Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.

Justice for Ellen (and the women of Will)

(this post contains spoilers)

We’re four episodes into TNT’s new Shakespeare drama Will before we learn Ellen Burbage’s first name.

Between the boy players and Shakespeare’s absent wife and, you know, the general sexism of 16th century England, it’s easy to create stories about the early days of English drama that include no women at all. So Will deserves credit for its inclusion of James Burbage’s wife Ellen as a clearly integral part of the day-to-day running of the Theatre. But she’s Mistress Burbage, and Richard and Alice’s mum, and it’s not until four episodes in that anyone actually bothers to identify her by her first name.

It’s a little thing, but emblematic of Will’s not-quite-there treatment of its female characters. The show comes so close to finding a space for women in the tale of the early modern English theatre that it’s all the more frustrating that it falls short. The desire for interesting, important female characters is obvious, but the show stumbles in the execution, falling back on tired and disempowering period drama tropes.

Take Ellen Burbage. One of the best episodes gives her props as the power behind the throne, the real manager of her husband’s playhouse– but we never really see her doing this, and the idea is never quite mentioned again. Her real role is to alternately nag and support her family– and, in classic period drama mama fashion, push her daughter towards a sensible but loveless marriage and become furious when she refuses it.

It’s not nearly as bad as poor Anne Shakespeare, who of course Shakespeare does not love, and spends most of the series cheating on. Her role is only to realize that she is a fool for wishing her husband would be sensible and make money and help their three children, and instead must recognize his genius and– in her own words– “leave [him] free to succeed.” That is literally what she says. Literally. We’ll return to this idea.

Will gets points for including Emilia Bassano (and for casting her with a black actress), and loses them again for how she is used. There are a few striking scenes– and parallel scenes earlier, with Alice– in which Emilia makes key suggestions about the shape of Shakespeare’s works-in-progress. It might be an exciting example of someone finally depicting the collaborative nature of early modern playwriting– but it’s not. Shakespeare happily absorbs Emilia and Alice’s ideas without expectation of credit or acknowledgement on either side. He’s the writer, of course they have no use for their words or ideas (though Emilia’s own poetry is referenced, once) except to give them to him.

Obviously this is a slightly uncharitable reading– any writer knows that friends offer ideas and you duly steal them all the time. But it’s the positioning of both these women, both of whom claim to be artistic and ambitious in their own right, as having no real function except to serve Shakespeare. One suspects the writers think they are paying the women their due by having them make major contributions to famous works like Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and lines that will eventually go into Romeo and Juliet, but it only highlights their inferior position: they may make contributions, but the plays and the genius are still firmly Shakespeare’s.

Which brings us to Alice Burbage, Richard Burbage’s sister, Shakespeare’s love interest. To define her in any other terms is almost impossible, though there is a funny scene wherein she’s asked what she does at the playhouse, and she replies, “Not much,” before rattling off an endless list of scrivening, prop sorting, prompting, costume mending…

Like Ellen, the show fully accepts Alice’s role in the family business, though unlike Ellen, there are always hints that perhaps it’s inappropriate, perhaps she needs to marry. When Shakespeare firmly rejects her (at Ellen’s command), Alice turns to another idol, represented by another handsome young man: she converts to Catholicism under the guidance of Shakespeare’s cousin, the underground priest Robert Southwell. His luring of Alice smacks of nothing so much as the way cultists prey on the vulnerable, but by the end, the show tries to insist that we view this choice as Alice finally exercising her free will, that it has nothing to do with Shakespeare– though, of course, it has everything to do with him, as every single episode of the show has demonstrated. Even her departure has to do with him: she writes that she cannot be “part of [his] world”– even though it was her world first.

Alice, whose only wish has been to find a place for herself in the playhouse, is forced out to make room for Will, surrendering her piece of the Burbage family legacy in an act the writing attempts to frame as self-actualization, but just reads– ship voyage and all– exactly the same as Viola at the end of Shakespeare in Love, removing herself as a real, full person in order to become something more important: a character of Shakespeare’s, a piece of his mythology. Viola becomes Viola of Twelfth Night; Alice, associated throughout with lines from Romeo and Juliet, signs her final letter as Shakespeare’s “bright angel,” suggesting Shakespeare will use her as inspiration for Juliet. What better fate for a woman, these endings seem to say, than to be subsumed into a man’s legacy as a fictionalized, idealized version of yourself?

