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Cathleen Sheehan : All's Well That Ends Well

Dramaturg Cathleen Sheehan blogs about All's Well That Ends Well
Mary Ann Koory

Cathleen Sheehan is a writer, lecturer and teacher who teaches Shakespeare and Advanced Shakespeare (among other courses) at the Urban School in San Francisco. She has served as a dramaturg for Marin Shakespeare for the past four years, and also as a dramaturg for California Shakespeare Theater.  She holds an AB and MA in English Literature from Stanford University and pursued graduate studies in Victoria Literature at Oxford University.

All the World’s A Stage! (Sort of)

The Challenge and Joy of Outdoor Theater

Seasoned attendants of outdoor theater can share comic or tragicomic memories of braving the elements: a particularly loud cow mooing at an inopportune moment; the unexpected, bone-chilling entrance of an engulfing fog; a natural spotlight of blazing sun beaming down on an exposed shoulder. I’ve spent many years attending outdoor performances at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Cal Shakes, OSF, and, of course, Marin Shakespeare. My solution to these potential discomforts—the ones I can control—are to pack as if or a weekend trip whenever I head to an outdoor performance. You never know. This summer saw some particularly rough challenges for OSF—canceled performances due to smoke pollution from seasonal fires. So, in our darker moments, when we feel we just can’t consume enough hot chocolate to stave off frost-bite, we might ask ourselves, “Why do we do it?”

Well, I can only answer for myself. To me, all of the crazy, engaging, miraculous aspects of live theater are enhanced by the outside experience. We do not go to theater to witness something utterly contained, predictable, stagnant. Theater is not film. We are always a part of the action—and on any given night, the show will have its own feel, flow, and energy. The audience is merely one factor—but a very important one.

In attending theater in the great outdoors, we are also harkening back to the kind of theater that Shakespeare knew. His audience knew, as we do, that we still exist in the real world even as we watch a play. Shakespeare didn’t have elaborate sets and technology, nor was his theater removed from the need for natural light. The plays were performed in the afternoon and lit from the opening above the stage. They were quite nearly open-air theaters. The groundlings stood on a dirt floor—and the actors could see the audience as well as the audience could see them. This, we believe, allowed for greater interaction between actor and audience. We speculate that Shakespeare made use of this—perhaps, involving the audience as a stand-in for Henry V’s troops, for example, as he delivered his famous “band of brothers” speech before the battle of Agincourt. If you’ve ever experienced an actor holding your gaze (or sipping your wine) at a Marin Shakespeare performance, you will know the thrill of that heightened sense of participation.

I think in an outdoor theater we are also called upon to use our own imaginations more vigorously—to share in the creative process. As the famous prologue in Henry V asserts, we must piece out imperfections with thoughts. We’re not just spoon-fed something that looks like reality. Instead, we need to participate with our imaginations and believe that a band of actors can tell the soul-stirring tale of a great war, or a bloody story of revenge, or a romance driven by a girl dressed like a boy. Shakespeare’s audience would have been used to this. He used roughly a dozen actors, all male, playing various roles.
Especially as patrons of outdoor theater, we are active participants in our temporary community—held together for the few hours of that particular performance. So we can hardly begrudge the occasional cow’s desire to moo in approval.

 

Post #2 - August 6, 2013

All’s Well that Ends Well: Around the Table

I’m often asked what, exactly, a dramaturg (or dramaturge) does—and I often find myself replying with a list. Dramaturgs support a production by cramming lots of information into their heads—historical references, geographical information, glosses on meaning, information on pronunciation, social mores, cultural background, etc. In short, we’re the biggest nerds in the rehearsal hall.

On Wednesday, July 24, Robert Currier, the cast, and I settled around the Currier’s living room to read through the All’s Well script and consider any tricky parts along the way. With Shakespeare, as you can imagine, the dramaturg’s role is often less about providing a definitive answer than considering various options as we read through the script and consider helpful ways to elucidate meaning. It’s ultimately the director’s choice. Even pronunciation is not so easy

. All’s Well is a bit tricky for pronunciation. While the story is ostensibly set in French territory and meant to be French, the English have an age-old tradition of (willfully?) mispronouncing French. Shakespeare’s text—and the acting traditions that followed—tended to keep this very bad French pronunciation as a way to adhere to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s blank verse. This doesn’t ring so well in modern ears, however. So, for this production we’ve gone with a more Francofied version. Vive, la France! (Rousillon wasn’t really in French possession when Shakespeare wrote the play but nevermind.)

As we worked through the text, we also considered glosses on meaning and historical references. For All’s Well, this was blissfully straightforward. (Sometimes scholars disagree or new information changes an understanding which can lead to lengthy chats about meanings and options.) We reworked small parts of the script for clarity, changing words here or there, adding some text that had been cut, etc. This is a three-way conversation among the actor, the director, and the dramaturg—a collaborative process and always a congenial one at Marin Shakespeare.

