plays begetting books

I’m in the midst of my working vacation, and have been slogging through–I mean, thoroughly enjoying–lots of As You Like It promptbooks. It’s not not fun, it’s just that there are so many productions, and at the moment I’m only looking at the Royal Shakespeare Company ones! Starting with Vanessa Redgrave as Rosalind in 1961 through Katy Stephens in the production I saw the other night, there are thirteen different RSC productions. It’s being staged every 4 years! And that doesn’t even count the transfers to London or Newcastle.

Aside from being struck by the huge popularity of this play (at least, a popularity with the audience; the reviewers tend to range from blase to a despairing animosity toward the play), I’ve been struck by the staggering number of books that these productions generate. And I don’t mean books like the sort I’m writing, books that are about the productions or about the play. I mean books that come into being through the process of putting together a production. There’s the published text that is the basis of the production, the rehearsal promptbook(s) in which the blocking and cuts are worked out, the production promptbook recording the final versions of those blocks and cuts, the stage manager’s script with cues for entrances, lighting, and sound. There are of course the individual actors’ scripts (which don’t tend to be kept in production archives), notebooks that the director or other theatre artists keep during the rehearsal process, the musical score, the stage manager’s reports, the costume bible.

After my last post on printed drama, in which I insisted that plays aren’t books, a friend wondered whether I wasn’t being overly simplistic–can’t plays sometimes be books as well as performances? I’m still reluctant to think of printed books as plays rather than as, say, drama, or playbooks, or some other category that is subtly different. But I am struck doing this research how many books come into being during the process of creating a performance.

The picture at the top of this post is from the very tidy promptbook of the 1930 Othello starring Paul Robeson at the Savoy Theatre in London. You can see that it’s a workbook made with the cuttings of a printed text, reassembled with diagrams and cues and other performance details. The picture below is from an earlier promptbook, David Garrick’s working out of his 1773 Drury Lane production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s lots of cutting and rearranging going on. A better example of Garrick’s working method can be found online as part of the Folger’s past exhibition about Garrick, in the section “What is a promptbook.” There you can see his working book for his 1773 Hamlet, full of tipped-in sheets, and folded down pages. It’s really remarkable, and a great example of how books are adapted by their readers for their own purposes as well as of how playbooks are remade into performances.


plays aren’t books

This is getting a bit far afield from early modern books, but since I posted on the subject recently and since it is near and dear to my non-book research interests, here goes…

Today’s featured New York Times contribution to idiocy comes not from the Style section (although see the blather on Plan B careers for matter for someone else’s blog) but from the front page. There, just beneath the fold, you can read a piece by Dwight Garner on “Submitting to a Play’s Spell, Without the Stage.” The premise is that, on the eve of the Tonys, Garner is going to read the playbooks for the four nominees for best play. And so he does.

Why would he do this? Because he hadn’t seen any of the productions and he hadn’t read a play in a while. And what does he discover? Lo and behold, they’re not bad plays!

Reading this small pile of plays turned out to be a joy. If none are blinding classics destined to be heavily revived 10 or 50 years hence, the best are as sharp and thrilling and concentrated as first-rate short stories. Even the weaker ones are jangly and distinctive, and I’m not sorry to have made their acquaintance. They linger in the memory the way novels often do not. 

The best ones are as good as short stories! They could be even better than novels! Aargh! There’s something about the book form that has thrown this whole thing askew–reading a book, regardless of genre, invokes a set of reading conventions that, without examination, shifts immediately to prose, and not poetry or drama.

But, oh, it gets even better. Here’s my favorite part, just two paragraphs later:

Theater is a social and collaborative art form, and a playwright’s work is no doubt most fully realized on the stage. But to encounter plays on paper is to encounter them in their platonic form. You’re glued to the playwright’s words, not sitting in Row K jostling for an armrest while gawking at, say, Jane Fonda (who stars in “33 Variations”), wondering if all her years of aerobics paid off. While reading, you can submit more perfectly to the author’s spell and, what’s more, you are your own casting director. 

