Discuss the staging difficulties of Antony and Cleopatra,
particularly the problems that are posed or answered in the text.
Taking a play from the page to the stage is a complicated process, both physically and dramatically. Its success depends in large part on the text of the play itself, its dramatic structure, its various settings and their distribution throughout the play, the clarity and feasibility of its action, the size of its cast, and the balance, strength and relationships of its leading characters. Simply structured plays with small casts, uncomplicated settings and clear, strong, well-balanced characters can easily be produced and staged; the more complex the play the more difficult and expensive it becomes. All of Shakespeare's plays have large casts and multiple settings, but most are fairly straight-forward in their production, and their strong dramatic structure, characters and language have ensured their almost continuous production in the 400 years since they were written. In many ways, however,
Antony and Cleopatra is unique, and arguably one of the most difficult of Shakespeare's plays to produce and stage. With 42 scenes and over 40 speaking roles, its action stretching over 10 years and much of the eastern Mediterranean in a kaleidoscopic, almost cinematic structure, it is a play of epic proportions. Its main characters and their interrelationships are tremendously complex, making it a play with no real villain and protagonists who are far more human than heroic. Its elimination of staged battle scenes and its extension for an entire act after the hero's death challenges traditional notions of dramatic tragedy. The result of this structural and dramatic complexity is that Antony and Cleopatra is, for a variety of reasons, a play so difficult to stage that it was not performed for over 150 years.
Inspired by, and closely following, Plutarch's Life of Antonius as translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579, Antony and Cleopatra was written in approximately 1606 and registered in May of 1608. Its first actual printing, thought by some to be based directly on Shakespeare's foul papers, appears to have been in the 1623 First Folio. While there is no direct record of any performances of Antony and Cleopatra during Shakespeare's lifetime, there are several references that indicate that it may have been performed sometime in 1607. Poet Laureate Samuel Daniel was apparently a close associate of Shakespeare's, and their works were mutually influential. Daniel's academic tragedy Cleopatra was originally written and performed in 1594, but it seems likely that Shakespeare's
Antony and Cleopatra led Daniel to revise his own play in 1607, as the revised version included a description similar to Shakespeare's of the wounded Antony being hoisted up to Cleopatra's monument. The tragedy The Devil's Charter by Barnabe Barnes, performed by Shakespeare's company before the King in February 1607, then "corrected and augmented by the author 'for the more pleasure and profit of the Reader'" and registered for publication in October of the same year, referred to asps as "Cleopatra's birds." Both of these references suggest that Antony and Cleopatra had been staged and performed at least once sometime in 1607, a noteworthy event since it indicates that the play had been written specifically to be staged and performed in the Globe Theatre, and that intention greatly influenced both the structure of the play and its intended staging.
Strangely, however, there are no recorded performances of Antony and Cleopatra throughout the entire 17th century. Although Shakespeare's canon remained an important part of the theatre world, by the time the theatres reopened after the Restoration in 1660, theatre conventions, stages, audiences and tastes had changed. Restoration staging was known for its "creative reconfiguration" of Shakespeare's plays. Catering to contemporary tastes, some tragedies were given happy endings and others made more tragic, characters were eliminated or added, and entire scenes and acts are omitted, replaced in some cases by new scenes and rewritten dialogue. Two theatre companies, the Duke's and the King's were awarded patents to establish theatres in London and the stock of existing drama was divided between them. The bulk of Shakespeare's plays, including
Antony and Cleopatra went to Thomas Killigrew's King's Company. However, there is no record that the King's Company ever performed the play.
