According to Felicia Hardison Londre, editor of the 1997 text Love’s Labour’s Lost, Critical Essays, there are only two truly important developments related to a modern understanding of Shakespeare that can be attributed to twentieth century stagings of the Bard’s work: the first is the relevance and power of Shakespeare’s history plays when they are performed as a cycle and, second, establishing Love’s Labour’s Lost as one of Shakespeare’s major plays rather than as one of his least impressive dramatic accomplishments…
In fact, LLL has accumulated some of the most derisive and derogatory critical comments of all of Shakespeare’s works, especially from critics of the 19th century. Few people know that, although LLL was written and performed in 1597, for a period of nearly 250 years, between 1604 and 1839, there were NO recorded performances of the play anywhere in the English speaking world.
Charles Gildon’s remarks on LLL in his 1710 essay on the plays are short and sharp; “one of the worst of Shakespeare’s plays, nay…I think I may say the very worst!” Samuel Johnson reflected on the play in 1765, saying that it was “often entangled and obscure,” and with so much of the text “so vulgar it ought not have been performed before a maiden queen,” while Edward Capell wrote, in 1768, that the verse work was of such poor quality “the measure we call dogrel, and as so much offended with, had no such effect upon the ears of that time.”
Early on, people really hated Love’s Labour’s Lost.
But, alongside this dismissive commentary about what is undeniably an almost impenetrable plot with some of the longest and most convoluted “inside jokes” about English nobility, have been comments about LLL’s equally undeniable linguistic charms.
Felicia Londre talks in her essay about the “utter linguistic delight” represented in the play; the freewheeling nature of Shakespeare’s wordplay, his punning and his growing rhetorical flair. Neal Goldstein, in his essay Love’s Labour’s Lost and the Renaissance Vision of Love, is equally full of praise, saying, “The spectacle here is purely verbal, and the pleasure given by the play depends mainly on its words. In LLL, words are not only used to communicate meaning but for themselves as things. What they signify hardly matters; released from the drudgery of ordinary speech, they mean whatever fancy wishes them to mean…”
Goldstein goes on, “It is undeniable that Shakespeare is here playing with language, and what a play it is!”
I could, in fact, go on and on about these two different camps related to LLL: on the one hand, it has been considered an almost completely impenetrable collection of dense poetic devices with little concern for character or plot and, on the other, a “linguistic comedy par excellence” that delights far more on the page than it does on the stage. But I won’t go on and on about it, other than to say this: I agree with both positions, and that makes LLL a very tricky play to try and stage in its entirety.
Here are some reasons why I think Shakespeare’s play is more than just a little tricky to stage:
First, the four pairs of lovers are almost interchangeable, with only minor variations in motivation and style for an actor to hang his or her hat on.
Second, the “secondary” lovers (Maria, Kathering, Longaville and Dumain) are given such short shrift that even those of us who know the play well have a very hard time remembering which one wants to sleep with which other one. One critic remarked “The Princess of France is so vaguely drawn that she doesn’t even deserve a name…she is just a Princess.”
Third, the comedic characters, the rashly drawn “rude mechanicals” speak so densely about such arcane subjects than even Shakespearean scholars often find themselves essentially saying, “no freaking idea what this refers to” in the footnotes, meaning that many of the actors playing those roles would need to say words that no audience member has any context at all for understanding. In fact, Londre says, “In-jokes, personal references, depictions of manners betray the virtual certainty that LLL was written by an intimate of the court,” and “one aspect of LLL that has held particular fascination for scholars is trying to tie its characters to actual historical figures,” a task which, according to Muriel Bradbrook writing in 1936, said “makes clear all the comedy.”
For example, in Shakespeare’s original, Armado is clearly a combination of Gabriel Harvey, the Duke of Parma, Monarco and/or Antonio Perez, whose peculiar personal quirks are, clearly, going to be uproariously hilarious for any member of an audience who wouldn’t know Gabriel Harvey from Harvey the Rabbit or Antonio Perez from Antonio Bandaras! Or Moth, who is likely based on the Flemish Governor La Motte, or Thomas Nash and, of course, the clear link between Katherine (or Maria, it doesn’t matter much) to Marguerite de Valois.
In turn, asking actors from the past three hundred years to try their hand at satirizing the language, style and personal traits of people we have never ever ever ever heard of is…well, let’s just say it is tricky.
Fourth, the inciting action, (the issue of Aquitaine and the reason for the Princess’s visit to Navarre), is so vague that even Londre says, “the text offers so few references to the business of the visit, and there is no historical basis for a transaction between France and Navarre, it is difficult to see what this is all about.”
For those of you who don’t know, John Turner, a Shakespeare historian, explains it this way, “The ladies from France have come to Navarre as a negotiating team to conduct a particularly delicate piece of diplomatic business – to take back again the half that has already been once repaid of a debt owed by France to Navarre and to forfeit instead the possibly overvalued territories in Aquitaine that had been laid in surety against that debt.”