Joking discomfort with the fact of boy players means that, as Shakespeare conceives of and we see snippets of the plays performed, female characters are consistently erased or marginalized. The example I continually find most galling is Richard III. Even though Shakespeare and Alice earnestly discussed the character of Queen Margaret in previous episodes, no mention of her is made in that play, nor of the fact that Shakespeare’s only wholly original scenes, with antecedents in none of his sources, are those featuring the female characters.

The other female characters consist of a prostitute older sister who dies trying to flee with her younger brother; Richard’s friend/maybe-love-interest Moll, who gives him shit but ultimately believes in him; a love interest for Richard’s best friend, who is introduced and dies in a single episode; a tavern hostess/landlady; and a host of peripheral wives and children who are often, in traditional period drama fashion, used as the living emblem of the cost of whatever conflict their male relatives have become embroiled in.

The existence of Ellen, Alice, and Emilia alone put Will a step ahead of almost any other Shakespeare-related show or movie I can think of. But though it tries to make room for women, and deserves credit for the effort, it still can’t conceive of them as anything but satellites to men’s stories, defined primarily by their ability to advance or impede a man’s ambitions.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Isabella?

Measure for Measure might be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Actually, I’m surprised it’s not being performed more often these days: it’s so perfectly in keeping with the black-and-grey, sexually obsessed moral flavor of so many popular prestige television shows.

One of the show’s key difficulties in my experience lies with the ostensible protagonist, the novice Isabella. Isabella goes to Angelo, standing in as leader while the Duke of Vienna is mysteriously absent, to plead for her brother’s life. Claudio has been sentenced to death for fornication under Angelo’s draconian new morality laws, and Isabella hopes to convince him that Claudio should be spared. Angelo, fastidiously morally upright, makes a shocking offer: he’ll free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him. For Isabella, this is a no-brainer. But Claudio is shocked that she would choose her chastity over her brother’s life– and in my experience, modern audiences and readers tend to agree.

The fact that we don’t generally see this potential encounter as rape points to the shortcomings of popular understandings of consent. But it’s also a great example of a place where the gap between Shakespeare’s culture and ours tips the moral scales of his writing out of balance. We cannot conceive of weighting a woman’s virginity– even a nun’s– in equal balance with a man’s life. In the play itself, Claudio also represents this point of view, but it seems clear we’re meant to view Isabella’s dilemma as far more difficult than Claudio is right and Isabella is being a prude. I’ve read so many reviews that eagerly describe the chemistry between Angelo and Isabella– or condemn the lack thereof, as if the play clearly requires that Isabella share some form of Angelo’s attraction.

Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, an adaptation of Measure for Measure making its world premier at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, comes close to resolving this dilemma for a modern audience. Reinholz sets the action in late 19th century Nebraska, in a tiny wild west town that lies at the end of the railroad line, with one saloon, one jail cell, and an Indian boarding school. The ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ philosophy that formed the heart of the era’s forced assimilation policy for Native Americans becomes a central moral conflict of the play. Isabella (now Isabel) has converted to Christianity, graduated from her boarding school and is studying to become a teacher there. Her younger brother Momaday (the Claudio role) is rebellious and unwilling to renounce their Pawnee culture. When he impregnates an Irish servant in town, Angelo’s anger is as much racial as moral.

When Momaday criticizes Isabel for her refusal to sleep with Angelo to save his life, he turns the argument into a condemnation of her assimilation: she has chosen Christian morality, and the value it places on chastity, over her brother– and, by extension, their family and their culture.

Off the Rails does provide a more explicit outside defense of Isabel’s decision than Shakespeare, in the form of Madame Overdone, transformed from a bawdy, comic-relief bit part into the formidable proprietor who takes over the Duke’s role as orchestrator of the play’s resolution. To her, Isabel explains that she can’t bear the thought of bearing Angelo’s bastard, a position Madame Overdone sympathizes with, and one the program, if not quite the production, hammers home with its detailing of the characters’ mixed parentage: Lakota and French, Choctaw and Scottish.

