"People who may have read one or more Shakespeare plays, and have seen a stage or a movie version, rarely realize they are seeing a version of the play, not a stable, unaltered text or script," says Denise Walen, curator of Here is a Play Fitted. The plays have almost always "been edited, changed, and rearranged," she says. "There's some quality in the plays that makes them open, flexible, and interesting."
Alterations in the text, of course, are just one way that Shakespeare productions have varied over the past 400 years, from the "pictorial" era that emphasized visual tableaux to recent productions that explore religious, gender, or racial themes. Each era's approach to Shakespeare, she points out, reflects broader theater trends. "Shakespeare has kept in step with changes in the theater itself," she explains. "Shakespeare reflects the time in which he's performed; he responds to the culture in which he's produced. "
The challenging work of studying past Shakespeare productions, Walen says, often starts with promptbooks—"fascinating documents, records of actual performances" that include cuts, actors' positions and movements, and more. Often, she says, they reveal "the real humanity of these productions, the very personal reasons for choices." One Folger promptbook in the exhibition includes a "touching and sad notation about Edmund Kean's collapse on stage" while playing Othello (Kean died not long after). Promptbooks for other playwrights often no longer exist. But for managers staging Shakespeare's plays, she says, "what they were doing was very significant. They kept the promptbooks, shared them with other actors, made beautiful designs, kept other materials like lists of costumes and props with them."
In addition to its many Shakespeare promptbooks, the Folger has a "huge abundance" of other theater history artifacts, says Walen, including costume and set designs, playbills, photographs, and more, adding details about past productions. For the exhibition, "the challenge was picking and choosing. I had so much fun finding all of it. I love the costumes, especially the costume of Edwin Booth, one of the most important American actors, as Richard III. It's a wonderful visual representation."
As for the promptbooks, "I do like the rabbits," Walen says, referring to a 1911 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. "It's a production that I've read about for decades. There were live rabbits onstage. I was so excited to find the promptbook that talks about a rabbit, and about the rabbit's movements on stage, almost like an actor." Although the promptbook doesn't explain how such plans were implemented, she says, "There's a tradition that they used trails of bran for the rabbits to follow."
From rabbits to royal costumes to productions in the new millennium, Walen hopes the centuries of productions on view "will open visitors' eyes to the variety of Shakespeare in performance. When people go to see a movie or a stage performance, I hope they pick up the play, to discover the differences and similarities to an edited version of the text. Not to make a value judgment, but to see what new understanding the production brings to the play. How it illuminates the narrative."
With so many variants of "Shakespeare" over the past 400 years, what might future productions be like? "There's no telling what's next," says Walen, "But I firmly believe he will be there. There are so many ways Shakespeare can be performed. That's what keeps him alive as a playwright. He's always interpreted, always played with. Whatever changes in the theater and in audience expectations, I feel certain Shakespeare will be there."