Washington, DC—Take a backstage tour of four centuries of Shakespeare in performance with our theatrical exhibition Here Is a Play Fitted —a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Using early print editions, promptbooks, designs, historic costumes, and other materials to revisit productions from Shakespeare's time to our own, the exhibition traces the stage histories of Othello, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Along the way, it reveals how much Shakespeare has changed on stage in every era, from Restoration rewrites to a nineteenth-century actress as Romeo, and from Paul Robeson breaking racial barriers as Othello to the newest ideas of today.
"Shakespeare has kept in step with changes in the theater itself," explains exhibition curator Denise A. Walen, associate professor of drama at Vassar College. "Shakespeare reflects the time in which he's performed; he responds to the culture in which he's produced."
Whether on stage or on film, productions of Shakespeare's plays have long included script cuts and additions. Walen notes that one surprise for exhibition goers may be how often and how deeply the plays have been cut and sometime even rearranged for production.
"Many people who see a performance of a Shakespeare play or a movie version believe they are seeing the text as it appears in a printed edition, and that is often not the case," notes Walen. "Some of the motivations behind the cuts will also surprise visitors to the exhibition."
Colley Cibber, a seventeenth-century actor, playwright, and the manager of Drury Lane Theatre, cut three-quarters of Shakespeare's Richard III and added a thousand lines of his own. It became the standard stage version until the early twentieth century and its influence is seen in Laurence Olivier's version of Richard III. Legendary eighteenth-century theatrical impresario David Garrick added nearly sixty lines to Romeo and Juliet, extending Romeo's death scene to the actor's dramatic advantage.
Alterations in the text, of course, are just one way that Shakespeare productions have varied over the past 400 years. Here is a Play Fitted takes exhibition goers behind the scenes to see how sets, lighting, and costumes have changed over the centuries. Design sketches from nineteenth-century actor Charles Kean's productions show an interest in representing the plays in the most historically accurate way possible, while the pictorial era of turn-of-the-century artists like Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Henry Irving show an interest in realism combined with spectacle and visual effect. A promptbook from a revival of Beerbohm's 1911 Midsummer Night's Dream tracks not only the movement of the human actors but the live rabbits on stage, too.
Over the course of the twentieth century, exhibition-goers can see the rise of the director and conceptual productions that transplant the plays from 1930s Hollywood to the Crusades of the twelfth century. On stage and on film, Shakespeare's plays are used to explore religious, gender, and racial themes. Materials from Paul Robeson's Othello capture a minimalist design in service to barrier-breaking performances while costumes, callscripts, and a set model for a 2011 Folger Theatre production show the play's focus switched from differences of race to religion—reinforced by setting the play in the time of the Crusades.
As to what the next 400 years may hold, Walen notes that, "There's no telling what's next. But I firmly believe Shakespeare 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."
Here is a Play Fitted features more than 100 items from the Folger collection, including early print editions, promptbooks, designs, historic costumes, and other materials to revisit productions from Shakespeare's time to our own. Highlights include:
Promptbooks—written and sketched records of staged plays, including one for a 1911 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Herbert Beerbohm Tree that featured live rabbits on stage.
Historical costumes, including the costume that Edwin Booth, one of the most important American actors of the nineteenth century, wore to play Richard III.
Lynn Redgrave Archive—on exhibit for the first time since its arrival at the Folger—includes materials tracing the development of her Tony-nominated play, Shakespeare for My Father.
Shooting scripts, including the one used by Laurence Olivier for the 1954 film of Richard III.
Costume and set sketches, from Charles Macready's meticulously accurate and instructive production of Othello in the mid-nineteenth century to Paul Robeson's barrier-breaking performance on Broadway at the height of World War II.
