January 13, 2011

Double Falsehood interview

Writing about web page http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/Showbiz-News/Shakespeare-Lost-Play-Is-Shown-On-Stage-For-First-Time-Since-18th-Century/Article/201101215894029?lpos=Showbiz_News_First_UK_News_Article_Teaser_Region_3&lid=ARTICLE_15894029_Shakespeare%3A_Lost_Play_Is_Shown_On_Stage_For_First_Time_Since_18th_Century__

This is a link to a Sky News feature on the upcoming production of Double Falsehood at the Union Theatre. Its claims to be the first production since 1793 are VERY tenuous - a full (amateur) production, of course, took place in the same venue, the Union Theatre, only a few months ago; and productions of the play have been around for quite some time under the name Cardenio, usually with a certain amount of adaptation. This is, therefore, properly The First Professional Production Of The Play Under The Name Double Falsehood Since 1793.

The Sky article is also riddled with mistakes, as it fails to distinguish between Cardenio and Double Falsehood. Let's be clear - Double Falsehood is Lewis Theobald's play, BASED on what we believe to have been a collaboration between Fletcher and Shakespeare called Cardenio. To say Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote Double Falsehood is very misleading; as to is the claim that the RSC is producing Double Falsehood when it's actually producing a Cardenio, based on several sources including Shelton's Don Quixote and Theobald's Double Falsehood.

These might sound like pedantic points, but they're key to the controversy. The kneejerk reaction against the play from academics and critics alike is based on the impression that this play is being presented as a lightly-touched-up version of a true Shakespeare play. The fact is, even if it ISN'T a forgery (and Tiffany Stern's forthcoming article raises some serious questions), Double Falsehood is removed by several stages of transmission from the putative Shakespeare/Fletcher play, making the reality far less sensational than the claims.

Those are all asides - however, I'm hugely looking forward to the production. The KDC production at the Union was fine and took some interesting decisions, but suffered from being a bit ponderous. I'm hoping this one will be a bit livelier and fight the case for the play's worth - it was, after all, once quite popular.

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  1. Pete Robertson

    Here’s an extract (in 2 parts) from director Phil Willmott’s DOUBLE FALSEHOOD programme note which might help clarify the productions intentions for you -

    When I discovered that editors at Methuen had been persuaded there was enough Shakespeare in Double Falsehood to include it in Arden’s Complete Works, and I read the acres of ensuing debate, I soon wanted to wrestle it away from the academics and stand it on its feet so that theatre goers and makers could debate its merits too, but as a living breathing piece of theatre rather than a scholarly text.

    In April the RSC will attempt to shape a new piece, Cardenio, from the surviving source material. This isn’t what this evening is about. I’m not fixing anything. This is about presenting the play as published by Arden so that in the bar, in our blogs, in class we too can enjoy pontificating about whether they were right to do so. Why should the academics have all the fun?

    The play’s been pilloried since the impresario Lewis Theobald presented it as a lost Shakespeare in 1727. As a theatre man he was equally adept at staging drama and musical theatre (a sort of 18th Century Sir Trevor Nunn). He was also a respected Shakespeare scholar. Professor Brian Vickers from the University of London hails him as “ the best all-round editor of Shakespeare in this period or any other”, but Theobald had many vocal and vociferous critics intent on rubbishing his reputation which may have led to the play’s demise despite several popular revivals at the time. In recent years, however, scholars have begun to question whether the piece should be taken a little more seriously, the journey to academic respectability is well documented on the web and in a series of recent exchanges in the the London Review of Books. All that makes for fascinating reading but tonight let’s consider how Double Falsehood stands up as an evening’s entertainment.

