Research Musings: Cutting Text

Daily writing exercise number two comes to you courtesy of another Thomas Postlewait quotation, this time about the significance something can have by virtue of its absence. This comes from the third chapter of his Introduction to Theatre Historiography, in which Postlewait examines the various components that contribute to the reconstruction of an historical event. He notes that, when seeking the distinctive features of a particular event, ‘We can even argue that things that do not happen, such as Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, can be perceived as contributing aspects of an event. In other words, the perception of absence (e.g., of something missing) fills the void with meaning: the lack of signification becomes a locus of significance’ (111).

To me, this idea of significance in absence screamed to be applied to the way in which any given play is cut for performance. Margaret Jane Kidnie examines this very thing in Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, looking at the controversial cuts made by Mathhew Warchus to his 1997 production of Hamlet for the RSC. These cuts were so contested in the press, she argues, because of the play’s revered canonical status. She quotes Warchus downplaying his cuts, saying that ‘in a previous RSC season he cut one thousand lines from Jonson’s Devil Is An Ass and “absolutely nobody noticed”‘. She goes on to use another example from the RSC: Gregory Doran’s 2003 production of All’s Well That Ends Well. Kidnie notes that Doran ‘cut an entire scene from the text of All’s Well That Ends Well without attracting any of the controversy caused by Warchus’s decisions to cut from Hamlet the opening scene on the battlements’ (35). Her point is that plays which the (critical) audience is less familiar with are less likely to fall prey to accusations of butchery when the text is substantially cut.

In the case of The Changeling, substantial cuts to its text were apparently commonplace and generally accepted as beneficial to the play during the mid-twentieth century. Reviews of productions that cut the subplot almost uniformly praise the decision, claiming that its content is inferior. One reviewer for The Times  in 1960 went so far as to title his review of the BBC Third Programme radio version ‘A Case to be Grateful for Cuts’ and to assert that the subplot is ‘so crude in both conception and execution’ that the viewers, purists and all, should be beholden to the BBC for sparing them ‘a mixture of boredom and nausea’. For reviewers, the absent scenes in The Changeling apparently have (or at least had) the opposite effect to absent scenes in Hamlet. In either case, the scenes are significant to the theatrical event by virtue of the fact that they’re not being performed. And despite apparent critical acceptance of cutting The Changeling’s subplot, I would argue that this kind of cut substantially alters the play in ways at least as significant as those generated by cutting the opening scene of Hamlet.

Trevor Nunn said once that the way a director cuts the text is his version of the play, implying that a particular director’s vision can be encapsulated in his decisions regarding cutting (quoted in Kidnie). If this is the case, might it be productive to pursue a line of inquiry that looks specifically at the ways in which The Changeling’s text has been cut for performance during its lifetime?

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2 Comments

    • I think that’s an assumption or a guess rather than something that’s well-supported by documentation, but there is evidence that clowns, for example, regularly improvised on stage. It’s definitely possible, especially given that the Folio was compiled by actors. But if you look at their note at the beginning, they seem to be saying that they’ve published the most “authentic” version of each play…whatever that means! It’s all very open to debate still, I think. Someone needs to get on inventing a time machine, really.

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