I love “backstage” stories of playwrights tinkering with their plays after the first contact with the audience – mostly in response to the audience’s response, but a few times just because they… well, there’s no other way to put it: because they changed their mind. I love the stories almost as much – and in at least one instance even more than – the works they refer to…
There is this tale of Alexandre Dumas staying up late with his friends Victor Hugo and Alfred de Vigny, after the first night of his historical play Christine, to rewrite a few hundred lines that had sounded a tad wooden. One wonders how the actors would love having to memorize “a few hundred” new lines in a day – and after first night. And one also smiles at the notion of these three young writers helping each other, and working feverishly together through one spring night… From two to six in the morning, the story says – and really, what a night for French Romanticism!
Then there is an Italian story about Felice Cavallotti. Don’t worry if you never heard of him – he was a dreadful playwright in late XIXth Century. He has squares and streets to his name in Italy, but as a politician, and most definitely not as a poet. Anyway, in 1873 Cavallotti wrote this (not very) historical tragedy in six acts, and sold it to a famous actor, who ran his own famous company. The tragedy debuted in Rome to mixed reception. The audience apparently loved it up to the fourth act, and then grew cold… And this happened again, and again, and again. Nevertheless, the leading man decided to bring the thing to Florence, and then Turin – but it was months before it occurred to him to consult the author. Cavallotti attended a performance, observed the strange phenomenon of the Fourth Act Coldness, and took the very sensible step of asking members of the audience. And the ladies in particular pronounced their dislike of one scene that they had found “too violent”… Having read the tragedy in its original form, I must say I find it pretty tame – but I’ve found there is no accounting for the perception of violence… Cavallotti, wise man, pruned the scene, and the tragedy went on to great success.
And then there is Friedrich Schiller, who did this before his Don Karlos ever hit a stage – but after the first couple of acts had been published (to much success and no little scandal) in the Deutsche Merkur. Only then it occurred to him to read some Spanish history – to realise not only that he had made an appalling mess of historical facts, but also that King Philip made a more interesting and complex character than his weak-willed son. Trouble is, what had been already published couldn’t be changed… So Schiller just took a turn from where he was – and when you read Don Karlos in its entirety, you can tell where the author changed his mind, ousted poor Karlos from centre-stage, and focused the play both on King Philip and the Marquess of Posa, Karlos’ fictional friend.
And what about the page from Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris – supposedly* in the author’s own hand, containing a longer speech for the Guise than what appears in the one (and dubious) surviving octavo? Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Marlowe cutting down his work – and besides, he died only a few months after the Admiral’s Men first performed the Massacre… Was the surviving octavo pirated with the help of a greedy player with a leaking memory? Or is it a shortened “touring” version? And if so, who pruned it? Perhaps Shakespeare and Munday, as recent studies seem to suggest? At all events, the discrepancies between the handwritten leaf and the awkward published text open a window on the practices of Elizabethan theatre.
See why I find this kind of thing fascinating? Each offers a glimpse of an author’s creative process and personality, of backstage practices and life in another century… It’ always where the seams are not perfect, and you can take a peep at the cogs and wheels… That’s where stories are waiting to be born.
* We’d all be a whole lot happier about it if someone who wasn’t John Payne Collier had found it…