    Our objective with this production is to give you an account of the piece that is as lucid and uncluttered as possible. The Shakespeare productions that most inspired me were those of Declan Donellan, where actors played the text clearly and truthfully on a stage free from gimmicks. It is this approach that I’ve aspired to recreate, in the hope it will best unlock the play’s potential for us. I’ve chosen a vaguely 1950’s Spanish look to costume the Andalusian setting called for as I didn’t want the distancing effect of period dress, nor the baggage of contemporary clothing that would make you wonder why everyone doesn’t sort out the misunderstandings via iPhone. We based rehearsals on Max Stafford Clark’s “actioning” technique, which involves painstakingly assigning an appropriate transitive verb to each and every phrase, ensuring that rehearsals stem from a clear understanding of what the playwright thought motivated each character. We then worked with RSC vocal coach Rebecca Cuthbertson to ensure that we took full account of the rhythms in the verse. All this is to say that – hopefully – we’ll deliver what Shakespeare, Fletcher and/or Theobold intended you to see.

    Dramaturgically – though I’ve switched the gender of a secondary character and located the action near a monastery – I’ve made no significant cuts or changes. This really is the play as published.

    23 Jan 2011, 09:40

  2. Pete Robertson

    (Part 2)

    So is it a long lost Shakespeare? Structurally I find it hard to regard it as such, it has jump cuts like a modern film. I can’t recall a Shakespeare play where a character ends one scene and opens the next, and although there are many Shakespearean plot elements – resentful younger brothers, redemption in the wilderness, women disguised as men and a classic Shakespearean “motiveless malignancy” in the character of Henrique – this could equally mean that someone ticked these off a check list in order to write an homage. Or a rip off!

    There are no heart-stopping moments of poetry, though I really enjoy

    “I am now become the tomb of my own honour / A dark mansion for death alone to dwell in / I invite thee, consuming desolation, to this temple / Now fit to be thy spoil” And “The wrathful elements shall wage this war / Furies shall haunt him; vultures gnaw his heart / And nature pour forth all her stores of plagues / To join in punishment of trust betrayed”

    But it’s the flashes of psychological insight that, for me, make this play more than a pleasing pot-boiler. At the heart of the piece is a situation unpalatable to our modern sensibilities: a rape victim pursues her attacker for the wedding he promised. It shocks on the page, it shocks on the stage, but really, distasteful though it first appears, what other option does she have? Start a women’s refuge? Marry the village idiot? Or suicide. I admire her determination in going for the big prize and I certainly admire the writing that charts her psychological journey to this decision

    “My lord, I come not now to wound your spirit / Your pure affection dead, which first betrayed me,

    My claim dye with it! Only let me not / Shrink to the grave with infamy upon me / Protect my virtue, though’ it hurt your faith / And my last breath shall speak Henrique noble”

    Some commentators question the legitimacy of the scenes where onlookers see through the heroine’s male disguise, but maybe for Shakespeare and Fletcher that’s the natural progression of a tired conceit. Others criticise the uncomfortable nature of the dénouement, but I found it no trickier to stage than, say, the end of Measure for Measure, Winter’s Tale or even Twelfth Night, and the climaxes of Cymbeline, Pericles and All’s Well That Ends Well are every bit as contrived and controversial.

    Is it any good? Well, it’s my job to fall in love with a piece whilst I’m directing it and I must confess that until you convince me we’ve all wasted our time here I’m rather smitten. Even if it is a hoary old melodrama it’s a damned good one. There’s not a moment of spare fat in two fast-paced hours, weaving intriguing themes of parenthood, loyalty and revenge into a multi-character plot that grips from the first minute and doesn’t let up till the last page. Someone knew what they were doing! Yes, I miss a comic element (where is it?) and the richness of subtext and nuance, but there’s little of that in The Two Noble Kinsman – the Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration that everyone’s happy to acknowledge – so maybe we should also allow this strange little play its turn in the sun.

    I hope this evening will inspire you to be part of the debate. CNN and Sky News have broadcast pieces worldwide and we plan a discussion page at www.doublefalsehood.org. I’m hoping our online debates there will go on to be an educational recourse for future students of the play. You’ll also find biographies of our wonderful cast and creative team on the site.

