The Dramaturg’s Task: Cost-“cutting” and art-making

As Shakespeare put his text together for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1590s, did he have any actor friend with whom he talked over his thoughts and staging choices? We know that the actors themselves weren’t permitted a copy of his script—they received only their own lines and those immediately preceding and following their time on-stage. At the early stages of his career, Shakespeare didn’t have a stable company of actors. But I am quite sure that as the 1590s progressed, he became very close to his actors: indeed, two of them, Heminge and Condell, curated all of his plays seven years after his death into a full edition (they left out Pericles, either because they felt that he didn’t write enough of it for it to be representative of his work, or because they didn’t like it: we will never know. But the play has since been reinstated into Shakespeare’s Complete Works). Who was Shakespeare as he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, somewhere between 1594 and 1598? We know that he lived away from his wife and family, who were settled in Stratford. We know that his son Hamnet died in 1596. But as an artist—perhaps like every great artist—much of his mind is opaque, left to our conjecture, its shifting shapes glimpsed by reflections caught in his work. In this sense, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—part of whose subject is reflection, what we see of ourselves in others – “stages” the mirror-like nature of any artistic communication. “The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye…” I love this image because it suggests the translucence of art: like a pool of water, art changes with the casting of a single stone or the movement of light across its surface.

As the invisible wheels turn in preparation for our rehearsal for the upcoming production staged by Shana Cooper, I am now beginning on one of the most enjoyable front-end tasks of dramaturgy: sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of Peet’s tea, with Shana’s draft of our script laid out in front of me (Arden text), and two separate editions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on either side. The dramaturg’s task is to work very slowly through the draft, looking at each of the suggested cuts and seeing whether the storyline remains intact, both in terms of on-stage plotline and thematic development. So, for instance, Shana’s first cut is one of two and a half lines in Theseus’ first speech, in which she has suggested leaving out his image about the wait for his upcoming marriage being like waiting impatiently for a moneyed maiden aunt to die. Instead of

 Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue,

We now have

 Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!

I think this transition is seamless and works well: the major thing it excises is the sense of materialism planted so early in the play via Theseus’ image of love. In this play, over and over again, we are asked, “what is the cost of love?” To our pride? To our hearts?  To our lives, even? There is plenty of material that brings up this theme as the first scene develops, so I don’t think we lose anything by dropping these few lines here.

By leaving out this initial very specific image of the aged dowager withering out a young man’s revenue, there is also the possibility to release a stark question: what is the dynamic between Theseus (the conqueror, the warlord, who has brought home his latest spoil of war, Hyppolita, the Amazonian queen, claimed in his most recent pillage), and Hippolyta herself? We know that Theseus eagerly awaits his wedding to Hippolyta—and the pared-down opening lines accentuate this eagerness. But in losing the materialism of the dowager image, they also throw out to the actors and the artistic team an open question: who is this character, Theseus? Has he fallen head-over-heels with Hippolyta, his own surrender to love somewhat ironically overturning his actual material victory in war? And who is Hippolyta? Does she come willingly? Or is she desperate and in pain, torn from the world of warfare in which she was the heroic queen? Or is she stoic, a veteran of war, understanding that she is to pay the price of defeat?? All of these questions may come up in the rehearsal hall when we meet on August 3.

You can live the Dream from Sept 3rd—Sept 28th. Tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream are on sale now. Get your tickets here!

About the Author: Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org,.

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2 Responses to The Dramaturg’s Task: Cost-“cutting” and art-making

  1. Dennis Chowenhill says:

    Thank you for posting some of your thinking in your dramaturgy for MND.

    And your concerns about altering S’s. lines are impressive. In the example you give, you account for what is lost, but make the excellent point that the impressions from the dowager/beneficiary image are repeated elsewhere in the play.

    One thing that impresses me about Theseus’s conversation with Hippolyta here is that he has the conversation at all. He was “won” her in war, so that the standard behavior would be to do whatever he wants with her. Instead, he opts to discuss his decision with her—a powerful affirmation, at the start of the play, of the potential of love to overcome conventions. As commentators have pointed out, MND is a sort of comedy version of Romeo and Juliet, written soon after. Forbidden love, in this case not ending in tragedy. And here is Theseus at the beginning of the play foreshadowing this positive potential.

    Still, your questions remain at this opening of MND: who is this guy? And who is Hippolyta?

    I’m looking forward to seeing the Cal Shakes production of MND!

    - Dennis

  2. philippa kelly says:

    Dennis, I only just found this comment – it is such a fantastic one. Please come meet me out at the grove – I do all previews and opening and Sundays. I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

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