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Shakespeare’s Text: The Unkindest Cut…

02.08.11 | 5 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, directors, dramaturgy, playwrights, the process

“We cut and carve the body of a play to its peril.” – Harley Granville Barker

In my philosophical approach to staging (and cutting) Shakespeare, I am very much a child of Harley Granville Barker. HGB, if you haven’t yet met him, was a director, an actor, a scholar and a redhead; he was a contemporary and a great good friend of George Bernard Shaw. There is a famous (well, famous among Shakespearean geeks) photo of the two of them skinny-dipping on an English beach, the rearguard of their wisdom on display.

Granville Barker wrote a series of prefaces to Shakespeare, which are, to use the literary term, the bomb. They are not library studies, but practical advice about putting these plays on their dancing feet: “We have the text to guide us, half a dozen stage directions, and that is all. I abide by the text and the demands of the text and beyond that I claim freedom.”

If you are directing or performing Shakespeare, read them.

Granville Barker ditched footlights and proscenium arches; he built a stage out into the audience; he sought to re-establish the relationship between actor and audience that had existed when Shakespeare was writing. Not to create an Elizabethan museum, but to reinvent that open stage for our time. On the subject of cutting, he is judicious and warns the director to wield the ‘blue pencil’ with great care.

If I had my way – as a freelance director, I rarely do – I would cut very little. My remit as the director is to work with the actors to give the play life, and then to invite the audience to participate in that life. I repeatedly, relentlessly ask: what is the story of the play? Are you still telling that story once you have cut this line or that speech or changed this word? How does (or doesn’t) this line inform the storytelling? Does it undermine or occlude the action of the scene to make this cut? Can I preserve the rhythm of the metre? Is it worth breaking the play’s stride if I cannot?

I cut jokes that are so musty, arcane and obscure that no amount of clarity and physical precision will make them funny to a 21st century audience; I cut references that can serve only to distract a modern hearer from the story. All of those syphilis jokes will only resonate so deeply for a contemporary spectator. Bone ache? What now?

Granville Barker wrote, “Topical passages …show like dead wood in the living tree of the dialogue.”

Sir Toby Belch, for instance, in Twelfth Night, refers to the Bed of Ware in England; there are great annotations to be read about the estimable size of the bed in question (think John Denver on The Muppets, singing “Grandma’s Featherbed” or The Witches of Eastwick, lounging with Jack Nicholson), but none of that research can be conveyed in performance, so my blue pencil goes gamely through it every time. Conversely, in the same play, Malvolio tells us that “the yeoman of the wardrobe married the Lady of the Strachy” and, even though there is a nearly inexhaustible supply of scholarship amounting to a bibliographical shrug about the meaning of this, it kills onstage, so I always leave it be.

If the production is pressed for time, if is a school tour, for instance, or some other exigency applies, and I have to adhere to two brisk hours’ traffic of our stage, I will cut repetitions of ideas or language. I am comfortable cutting the senators who appear for the first time late in Cymbeline, never to be heard from again; I can sacrifice one or two of Autloycus’ tunes in The Winter’s Tale, because once we’ve established his character, the additional songs don’t shed a correspondent amount of light.

One must take care that one doesn’t start solving one’s own problems through cutting. Cutting, difficult at first, can grow on one, and it can be easy / lazy to say, “well, that language is dense and I don’t get it, so I’ll just get rid of it” instead of working to solve it. It is often to the point in Shakespeare that the language does not immediately yield the heart of its mystery.

I have written before on this blog that the notion of a sacred text is, well, profane for several reasons: the quartos and the Folio sometimes vary significantly from one another; there are printing house errors as well as the occasional hubristic rearrangement by a copyist. But it is dramatically worth one’s time to research the textual variants, to see how they inform and alter the storytelling. In the case of a play where we know there was contemporary revision, a quarto and the Folio may be telling related but different stories. I refer to a dictionary, Furness’ Variorum, Onions’ Glossary, Partridge’s Bawdy and to multiple editors’ imprints as I work.

Finally, In his introduction to the New Cambridge First Quarto of King Henry V, Andrew Gurr helpfully writes “Shakespeare and his company were in the habit of trimming and redrafting his scripts for use on the stage quite drastically. They shortened long speeches and cut redundant characters in order to streamline the text into something that could easily be put on as a two-hour performance.”

Know your material before you wantonly wield the blue pencil.

Kate Powers

Shakespeare girl, teller of good stories, fan of social justice, prison reform, mindfulness and all that is righteous on E Street

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  • Nicole

    Both your post and Kate Foy’s post below aptly highlight just how precarious an endeavor it can be to cut Shakespeare’s texts for performance. It’s something I’ve thought about and investigated a lot through the years, first, from the perspective of a curious student, next, from the perspective of a critic and scholar, and now from the perspective of a director embarking on a Shakespeare adaptation project inspired by Queer theory and queer and trans life. Faced with the decision of cutting or not, we (resident artist Nick Mwaluko and I) have elected instead to adapt; for me personally, it feels like the best way to balance my largely ‘traditional’ literary training with my proclivity for allusions, experimenting, creating hybrid forms, defamiliarizing the familiar, etc.. Some, no doubt, will object to our use of Shakespeare’s texts as vehicles for contemporary conversations that Shakespeare himself likely (though, who knows) never intended. For this camp, Shakespeare is perennially fresh and need never be tampered with in any fashion. I can appreciate this. But then again, there’s always the BBC video library for anyone desirous of seeing Shakespeare uncut, untampered with, on a moment’s notice. At the same time, I’ve seen productions that cut to their peril, (falsely) packaging up the play as Shakespeare’s [insert title of choice] and presenting in the end something like an abbreviated gimmick. In the end for me, the answer to the question of ‘to cut or not to cut’ is both, but bearing in mind the many factors ‘the Kates’ have suggested. I’ll be the first one to admit that when I go to see Shakespeare in performance, I want to see Shakespeare, and if what I’m about to see is, instead, Shakespeare-inspired, ie. adapted, beyond the realm of edited or abridged, in essence a new work, I’d like to know this… Thanks, Kates!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment, Nicole. I concur: if the project is Shakespeare-derived, then it behooves the producers to declare it as such. Even when adapting, I advocate for doing one’s dramaturgical homework before starting, so that one has all the resources one needs to make thoughtful decisions about how to use the language (e.g., does that word mean what you think it does? and etc.)

  • Thanks Nicole. Agreed, There are companies here that freely – emphasis on ‘freely’ – adapt Shakespeare to suit their political, educational goals. They state it up front, so you know what you’re getting – and it’s often a terrific and refreshing look at an old warhorse. Other times, it’s well … questionable as to what has been achieved. As my mate Kate notes (above) doing your dramaturgical homework beforehand is an absolute must.

  • But you are assuming that there is such a thing as ‘the text’. What text? Which Quarto?Folio 1, 2, 3 or 4? Or if Folio 1 then which copy of Folio 1, since they are all different. There is no stable text. Certainly the Arden,Oxford or Cambridge editions are not authoritative—they are edited composites created by academics for particular purposes. In our Shakespeare productions my concern is to show the underlying religious allegories in the plays. I create a cut that highlights those. You will have a different purpose and will decide on a version of the text accordingly.

  • Jim Stark

    These are helpful principles, Kate. It’s nice affirmation for me to see that I adhered to them when I prepared my rehearsal script (several months ago) for _Two Gents_ (now in rehearsal.) Or, at least, I think I did. 😉


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