    23 Jan 2011, 09:41

  3. Thanks for contributing this Pete. It’s a good analysis of the issues and an interesting approach. I do heave a sigh though at some paragraphs, which miss basic points about what the play actually IS. Such as:

    “So is it a long lost Shakespeare? Structurally I find it hard to regard it as such, it has jump cuts like a modern film. I can’t recall a Shakespeare play where a character ends one scene and opens the next, and although there are many Shakespearean plot elements.”

    People seem to keep forgetting that the play we have is an EIGHTEENTH CENTURY play, and avowedly ADAPTED. As such, it has act breaks instead of continuous action (allowing for characters to re-enter in consecutive scenes); it has no subplot (the Arden edition has some interesting notes on what the subplot may have been, based on hints in the extant text) and it’s therefore structurally a hundred years more modern than any Shakespeare play. I suppose it’s inevitable; but to directly compare a play that has passed through so many stages of transmission with something like The Two Noble Kinsmen sets up a very problematic basis for comparison.

    23 Jan 2011, 10:01

  4. Craig

    The double falsehoods are the attributions to Shakespeare made by Mosely and Theobald. I’ve never seen much reason to believe otherwise. The King’s Men had a play called, probably, “Cardenio,” (or “Cardenna” or whatever). A manuscript came into Mosely’s possession and he registered it. Later, one or more manuscripts came into the hands of Theobald, and he slaughtered it and displayed the carcass after the fashion of the time.

    So we have two attributions to Shakespeare, one in the 17th century and one in the 18th. That’s not nothing, but if two attributions were all it took to put a play in Shakespeare’s canon…

    For the first of the two, I can’t see any reason to give it much weight. Mosely was plainly in an expansive mood that day when it came to putting Shakespeare’s name on things. Henry the First? Henry the Second? Pretty thin reed there.

    As for Theobald, I don’t know how else to read his successive prefaces to the two print editions of Falsehood, but as a kind of climbing down with no admission of guilt. A “modified limited hangout” or something. You get pretty much the same thing in the successive introductions to “Shall I die?” in the editions of the Oxford Shakespeare, reminding us that history may not repeat itself exactly, but it does rhyme.

    Did Theobald really have an underlying manuscript? Why not? Was that manuscript the King’s Men’s “Cardenio?” Doesn’t seem implausible. But Shakespeare? I can’t see it. I think the pendulum has finally swung too far on the attribution game. Arden’s hugely irresponsible choice to publish “Falsehood” as an “Arden Shakespeare” (as opposed to an “Arden Early Modern Drama”) will ultimately, I think, be remembered as the high water mark for this Cardenio nonsense.

    07 Mar 2011, 22:22

  5. Craig – “irresponsible” is an interesting choice of words. I suppose that depends on what one perceives the Arden’s “responsibility” to be. The general editors’ preface makes it clear that the purpose is, after over a century of increasing academic positivism towards the possibility of the play being a distant adapted version of Cardenio, to make the play more widely available in order to facilitate debate. And surely the responsibility of any editorial project is to make texts accessible. In that sense, “responsibility” seems to govern the decision, as opposed to keeping an important debate occluded. Even if the main result of the edition is that it prompts Tiffany Stern’s excellent forthcoming rebuttal, that’s surely a good result.

    And on a technicality – the play isn’t eligible for the Arden Early Drama, as the remit of that series is pre-18th century drama. If there is no Shakespeare connection, then it’s simply an 18th century play, so it shouldn’t be in either series.

    I’m remaining ambivalent on the nature of Double Falsehood. I certainly think it’s possible it’s a forgery, but equally there are a lot of convenient coincidences that support Theobald’s story. It’s certainly interesting that, prior to wide acceptance of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s collaborations or to the establishment of Shakespearean chronology, Double Falsehood manages to evoke Fletcherian elements and also the concerns, themes, structures and motifs of Shakespeare’s other c.1611-3 plays. It’s disappointing that, in all the back-and-forth about the historical provenance, there are too few people actually reading/watching the play and considering it within a wider frame of reference (ie comparing it to Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as his own plays).