Another part of the dramaturg’s job is connected more closely to form—the structure of Shakespeare language and understanding his choices in context. For example, some characters speak prose, others verse. For the most part, actors look for a shift in their usual rhythm. The shift usually signals something useful for the character—a playable moment that Shakespeare has embedded in the language. (For example, Hamlet shifts out of his usual verse to feign madness with prose.)

In All’s Well, there are some interesting shifts—especially with the younger men who tend to speak prose together but then shift to verse when discussing matters of love. This is not the kind of thing you are likely to pick up when you see the play—but the information can give actors greater insight into their characters.
Even pronoun choice can provide useful information. In Shakespeare’s plays there are two pronouns for the second person—“you” and “thee.” Counter-intuitively to us, “thee” and its conjugations “thy” and “thine” were the familiar form of the pronoun. Using this familiar form can signal intimacy in a relationship, for example.

For me, the greatest joy of being a dramaturg is the creative and collaborative application of scholarship. And it is truly a pleasure to work with the All’s Well cast—and I look forward to seeing how the show takes shape in rehearsals.

 

Post #1 August 1, 2013

One of Shakespeare’s late comedies, All’s Well that Ends Well invites us into a world strikingly different from the earlier, jubilant, Elizabethan comedies. So different do we find this so-called comedy that some resist the label entirely and refer to the play as a “problem play.” However, this is not a distinction that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have recognized.

Comedy was the most formulaic of the genres that Shakespeare wrote—and yet his audiences were perhaps less rigid in their definitions of that label than we are. While they could include uproariously funny bits, comedies tended to involve courtship and tended to move toward marriage. With a comedy, we’re usually left with a wedding or at least an imminent one. We move from a place of communal discord to one of harmony and union, symbolized in the romantic pairings and weddings. “The world must be peopled!” Benedick declares, and marriages ensure that it will be so.

Shakespeare gives us a marriage in All’s Well that Ends Well by way of a very unconventional courtship—if it can even be called courtship. Like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, this play introduces us to some awkward romantic pairings and leaves us with a marriage—but an unsure one, arguably. With these late comedies, Shakespeare seems to be pushing the boundaries of the comic genre—giving us the expected marriage but in an unexpected form.

Gender and Marriage

As in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, marriage is a mark of maturity. Young men and women must step into their roles as husbands and wives—but the stakes were much higher for women in Shakespeare’s day. Men had roles in the community by way of both public lives (via title and/or career) and private lives (as husbands and fathers). Women only found their place in the community by way of their private relationships with men as wives and mothers. An unmarried woman of a certain age became a financial and social burden on her family—on whichever male relative was charitable enough to support her. Indeed, without a social position defined via a relationship with a man, a woman embodied a negligible identity. In Measure for Measure, the Duke tells Marianna she is “nothing” if she is not “maid, widow, nor wife.” (Lucio helpfully chimes in that she could be a prostitute—another way to define a woman through her relationship with men.)

Without a father or a husband, Helena in All’s Well is a woman of undefined social standing. She is neither a daughter nor a wife. The Countess is very fond of her and has apparently allowed her to stay on following the death of her father, the reputed doctor—but this relationship between the women is vague and confusing; is Helena a kind of daughter to the Countess? Helena wants greater clarity and security in her position—and finds the direction of her course in her “ambitious love” for the Countess’s son Bertram. Her love is indeed ambitious; she loves a man of much higher social rank and is attempting to make her own choice of husband. (When Shakespeare was writing this play, marriages were still largely arranged by fathers.)

Like the spunky cross-dressing heroines of the earlier comedies, Helena seeks to assert herself and steer the course of courtship. She is quite different from those comedic counterparts in that she forces a marriage onto an unwilling marital partner. (Significantly, she can only do so with the underlying, patriarchal authority of the King.) Forced to marry Helena, Bertram does a runner and goes off to the Italian wars.

A Consummation Devoutly to be Wished

Helena determines her wedding—but not her marriage. Without consummation, Helena is left with empty vows but no real marriage. Bertram banks on this—and swears that he will never sleep with Helena. The issue becomes one of substantiation—how to make good on the vows and add substance to Bertram’s empty words.

Enter Diana. A young virtuous woman, Diana becomes the target of Bertram’s attempts at seduction. Another connection to the earlier comedies emerges: the steadfastness of women set against the faithlessness of men. Ironically, Bertram’s falseness provides the way for his wedding vows to become true. His attempts at seduction allow the women to conspire against him. The bed-trick, replacing one woman for another, will make his vows real. In an attempt to be unfaithful, Bertram will do the opposite—and act as an honest husband to Helena. Once consummated, the marriage between Helena and Bertram will be binding.

This theme of moving from insubstantial to substantial recurs in the play; consider how Parolles’ empty words are replaced by self-awareness, for example. Arguably, marriage made women substantial in a community—and Helena achieves that goal in this play. As in many of these late comedies, however, you may be left feeling a little unsure of this match. Is all really well at the end of the play?

 


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