Many of our beloved plays that have earned their place in the canon are perpetually being reimagined on stage in modern adaptations. While some playwrights of both past and present offer explicit instructions in their written work as to particulars like stage direction, lengthy character descriptions, and even lighting and set design, others leave it open to interpretation by the producer and most notably the director. Depending on the production, even the actors are able to influence the overall effect a play has on its audience, as it is a dynamic, performative experience regardless of the set. The plays of Shakespeare, such as Othello, were left by the playwright to be open to interpretation. His original folios and quartos did not even contain stage directions--these were to be figured out by the production team, probably through a bit of trial and error and audience response. Theatre productions come as the result of a complicated creative process in which the producer, director, actors, and set design come together in an effort to produce an audience experience that may or may not adhere to typical expectations of genre; however, it is typically the mode of the written text itself that sets the stage, literally and metaphorically, for the overall message of the play, regardless of all the different ways this may manifest.
Most of us would agree that theatre is performance art without recognizing that this idea is a rather modern development. In her article, “The Politics of Discourse: Performativity meets Theatricality,” Janelle Reinelt describes the notion of performance as related to the avant-garde movement, going as far as to call it “anti-theater” (202). What she means by this is “a rejection of aspects of traditional theater practice that emphasized plot, character, and referentiality,” which includes a rejection of both authorial and directorial authority in favor of performance or “free-play” (Reinelt 202). It should not be surprising, then, that embracing a mixed genre approach to a text, which becomes a performance has been a popular trend in contemporary theater. Each of us may get something different out of any single written text, and when this is translated to the stage, the possibilities are essentially endless and each one markedly unique. Therefore, it is more about the textual interpretation of the written play that dictates the genre of a contemporary production more than what might be traditionally expected from what is simply on the page. This is not to undermine the work of the playwright, however. The possibilities originate from the written word, any way you look at it. Where the emphasis lies in a play--on its humor, its elements of tragedy, its irony, or its melodramatic romance--will most likely be different in every production of the same play. This, it can be argued, it where the real art of theater lies.
Oftentimes critics of theater will refer to “the fourth wall,” which was defined by W.A. Darlington in his book Through the Fourth Wall as “that invisible barrier which separates the inhabitants of a room on the stage from us ordinary mortals whose fortune it is to look but never enter in” (11). But based on the design of the set, sometimes we do enter in. Shakespeare’s plays are being used as examples here, not simply for their popularity, but because of their lack of directions on part of the playwright and the heated debate that often comes as a result of modernized interpretations of his texts. Additionally, one of the brilliant aspects of Shakespeare is ability to blend genre and give us something new in every production of his work. Is Romeo and Juliet a drama or is it a romance or a tragedy? Can Macbeth be turned into a farce? The answer is any of these plays can be many different things at the same time and often they not only break traditions of genre, but also breakdown the fourth wall. Oddly enough, the “traditional” set of a Shakespearean play when he himself staged them at the Rose and Globe theatres in London, would often involve characters walking off stage and engaging with the audience, particularly the so-called groundlings who paid a minimum price to stand in front of the stage and not sit. In this case, the fourth wall was broken long before we had literary theory to describe it.
Recent productions of Shakespeare on Broadway and London’s West End provide an excellent example of modern interpretations of texts intended for stage and the various critical receptions from purists to progressives. Of course, there is risk of scrutiny when deviating from the “norms” of genre, especially when it comes to Shakespeare. But the recent production of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, staring Hollywood names like Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, proves that theatre has the ability to take a text dating centuries ago and transcend time, making it culturally relevant for today. A New York Times theater review about the production, which was entitled “Such Sweet Sorrow,” by Ben Brantley wasn’t as forgiving for the modernization of Shakespeare’s beloved play as other critics who enjoyed the update that in some ways seems reminicent of the film adaptation by Baz Lurman from the 1990s.
