a play.  Music somehow seems to possess for us a greater sense of a unified whole; remove one part and the rest crumbles.  Such a perspective is missing from our apprehension of drama as we chisel, whittle, skive, and pare text with impunity.  Would we delete appoggiaturas or acciaccaturas from a sonata?!  Would we remove repeated measures, or refuse to reiterate sections when called for by the composer?

When we sit through a play we don’t always understand everything we see and hear, at least not in intimate detail.  Most of the time we comprehend the sweep of the thing, making note of different individual parts and moments which add to the general experience, rather like listening to a symphony where we focus not on particular notes but on the emotional experience of the music.  It is, after all, a work of art and not a lecture. Yes, we do listen carefully and even minutely, but the experience has to do with feeling the music of the play.  And that music comprises all the moments–the sound of the verse, the figures and tropes, the direct and even obscure references; they’ve all been placed there for a reason, to add to the overall experience, the polyphony of the piece.

Even minor playwrights weigh each word with care, making innumerable choices about every moment.  Why would we expect Shakespeare to have done otherwise?  Is our collective unconscious so cathected on an image of a frenetic playwright scribbling away with his quill, attentive only to the overall scheme of the work with no concern for the minutiae of every moment, that we forget that playwrights are also craftsmen?  Genius is the product of great industry, of awareness of detail.  Even Mozart, whose manuscripts are reputed to be remarkably free of deletions and scribbles (unlike, say, Beethoven), for all his experimentations, was painstaking in his attention to the demands of Tradition and Form.

The evidence of Shakespeare’s texts with their careful concentration on the vagaries of iambic pentameter (often honored by himself more in the breach than the observance, to avoid the pitfall of rendering the passages metronomically mechanical), their abrupt shifts of verse forms from rhyming couplets to sonnets to unrhymed lines (each moment ringing in a dramatic change in the scene); their shared lines, their paused lines, and a plethora of other variations would suggest a master craftsman at work on a master plan.  In such a scheme every syllable is accounted for and every word significant.  Shakespeare reveled in language, for in his time it was in its nascency (at least in relation to Middle English), evolving to keep pace with a constantly varying world.  In that sense, at least, very little has changed, for language today is also borrowing and mutating to define its shifting contexts. But there may be a sense that we have devalued language, at least in its traditional definition, in our search for different ways to communicate.  Perhaps the angst of the modern age, characterized by stark precision, directness, and “computer-speak,” recoils from anything that smacks of ornamentation or heightened language.

At this point let us draw a distinction between scholarship and production, although ultimately we must apply similar criteria to evaluate them.  Scholars and teachers will continue to dissect Shakespeare’s plays in the light of different philosophies; so we may have Marxist, Feminist, Postmodern, post-Postmodern, and a variety of other interpretations.  We may assume that all these approaches have their place and purpose within the pale of Shakespearean studies.  Or we may encounter the extrapolation of particular moments, scenes, or relationships from the text to be examined within certain historical, political, or sociological contexts that frame an entire gamut of perspectives.  In such cases, the perspective itself becomes the centerpiece of the discussion and its relative scene or relationship is perforce given an emphasis far greater than its value in the original text.  This is the nature of theorization—whether it is literary, historical, sociological or any other—that by definition it is an external application upon its subject.  For such theories and, in the case of productions, concepts to rise to the level of true interpretation, however, they must be validated by every aspect of the play rather than by certain selected portions, or at least not negated by the text itself.

This is probably why productions that attempt to focus attention on a theoretical interpretation are almost always filled with deletions—whatever section of the text doesn’t conform to the “genius” of the directorial concept is summarily removed!  In some ways, although I am still troubled by it, I have more respect for such actions where a director is sincerely, if misguidedly, engaged in conceptual pursuits than for what has, alas, become customary, i.e., the practice of cutting the text merely because of a lack of training to interpret it or a lack of intelligence to comprehend it or the ludicrous claim that audiences will not appreciate or understand it!

The advertising guru David Ogilvy once famously exhorted his copywriters not to underestimate the intelligence of their target group, saying, “The consumer is not a fool; he’s your wife!”  Holding to such a dictum—its implied sexism notwithstanding— with respect to our audiences would at least remind us that they choose to enter our theatres with some knowledge of the intellectual content of the plays they are about to witness.  It is we who should rise to the level of the text and demand that the audience follows suit rather than reduce the complexity of the play to the lowest common denominator of comprehension.  People will meet those expectations if the production is backed by homework and proper training.

It’s one thing to talk about intelligent and sensitive cutting, but when so much of the editing is done before rehearsals even begin, it makes me wonder if enough thought has been given to the text.  Most of us would agree that the more complex moments in a play are discovered in rehearsal or in performance by actors attempting to communicate with one another.  If they take time to understand the text, they will find ways to communicate everything to the audience, as long as they realize the first thing about acting, which is that you’re trying to communicate with the other characters and only indirectly to the audience.  Perhaps in worrying so much about audiences we tend to underestimate and even denigrate them.

Most contemporary productions set the plays in a “non-Elizabethan” context, whatever that means, as if the “setting” of the play is crucial to our understanding of it.  What this fails to realize is that many of Shakespeare’s locales were metaphors.  He didn’t know Italy except by report, or Vienna, or Denmark, or Bohemia, or many of the countries he used.  Half of Othello is set in Cyprus, which rendered Stanislavsky’s famous visit to Italy somewhat of an exercise in futility.  Cyprus, in that play, isn’t really Cyprus the nation; it is merely a rough outpost, a Dionysian locale distinctive from the Apollonian Venice, perfect for the overflow of emotions and the commitment of murder.  The same is true of Portia’s fantastical Belmont or the juxtaposition of Sicilia and Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale. It doesn’t matter where he “set” his plays; most of the references were English.  In fact, many of the disparities (in Measure for Measure, for instance, the setting is Vienna, yet many of the names are Italian) may have been deliberate artistic devices to blur the sense of time and space and set the plays in a kind of Neverland, where all plays really take place, and where he could focus on the interplay of emotions and relationships without regard to specificities of geography or customs.

When we “re-set” Shakespeare’s plays in specific locations, with careful attention to historical detail, we run the risk of making extraneous statements about the play and, more often than not, such productions tend to draw attention to the artifice of their settings and away from the universal heart of the action.  In a way, I am suggesting that the plays work better when their sets and costumes are geographically “generalized,” rather than specific, as long as we bear in mind that costumes denote contrasts (Romeo & Juliet), cultural distinctions (Antony & Cleopatra), class divisions, etc. These are important to the action of the play and should be delineated.  Modern costumes—slacks, jackets, skirts, etc.—as long as they don’t draw attention to themselves or to a specific time period (“modern” is a vague enough term for our purposes) are as acceptable and workable as tights and doublets (but we do need to find a viable solution for Malvolio’s yellow stockings and cross-garters).

So it isn’t a question of the text being inviolable in a prescriptive sort of way, but of it being necessary towards the complete experience.  I am not suggesting that texts are sacrosanct, but I am asking if enough effort is spent trying to enter into the “style” of the piece, the world of the play.  Branagh’s film of Hamlet, performed with an uncut text, certainly seemed clear (whether or not one can quibble with the individual performances or with his chosen version of the folio text) to the general film-going audience.  And he did this with the longest play in the canon!

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  1. So beautifully writtten.. thanks for sharing!

    Glenn Block 19 February 2017 at 5:05 am Permalink

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