Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 18
Every year, theaters across the United States and the world treat us to Shakespeare—which usually means such frequently produced plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. Some Shakespeare plays, however, are rarely performed today.
Why is that, was this always the case, and what is it like to stage those plays now? Rebecca Sheir, host of the Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with historian Richard Shoch and two contemporary directors—Stephanie Coltrin, of California's Little Fish Theatre, who directed King John, and Noah Brody, co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater, which staged Cymbeline.
Taking its title from the words of another rarely seen drama, Pericles, this podcast explores the changing fortunes of these plays over time—and the theatrical challenges and rewards of staging them for modern audiences.
- Noah Brody is co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater, which produced Cymbeline in 2011 and, in 2014, at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
- Stephanie Coltrin is the managing director of Little Fish Theatre in California; she directed King John for Shakespeare by the Sea in San Pedro in 2013.
- Richard Schoch is a professor in the School of Creative Arts at Queens University, Belfast.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © January 14, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Jewels Lose Their Glory If Neglected," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Geoff Oliver at the Sound Company in London and Angie Hamilton-Lowe at NPR West in Los Angeles.
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast looks at the Shakespeare plays you are not all that likely to see. We call it, "Jewels Lose Their Glory If Neglected."
And in fact, that quotation is a good way to start our story. It’s from Pericles, a play that you may have seen, but probably haven’t. Every year theaters across America treat their audiences to Shakespeare. Though to be totally honest, what they do is treat their audiences to some Shakespeare. While there are plays that are produced time and time again—Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet—there are others that you might go years without ever seeing.
In this podcast, we take a look at why that is and if it’s always been the case, whether the same plays have always been neglected over the centuries. We’ve invited in directors who recently staged some of Shakespeare’s less produced works and a theater historian who knows about the trends in Shakespeare performance.
This historian is Richard Shoch, a professor in the School of Creative Arts at Queens University, Belfast. The directors are Stephanie Coltrin and Noah Brody. Stephanie is managing director of the Little Fish Theatre in California. She directed King John for Shakespeare by the Sea in San Pedro in 2013. Noah is co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater, whose production of Cymbeline was voted one of the top 10 theatrical productions of 2011 by New York magazine. It was also produced in 2014 at the Folger. Our moderator is Rebecca Sheir.
REBECCA SHEIR: Richard Shoch, let’s start with you to get a little bit of historical perspective. Now we know that King John and Cymbeline aren’t performed very often today, but were they ever popular in history?
RICHARD SHOCH: Yes, and the interesting thing is that they were popular at different times, which tells us that the important connection is that people think differently about different Shakespeare plays at different times. King John, for example, there is no recorded performance of King John from 1660, when the theaters reopened at the Restoration, to 1737 and then it held the stage, as it were, right up until the dawn of the 20th century. And Cymbeline has almost the opposite history on the stage. It was performed right at the Restoration in an adaptation called The Injured Princess, and it held the stage up until about 1830, and then it disappears for about 60 years and comes back right at the end of the 19th century. So, it’s very curious that these two plays were popular at almost opposite points in time.
SHEIR: Now, I’ve heard that this production of Cymbeline at the end of the 19th century was a total disaster. What was wrong?
SHOCH: [LAUGH] It was. It was staged by the great Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1896, and the real thing that went wrong was that there wasn’t a part for him. Because the part, the leading male part, as everybody knows, is Posthumus, but Irving was 59 years old. But he was the guy in charge of the theater, so he had to have the leading male role. So, guess what his answer was? He completely rewrote the play so that Posthumus became a very small role and Iachimo, or "Jachimo," depending on how you want to pronounce it, that was his role, became the largest male role in the play.
SHEIR: And that’s the villain, right?
SHOCH: And that’s the villain, [LAUGH] so it completely upsets the balance of the play. And a great actress, Ellen Terry, played Imogen, and she had problems with this role. And remember this was the time when playwrights like Ibsen and Shaw were writing great roles for women. Norah, in A Doll’s House. Saint Joan. And Ellen Terry felt that Imogen was too confining a role, too constricting. It was a great symbol of Victorian femininity, but this was right on the cusp of the 20th century, right at the threshold of modernism, and the part of Imogen seemed kind of stale, even for a great actress like Ellen Terry. So, really nothing went right with this production, and it closed after a couple months.
SHEIR: So, Cymbeline is one of those Shakespeare plays that’s set in kind of a mythical and unrealistic time. How did that come across to audiences?