Shakespeare purists who prefer a more traditional approach have been raving about Richard III and Twelfth Night, which features Renaissance costumes and the female characters played by male actors, or “players,” as it would have been on stage in Elizabethan London. A review in the Guardian by Michael Billington applauds the set design by Jenny Tiramani: “Her permanent set – a decorated oak screen, with some of the audience seated in on-stage galleries – suits Twelfth Night especially, and recreates the collegiate atmosphere the play must have had when seen at the Inns of Court in 1602” (Billington). Preference lies in one’s aesthetic and neither can be criticized for their artful interpretations. Another article in the New York Times responded to reader-solicited polls that asked, “whether Shakespeare is best appreciated in productions that dress up the original plays in modern settings or hew more closely to ‘classical’ tradition” (Isherwood). The article, which was called “Updates Work, Except When They Don’t” appropriately points out that a successful production of a Shakespeare play is in need simply of an intelligent director, regardless of level of modernization (Isherwood). This observation upholds the argument that it is more about how the interpretation of the text is translated onto the stage than anything else. The director is the one who shapes a performance “line by line and scene by scene” placing desired emphasis where it should be to create a desired effect. This also proves that the creative process in theatre production is twofold in that it involves the great writing by the playwright, which dictates the possibilities for the cast and crew to do their part on stage.
An article by Scott Parsons quotes renowned Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt who notes, “Elizabethan theater, like most theater in our own time, was a collaborative enterprise, and the collaboration almost certainly extended to decisions about selection, trimming, shifts of emphasis, and minor or major revision” (qtd. Parsons 85). Parson’s article, “The Text’s the Thing: Using (Neglected) Issues of Textual Scholarship to Help Students Reimagine Shakespeare,” brings our focus from the grand scheme of the performance back to the line-by-line features of the text. Pearson’s article reminds us that any Shakespeare text has been edited numerous times and by numerous authors, some of whom have probably added lines and deleted scenes. When a director decides to do the same thing, we can hardly criticize. Even though the text is indeed the thing, it is in many ways a living thing that perpetually changes, not just literally though editing, but also due to the cultural context it is viewed through. A director can be imagined, therefore, as the final editor of a text that is fluid, not stagnant. This is perhaps why Shakespeare’s works have remained so enduring; they are always new.
In the academic world, a peculiar relationship exists between theater studies, drama studies, and performance studies. The often-subversive nature of the latter has left traditional theater somewhat in the dust; however, this need not be the case. In an article, “Drama, Performativity, and Performance,” W.B. Worthen describes the merging of these three categories as “the horizon of an energetically expanding field characterized by a range of aims, methods, and objects of inquiry” (1094). The author draws attention to the fact that regardless of the trend towards dramatic performance over traditional theater, these traditional dramas do still persist, as “dramatic performance is a series of authorized reproductions, each plotted on the blue-print of the authorial text” (Worthen 1094). The metaphor of a blueprint here exists on multiple levels, both literally and figuratively. Dramatic performance relies on the tradition of theater just as it relies on an authored text--these are its two sets of blueprints.
In many ways the academic trends toward performance art over traditional theater has seeped into mainstream culture in the ways we recreate or reimagine classic texts like those of Shakespeare. The art of drama in all its forms is not simply undermining traditional theater practices, but instead incorporating these blueprints into a new cultural context as many directors are doing with the classics of Shakespeare, whether on Broadway or in a high school basement. Both the text of a play and the context are perpetually shifting; it is a true art to make sense of both in a modern world where scrutiny will fall on any artistic endeavor as we are all essentially performers when it comes to both art and life. As Shakespeare warned us in As You Like It: “All the world's a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.
Billington, Michael. “Twelfth Night/ Richard III--Review.” The Guardian Online. 18 Nov. 2012.
Brantley, Ben. “Such Sweet Sorrow.” Theater Review. The New York Times Online. 19 Sept. 2013.
Darlington, W.A. Through the Fourth Wall. New York: Bretano, 1922
Isherwood, Charles. “Updates Work, Except When They Don’t.” Theater Review. The New York Times Online. 2 Oct. 2013. Web.
Parsons, Scott. “The Text’s the Thing: Using Neglected Issues of Textual Scholarship to Help Students Reimagine Shakespeare. The English Journal. JSTOR.
Reinelt, Janelle. “The Politics of Discourse: Performativity Meets Theatricality.” SubStance. JSTOR.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. 2.7. Poets.org.
Worthen, W.B. “Drama, Performativity, and Performance.” PLMA. JSTOR.