Antony and Cleopatra is a play that resists easy interpretations. In part, it was the very nature of Shakespeare's unconventional approach to the main characters in the play, their complexity, their relationships, and what they symbolized that may have became an obstacle to its early production. Shakespeare's Cleopatra was sensuous, sexual, earthy and, at times even bawdy, the very essence of the female and symbol of the sensuality of Egypt and the East. Paradoxically, however, she was, in many ways, the stronger and more dominant of the lovers. Antony calls her a "wrangling queen, / Whom everything becomes-- to chide, to laugh, / To weep; whose every passion fully strives / To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!"(1.2.56-9) She is not just a woman, but also a queen, a true sovereign who had fought for and gained her throne through her own cunning and ruthlessness. She is as obsessed with Antony as he is with her, but she was born and raised to rule and, whether by love, insinuation, guile, or sheer strength of will, she rules their relationship as she does her own country. While Antony would have been content to wallow in their relationship and let "Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall. Here is my space. / Kingdoms are clay" (1.1.38-40), Cleopatra intends to use their relationship to make Egypt greater. Stanley Wells in the Oxford Complete Works' introduction to Antony and Cleopatra describes Shakespeare's characterization of her as
extravagant, delighting in the quirks of individual behaviour, above all in the paradoxes
and inconsistencies of the Egyptian queen who contains within herself the capacity for
every extreme of feminine behavior, from vanity, meanness, and frivolity to the sublime
self-transcendence with which she faces and embraces death.
Standing in opposition to Cleopatra is Octavius. Presented in Shakespeare's earlier Julius Caesar as a weak and petulant young man, he has grown in this play and is now as much a symbol of Rome as Cleopatra is of Egypt and he acts with all the dispassion, the rationality and practicality that represent what it is to be Roman. Yet he too has a complexity within the structure of the play which is difficult to conventionalize. By all rights, as the opposing force to the protagonists in the play, he should be seen as a villain, and yet he is not. A natural politician, he has become a man of destiny, the future Emperor Augustus Caesar, and he, like Cleopatra, knows what it is to rule and to act for the benefit of his country. He has come to embody the order, law and greatness for which Rome would be renown during his rule and, by theatrical convention, his victory confirms the "rightness" of his cause. Yet, at the end, the victory at least the moral victory seems to belong to Cleopatra.
Between these two powerful forces stands Antony. Shakespeare's Antony is an incredibly complex character, embodying the opposition between Roman and Egyptian values. Characterized, before his relationship with Cleopatra, by history, by Rome and by Cleopatra's perceptions, as a Titan, the very incarnation of the God of War, a Hercules to Cleopatra's Isis, Antony is, in many ways, just a simple soldier who has had greatness thrust upon him. While he was an excellent, even heroic military commander, he was neither born nor trained to rule, and he lacks both Cleopatra's and Octavius' governing skills and dedication to country. In this play the fire and strength of his younger days has become focused in his passion for Cleopatra; his own sensuous nature has overcome his Roman upbringing, and his legendary military and political judgment has been clouded by the intensity of that passion. Philo's description of him in the opening words of the play is apt:
Nay, But this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His Captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gypsy's heart. (1.1.1-10)
Antony is at war, but it is this war within himself, between Rome and Egypt, between strength and weakness, between sensuality and rationality, rather than his war with Octavius, that will ultimately become his downfall. And these same dichotomies, these binary oppositions that war within Antony, are evident in each of these characters and their interrelationships with each other. Significantly, they are also reflected in and become the framework that comprises and encompasses the entire structure of the play as its scenes seesaw between Egypt and Rome, and its language between the metaphoric verse of passion and the formal language of politics.
It is likely that this essential complexity, these inherent contradictions within the characters and relationships that constitute the foundation of Antony and Cleopatra, are a large part of what made it so difficult for Restoration theatres to stage the play. In 1678 John Dryden, Poet Laureate at the time, writing for D'Avenant's Duke's Company, and likely using the same sources as Shakespeare, wrote his own blank verse version of Antony and Cleopatra's story, All for Love, produced at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It became a far more popular version of the story and held the stage to the exclusion of Shakespeare's play for over 100 years, "not only because it was more elegantly structured," as Stanley Wells explains in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage, "but because his Cleopatra is never so indecorous as she is in Shakespeare; she becomes a more conventionally passionate tragic heroine." And it is just that lack of conventionality which distinguished Shakespeare's play yet made it unstageable for so many years. In 1759, actor-manager David Garrick tried to revive Antony and Cleopatra and played Antony at Drury Lane, but even his extravagantly staged attempt to restore something of Shakespeare's text lasted only six performances. In 1813, J.P. Kemble produced a mixture of Shakespeare and Dryden, "enlivened by a battle of Actium, and solemnized with an epicedium or funeral dirge" but it was not until 1849, more than 240 years after it was written, that Samuel Phelps staged a spectacular but more faithful revival at Sadler Wells.
