Malvolio Production Diary: seven scenes

      3 Comments on Malvolio Production Diary: seven scenes

We’ve run through each scene at least four times now. We have probably passed out of the part where it’s too early to make big decisions; I hope we’re not yet at the point where it’s too late to make big changes. This is where the good stuff happens. I hope.

In a few different things that I have been reading in the last months, actors have said that with Shakespeare, it’s important to play individual scenes individually—that is, not to fret too much about resolving contradictions within the character arc. To some extent, this is Shakespeare’s much-vaunted complexity, his creation of multi-layered roles that have something of the contradictory nature of actual humans. To some extent, this is modern (post-Stanislavsky) actors recognizing that their twentieth-century training can be unsuited to works of a different era, and trying to adapt. I think it was Juliet Stevenson (although it might have been Harriet Walter) who when asked how her performance changed over the course of a long repertory run, said that she found herself thinking less and less about setting up the next scene, and focusing more and more on the current one. That sounds lovely. For any actor with modern training, though, it is tremendously difficult to do character work without thinking in terms of that character arc, the through-line, and consistency. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I suspect that the character work is done in rehearsals and discussions before the play gets on its feet, and that once that is done, the structure exists that allows the actor to forget it and concentrate on the individual scenes as individual scenes.

Malvolio has seven scenes. I’m not sure I’ve laid them out in the blog like this:

  1. The Court Scene (I,v)
  2. The Ring Scene (II,ii)
  3. The Carousing Scene (II,iii)
  4. The Letter Scene (II,v)
  5. The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv)
  6. The Prison Scene (IV,ii)
  7. The Last Scene (V,i)

I could annotate it a bit like this:

  1. The Court Scene (I,v): with Olivia, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
  2. The Ring Scene (II,ii): with Cesario. Officious, arrogant.
  3. The Carousing Scene (II,iii): with Toby, Andrew, Maria, Feste. Officious, arrogant.
  4. The Letter Scene (II,v): with audience (Toby, Andrew, Fabian watching). Arrogant, ambitious.
  5. The Yellow-Stocking Scene (III,iv): first with Olivia, Maria, then with audience, then with Toby, Maria, Fabian. Mad, obsessed.
  6. The Prison Scene (IV,ii): with Feste (Toby, Maria watching) (Feste is also Sir Topas). Fearful, angry.
  7. The Last Scene (V,i): Olivia, Feste (others present). Angry, obsessed.

My descriptions are vast simplifications, of course. I might choose different words tomorrow. But I do think that there’s a strong element of officiousness—I might describe it more fully as the extent to which Malvolio embodies his office as steward—in the Court, Ring and Carousing scenes that is not present in the last four scenes at all. It may come through in flashes in the Prison scene; it may color his exchanges in the end of the Yellow-Stocking scene. But largely in the last four scenes Malvolio is doing something other than being the steward of the Countess’ court, while in the first three that is the core of his character.

What I need to think about, in terms of character and consistency, is the extent to which the ground needs to be laid for the later Malvolios in those first three scenes. That is, when Malvolio capers in yellow stockings, it should be a surprise, and it’s funny because it’s a surprise that someone like the Malvolio we have learned to know in the first three scenes would do that, but it shouldn’t be absolutely impossible. The Malvolio of the Ring Scene has to, in some sense, be the sort of person who under the right circumstances would caper in yellow stockings. Would gibber and wail in the Prison scene, would speak the Last scene’s pathos in verse. While I do think that in the end the audiences will work with whatever we give them, and of course I will have consistency in accent, costume (well, in a sense anyway, and may well stay in the increasingly bedraggled yellow stockings through the end of the play) and figure, I need to think of anything else that can usefully be consistent through the play. And I need to think about that now, so that perhaps I can usefully not think about it on the night.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Malvolio Production Diary: seven scenes

  1. Chris Cobb

    A few reactions, articulated more as lit crit than as practical theater, but maybe something in it will be useful from a theater perspective:

    The summary of the scenes is very helpful for looking at the trajectory of the character, but it’s a bit reductive when the “letter scene” is conceived as a single unit, isn’t it? The “Malvolio fantasizes” bit precedes the “Malvolio interprets the letter” bit. The “Malvolio fantasizes” section is revelatory for the audience because it shows Malvolio imagining his office as performance: if he rises to a new status, he plans to perform his role differently, and he thinks precisely about how he will change his manner to suit his circumstances. This act of imagination implies a distance between himself and his steward role also. That role may have appeared to be “the core of his character” earlier, but the audience now gains a new perspective on Malvolio as one who sees himself as playing a role to advance himself. His ability to play this role well, because of what he perceives as his superior self control and intellectual ability, is what he believes in about himself. The interpretation of the letter reinforces this new view of his character and begins to suggest the extent of Malvolio’s self-deception in what he believes about himself.