SHOCH: Well, in the 19th century, that was the great age of history, and the theater was very proud that it could be historical and archaeological, and everybody did their research about historically correct scenes and costumes and properties. And that was the vogue. So, Cymbeline, the fact that it is kind of a magical play set in a very, very distant part of British history, that weird period before it really became a Roman colony, that historical touchstone really wasn’t present, and the problem with Cymbeline for the Victorians was that the play had too much magic and not enough history, and that’s another way of explaining why it wasn’t so popular in the 19th century, but why it seems popular with audiences today.
SHEIR: But what about plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest? Those are also set in very fantastical magical settings.
SHOCH: They were, and those are absolutely the right plays to bring up. But the Victorians were so intent on making every production of Shakespeare a lesson in history, so that even in plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they did it in classical Athens, and they did all their research on classical antiquity, and then, of course, had the fairies and the rude mechanicals when you need them. But they were bound and determined to turn every Shakespeare play, romance, tragedy, comedy, into a history play.
SHEIR: So, Noah Brody, let’s turn to you now. Let’s talk about Cymbeline a little bit more. How did you make the decision to do the play? What was the process like?
NOAH BRODY: Well, we chose Cymbeline because primarily we’re a group of actors and Cymbeline has wonderful parts that we wanted to play, first and foremost is Iachimo, Posthumus, and Imogen, specifically among the three of us who run the company. And then it’s a play we felt would function well as an ensemble play, which is something that’s very important to us as, you know, a six-member ensemble, and as actors we like to do lots of things that actors like to do. It had roles we wanted to play. It has spectacular language, especially through the first three acts, and those wonderful verse scenes with Imogen and Iachimo. And the, what you’ve already spoken to, sort of the magical realm of Cymbeline was also attractive to us, because it travels from place to place. It seemingly travels from ancient Britain to sort of Renaissance Italy. So, it sort of pings back and forth.
And for us, it was a challenge to kind of understand this genre of the romance as a true genre, as opposed to some sort of bastardized version of either a comedy, or a tragedy, or a history, and those challenges were very attractive to us. And it was our sort of initial offering as a company and we figured, well, what the heck, nobody’s going to come see it anyway. [LAUGH] So we choose something that’s interesting and deeply challenging to us.
SHEIR: So, those are really your expectations, that nobody would show up?
BRODY: As the sort of producer part of Fiasco, my hope was that we would get 22 people a night to see the play, and given that we were doing 11 performances that was over 200 people, which my estimation was three times more people than we knew. So, we thought that was a big enough challenge. Yeah. That really is. We were doing it to give ourselves an experience of creating a play together, the way that we had in graduate school, and it was for that experience that we chose the play and created the production, and not the hope, the back-end hope of sort of reviews and things like that.
SHEIR: So, Richard, that sounds a lot like what you said about how plays were picked in the 19th century. You know the people who ran the theater said, just like Noah did, you know this has good roles for me, this has roles I’d like to play.
SHOCH: Exactly. And of course, what’s interesting is what changes is what qualifies, what counts as a good role. For an egotistical star actor-manager of the 19th century, a good role is a big, fat, thick role that dominates everybody else in the play, and with a different spirit, certainly a spirit like Fiasco Theater, what you like is a good balance among the roles, a real ensemble piece or chamber piece. And at different moments in theater history those approaches have been either appealing or not appealing, and that leads companies to gravitate towards one particular Shakespeare play or another one.
SHEIR: So now, Stephanie Coltrin, you gravitated toward King John. Tell us about the process that got you to the decision to produce this show. I mean why produce one of the plays that basically no one ever does anymore?
STEPHANIE COLTRIN: A couple of reasons. One, personally I’ve always wanted to direct King John, because I’ve been told so many times it can’t be done. And I’m a person who likes to do things that can’t be done. But we had a largely economic conversation. We are a two-show festival performing free Shakespeare in various parks, and we were kind of interested in exploring what our donation situation would be like in doing a lesser known play as compared to Hamlet, which we’ve done twice, which we are doing again this year or Midsummer or Much Ado or any of those. And we looked at our numbers and we thought, "Well, it looks like our donations are pretty consistent, so let’s give them something they’ve never seen." And then we went to various titles. Should we do The Tempest? Should we do things like that? And being a little bit of a Plantagenet fan that I am, I pushed really hard for King John. And we thought it would be good, especially given the popularity of shows right now like Game of Thrones, to see what that would do for our audience.
SHEIR: Hmm. So, Richard, you mentioned that King John was hugely popular in the 19th century. But I imagine that the decision-making process on that was nothing like what they went through at Stephanie’s theater. I mean running audience numbers, looking at donations.