But this grounds Isabel’s emotional and moral objection in practical reality, thus suggesting that these reasons– to not want to be coerced into sex, to think that chastity is important, to genuinely believe in her adopted Christian faith– are not enough. The racial politics of the situation (not to mention the utterly reprehensible Angelo of this production, who, despite hiding his violent religious fervor beneath a genial demeanor that’s honestly sort of charming, is established as a brutal hypocrite from the moment he’s introduced as the superintendent of the boarding school) helps weight the scales in Isabel’s favor, but Momaday’s castigation of her decision as a cowardly surrender to white, Christian morality swiftly unbalances them again. The physical practicality (one that you’d think a madame like Overdone would know how to avoid) is what allows Isabel to carry the day, not any respect for her ideological standpoint.

It’s enough for the purposes of the play. But it points to our enduring difficulty with granting a woman true autonomy over her body, with recognizing that violation can take place without violence. In Shakespeare’s day and Shakespeare’s play, there are troubling patriarchal mores that lend weight to Isabella’s obsessive defense of her virginity, and those are best lost. But even without them, there’s power in her refusal. I don’t know that we’re meant to think Isabella is wholly right– but nor should we think that Claudio is.

It’s ironic that we find Isabella’s lack of lines to accept or reject the Duke’s ending proposal so troubling, but often argue that her staunch unwillingness to take up Angelo’s offer is slightly absurd, or proof of her flawed character. Reinholz finds a workable dramatic solution, but not one that truly respects the simple fact of Isabella’s right to choose.


Trumpius Caesar

So people are really mad about the Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar that dresses Caesar up as Trump. And lefty theatre people are sort of gleeful at the rightwing anger, because look! Theatre causes controversy! We’re important!

But one thing that’s jumped out at me in the furor is the implication– suggested by my Twitter timeline’s, “It’s Shakespeare, stupid,” response to a Fox news article attacking the “New York City play” in terms that made it seem like they thought it was a new anti-Trump play– is that there is inherent Trumpiness in Shakespeare’s play. That Oskar Eustis didn’t add anything except an orange wig and some pussyhats to what was already there.

But as always, Shakespeare is way slipperier and more equivocal than directors seem to expect, and the supposedly self-evident commentary on dictatorship that Julius Caesar offers is no exception. Today I keep thinking about a production I saw several years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where the Vilma Silva played Caesar. Suddenly, the conspirators’ accusations of tyranny took on a more suspicious cast. Why were they so threatened by her? Should we believe their accusations of actions we never get to see? Why is Cassius so obsessed with her physical weakness, with feeling degraded by being subordinate to her?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival didn’t change the text either– Caesar still had a distinctly self-aggrandizing air, still less-than-secretly craved a crown. Was still a war hero, and beloved by the people. There was good and bad. But her gender added an additional wrinkle, forced a reexamination of the conspirators’ virulent hatred. That wrinkle went some way towards standing in for an Elizabethan audience’s acceptance of the self-evident good of monarchy, a counterbalance to the conspirators’ language about tyranny and freedom that tends to ring completely convincingly to contemporary audiences.

I can’t see the Public’s production, so it’s very possible that they offer much more complication than the reviews and responses have suggested so far. But it seems to me that they have unbalanced the play’s morality by depicting Caesar as Trump– especially given their New York City (read: probably liberal) audiences, who are coming in with a certain set of biases (to say the least). Caesar is not just a cardboard tyrant, and Shakespeare’s central question is more complicated than just “is assassination of an objectively horrible leader right or wrong.” I don’t think it would have been any better to put Caesar in a pantsuit and make Calpurnia her white-haired southern husband, but it might have left more room for the text’s uncertainty about Caesar’s dangerousness.

In short, while Oskar Eustis may not have added anything to turn Caesar into Trump, it’s reductive to suggest that he was just tapping into was was already obvious and explicit in Shakespeare’s words.

