March 10, 2010

“The Two Hours’ Traffic of Our Stage” and Other Dirty Filthy Lies

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 4:40 pm

Shakespeare, in general, is known (among his other accomplishments) as a writer of long plays. If you’re going to see Shakespeare you know it’s not a 90 minute / no intermission deal. That being said, Romeo and Juliet is not particularly known as being one of his longer plays. It says right there in the prologue:

“[really long run-on sentence about dead lovers]
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”

I’m not much of a scholar of Elizabethan theatre, but I think this has perplexed people for some time, since we as modern theatre artists can’t seem to stage Shakespeare’s work without cutting it heavily or making it four hours long.

I spoke with a gentleman at a recent venue who was lamenting that we had made some cuts. Now some of our changes have to do with adapting to the size and gender makeup of our cast, but we have definitely made a lot of cuts for time. I explained all this, and he was still sad that we had felt the need to cut it for time. Our show is already three hours long. I refrained from starting and ending my argument by saying “BECAUSE IT WOULD BE FOUR HOURS LONG!!!”

I’m sure there are people who would love to pay to see a four- or five-hour unabridged (which is a tricky word with all the various folios and quartos) production of a Shakespeare play (hell, I might if I didn’t have to see it every day — or twice a day — can you imagine?), but there are overtime fees for actors and stagehands, there are time schedules to be kept between the end of one performance and the time it takes to drive to the next venue by 8AM, and the school groups have to go to class at some point in their day. Most people we encounter are shocked the show is as long as it is.

Anyway, a friend recently recommended I read Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, which debunks a lot of the myths about Shakespeare and lists the very few facts we actually know for sure about him. One of the things he talks about is the possibility that the printed versions of the plays might have contained additional text that was never performed, or perhaps never meant to be performed. So sort of like when they include deleted scenes on a DVD, or a bonus track on an album. It’s an interesting concept.

In my own mind I’ve always wondered if the acting style was much less naturalistic and they all just talked faster. I can see where, with different choices, an hour could be cut out of a show. If I had a time machine, the first place I would go would be to see a premiere of one of Shakespeare’s works, mostly out of curiosity to see if I’m right, and to see how much else we’ve gotten wrong in our assumptions about how his plays were performed.

But the idea that some of the scenes were kind of background material that audiences never saw live was rather shocking to me. It also goes against something that’s said a lot (and comes up frequently in our talkbacks), that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, not to be read. The only people who published them (we think) were unauthorized publishers during his life, and some of his collaborators who compiled the folios after his death.

Of course if I did a show, and years later the writer was hailed as a genius with almost a religious fervor, you can bet I’d be digging through my files for any old pages and music from cut scenes and songs, to provide an even more complete collection of his works, even if some of them never made it to an audience. I guess like us, maybe sometimes Shakespeare had to cut stuff in previews, so to speak.