SHOCH: Well, donations, certainly not, because really until the 20th century in Great Britain, there was no such thing as a subsidized theater or a non-profit theater. All theater, like in Shakespeare’s time, was commercial theater. It was meant to turn a profit. But King John in the 19th century was a highly profitable play to produce.
On the one hand, it was very expensive, because there was lots of research that went into recreating the castles and the churches and the cathedrals and the right landscapes for the gigantic painted backdrops, and they did tracings of King John’s effigy, so his costume would be right. There was a great lavish attention to spectacle. But it drew audiences night after night. Again, this idea that if you wanted to learn a lesson in the history of your own country, you would go to the theater. And King John was a great lesson in English history.
The lessons we might draw from it today are very different from what a Victorian audience drew from it. In London, they saw it as sort of the cradle of English nationalism, of English identity, of England standing up against Roman Catholicism and the Pope. And that is why it responded with audiences. That was why they gravitated toward this play in the 19th century, but don’t gravitate towards it so much today, because the politics of it don’t really resonate.
SHEIR: So, Stephanie, when you directed King John was that something you worried about, how it would resonate with the audiences of today?
COLTRIN: Yes. We worried about it a great deal. And actually, how it would play. Would it be clear? There are assumptions that Shakespeare makes in the audience's understanding of the history that we don’t have anymore. So, there are gaps in the play where Shakespeare’s audience would have just filled in the information, and we worried very much about making this story clear, so that it would resonate in some way. The other thing we were interested in exploring is this legend of the bad King John, because he has a terrible reputation, and things like Robin Hood have not helped that. So, we were kind of interested in exploring who King John really was—who he was to Shakespeare, but who he really was to history, and letting the audience make their own decision. But in order to do that, we wanted to make sure that the storyline was incredibly clear.
SHEIR: Now, Stephanie, you wrote a blog post about directing this play for the website of the theater company, and there is something you said I want to ask you about. I’m going to quote you to you here.
COLTRIN: Okay. [LAUGH]
SHEIR: You said, "When you direct the more well-known Shakespeare plays, you feel like you have a basis of familiarity with the play that sort of exists at a cellular level and you can work from there. This play is not one I ever had to read in any of the Shakespeare classes in college, never have seen performed, never have had any exposure to, outside of the life the play has in my own head."
So, what did you do first in order to prepare yourself?
COLTRIN: It was funny, because I thought "Okay, we got it, we’re going to do King John." And then I sat down and read it, and thought, "Oh, that’s why nobody ever does it." [LAUGH]
So, I started with sort of going back through the history, and reconstructing what actually happened, versus what Shakespeare said happened, because he’s condensed a lot of time, we have characters that don’t exist, we have characters that are compilations of other real people, and try to figure out what the actual story was. And then I found as I reread it, because I hadn’t read it in years, that despite the fact that the language is so beautiful, there’s so much experimentation. The character of the Bastard begins as sort of comic relief and our sort of "in" to this world, and then he sort of stops his soliloquies, he stops talking to us. So, it was going back to The Troublesome Reign, which is arguably the source play, and trying to fill in those gaps.
SHEIR: The Troublesome Reign of King John… Can you talk about what that is?
COLTRIN: The Troublesome Reign of King John is a play that, depending on which scholar you talk to, predates Shakespeare’s play and is believed to be possibly the source play for the story of King John, which is what we went back into to get some clarification and additional material.
SHEIR: Oh, okay.
COLTRIN: So, I sort of started with big, elaborate timelines and charts of what actually happened, so I could start to put our story together. And then I went through and kind of moved some scenes around, not kind of, did move some scenes around, in order to try to streamline this story for the audience. And then we inserted some lines from The Troublesome Reign of King John in order to just try to make sure that the story was as clear as possible, so that the audience could focus on the themes and the language, rather than sitting there saying, "Wait a minute, he was just with him, I don’t understand. Pandulph came in and now he’s with somebody else." So, we wanted to make sure that the allegiances that turn on a dime were so clear that they would be able to enjoy it, rather than sitting there the whole time trying to figure out what was happening.
SHEIR: So, now I want to pose that same question to you. You know, when it comes to directing the more well-known Shakespeare plays, there’s this familiarity Stephanie mentioned. It exists at a cellular level, you go from there. But that’s not really there with Cymbeline. So, did you go first and do a bunch of research? How did you get yourself prepared?