    Except that this perspective is not entirely new to the audience: Malvolio’s revealed attitude here is consistent with what Maria has already claimed about him in 2.3. in this respect, Shakespeare has set things up so that the actor playing Malvolio does not have to be responsible for implying Malvolio’s potential to behave in ways that are clean contrary to his careful steward person: the others do that, and then Malvolio’s changed behavior confirms at least some aspects of their assessment. That’s the design element that frees the actor playing Malvolio to work scene by scene: he can go all out in one direction early, then change direction drastically, without the audience being disoriented, because they’ve been prepped for the change of direction by other characters.

    That kind of technical analysis doesn’t help the actor who wants a Stanislavskian through line, but I think the “Malvolio fantasizes” section of 3.1 gives that actor material to work with in bringing the officious steward into continuity with the yellow-stockinged madcap.

    I might go far as to say that what is consistent about Malvolio is not his social role but the way in which his performance of each role that he takes on has an element of monomania about it. Whatever role he puts on, he puts on unvaryingly, and rather than adjusting his performance to fit the circumstances, he treats the circumstances as if the role were fitting. One of the causes of that inability to adjust is arrogance, which makes him a consistently poor listener, which empowers others to make a fool of him. But there’s also a kind of touchingly simple commitment to an orderly world, a singleness of feeling. Malvolio is just a little bit like Andrew in that he doesn’t have it in him to imagine the existence of the kind of manipulative vindictiveness that drives Toby.

    That’s what comes to mind for me what I think about the tension between Malvolio’s tremendous change in behavior and a through-line for the character.

  2. Vardibidian

    Thank you, much to think about here.

    My first reaction is that the seven-scene breakdown is of course terribly reductive as a plot through-line. The delineation of scenes is particularly bad in this play, which would probably be better suited to the French manner of numbering a new scene at every entrance or exit. The Letter Scene is at least two scenes (for Malvolio, I mean, not counting what happens in the rest if II,v before and after, which is none of my business) and probably three (there is a very clear demarcation at Daylight and champian) and possibly four, in terms of pacing, style and content. The Yellow-Stocking scene is also clearly three scenes; the monologue in the middle part is very important, and I think as funny as the letter scene. “Fellow”. If I don’t get a laugh with “Fellow”, you can just bury me right then, because I’m dead. Anyway, yes, it’s probably not a good idea to treat the entire letter scene as a single thing, even in this kind of layout.

    As for Maria in II,iii; I hope you are right. Perhaps I will get a chance to chat about that with the actress and the director. I haven’t thought much about that scene after I exit, but it’s quite important, really… because it’s about me.

    And I definitely like your observation about the consistency of Malvolio’s committment. One of the things that I find to like about Malvolio is how thoroughly he throws himself into the yellow-stocking business. Not for him the tentative; having decided to wear the yellow stockings, he can’t stop pointing them out and displaying them. It’s endearing, in its way. And I do think it’s well-taken that he does much the same thing with his office as steward, and in play-acting Count Malvolio. I will take thought into how he takes that into the cell with him; it will affect the way I play that repetition I was talking about the other day.


  3. Michael

    If Malvolio is fully dedicated to social status and social order, perhaps as a way of reconciling himself to his social position, then the Letter scene is a complete disruption of his orderly world and a sudden presentation of an opportunity to improve his social position. How could he not take full advantage of that opportunity when he has the yellow stockings on? He cannot know when the opportunity will pass him by, but it certainly won’t come again.

    One of the aspects of Bedlam’s production “What You Will” that I loved was how they played the moment when Olivia reads the letter to Malvolio. She is tender and forgiving with him when she realizes what has happened and explains it to him, and the brokenness that he then mixes with his anger is a reproach to the audience more than to his tormentors. We want to enjoy his fall, since he stands in for every DMV clerk or mall security guard we’ve ever seethed at. They made me care for him instead.


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