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Malvolio Production Diary: third blocking rehearsal

My third blocking rehearsal included both I,v and II,ii—Malvolio is in seven scenes, and we have now blocked four of them. We are on track for completing rough blocking in a total of six rehearsals, of which I got to skip one. Even if we only keep 75% of that blocking, it’ll still have put us in very good shape for July.

I,v is at Olivia’s court; Malvolio goes in and out and in and out and then in and out again. I don’t have a name for the scene yet. I more or less think of it as the introduction to the character, but that’s not really what is going on in the scene. It’s a series of spars, more or less—he sneers at Feste, when Olivia is showing favor to the fool, and then comes in to talk to Olivia about sparring with Cesario at the door, and then comes in again to be sent on an errand with the ring. The blocking is quite clear: Malvolio leads the entrance down the stairs and into the court, taking up what is clearly an accustomed position behind and slightly to the right of Olivia’s favorite chair. I advance on Feste and then as I turn my back on her to address my Lady, she goofs on me—I think I will have to throw in a spin back to catch her at it. Well, we shall see, plenty of time to work out that sort of thing. We’ve already added a bit to my first exit ( Go you, Malvolio. If it be a suit from the Count, I am sick, or not at home; what you will, to dismiss it.) to emphasize both Malvolio’s smarmy sycophancy and also Olivia’s somewhat high-strung dithering. Well, not dithering, really, but a sort of changeability or willfulness—Olivia is described as stubborn or unyielding because she won’t accept Orsino’s marriage proposal, but I think that’s an error, or at least not how we’re playing it. Olivia has rejected Orsino but otherwise has no definite plans for the future. She has to be in a frame of mind that is open to the Cesario thunderbolt, and while I don’t think she is looking for love she has got to be looking at least for something to look for, and with enough energy to make it interesting for the audience. I think we want to feel as if Olivia’s court is on a precipice from the moment we enter it, and whether it will be saved or ruined, it will be transformed. Oh, you could play Olivia as a marble statue brought to life by love, and that is probably most often done, but I think a powder-keg Olivia is both funnier and truer. And easier for Malvolio, too.

Anyway, Malvolio out, business between Feste and Olivia, Malvolio returns to whine about Cesario at the door. Again, I don’t (yet) understand why Malvolio doesn’t just come back in dusting his hands, and tell Olivia that yond young fellow has been sent back to the Count with a broken head. I wonder… I wonder if Malvolio is, or might be, jealous of Feste’s influence, and at the moment, after Olivia’s rebuke ( O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio) he decides to dump this problem on the Lady for once, to emphasize how badly she needs him to handle things for her. It would be a terrible idea, but a terrible idea that Malvolio might have. Hm. If I go with that, I might have to tone down Malvolio’s pique at the boy. Hm. I think I will need to chat with the director about this.

My third entrance in the scene is brief. I have a bit of business with the ring, and we will need to time out my various false exits. I do think that at this point Malvolio toys a bit with his power… that is, when Olivia sends him, he pauses, condescendingly, possibly more than condescendingly, until explodes a bit at him. There are opportunities for bits of business with the delay; I’m not sure we need them.

There’s an intervening scene with Antonio and Sebastian, and then II,ii is Malvolio and Cesario. We aren’t planning on doing the bit where Malvolio sees Sebastian at the end of II,i (a shame, really—my preference is to heighten as much as possible the twin joke, but there it is, and in truth if Shakespeare wanted a bit there he was perfectly capable of writing it) so the scene opens with Cesario and then Malvolio enters in pursuit. The trick there will be to catch his (her) attention without yielding center stage. And, ideally, without moving quickly or otherwise softening from elevated levels of pomposity. I think I’ve got a nice bit with the ring (as we are doing it on modern dress, Malvolio will not have a Staff of Office and thus cannot do the traditional business of sliding the ring onto the tip of the staff and extending the staff before tapping the ring off on the ground. Ah, well.

This second scene is where Malvolio’s derhotic accent will blossom, if I can make it work. Our director wants me to keep playing with it. In I,v there are only a few r’s to work with ( barren rascal being the best, and shrewishly the only other significant one) but in II,ii is all about a ring. Ideally, the audience will notice it in that first scene, and then laugh at it in my second, and then get used to it in my third scene, and be ready to laugh again in the letter scene. Well, and we’ll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Re Malvolio not having Cesario bodily thrown out: One thing you might consider in imagining Malvolio's trouble in dealing with Cesario/Viola is that s/he is a messenger from the Duke (or Count or whatever, but someone above Olivia in status). Given Malvolio's regard for hierarchy, it seems unlikely that he would see it as politic to be overtly rude to the Duke's man, much less actually rough him up. To do so would be highly insulting. Olivia has licensed a degree of rudeness, of course, but the false excuses she offers to him as examples are still within the "not at home to visitors" convention of polite refusal. The Duke's previous messengers, as evidenced by the report that Valentine brings to Orsino in 1.1, have hitherto operated within these conventions of politeness, dutifully accepting and bearing back to Orsino whatever excuses Olivia has offered. Cesario refuses to play along with this game when s/he does not accept the offered excuses, so that Malvolio can't get rid of him without going beyond the bounds of politeness himself, which (a) Olivia has not actually authorized him to do and (2) he might well be hesitant to do in any case, although he's pretty short with Cesario in 2.2 once Olivia has given him clearer license. (Given Malvolio's own secret desires, he can hardly be a friend to the Duke's suit.) You might think about what response you are soliciting and expecting from Olivia when you bring your report. Are you expecting her to license you to run this rude youth off of the grounds, or do you expect her to take matters into her own hands, as she does? If the former, Olivia's "Let him approach" becomes a nice opportunity for a double-take or a swallowing down of a displeased reaction before assuming again the customary manner of smarmy sycophancy. There are lots of different playable dynamics here, but the fact that it would be impolitic to mistreat a messenger from Illyria's ruler is very likely an intended factor in Malvolio's behavior in the scene.

A good point, Chris, about Cesario as the representative of the Duke (or whatever). There aren't any other places onstage where Malvolio interacts with the Duke or any of his other men; we can assume that he did at least some door duty for the other messengers. It seems plausible to me that a Count's steward would be openly rude to a Duke's page; at least in Victorian/Edwardian times, the hierarchy of servants was at least as important as their masters. I mean, the seating at the downstairs table was by both; the Duke's valet would sit higher than a baronet's valet, but the chauffeur would sit below. Still. Insult is one thing, violence another; Malvolio might well feel that violence needs to be authorized.

This is also complicated by the modern dress and the diminished households—Olivia would have servants about her to take the fool away who might well be put to use to take Cesario away. Also Orsino's household is reduced, and Cesario is not in our production well-attended, nor is it obvious that he (sic) has been shown favor above others of his and higher stations. I don't advocate for the dozens of folk that might have been in a 19th century production filling out the stage pictures, but I do think there is some loss in their absence. Ah, well.


Yes, the whole "household" thing can't be conveyed in a streamlined production and would seem a bit peculiar in modern dress, anyway. It's perhaps more useful for constructing a perspective for Malvolio than for staging.

In noting the position of Cesario as the Duke's messenger, I was thinking about Lear and how the (mis)treatment of Lear's messenger is intended and taken as a grave insult. There's a similar scene Antony and Cleopatra when Antony has Octavius's messenger whipped as a provocation to Octavius. Different generic context of course, and a Duke isn't a King or a Triumvir, but the general social convention would apply.

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