BRODY: We did some research. We certainly read the available literature that you know attends all of the larger volumes of the play—you know, the Folger, the Arden, and all of those, and the material that came with that, and some of the other notable scholars. But we weren’t… For us, primarily, the thing that we wrestled with was the genre, was romance. Because when we read the play, [LAUGH] notably the first time we read the play as a company out loud, one of the company members, it’s now disputed who, but one of the company members said, “Is it too late to change to another play?” Because you know, we kind of looked at each other and said, “What the heck is going on in this thing?” you know. It seems like the kind of play, like many of other Shakespeare plays, in a sense, through the third act, and then sort of all hell breaks loose and things go crazy and you get this deus ex machina in the form of Jupiter descending from the heavens on a golden eagle. What’s happening here? And so, we found ourselves very confused by that.
And then what we did is we spent a lot of time thinking, talking, reading, and researching, trying to figure out what the heck a "romance" was, so that we could understand the tonality of the play. Because there in the same play, in which Imogen is this wonderfully crafted, three-dimensional character, there are also some characters that feel much more two-dimensional. And we didn’t know if that… What can initially feel like a diminishment of the writing, ultimately, we came to understand it as a virtue of the writing and a virtue of the romance, is that a play that deals with, you know, very heavily with plot, tons and tons of plot. And just like other romances, be it The Faerie Queene or Harry Potter, you know, you have these characters, like a sort of Professor Snape type character, which he is what he is every time you meet him, or Darth Vader. But it doesn’t diminish the experience of that character, given that they’re always the same thing. It actually… We know what we’re getting, we enjoy it, we look forward to the next time we meet it. And then that, in contradistinction, with other characters with different dimensionalities, became a virtue.
And it was sort of understanding the way that a romance works, and how magic works, and travel and plot within that genre was where the vast majority of our energies went. So that we could do the play the way that we think Shakespeare was intending and the way his audience may have received it, so that we could attempt to do that for our audience. That’s where we spent the majority of our energies as opposed to, I don’t know, anything else. [LAUGH]
SHEIR: So, Richard, I want to turn back to you. The trickiness of the romance genre that Noah is talking about. Might that be at all related to why Cymbeline wasn’t really popular until the 20th century?
SHOCH: Well, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question. And one place to start is to remember that the genre "romance" did not exist for Shakespeare. No one described plays during Shakespeare’s lifetime as romances. There were tragedies, there were comedies, and there were histories. Romance was a category invented by, later, years later, by scholars and commentators for the reason that Noah pointed out, which was to answer the question, “What is going on in this play?”
And when you came across the play that didn’t make sense, and you were a Shakespeare scholar in the 18th century or the 19th century, you would just label it a romance, and that was sort of a Band-Aid that you applied, as it were, over the wound of the play, that it didn’t make sense. And so, romance became this kind of catch-all category for plays that didn’t work in conventional ways, which was why it’s very difficult then to say, “Well, what would Shakespeare have intended with this category of romance?” And it’s a very tricky question to ask, and so I would want to ask Noah, how did you handle the scenes of the masks in the play Cymbeline?
BRODY: [LAUGH] This is going to be such an unsatisfying answer.
SHOCH: Surely not.
BRODY: I assume that you are speaking to sort of the ghosts of the parents promenading through the play.
SHOCH: Yes. And gods.
BRODY: And gods. Yes. We cut it. [LAUGH] We cut it. And our reasoning for that was at that point in the play we couldn’t… What we realized, at least for ourselves, was that it didn’t affect the action of the play. It didn’t change the plot. It didn’t change Posthumus’s action. It didn’t change the events of the war. It didn’t change the ultimate outcome of any of those many, many revelations in Act 5.
And for the production that we were creating, we realized that what we wanted was for the war to be the crucible in which all of those events came colliding together, and they are, in fact. And what we chose to do was literally just excise all of that. We kept some of Jupiter’s language, because we thought that was important to the thematic content of the play and put it in the mouth of Cymbeline, but voiced as an ensemble actor at that point at the end of the play. But the entirety of that was cut.
And the only other thing I’d add is that because my sort of Shakespeare training in undergraduate and then sort of graduate school etcetera, that idea of romance was sort of steeped into me that like, "Well, it’s just this sort of pit that some plays get thrown into when they seem to function as either crappy histories or crappy tragedies, or, you know, a lesser version of one of those other genres." But what we came to understand as a company, is that they are plays that work very well on their own terms, if you accept their terms. It would be very hard to do Harry Potter as a legitimate comedy or a legitimate tragedy, but it works very, very well as a romance, as does Star Wars, as does The Faerie Queene, as does Don Quixote. You know, so, those things, although that genre didn’t exist at the time, I firmly believe that those authors were working with an intent that they had succeeded in, it was just not met by expectations of what was being written at the time.