    My thesis is concerned with the very nature of what we consider to be “Shakespearean” – how our sense of what is and what is not “Shakespeare” is constructed, edited, manipulated and made concrete. My gut, and academic consensus, tells me that there’s very little of Shakespeare’s own writing in Double Falsehood; does that mean it’s useless to our understanding of Shakespeare? On the contrary, Double Falsehood was performed and published at an extremely important moment in the development of Shakespeare, both man and canon, and I think there’s a lot it can tell us about how the Shakespeare author-function has operated historically.

    07 Mar 2011, 22:52

  6. Craig

    “And on a technicality – the play isn’t eligible for the Arden Early Drama, as the remit of that series is pre-18th century drama.”

    That’s a clever turn of reasoning, but I don’t think I can go along with you for the ride. If a latter-day adaptation of a lost Shakespeare ought to qualify for Arden Shakespeare, then it seems to me that a latter-day adaptation of some other (or unknown) Jacobean playwright ought to qualify for Arden Early Modern Drama. Otherwise Arden seem to be stricter about what can be properly called “Early Modern” than about what can be called “Shakespeare,” which seems odd. Or perhaps that is the nub of the problem here…

    (I will also offer a technicality of my own, in suggesting that the 1727 premiere of Double Falsehood was a bit late to be “an extremely important moment in the development of Shakespeare” as “man,” in as much as Shakespeare is generally considered to have died in 1616.)

    Of course I agree with you that it is a fascinating chapter in the story of the boundaries of the Shakespearean canon. And of course I agree that a study of Shakespeare’s “predecessors, contemporaries and successors,” to borrow a phrase, is of the greatest value in understanding Shakespeare himself. King Cambyses is worth reading just to enjoy that one joke of Falstaff’s.


    08 Mar 2011, 22:27

  7. Quite :-) My point is rather, as throughout my PhD work, to question how exactly we form and police the boundaries to our canons.

    In speaking of the development of Shakespeare, I mean of course our modern conception of the Bard, which is very much an 18th century phenomenon (Alexander Pope first REMOVED plays like Locrine, Thomas Lord Cromwell and The Puritan from the canon in 1725). Our sense of Shakespeare has always already been posthumously created: in Shakespeare’s lifetime, the published Shakespeare canon included such plays as Yorkshire Tragedy and London Prodigal, and didn’t include The Tempest, Macbeth, Othello and many more, for example. If we used his death as a cut off point, we’d therefore have a very different constitution for the canon. We’re reliant on Shakespeare’s later editors, collaborators and adaptors for what we know of his work, and any arbitrary cut-off points have to be qualified. Even the 1623 Folio, which would be the most logical place for putting together a “definitive” Shakespeare, needs to be supplemented with several other plays, as well as all the poems, in order to arrive at the canon we know now.

    If our definition of “Shakespeare” is the plays he contributed to, that the historical man helped write, then the arguments over Double Falsehood would seem to at least justify a decent edition in order that we can properly investigate the claims. Don’t forget that Edward III and Thomas More were both partially attributed to Shakespeare much LATER than Double Falsehood, yet both are now accepted in all the canons, a process which followed (not preceded) good critical editions of the plays.

    And if we’re talking about the responsibility of a series, is it much less misleading for Arden to publish Thomas More – which only includes a couple of hundred lines by a writer who we THINK is Shakespeare, but whose attribution has been increasingly cast into doubt in the last ten years – in the Arden Shakespeare series, as will happen later this year? What about Arden of Faversham, which several scholars now think Shakespeare contributed at least a couple of scenes to? I’m not saying these plays should or shouldn’t be published as Shakespeare’s; but the process of author attribution is far more fluid and dynamic than the responses to the publication of DF have assumed.

    What I’m arguing is that we can’t ever achieve a satisfyingly concrete Complete Works of Shakespeare that’s neatly partitioned off from other canons, and that our obsession with “in” or “out” is too crude to accommodate the ambiguities of authorship. I’d like to see us moving away from authorial canons altogether and editing plays in accordance with early modern theatre companies, or even genre groupings.

    08 Mar 2011, 22:49

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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