Where even to begin with this? How about the fact that although the collaborative process of theatre is the means by which plays come to life, the ideal form of a play is in the platonic union between playwright’s words and reader’s armchair? Then there’s the weird digression about Jane Fonda’s body–can a woman in her 70s possibly still be attractive?–and the horribly present bodies of other viewers.

I’ll stick to the book/reading thing, since that’s closer to my blog’s subject, and will list my objections to this rather than throw up my hands in disgust:

Objection #1: Garner assumes that the imagined performance he creates in his head is an equivalent for watching the play in a theatrical performance. But given that plays are created always through a collaborative process–between playwrights, actors, directors, audience, scenographers, just to name the obvious agents–an encounter that bypasses that process does not result in a play, but something akin to closet drama.

Preface to Objection #2: Garner is particularly interested in playbooks, not playscripts, for this piece. He starts off by noting that people used to read playbooks more regularly than they do now, and that published books of plays are readily available through Amazon and other sources. One of the reasons that published plays sold well was that not everyone could get to New York to see the latest hot thing, but that there was a cultural imperative to be familiar with it. A trip to your local bookseller, and there you go! Edward Albee, even in East Lansing.

Objection #2: Given Garner’s interest in playbooks, not playscripts, it seems particularly foolish to imagine that those books give you access to the playwright’s words without all that collaborative claptrap. What it gives you access to is a whole different set of collaborative claptrap–an encounter between playwright, print conventions, and often the stage manager’s and scenographer’s early staging. There’s nothing transparent about the relationship between text and form. Ever. And I know you all know that.

There is something interesting to be said about the experience of reading plays rather than watching them, especially when it comes to contemporary plays, and not those that we’ve been taught to think of as “classics.” And I certainly don’t want to argue against reading contemporary drama, for fun or for edification. But this piece–on the front page!–simplified both the theatrical experience and the print one.

Thanks for indulging me on this. My next post will be completely about early modern books, I promise, and I’ll try to work in a nice picture or two. So stay tuned! And enjoy the Tonys!

Is Othello a sad book?

Some time ago, you might recall, I had a bit of a fascination with Frances Wolfreston. (I know, and I totally agree: what’s not to be fascinated by?) From those posts came a lovely missive out of the blue–a colleague at Penn sent an email telling me that they also have one of her books:

Right there at the top of the first page of the text is that familiar inscription, “frances wolfreston her bouk,” but added onto this, in the same hand but a now fainter ink, is something even better: “a sad one.” The book in question is Othello (in this case, the 1655 edition, otherwise known as Q3, or the third quarto). I love the personalization of the inscription–we’ve seen Wolfreston inscribe her name in other books, but it’s not as often that we come across her commentary. And as commentary goes, this note was a productive one for me. The story of Othello is certainly a sad one. But is it a sad book?

Back when I used to teach plays to undergraduates, they would often refer to “the book” as in, “My favorite moment in this book was when the Duchess thought she was holding Ferdinand’s chopped-off hand!” My response was always to insist that the play isn’t a book! and that to conceive of that moment as happening in a book instead of on stage was to fundamentally misunderstand what was happening and how it was made it happen. My perspective then was as a performance scholar: books are objects that you read and they work differently than plays. We might read plays–and with some plays, such as early modern drama, we read them obsessively and too often never watch them nor imagine them performatively–but plays work differently on stage and any good play draws on techniques that make meaning only in performance.

In that sense, Othello is not a book. It’s a play. On the other hand, we do often use the word “book” to refer not to a specific book but to mean a more general story. When I ask my friends, “Have you read any good books recently?” very rarely am I interested in whether or not they have a specific physical object in mind; usually I’m wondering whether or not they have a story to recommend to me (and too often, they don’t!). In this fashion, describing Othello as a sad book is entirely accurate. It is sad. (And infuriating.)