SHEIR: So, Noah, when it comes to Cymbeline then, what do you think this play has to offer the world that we’re not getting, because the play is so rarely produced?
BRODY: Well, as I said, I think it’s got… It is enormously entertaining, first of all. It’s got wonderful characters, a wonderful, complicated plot. It has a wonderful message, in that each of those characters is experiencing an arc in which they believe what’s in front of them, and the play has a consistent message of allusion and misconception and that you don’t know where you are in the arc of your own story. You may think you’re on high and on your way to ultimate success, or you may think you’re in the ultimate low and heading toward final despair, and that may be the moment in which your whole story is turning around. And that’s true for all of us in our lives, we don’t know where we are in the arc of our own stories.
And Shakespeare does something quite amazing in that he sets all of these plots, sort of like balls in the air, juggling, and he throws them all up in the air and you think they can’t possibly work out and then at the last possible moment, everything comes back together, and it becomes incredibly, intricately interwoven. And everything that’s happened, seemingly at random, it turns out has had to happen, necessarily, for the ultimate outcome of all of the characters, and that is incredibly satisfying for an audience.
Every night, that Act 5, the audience erupts, and it’s because of what Shakespeare has done, and that in and of itself I think is a great value to a theater, and it’s a great value to Shakespeare because, I think for us, because it’s sort of a gateway drug potentially to Shakespeare, [LAUGH] where you know audiences have a wonderful time, and that sometimes they come in, thinking they’re taking their cultural spinach and they’re going to sort of choke it down because it’s going to be good for them, and they end up having a wonderful time. And we just yesterday had, someone said, "You know, we’ve been backsliders, we haven’t been going to theater, but now we’re going to go to theater again." I mean that’s a wonderful experience, I think, to give to an audience.
SHEIR: Wow. So, Stephanie, same question to you then. What are we missing out on in a world where King John is so rarely produced?
COLTRIN: Yeah. There’s so much. The story is so beautiful. But I think what we’re missing is these amazing, amazing characters and this gorgeous language, some of the prettiest language in any of the plays. Lady Constance epically talks about the pain of losing a child in a way that is flooring when you hear it. Great female roles, which are sometimes rare in some of the Shakespeare tragedies. And I think what we’re missing also is just this epic tale where, if you can get past the fact that there is no clear-cut hero and no clear-cut villain in the play, and just go with the story, it is kind of the same comment actually, just an epically entertaining evening with some of the most beautiful language and profound comments on the human experience that exists in any of the plays.
SHEIR: Now, Richard, I’m going to throw the last question your way. We’ve been talking about these plays that have gone in and out of fashion. Would you say that’s a comment on Shakespeare? Or is that more of a comment on us, the audience?
SHOCH: Well, it’s a comment on both. Well, just to make it slightly more complicated, try to think of it as a triangle. At one point of the triangle, there’s Shakespeare’s play. At the other point of the triangle, there are the capabilities, if you will, of the theater, and in the 19th century, that was expressed in very expensive and historically correct scenery, and in our age today, it might be vogue for pared-down, simplistic, chamber piece style of playing. And the third point of the triangle is the temper of the times, the issues, political, social, cultural issues that seem important to us today. And you can think about those three forces always existing: Shakespeare’s play, the capabilities of the theater, the temper of the times, they exist in tension at any particular moment in history. And the way those three forces intersect tells us, generally speaking, I think, which plays are going to be popular in performance and which aren’t, which is another way of saying, that when we stage Shakespeare, we are staging ourselves.
SHEIR: Well, Richard Shoch, Noah Brody, Stephanie Coltrin, thank you all so much.
BRODY: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
COLTRIN: Thank you.
SHOCH: Thank you.
WITMORE: Richard Shoch is a professor in the School of Creative Arts at Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Stephanie Coltrin is managing director of Little Fish Theatre in California. She directed King John for Shakespeare by the Sea in San Pedro in 2013. Noah Brody is co-artistic director of Fiasco Theater. Their production of Cymbeline was voted one of the top 10 theatrical productions of 2011 by New York magazine. It was also produced in 2014 at the Folger.
"Jewels Lose Their Glory If Neglected" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Geoff Oliver at The Sound Company in London and Angie Hamilton-Lowe at NPR West in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the largest collection of Shakespeare in the world, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website Folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.