ABOUT THE CURATOR
Denise A. Walen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Drama at Vassar College where she teaches courses on dramatic literature, theory, and theatre history. Her current research focuses on the performance of early modern drama. She is the author of articles and reviews in Theatre History Studies, Theatre Survey, Theatre Journal, and Shakespeare Quarterly, as well as chapters in Women and Playwriting in Nineteenth Century Britain (Cambridge University Press) and Passing Performances: Queer Reading of Leading Players in American Theatre History (University of Michigan Press). Dr. Walen served for several years as the Performance Review editor for Theatre Journal, and is currently on the editorial board of TRM. She is the author of Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in the Early Modern Drama (Palgrave, 2005).
Shake Up Your Saturdays: Designing Shakespeare
Children and parents are invited to join our junior production team as we plot and play our way through the Folger's latest exhibition, Here is a Play Fitted. Recommended ages: 6 - 12.
Hours: Saturday, 10am
Oct 15 - Dec 1
Romeo and Juliet
Directed by Aaron Posner
The perfect poetry of Shakespeare's tragedy reveals the heart-breaking loss of love. Helen Hayes Award-winning director Aaron Posner leads an outstanding ensemble into the heart of this powerful, provocative play.
Hours: Tue-Thu, 7:30pm; Fri, 8pm; Sat, 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm & 7pm
FOLGER FRIDAY LECTURES
Thompson, a leading scholar of Shakespeare and performance studies, speaks on Romeo and Juliet. She is a Professor of English at George Washington University, the author of Colorblind Shakespeare and Passing Strange, and the co-editor of Weyward Macbeth.
Hours: Friday, 6pm
Shakespeare in Action Workshop for Families: Romeo and Juliet
Bring your household into the world of fair Verona as we jump into the action of scenes from Romeo and Juliet! Learn stage combat and prepare to bring this classic play to life. Recommended ages: 7 - 14.
Hours: Saturday, 9:30am
Admission: $35 (one adult and one child), $10 each additional child
Shakespeare for My Father
A staged reading by Kathleen Chalfant
Lynn Redgrave's Tony-nominated play, written after she presented an evening of Shakespeare and family anecdotes at the Folger, receives a staged reading by her dear friend, award-winning actress Kathleen Chalfant, in honor of the first time that material from Redgrave's archive at the Folger is being exhibited. Presented in association with the Davis Performing Arts Center of Georgetown University.
Hours: Monday, 7:30pm
FOLGER FRIDAY LECTURES
Before & After: Romeo and Juliet
Poets Joel Diaz-Porter and Paulette Beete read original works that respond to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Porter has taken top prizes in the National Poetry Slam and Haiku Slam Championships. Beete is the author of two chapbooks and has received awards for her poetry and fiction.
Hours: Monday, 7:30pm
Visit www.folger.edu/playfitted for an online version of Here is a Play Fitted, including a mobile tour app, images, and related information.
Monday -; Friday at 11am & 3pm, Saturday at 11am & 1pm, and Sunday at 1pm
Folger Docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger's national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required.
Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675-0395.
Visitors may use their smartphones to access a multimedia tour of the exhibition, with images, audio commentary, video clips, and more. www.folger.edu/playfittedtour.
ON EXHIBIT NEXT
Jan 28 through Jun 15
Shakespeare's the Thing
Georgianna Ziegler, curator
Explore Shakespeare's influence on visual art, performance, and scholarship through treasures from the Folger collection hand-picked by Folger staff, including a special look at how fans have celebrated Shakespeare from his time to ours. This exhibition marks Shakespeare's 450th birthday.
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About Folger Shakespeare Library
Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. It is home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500 - 1750). Folger Shakespeare Library is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; an innovator in the preservation of rare materials; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K - 12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs—theater, music, poetry, exhibitions, lectures, and family programs. By promoting understanding of Shakespeare and his world, Folger Shakespeare Library reminds us of the enduring influence of his works, the formative effects of the Renaissance on our own time, and the power of the written and spoken word. A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Clay Folger, the Folger Shakespeare Library—located one block east of the U.S. Capitol—opened in 1932.