You are here:   Features > The Play's The Thing, So Leave The Words Alone
Equally, there are other instances of direct violence to the author’s intentions which command more universal acceptance. The most obvious example is the practice of cutting. Most of us are relieved by judicious and sensitive cuts in Shakespeare, though we mind if our favourite lines are omitted. (It is becoming a rarity for lovers of P.G. Wodehouse to enjoy mention of the “quills upon the fretful porpentine” in their original context.) George Bernard Shaw is another case in point: conditions have simply changed too decisively for his loquacious and argumentative scripts to be given to modern audiences at anything like their original length. The choice is either to produce pruned versions, or to produce none at all.

The over-arching criterion should be an attitude of respect for the original, though a more old-fashioned word will be suggested in due course. Too many of those who put on others’ plays feel no necessary regard for the text, however much more incontestably distinguished the author may be than the director or translator. For all that language is a living thing, and that the passage of time may make it harder for a 21st-century audience to recuperate the spirit of a play that is several hundred years old, the text is all that is left to us; it is the best path to follow if the aim is to realise the original creation. No wonder that Beckett, for example, exercises close posthumous oversight over the way in which his work may, and may not, be performed. Who can blame him?

Even if the foregoing remarks are considered excessively purist, what is thought-provoking about practice in the theatre is the contrast, a striking one at first blush, between that practice and the present-day conventions that obtain in the performance of classical music. In the case of the latter, we are again not concerned with the liberties taken in the direction of music for the stage, but with the notes themselves. The comparison is between attitudes to the words in pieces of drama, and attitudes to the notes in pieces of music. What we find is that in recent decades musical performance has progressed towards an increasing emphasis on authenticity and adherence to the composer’s intentions, at the same time as theatre directors continue to empower themselves to take exactly the opposite course.

To start with the question of cuts, acceptable in the theatre, a different practice prevails with music. Music for the stage comes closest to the dramatic paradigm, so it is not surprising that we still quite often find cutting here. For example, a substantial and disfiguring cut in Act II of Tristan und Isolde is widespread (though happily not at Longborough, where Anthony Negus is the most trustworthy of Wagnerians). Likewise, important and beautiful arias are often omitted from Don Giovanni. In oratorio too, abridgement is not unusual: the Messiah is an obvious instance. But in pure music, cuts and alterations are (with rare exceptions) not adopted. It was not ever thus: Bruckner and Rachmaninov were among those prevailed upon to submit to cuts in their own major works, which are now invariably performed in their totality. Orchestration and scoring too used to be an open field for “improvements”. Schumann’s orchestration was long and widely thought to be in need of rescue, while Mahler and Stokowski were among many who set about re-scoring the symphonies of Beethoven, no less. These presumptions are now regarded as merely quaint or of historical interest.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.