What the what????
So…it is clear that there are problems with the play and I’m not the only one who thinks so, thank goodness. There have been dozens of excellent attempts to address these issues via adaptation (thank you Kenneth Brannagh, for jazzing up LLL), the earliest attempt at fixing the problems with LLL was, in my judgment, one of the finest.
The problem is, we have no idea who to thank for it.
LLL is, according to Miriam Gilbert in her exhaustive look at the history of LLL, “the only play of Shakespeare’s not performed anywhere between 1700 and 1800 which raises the question, ‘What was it about LLL that so discouraged and repelled actors and directors for more than 200 years?” Gilbert writes this, which I love and am going to get tattooed on my body, “If we can understand cuts in the texts used for modern productions as clues to the director’s interpretation, we can equally use the complete ignoring of a play as a signal for interpretation.”
There was something about LLL that was interesting enough for two different writers to take a crack at the script in an adapted form in the first hundred years after it’s publication, but nothing so interesting either about the original or the adaptations to bring them to the stage.
In 1771, the eminent actor David Garrick commissioned a musical version of LLL that cut more than 1,000 lines from the text, omitted the play of the Nine Worthies, and created musical solos for each of the main characters. It was never staged. In fact, Kalman Burnim, a Garrick scholar, writes of the play, “It is of no theatrical value whatsoever, containing merely textual cuts, and it was never produced.” Ouch.
Ten years earlier, however, in 1762, an anonymous adaptation of the play called The Student was published and, although the title page calls it “a comedy, altered from Shakespeare and Adapted for the Stage,” there is no evidence that the play was ever performed.
But, as Gilbert suggests, an adaptor’s cuts can tell us a lot about how the adaptor feels about the play and, in both Gerrick’s and our anonymous script, the number one thing to go? The lines.
The Students is less than half as long as Shakespeare’s. A number of characters are cut completely, including Sir Nathaniel and Holofernes and the majority of the rest of the supporting characters’ lines are slashed. Dumain gets it in the neck, too, having almost all of his lines from Shakespeare cut or given to Longaville, and poor Katherine ends up looking like an extra given how little she talks. The Pagaent of the Worthies is cut, a bunch of other scenes are cut or re-arranged and, perhaps most terribly, everyone ends up together at the end.
The judgment of history? Love’s Labour’s Lost is just too freaking complicated!!! There is just too much shit going on for an audience born after 1590 to understand!
What I have tried to do with our script is to embrace the time honored critical position of many scholars from the past 400 years who think the play is just too complicated to stage effectively and the more recent critical response that says the language is “real real pretty.” To do so, I followed our anonymous friend’s lead by taking on many of the line cuts and the elimination of silly characters found in The Students, including condensing Katherine and Maria into a single character and doing the same with Dumain and Longaville…but the one thing I didn’t change was Shakespeare’s ending…without which the play is not justly called Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The result? A play that is less than half as long as Shakespeare’s, slightly longer than The Students, and has fewer characters and plot twists than either. What does it retain? I think it retains Shakespeare’s gleeful, youthful romantic energy; a coy, flirtatious romantic passion that is both full of life and humor and joy….with a sting in its tail.
Although LLL has rightly been called a romantic comedy, it is not completely without weight. There is a message embedded in the flowery language, hidden in the delightful sonnets and rhyming couplets.
The New York Times review of the Globe’s production in 2009 points to just such a message, “Such silly boys. Granted, the young scholars are fluent in Latin, quick with a literate quip and able to whip up a nigh-perfect sonnet in no time. But they are also given to the most juvenile self-importance, to sulking, squabbling, teasing and talking big about girls who elude them. And they are often found roughhousing in undignified ways. There is obviously some serious disconnect between their earnest, elevated minds and their metabolisms.”
But that is not so for the women. The women arrive on a serious errand and, although the attraction to the men is palpable and they are easily turned towards romantic games, the women are NOT the romantic instigators. They may play, but they also retain their seriousness and the clarity of their mission. The boys are compelling distractions but not serious enough to truly derail them from their purpose.
One of the remarkable things about Shakespeare’s play is just how truly feminist and forward thinking it was; in many ways, a precursor to Shrew but, in my estimation, without the apology at the end!
The women mock, deride, out plan, outplay, out quip and outwit these silly, silly boys and, at the end of the play, leave with their honors, and virginities, intact while sending their men off to learn what it means to truly love, to truly make and maintain an oath, to be compassionate, and, in Rosaline’s most remarkable case, learn the difference between wit and meaning.
These women are not only the intellectual equals of the men, they are their moral superiors and they lose NOTHING in that strength. They are just as sexy, sassy, smart, well read, conniving, convivial, sexual, attractive and attracted as the men…they are just, ultimately, more mature. More ethical. More aware of themselves and the world.
What a fun and thoughtful way to spend a summer’s eve in Hillsboro.
-Scott Palmer, Artistic Director