But Wolfreston’s inscription makes me wonder (again) about the ways in which the physical form of books affect how we read plays. How does a playbook differ from a play performance? And how might a playbook represent performance through its mise-en-page?

One obvious place to start thinking about this question is stage directions, a particularly glaring occasion when stage action meets the printed page. I don’t think we always pay a lot of attention to stage directions other than to sometimes mock them for what editors are suggesting or to criticize them for their incompleteness (indicating entrances but no exits, for instance, are a common feature of early modern English playbooks). But while the content of stage directions certainly matter, so does the way in which they are presented on the page.

Consider this stage direction from the 1623 Folio Titus Andronicus:

It looks, I think, pretty familiar (zoomable image). The text is centered and italicized (thus differentiating it–as the speech prefixes are also set off–from the spoken text). This is a pretty detailed direction, indicating the main characters in the action (that “with others” is entirely typical) and, unusually, indicating the precise location through which the characters should be entering: one door and the other door. You might want to note that this direction mixes terms: characters are referred to as within the fiction of the story (the direction uses character names, not actor names) but the location refers to theatrical location (the upstage doors to the tiring house). But that, too, isn’t unusual–it’s no different than the directions for characters to appear “aloft” or for sounds to happen “within.”

So that’s a typical stage direction. But consider how this moment is represented in the 1594 quarto edition of the play:

It’s the same text (zoomable). But here the layout is noticeably atypical, with the two entrances represented on the page akin to how the blocking would have been on stage: one group on one side, the other group on the other side, the face-off of the brothers indicated with the face-off of the brackets. We don’t usually see stage directions like this. Jonathan Bate’s 1995 edition for the Arden3 series does reproduce the layout of the quarto direction, but most editions do not. And why not? I would assume both that it does not seem important to the editor and that its atypicalness makes editors wary. Familiarity might breed contempt, but usually it breeds comfort. A stage direction that we can read over without dwelling on allows readers to focus on the dialogue–the part of the play that scholars (and general readers) usually prioritize.

My point in comparing these two examples is to highlight the ways in which our habitual sense of what a stage direction looks like obscures other possibilities for how we might think of the printed playbook as conveying–or being capable of conveying–performance practices. If this sort of opposing entrances could be represented in this way, what other possibilities are out there, ignored by modern editors and scholars?

There’s a lot more to be said on the issues I’ve raised here, including the history of the 1594 Titus (the sole existing copy of which is at the Folger; see the catalogue record for more details) and more thoughts on how we read printed plays. I’ll follow up this most with some more along these lines. But in the meantime, if you know of any examples of early printed drama–or, heck, even later printed drama–that seems to you to be doing something different with the interface between print and performance, I would love to hear about it!

And last, some very necessary additional credits and information:

Thanks to Peter Stallybrass for taking and sending on the photo of Wolfreston’s Othello to me. You can see this book at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library‘s Furness Collection (shelfmark EC Sh155 622oc). If you haven’t encountered it before, Penn has a lovely rare books library with lovely librarians (and I don’t just say this because of all the hours I spent in the air-conditioned sanctuary of Furness). They have a nice online image collection that you can browse as well as a digital text and image collection that has some great teaching tools.

As for the plays I’ve mentioned, I have to confess that very rarely did my students identify Ferdinand’s severed hand as their favorite moment. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, get thee to Duchess of Malfi immediately! It’s only now that I’m realizing that I chose a theme of lopped-off body parts to connect my examples in this post (okay, not so much Othello, but still…). And if you don’t know what that refers to, get thee to Titus Andronicus immediately! If you’ve downloaded the software for the Folger’s digital collection (as opposed to using it through a browser), you can pull up the entire quarto of the play as a digital book (do a shelfmark search for STC 22328). You can also do the same for the complete folio (shelfmark STC 22273 Fo.1 no.05), though you can also access the digital book through the Hamnet catalogue entry. Then you can read and zoom the entire play to your heart’s content!