Casting Isn’t Blind

Carousel is coming back to Broadway! There are plenty of reasons to be troubled by this– its blithe defense of main character Billy Bigelow’s physical abuse of his wife being the glaring one– but this production has managed to add another. Billy– a wife-slapping petty criminal with a heart of gold who dies in an impulsive, horribly-planned robbery that he undertakes so that his future child “won’t be brought up in slums/with a lotta bums/like me”– is to be played by African American actor Joshua Henry, while his wife Julie will be played by Jessie Mueller, who is white.

Let’s make it clear right off the bat that Joshua Henry is exceedingly talented, and speaking purely in terms of musical and acting skill, I would love to see him play Billy. But can casting ever really be taken purely in those terms? Can we ever actually be blind to the physical bodies being used onstage the way the terms “colorblind” and “genderblnd” casting suggest?

As the title of this post makes pretty obvious, I think the answer is no.

One of Carousel’s textual cruxes of conflict is class. Julie and her friend Carrie both find beaux who are out of place in their working class community: Carrie’s wealthy fisherman husband is an ambitious prig, and Billy is seen as a shiftless criminal. While making him black in the bargain adds another layer to the New Englanders’ suspicion– is it racism as well as classism?– that additional complexity is one the show doesn’t actually have the text to explicitly deal with. And even if letting the play’s discussions of class become oblique references to race is effective, it comes at the price of forcing a black actor to play out a set of persistent negative stereotypes about black men: that they’re violent (especially towards white women), that they’re impulsive, that they can’t hold down a real job, that they are prone– through prison or death or disinterest– to abandoning their families. Billy is ultimately redeemed, sort of… but first he does a lot of things that require redemption. And it still only comes after he’s dead.

Even if director Jack O’Brien decides to create a theatrical world wherein the characters are “blind” to race– where it is not highlighted at all in production and is treated as irrelevant, the audience will still see it. A director can decide that race doesn’t matter, but they’re naive if they think the bodies of the actors onstage won’t still carry meaning for the viewer. The actors can ignore Billy’s race, but the audience will still see a black man slap his white wife.

I’m always interested in revivals that want to complicate the racial or gender dynamics of the original. But so often, it’s a case of introducing an idea that the text simply doesn’t leave room to fully explore.

On the other hand: Joshua Henry is really talented, and will probably be a great Billy. Doesn’t he have the right to play the role if he wants to? Isn’t there power in having a black man stand alone on a Broadway stage and sing one of the most famous solos in musical theatre history? Yes, definitely. But I think this case is more clear-cut than many (ask me about my conflicted feelings about a woman playing Aaron Burr) in that the things Billy has to do are already so troubling, and have such strong resonance with powerful negative stereotypes, that it’s hard to feel like the chance to hear Joshua Henry sing “Soliloquy” is worth it.

Critics: What Are They Good For?

As I’ve been writing about theatre more and making theatre less, I’ve naturally been thinking about what the relationship between writer/critic and practitioner is and could be. Though I’m now on the record with my disappointment about Jesse Green’s hiring at the New York Times, I think he’s a really interesting, talented writer, and one of the things that jumped out at me in his interview with American Theatre was when he insisted that his background in theatre practice was an essential part of his critical practice. Of course, as someone who comes from a similar background, I think that’s true.

I also think that critics are an essential part of the artistic world. But two pieces that came out recently were a very explicit reminder that many artists don’t think so.

The first, in the New York Times, is actress Amanda Peet’s light-hearted tale of refusing to read a scathing review of her performance in a Broadway play. The other, rather less high-profile and significantly less good-natured, is this poem, which (like Peet) calls out the writers of the bad reviews by name, but unlike Peet, does so before heaping on several stanzas of insults.

What I found striking about both pieces is the complete unwillingness to assume any good will on the part of the critics– or indeed, to acknowledge that a critic’s work serves any purpose at all. They are an annoyance made to be ignored, jumped-up nobodies who are just trying to get your attention. I can’t help but feel it’s notable that the poem is called “did you get a bad review?” What if you get a good review? One assumes that in that case, they would have happily quoted the critics in the marketing materials for their shows.

There are obviously plenty of reasons for artists to approach a review skeptically. There’s no such thing as an objective review, and a critic’s dislike doesn’t mean that a show is bad. But how can we create an artistic world in which critics and artists are two strands of the same conversation?