Even when Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra once again began to be performed, it continued to offer a variety of staging difficulties focusing on the interpretation of both leading characters. In 1979, Peter Brooks, in an interview with Margaret Croyden, complained that Antony and Cleopatra has "been something that has tripped people up for a long time perhaps a century for quite precise reasons. As a result, the play has never been seen." What tripped them up, he explained was the Victorian perception that
it was not playing Shakespeare for what the plays were, but for the opportunities that
they gave actors. As Antony, actors male actors were always selfish monsters; few
selfish monsters could be found who would adequately support the lady, the bigger part.
Add to this the machismo of the period. A man toiled for four acts and there's a whole
fifth act, where Cleopatra steals all the glory. So no outstanding tragedian would play the
part of Antony... Because of this, the part of Antony has got a bad reputation.
Since Victorian times, issues of characterization persist and continue to be dealt with by directors and actors in the staging of the play. The role of Antony continues to confound actors. In the light of Cleopatra's strength, and the dual nature Shakespeare has given him, it is hard to play one of the triple pillars of the world; much easier to play the strumpet's fool. It is also too easy to play Cleopatra as all sensuality and forget to show the queen. In Glen Byam Shaw's 1953 production at Stratford, as described by Robert Speaight in Shakespeare on the Stage,
there was Peggy Ashcroft to remind us that where Dryden had written the part for a woman, Shakespeare had written it for a boy Redgrave and Dame Peggy never allowed the play to become bogged down in a cloying sensuality. A faithful submission to the verse had seen to that.
Casting, characterization and interpretation were not the only staging problems that Antony and Cleopatra presented Victorian producers. The most persistent difficulties were technical ones. As with any play it has its share of specific staging decisions to be made, exemplified by the unique challenge of presenting Cleopatra's monument and hoisting Antony up to it. The greater challenge, however, was a broader one. The dramatic structure of the play, with its 42 scenes, some of them only a few lines long and alternating between Egypt and Rome had become unmanageable in this new, more visually complicated theatre. The Victorian stage was spectacularly pictorial with enormous, extravagant and unwieldy sets. The tremendous difficulties of changing such elaborate sets with the kind of speed and frequency that would have been necessary for Antony and Cleopatra made staging the play in its original form next to impossible. One solution to that problem was that of Beerbohm Tree in his 1906 production starring Ellen Terry as Cleopatra. Robert Speaight describes:
Opening with a dissolving Sphinx, it passed immediately to Rome and the fourth scene
of the first act; then to Alexandria and the two lovers entering to 'If it be love indeed,
tell me how much'. When they had gone out Enobarbus was handed the comment with
which the play properly begins, 'Nay, but this dotage of our general's o'erflows the
measure'The Sphinx returned in the middle of the play, looming out of the darkness.
Such rearrangement of scenes and the addition of visual effects allowed the elaborate Egyptian sets to remain on stage for extended periods and eliminated many of the multiple set changes that the original staging would have required. This reconstructive solution to multiple scene changes did not end with the Victorian stage. Twentieth century theatre, with all its technical innovations, continued to try to solve what was perceived as the "problem" of dealing with Shakespeare's apparently chaotic scenic progression. Alan Dessen in Rescripting Shakespeare recalled
One of my few memories of Jack Landau's Antony and Cleopatra (Stratford, Connecticut
1960) is the rearrangement of scenes in Acts 2 and 3 to avoid Shakespeare's movement
back and forth between Egypt and Rome; rather, the director presented consecutive
sequences in one or the other locale and therefore (at some cost) managed to keep
in place for a long stretch the elaborate Egyptian throne room set.
