Two Noble Kinsmen: Update

01/13/2016

Hey all. Just checking in. Pretty much the last three weeks have been dominated by working on the play. So here’s a bit of a progress report.

As of this moment I’ve solidified my concept for the show. I’ve roughly designed a set that I think accommodates that concept.

I held a reading with nine other lovely people, and we discussed the play. I’ve cut the script down to around 2400 lines. I’ve signed and mailed the contract for the venue and the dates of June 23-26. I’ve settled on a company name: Stranger Case Theatre. The tentative logo is featured below.

I’ve also now read half a dozen different critical commentaries on the play and I’m more or less bursting with thoughts about it. With a couple more months until production really gets underway I’m just going to drop them here. Peruse them at your leisure.

What is Two Noble Kinsmen?
Two Noble Kinsmen is a play co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher around 1612 or 1613. It is very possibly the last play Shakespeare ever worked on, and some evidence suggests he wrote much of it from his home in Stratford. The story is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales, which is itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was an adaptation of a story from Roman author Statius, who based his story on an ancient Greek myth.

There are a number of fascinating things about the story, in particular the change in tone that developed over the years of its evolution. The protagonists, Palamon and Arcite, are two young prisoners taken by Theseus king of Athens when he invades the city of Thebes. Both young men fall in love with Theseus’ daughter, Emilia, and go from being best friends to sworn enemies in competition for her love.

The original myth was meant to depict the ideal soldier, resolute in love and duty even if it meant the killing of a friend. Statius adapted it with similar intent. The story was recovered by Boccaccio during the Middle Ages as the concept of chivalry developed. It became the single defining story about how medieval Europeans were transforming their culture through returning to ancient Greek ideals.

Of course as the Renaissance hit, chivalry was already on its way out. Chaucer’s adaptation is much more of a parody than Boccaccio’s. Shakespeare and Fletcher take an even more comedic look at the material, which some critics believe even borders on cruelty. However there is a sense that Chaucer at least looked back on those simpler, more idealistic times with a sense of nostalgia. The nostalgia is there for Shakespeare and Fletcher, but one of the challenges in adapting the show is figuring out just how sympathetic the authors were to that ancient code of knighthood. It’s worth noting both authors had likely read Don Quixote that same year for the first time, and were also working on an adaptation of that novel called Cardenio (Fletcher would adapt the book fifteen more times in his career, so it’s safe to assume he was a fan).

So if Shakespeare wrote it, why have I never seen it performed?
While this isn’t exactly true, the defining factoid about Two Noble Kinsmen is that it’s the least performed play by Shakespeare. It’s still probably in the bottom five, but it’s grown in popularity over the last fifty years, in large part due to its novelty.

The play did go over 200 years without a single performance. There were a number of reasons for this.

First, being the last play Shakespeare ever wrote and credited to a co-author who was alive when the first Folio was compiled, the play was not included in the first folio. Since that is the de facto qualifier for inclusion into the canon, the show was shrugged off by many critics for years. Initial playbills for the show (dating around the 1630’s) billed it to Fletcher and Shakespeare. However, Fletcher remained as popular as Shakespeare up until all the theatres in England were closed (and briefly after the Restoration), so most editors figured it was more valuable to credit the play to Fletcher and his cowriter Beaumont than to cram Shakespeare in the mix.

Of course today there are no Fletcher Festivals anywhere in the world. Shakespeare’s ascendance to the title of world’s most popular playwright occurred shortly after the Restoration. Fletcher, along with Two Noble Kinsmen, fell off the map.

It took a good 200 years for the critical establishment to accept the play as bonafide Shakespeare. Today it’s easier to find someone who doubts Fletcher’s involvement than someone who doubt’s Shakespeare’s. However once the play achieved acceptance, it was discovered that it was actually pretty difficult to stage. As different as Shakespeare and Fletcher’s attitudes toward chivalry were from Chaucer’s, our ideas have changed a thousand times more since the days of Fletcher and Shakespeare. So even if both authors (as I believe) were writing a vicious satire of noble culture in the vein of Don Quixote, the expectations and biases of their audience are nothing like the expectations of audiences today.

Also the dual authorship is noticeable, at least in the reading. Fletcher was a young, up and coming star whose quick, joke-heavy style was a reaction against the longwinded seriousness for which Shakespeare had become the posterboy. Fletcher even wrote a number of parodies of Shakespeare’s plays, much as Shakespeare had done earlier in his career to playwrights like Marlowe. The differences are obvious throughout the text.