When I was in grad school, it became clear to me that the directors, actors, and writers saw us dramaturgs as safe. While they had to get up onstage and bare their souls, make themselves utterly vulnerable through their art, we just got to sit back and make comments when they were done. I could never find a way to express to them how vulnerable it can feel to express an opinion– how much craft it takes to put together a thoughtful, careful response. As I said above, there’s no such thing as an objective review. A critic is always revealing something about herself through her opinions.

How can practitioners learn to embrace critics as fellow artists, people who are engaged in a creative process of their own– one that at times seems at odds with theatre practice, but is ultimately complementary? And how can writers approach their work in a way that will allow theatre practitioners to trust that their work has been approached in a spirit of generosity and good faith; that they won’t be attacked for the sake of a funny article; that we, too, have made an effort to read what they have written and hear what they have to say?

A Response to Dominic Cavendish

In Dominic Cavendish’s article lamenting the demise of the male actor because women are stealing all their parts, he lists examples of women who have taken on classic male roles in the past year or so: Tamsin Greig as Malvolio, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Michelle Terry as Henry V, “a female Cymbeline” (her name is Gillian Bevan, though Cavendish decided not to look that up I guess) at the RSC, and “some… innovations at Shakespeare’s Globe.”

In roughly the same time period in which those woman-led productions appeared, at just the companies listed above, the following canonical leading roles were played by men: Mark Antony (twice), Octavius Caesar (twice), Enobarbus, Orsino (twice), Sebastian (twice), Antonio (twice), Sir Toby (twice), Sir Andrew (twice), Cassius, Brutus, Casca, Julius Caesar, Pistol, the Dauphin, the Duke of Orleans, the Constable of France, Princess Katherine, Palamon, Arcite, Faustus, Mephistopheles, Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes, Polonius, Prospero, Antonio, Gonzalo, Ariel, Caliban, Edgar (twice), Edmund (twice), Gloucester (twice), Kent (twice), Othello, Iago, Cassio, Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Posthumous, Iachimo, Macbeth, Macduff, Petruchio, Pericles, Helena, Demetrius, Lysander, Oberon, King Lear, Henry V, Cymbeline, and Malvolio.

Among others.

The boys are just fine.

A Critic Question

As I was writing my latest essay for Oregon ArtsWatch, I  found myself turning over a lot of questions about critical best practices. Both as a dramaturg and when I’m reviewing a piece, I find it important to approach a work in the spirit it was created. That is, to accept its premises and goals, to not evaluate it on the grounds of wishing it were something other than what it’s trying to be. But when does it become appropriate– or even important– to ask questions about what a show is trying to be?

Luckily for me, that question more or less exploded into the broader theatre world conversation between the time I submitted the piece and when it got published. This recent review of the musical Big River sparked a contentious conversation (and a snippy letter from the Encores! artistic director) about the role of a critic in discussing not only what a show is, but perhaps what it ought to be. I really admire Laura Collins-Hughes’s willingness to engage not only with the show’s aesthetic merits, but to ask questions about its treatment of gender and especially race. Seeing the backlash to Collins-Hughes’ work stiffened my own resolve on the topic. My piece isn’t really a review of Astoria, of course, and I would have framed the questions differently if it had been– but I still would have asked them.

There is, frankly, limited space on American stages– if one story is being told, another isn’t. If we really are committed to diversity, at some point, we do have to begin evaluating not just what plays are talking about, but what they’ve decided not to talk about.

Giving Them What They Want: The Dramaturgy of Satisfaction

Two relatively recent events have gotten me thinking about what makes a good ending– and what ‘good’ even means.

First, I finally and much belatedly got around to watching all of Parks and Recreation for the first time. It’s obviously fantastic, but critical consensus seems to be that the final episode isn’t, by any artistic measure, particularly good. But it’s immensely satisfying, with all the beloved characters getting exactly the kind of endings one would dream of for them.

