By Dramaturg(e) Dr. Mary Ann Koory
This cartoon appeared in the April 13 issue of the New Yorker. I feel fortunate (though perhaps also a little disappointed) that no one has ever asked me to critique their personal role-playing, though it is probably just as well. The role of a dramaturg (“dramaturge” is the alternate and also acceptable way to spell it: the OED says that you can also pronounce it with a soft or a hard “g” sound at the end) may be mysterious to you, and this cartoon gives me a good excuse to explain how I see my role with Marin Shakespeare: I work with the director on the text, and occasionally the cast and crew, to see whether the sequence of scenes makes sense, to help with edits for pace and clarity, and to consult on the meaning of words and metaphors. Sometimes it can be a bit like solving a clue in a crossword puzzle: for instance, a few weeks ago, we needed a one-syllable word that means the same thing as “price,” which, though it worked for Shakespeare, had the wrong implication for our production. (I suggested “worth.”) New words have to fit into the meter, and be intelligible and not distractingly odd to a modern audience. For instance, we probably would never use the word “niggardly” today, because it sounds as if it is a racist term. It is NOT racist — it means cheap or miserly without reference to race — and it is a word Shakespeare uses with innocence. But the sound of it is so distracting to a modern audience, we would probably substitute another three-syllable word, with the stress on the first syllable, that means “miserly.” (In fact, “miserly” would work.)
I am Robert and Lesley Currier’s pocket English Professor, to help figure out textual issues, play structure, and edits for clarity and pace; I also am on hand to consult about historical and political context, as well as theatrical history. For instance, an actor in a previous show who was playing a hangman asked me about that profession and how it was perceived in the Renaissance. That was a fascinating question to research —it was a real job, of course, but also a cultural and theatrical type, an insolent mocker of human life just before an execution, a reminder to the doomed character and to the audience to get your spiritual affairs in order, that death laughs at our pretensions. That question applies to Cymbeline as well — a comic hangman appears at a key moment. Watch for him and think about what he symbolized to an audience that attended public hangings.
An especially fun part of my job is to be the audience’s pocket English Professor as well — to explain interesting or puzzling aspects of specific plays, and why and how Shakespeare continues to speak to us today. If you ever have any questions that you think I can answer, please feel free to ask.