For instance, Shakespeare tends to spell all his character names as he found them in Plutarch (his favorite source for material), while Fletcher tends to go with the spelling as found in Chaucer. Because I am a profoundly nerdy person, I’m amused by the idea of Fletcher arguing, “We’re not adapting Plutarch! We’re adapting Chaucer!” and Shakespeare responding, “Yeah, but… Plutarch!” Ultimately they just agreed to spell names differently in their scenes.

And unlike Hamlet or Macbeth or As You Like It, there is no dense performance history of directors and actors contributing to our understanding of the play. A director is essentially flying alone when they approach this material. That’s been both the biggest impediment and the biggest attraction for directors who wanted to tackle the show up until now.

Okay, so why do Two Noble Kinsmen?
I covered this a little bit in my last blog, but here I’d like to go a little bit more in depth regarding what I believe the potential for this play is and how I hope to achieve it.

The play is very much about the way legends affect how we live today. In Act 3 several actors perform a “Morris Dance,” which was a ritualistic, medieval dance full of symbols and allegorical characters. The dance predicts how the events of the story will play out. Often the character refer to past myths or the concept of “the gods” to explain actions they themselves caused. Palamon and Arcite are young and very idealistic. Old Greek heroes like Theseus and Pirithous look at them with a sense of nostalgia for youth, the way Renaissance audiences looked at chivalry, nostalgic for simpler ideas of nobility.

So I think this is the perfect play to adapt as my first ever foray into Shakespeare: I am adapting a 400 year old play which is about the way 400 year old plays affect the way we live (for better and worse). I think the play’s “problems”—the ending is a tough sell for audiences, and the story of knights just doesn’t appeal to modern audiences the way it did back then—give the director and actors opportunities to do precisely what the play is asking of the audience: to look at old stories and ask ourselves what the stories we tell today have in common.

The Royal Shakespeare Company staged the play in 1986 as a Kabuki drama, in the wake of Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear adaptation Ran, when audiences really liked samurai stories and easily related the strict code of the Samurai with the code of chivalry. Other stagings have made Palamon and Arcite soldiers, cowboys, and definitive alpha males with an emphasis on their sexuality.

Also it’s one of the few plays in Shakespeare that offers almost an equal number of major roles for women. To some extent this is ancillary. It was probably the result of the Globe burning down and Shakespeare’s company being forced to move to a young boy’s theatre called Blackfriars where they had access to more young actors for female roles than ever before. However in practice it means that some of the best female roles Shakespeare ever wrote, particularly the Jailer’s Daughter, have never been seen by audiences.

There is also that outsider appeal which I mentioned last time. This is a play most audiences have never seen. They don’t know how it ends. And so we get the chance to surprise people with Shakespeare.

The play is also very funny, very beautiful, and almost perfectly structured despite the dual authorship. It has a lot in common with late Shakespeare Romances like Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. There’s a lot of conjecture about why Shakespeare ended his career with the Romances. The genre had been considered outdated his entire career, and in fact he was the first playwright of his generation to revive it. Romance was a play about ideas, one that had elements of both comedy and drama, and which sacrificed the dense characterizations of Macbeth and Hamlet for larger ideas about the world. While the outdated Romances were mostly religious in nature, Shakespeare’s last act as dramatist was to modernize the form into what now seems like an almost postmodern kind of philosophical drama. His “gods” acting on the world weren’t merely figures for reverence—they were the larger forces at work in the lives of human beings just outside their awareness.

I tend to think Shakespeare turned to the Romances in his old age, just as he became the top dramatist in England, as a way of returning to the plays he grew up with. As a boy he loved Plutarch and ancient history. Almost all his Romances take place similarly in the past, with gods and oracles and spirits controlling the lives of his characters. In his Romances, an older generation looks nostalgically on a younger generation and views their youth as a kind of lost Eden. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest have a lot in common but are also fundamentally different. In Midsummer Shakespeare took the vantage point of the horny teenagers surrounded by spirits. In The Tempest he was the old man, bored with the same magic.

Of course working in an elaborate children’s theatre with space for puppets and complex staging, as well as large paintings of myths on the wall, didn’t hurt at all. Whatever the reason, the Romances mark a distinct and fascinating final stage for Shakespeare’s career that shines light on the rest. He wrote mostly comedies and histories in the first third, the great tragedies in the second, and ended by blending all those genres into something distinctly his own. Two Noble Kinsmen, regardless Fletcher’s contribution, falls into this camp.

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