Second, I saw The James Plays at the Luminato Festival in Toronto (and wrote about them here). A three-part, nine-hour theatrical marathon about the first three King Jameses of Scotland, it’s an epic theatrical event that culminates with the young King James IV preparing to be crowned. His great-aunt helps to dress him, bedecking him with objects that belonged to his ancestors– the same kings and queens we’ve seen in the previous parts. As she did so, these kings and queens entered on a platform above, a sort of ghostly tableau. Too easy? Maybe– at least one person I described this to groaned. But after investing so much time in these plays and these characters, it was exactly what I wanted, and in the moment, it was very impactful and emotional.

So call it the dramaturgy of satisfaction: deciding when an ending should strive for utmost originality and artistic merit, and when it should satisfy some simpler, more emotional, probably less intellectually profound desire in the viewer. The former is its own kind of satisfaction, of course, but perhaps a less visceral one.

A common denominator in both shows I mention above is, of course, length. A TV show goes on for multiple seasons; the three James Play clock in at just under nine hours. Viewers so often seem to be let down by the endings of TV shows, which makes sense. You’ve put in a significant investment– the conclusion, whatever it is, has been a long time coming. And though pure duration may seem like a superficial concern, far removed from the intricacies of storytelling, it’s something to consider, I think. I think the time investment of both these examples allowed the endings, though not in themselves challenging, to feel earned and hard-won.

The question taps into the problem I struggled with most when first starting out as a dramaturg in rehearsal rooms: I felt like a dramaturg could only earn her position if she always had the right answer. The general assumption that a dramaturg is little more than advanced-level Googler didn’t help me shake the idea that I always had to be correct if I wanted to be seen as good at my job. But this question of endings perfectly demonstrates that it’s usually more helpful to ask a question than offer an answer… in this case, what do you want your ending to do? 

There and Back Again: Page and Stage in Shakespeare

When some scandal about Shakespeare enters the news, certain camps seem to form quickly: scholar vs practitioner, casual fan vs expert. One of my hopes in my career overall is to break down these categories, and recognize that while they do have differing methodologies and goals, there is a great deal that each can offer the other. There is a lot of really interesting scholarship that hasn’t yet made its way into the mainstream theatrical conversation, but provides interesting perspectives and areas of inquiry for artists. As one example, I want to talk about how Shakespeare’s plays got from the page to the stage and back again.

This might sound like the least relevant topic possible. After all, deeply examining text and print seems antithetical to the belief that the plays were created for performance, not as literature. But understanding how early modern printing and editing processes differ from our own– and how our own combine with those to create the editions that we read– can transform our understanding of our relationships as artists to the text.

The study of early modern print culture has been a widely covered topic in the last few years, but I’d like to try and approach it from a slightly different angle, and look at the journey from what an actor in Shakespeare’s company would have seen, and how that translated to and relates to the text an actor today receives.

          Cue Scripts 

Elizabethan and Jacobean didn’t get the full text of play they were performing because it was too expensive and time-consuming. The company’s copy of the script was written out by hand, and making twelve or more hand-written copies would have been preposterous. So actors got hand-written cue scripts, which contained only their lines and a few iambs of their cues.

We only have one surviving cue script from the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. It belonged to Edward Alleyn, star actor of the Lord Admiral’s Men (played by Ben Affleck in Shakespeare in Love), for the title role in the play Orlando Furioso. You can look at it here, and read more about it here.

It’s missing a lot of things we would consider key information for an actor. The other charcters’ lines, obviously, but also subtler information actors and writers today think of as essential to meaning: punctuation, line breaks, consistent capitalization. However much attention the playwright paid to those things when preparing his script to be printed, they apparently weren’t considered terribly important for actors. We can even see several places where the lines are filled in by Alleyn himself, adding yet another degree of separation between whatever the playwright may have originally written and what ended up being spoken onstage.

         The Printers (and The First Folio)

How much attention did playwright pay to spelling, punctuation, line breaks, and the like when a play was being printed? Often, the answer was not much. For Shakespeare, the answer was very possibly none. It was usually the playing company, not the writer, who was seeing a work (which the company, not the writer, owned) into print. Some writers composed prefaces explaining the play’s reception or even (in the case of Ben Jonson) changes that had been made between performance and printing, but Shakespeare never bothered. And of course, by the time the first folio was bring printed, his opinions could not be consulted because he was dead.