Clearly, with Antony and Cleopatra, the time honored, though largely disruptive, technique of restructuring scene order to simplify staging and "clarify" the action for the audience, still has its adherents. Closer study, though, indicates that such restructuring is unnecessary. It not only distorts the play, but it underestimates its audiences as well.
Stanley Wells describes the action of the play as "amazingly fluid, shifting with an ease and rapidity that caused bewilderment to ages unfamiliar with the conventions of Shakespeare's theatre." Not surprisingly then, it is by going back to Shakespeare's original text that we can begin to discover the most effective way to stage Antony and Cleopatra. This is a play that, more than any of Shakespeare's other plays, was written to be performed on the stage of the Globe Theatre in the way that Shakespeare's audience experienced it. The original First Folio version of Antony and Cleopatra was published with only "Actus Primus. Scoena Prima." printed below the title. Following that were no further Act or Scene divisions. This is consistent with a Globe production, since plays performed at the public outdoor theatres were generally written without these artificial divisions; only with the introduction of the private indoor theatres such as Blackfriars did act and scene divisions become a regular part of dramatic structure as an opportunity to trim candle wicks and add musical interludes. In the Globe's daytime productions the action was continuous, flowing from one scene to another with the exits and entrances of the characters, exactly as Antony and Cleopatra was written to be staged to ebb and flow like the waters of the Nile or the Mediterranean itself and the pace of these successive scenes would have created a kaleidoscopic interplay of mood, of cultures, and of values, just as they did for Antony within the action of the play.
With the minimal set pieces and decoration customary to Shakespearean theatre, there were no obstacles to that scenic flow. Shakespeare's audiences were familiar with the convention and allowed the costumes, characters, language and context of the dialogue itself to identify the setting of each new scene. A Roman uniform (or suggestion of one in Shakespeare's day) identified both the character and the place as Roman. The appearance of Cleopatra and her women identified Egyptian settings. Often the dialogue itself informed the audience where the action is taking place. Act 2, scene 7 takes place aboard Pompey's galley, although the scene itself makes no reference to it. But at the end of the negotiations in the previous scene feasting is arranged and Pompey states, "Aboard my galley I invite you all. / Will you lead, lords?" (2.6.105-6), and he show them the way, followed shortly afterward by Enobarbus, led by Menas who asks him, "Come, sir, will you aboard? I have a health for you."(2.6.162-3). Clearly the next scene takes place on the galley. For an audience undistracted by elaborate sets and used to truly listening to the dialogue of the play and using their imaginations, following the progression of scenes was not as difficult as subsequent ages made it seem.
For modern day audiences, two alternatives make a return to Shakespeare's original scenic flow possible. Some theatres, such as the new Globe in London, have attempted to reconstruct Shakespearean performances as they were originally staged. Although these "original practices" productions may not be entirely authentic, they do give us a sense of what it must have been like for Shakespeare's audiences to see the plays in daylight with minimal sets, traditional costuming, and, most of all, the continuity of action that the lack of stage lighting and act curtain imposes on the production. In more technically advanced theatres, the use of lighting effects and computerized sets give us productions that, while more elaborate than Shakespeare had known, still follow his original staging intent. One example was the 1953 Byam Shaw production at Stratford. In it
The production was free and vivid. A furled sail on a suspended mast gave us Pompey's
galley; a hot yellow light on the cyclorama recalled us from Rome to Egypt; and the
imperial eagle was always there, in one form or another, to bring us from Cleopatra's
palace to Caesar's tent
Peter Brooks' 1978 production, designed by Sally Jacobs, also maintained that continuity. Margaret Croyden reports:
Somehow, in a miracle of staging, we were in Cleopatra's room one moment and then
on the battlefield the next. Early in the production, Brook managed to indicate the playing
areas without actually doing an additional setup.
It seems that modern theatres, directors and actors have come to understand that the problems posed by Shakespeare's text can be answered by it as well, and that it takes a return to Shakespeare's original staging intent that surprisingly modern, almost cinematic flow of scenes to immerse us in the world of Antony and Cleopatra as he wrote it and intended it to be seen.
--- Arlene Schulman, March 2007