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Malvolio Production Diary: snip snip!

At last night’s rehearsals, the director announced a bunch of cuts to the script we’re using. We’re cutting a significant amount, it seems like, although I didn’t pay close attention to the scenes I wasn’t in. No large scenes cut (we are, alas, cutting Come Away Death entirely) but a good few snips here and there. Mostly, it tightens up the text—I have read the opinion that Shakespeare’s audiences tended to divide their attention between the stage and their audiences, and so he wrote a good deal of redundant text to remind folk of important plot points. I don’t know that I believe that about the audiences, particularly in the indoor (Blackfriars) theater, with expensive tickets and whatnot, but it’s true that some information is repeated, sometimes more than once, and given how familiar audiences generally are with the plays, some cuts are a positive thing. And even in non-repetitive bits, some cutting is a good idea, and in the comedies particularly, there are bits that can be sliced out neatly. The build-up to the duel between Cesario and Aguecheek, for instance, is long and frankly wearisome; it can be done with the full text and made funny, with enough energy and physical play, but it’s better if you tighten it up, and as funny as it is, it’s not worth the time.

It is a tricky business, though, cutting, as the play does hang together just so. If you cut too much from the Fool (and at first look I believe he has done that) you lose the importance of the part and make his (or in our case her) remaining scenes weaker. If you cut too much from Sebastian (as is traditional) you have very little left of the part in which to make an impression of any kind, and no great reward for the recognition and reconciliation. And so on. Sometimes an easily-cut joke in the first Act subtly conveys a bit of information for the fourth Act, not necessarily a plot point but a reason to interpret an action positively or negatively. Cutting the play is not easy work.

And I’ve never been in a show that made substantial cuts this late in the game. I do know it’s common for professional theaters. The production diaries I enjoy reading so much occasionally feature battles over the director’s refusal to cut and the actor’s fear of the show going on forever. The audience need to catch their last trains, so the saying goes, and probably more strongly felt but unsaid is that the power of a play at the end can be dissipated by a muddled middle. And nobody really knows how the play will feel (or even how long it takes) until a couple of weeks before it opens, so that’s when the last cuts are made. Unless it needs more cuts during previews, which also happens a lot, although not in the Shakespeare productions I’ve read detailed accounts of. Still, it’s hard on an actor who has been memorizing lines to be switched up at this point.

Of course, the most important question is: what about my lines? And the answer is, I didn’t lose much. Here’s the sum total of it:

In I,v I lose about half of one longish line: Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy: as a squash is before tis a peacod, or a Codling when tis almost an Apple: Tis with him in standing water, between boy and man. He is very well-favor’d, and he speaks very shrewishly: One would think his mothers milk were scarce out of him. Funny (to me) because when I was writing yesterday I had initially used that line as an example rather than the first one, and then switched, mostly because I was prosing on about the words and their meanings (and trying to explain the testicle joke, which doesn’t get funnier for the explanation) rather than explaining how I tried to make the line appear spontaneous. Which upon further reflection, I decided was because I didn’t actually know what the hell to do with the line. So now it has been cut down, and it’s much better.

I didn’t lose any lines in the Ring Scene or the Carousing Scene. The Ring Scene (II,ii) is completely intact, while the Carousing Scene (II,iii) gets trimmed, but my lines remain. In fact, during my brief time on stage, we’ve cut all of fourteen words, none of which were addressed to Malvolio.

In the Letter Scene, I lose about half the first line: ’Tis but Fortune, all is fortune. Maria once told me she did affect me, and I have heard her self come thus near, that should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides she uses me with a more exalted respect, then anyone else that follows her. What should I think on’t? I will miss that last sentence, because I had hit on a way of interpreting it that brought me through into the playacting section. Instead of something like how else could it be understood?, I've been saying it closer to What? Should I think on’t? Meaning Ought I speculate about it? Leading in to the next line: To be Count Malvolio! Still and all, losing the line about the rest of the household is probably for the best, since the household in our production is so much diminished. And we don’t actually need a line to transition there—it was kind of awkward anyway, as the gang hidden by the trellis have four lines in between this line and my next, and having already had the idea of play-acting, I was pretty clearly waiting for them to finish before starting my next bit. In this way, I can more slowly succumb to the lure of speculation.