Printers, on the other hand, had more to keep in mind than just copying down exactly what was on the page (assuming they count even read it clearly, which evidence suggests they sometimes couldn’t). Printers set every page by hand, one page at a time. They also only had a limited amount of type, so there are examples of printers running out of, for example, the letter E and suddenly and temporarily dropping Es from the ends of names and words. The same could happen with punctuation marks.

To be as efficient as possible, printers estimated in advance how long a play would be, and divided up on the manuscript how much would ideally fit on each page. Sometimes this didn’t work out. Because of the way books were constructed, however, readjusting pages was incredibly difficult– better to squeeze things in if you could. Which they did, by altering spelling, changing punctuation or even the placement of line breaks in the verse– and there is even evidence of words and lines being quietly removed to make sure the pages came out as expected. You can also see gaps and empty spaces at the bottom of pages that didn’t end up taking up quite enough space.

The first folio of Shakespeare’s works claimed to offer corrected and updated versions of the text. And sometimes it did! But mostly it didn’t. When there was a good quarto version available, the folio almost always just copied it directly, because a printed script is much easier to read than a handwritten one, and thus easier to accurately set type for. But there is no evidence, as Patrick Tucker notably asserts, to believe that the Folio contains performance clues that the quartos lack– partly because most of it is derived from the quartos, and partly because, as discussed above, even a play set directly from a prompt book wouldn’t actually look like the texts that the actors were working from.

         Modern Editions

Most Shakespeare fans know about the textual quibbles that plague Hamlet and, more extensively, King Lear. Does Hamlet wish his ‘solid’ or ‘sullied’ flesh would melt? Are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, or ours? Does Lear spy stirrings of life in Cordelia, and how many O!s are there, anyway? But these are only the most famous examples: these questions plague almost every play (and plays with only one extant version, like Macbeth and Pericles, tend to come with their own set of problems). Previously, the editorial tradition preferred to examine all of these options in search of a theoretical ‘perfect text’ from which all these versions were theoretically derived. More recently, some scholars have chosen to accept each version as a whole, valid text in itself (as evidenced by, for example, the Norton Shakespeare printing two King Lears). What either tradition means is that choices are being made in the modern edition that we read. When people complain that a production or adaptation isn’t faithful to The Text– well, you have to stop and ask yourself what ‘The Text’ means, anyway.

Some editors, like the RSC’s line of Shakespeare editions, like to print their plays like modern play texts, including more contemporary style character lists and stage directions. But this can be misleading, too– because, as discussed above, punctuation and spelling are unreliable. And by modernizing both of these things into a script form where actors are used to taking punctuation and stage directions as important clues, readers who don’t know better than find themselves taking commas, periods, and even question marks as Shakespeare’s gospel, when in fact they may not even appear in any of the printed versions (and, as mentioned above, their inclusion or exclusion isn’t really a reliable indicator of what Shakespeare wrote or the actors read).

Now, I’m not actually advocating for ignoring punctuation, spelling, and line breaks in Shakespeare. Lots of interesting things emerge from delving into them, and there is immense value in the scholarly practice which accepts the text as we have received it as a starting place more important than theorizing about what the perfect version may have been. But recognizing that these things aren’t set in stone– that there aren’t, in fact, pat rules to learn– is also immensely liberating. Knowing that a single line is a question in one version of the text and a statement in another suddenly doubles the potential deliveries, and raises twice as many questions about what that line and moment can mean. A better understanding of how the text came to be doesn’t shut down possibilities with pedantic, rigid rules, but in fact (and this is going to become a theme) opens up the text to even more creativity on the part of the artists working with it.

Some further reading: 

The Henslowe-Alleyn Archive: an amazing resource with essays on and transcriptions of the extensive documents (including business documents belonging to theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe) that actor Edward Alleyn donated to Dulwich College upon his death.

Shakespeare and Text by John Jowett: an introduction to the history of book editing and publishing, and how our changing knowledge has impacted the field of Shakespeare scholarship.

Making Shakespeare by Tiffany Stern: an examination of how a play made its way from the playhouse to the printing house.