Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cutting King John

By the time William Charles Macready directed his famous revival of Shakespeare's King John in 1842, a long stage history had corrupted the text. Colley Cibber had introduced an adaptation of the play in the eighteenth century that highlighted the piece's anti-Catholicism, and audiences had become used to new lines and scenes interpolated into the text.

Macready went back to the original text, which had first appeared in the Folio of Shakespeare's works issued in 1623. Unlike many other Shakespearean plays, including Lear, there were no earlier quarto versions of King John, so Macready did not have to contend with a conflated text coming from two sources. What he did have to do, however, was to cut a text that was probably never performed in its entirety in Shakespeare's day and certainly was too long for the nineteenth-century stage and its elaborate scene changes.

Since we have Macready's cut version of the play, we know precisely what he left in and what he kept out of the show. As the theatre historian Charles Shattuck has pointed out, the text of King John frequently "paints the lily," and as Salisbury says in Act IV, scene ii:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, 
To throw a perfume on the violet,
Is wasteful, and ridiculous excess.

At least that's how the speech went in Macready's version. The original actually runs this way:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, 
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eyes of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful, and ridiculous excess.

Not only did Macready cut three lines from that passage, he also cut the next 18 lines that followed. The result was a scene that was tighter, easier to follow, and more stage-worthy than one that sought to slavishly follow a text that Shakespeare probably expected his actors to trim back and adapt anyway.

Unfortunately, not all of Macready's cuts were as wisely chosen. In the first act in particular, the great Victorian actor frequently eliminated lines that dealt too explicitly with Philip Faulconbridge being a bastard.

The second act also deals with bastardy, but in that case with the Queen Mother, Elinor, accusing Lady Constance's son Arthur of being illegitimate. Macready sadly eliminated this exchange between the two women:

Eli. Out insolent! thy bastard shall be king;
That thou may'st be a queen, and check the world!

Const. My bed was ever to thy son as true, 
As thine was to thy husband: and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geffrey.
Than thou and John in manners; being as like,
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard! By my soul, I think,
His father never was so true begot;
It cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.

Eli. There's a good mother, boy, that blots thy father.

Const. There's a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.

Later in the same scene, however, Macready exercises some shrewd trimming, frequently going out of his way to keep the rhythm of the blank verse. For instance, take the French King's line:

Lo, in this right hand, whose protection 
Is most divinely vow'd upon the right
Of him it holds, stands young Plantagenet...

Macready shortens the line to:

Lo, in this hand, stands young Plantagenet...

In the later acts, Macready speeds up the action with more trimming, including shortening some excessively long speeches. The goal seems to be to keep the action moving forward. When a character picks up on something said by someone else, Macready eliminates any excess verbiage in between so the audience can follow the characters' thought processes more easily.

There is no one perfect cutting of a play, but prompt books documenting Macready's King John offer an excellent guide to how modern directors can trim Shakespeare's texts in a way that illuminates the plays for modern audiences.