My next scene is the Yellow-Stocking scene, and we’ve trimmed only the last part of it, when the gang approach me. My monologue is, alas, uncut. The part that is cut, about a dozen lines in all, include my three lines How now mistress; Sir; and My prayers, Minx. I didn’t think that scene was working properly, although my suspicion was that the problem was incorrect blocking: Malvolio remained seated throughout, with his back to the gang, which expressed his disdain quite nicely, but failed to convey a sense of menace—and wasn’t very funny, either. I won’t miss the loose text snipped out, there.

And that’s it. In the Prison Scene, the Clown has lost a few lines, mostly as he (she) is putting on the disguise before I enter (well, not enter, as I’ll be on at the start of the scene) (tho’ in my cell, which hasn’t been finished yet, so I don’t yet know how visible I will be at that point) and then half of one line in the scene. My lines are unchanged. This is the scene I have been having the most trouble memorizing; I’m not sure if it would be easier if I had fewer of them, or if the change would send me back to the beginning. And the Last Scene is entirely uncut, at least I mean to say, the portion of the scene I am on-stage for is not cut. It’s a long scene, and includes the Big Reveal of Cesario being a dame, and as a scene it does go on for a bit. Actually, I tell a lie, Fabian lost a couple of dozen words. It’s the bit where Fabian confesses but prefaces his confession by saying something like I don’t want to distract attention from the main plot, which looks like it’s just about finished, but. We’re cutting that bit and going straight to the confession. I have never actually listened to any of what Fabian says, as Malvolio is at that point wrung out, strung out, hung down, brung down, hung up, and all kinds o’ mean nasty ugly things. I suppose I ought to at least react to Fabian’s suggestion that it was actually all very funny.

And that’s really truly it. Personally, I would have cut more. I would have cut Let thy tongue tang arguments of state. Put thyself into the trick of singularity from both the Letter and the Yellow-Stocking scene; Malvolio doesn’t argue politics on-stage at all, and the trick of singularity is not easily understood or particularly funny. We can do without them. I would also cut I will read politic authors as well, as it connects to the arguments of state more than anything else, and isn’t brought back up. I might also cut and consequently sets down the manner how: as, a sad face, a reverend carriage, a slow tongue, in the habit of some Sir of note, and so forth from the Yellow-Stocking scene; that’s supposed to be a repetition of what’s in the letter, but it isn’t in the Letter Scene. I mean, I kind of like that Malvolio has not only memorized the contents of the letter but added to them in his mind, such that he already believes things are in the letter that are not. But that detail doesn’t add much to the audience’s understanding, even if it is conveyed, and it’s another thirty words. I’m not asking that they be cut; I’m trusting the director to know what works and what doesn’t. I’m just saying that if we need to cut for time, sixty-odd words could be cut from my monologues, and that’s presumably sixty-odd words that wouldn’t have to be cut from elsewhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Cutting Shakespeare is tricky. Even if plot information is given more than once, the characters relate that information in ways that are significant to their development, so what may appear to be redundant when viewed from one perspective is not at all redundant from another. One is on safer ground shortening speeches in which one character illustrates a single claim in multiple ways. That kind of rhetorical copiousness was highly valued in the Renaissance (Erasmus wrote a book on how to do it), but it doesn't suit contemporary tastes. Malvolio's description of Cesario is a good example of this sort of thing.

I am sorry to hear that Feste's part has been cut substantially. That not only weakens the importance of the part but it diminishes the play's intelligence. It's hard work to make all of Feste's cerebral humor accessible to an audience, but without it the play becomes both sillier and crueler. Ah well. It's good, I think, that Malvolio has mostly been left alone, even if you would have willingly given up a few more words.

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