Monday, 3 October 2011

Famous theatrical flops

Isabella and Claudio depicted
by William Holman Hunt
(1850). Shakespeare  leaves
it an open question whether
Isabella accepts the marriage
proposal of the duke-come-
fake-holy man.
Every writer has his or her flops, even the most renowned of them  all - William Shakespeare.  Measure for Measure, for instance, his story of a corrupt deputy, a phoney monk and a hysterical nun, placed among the Comedies in the First Folio but now regarded as a 'problem play' (along with Troilus and Cressida and the  ironically titled Alls Well That Ends Well). During the dramatist's lifetime the play has only one recorded performance, in 1604, when it was given before James I. It was revived in 1662 under the title The Law Against Lovers, an adaptation which included characters from Much Ado About Nothing, along with music and dancing. (Samuel Pepys saw the production and thought it 'a good play and well acted, especially the little girl's...dancing and singing, and were it not for her, the loss of Roxalana would spoil the house'). And in a 1699 version is was retitled once more, this time called Beauty the Best Advocate, with the most interesting bits (the low-life parts) removed.

Even worse for the poet was Troilus and Cressida, which does not seem to have been performed at the time he wrote it. It was staged during the Restoration in another heavily adapted version by John Dryden, who altered both plot and characterisation, as well as trying to 'improve' Shakespeare's 'ungrammatical' language. The piece was then ignored for most of the 18th century and for all but the last two years of the 19th century. But it was revived with much success in the 20th century and in the form that Shakespeare wrote it, demonstrating perhaps that the man was right all along, ungrammatical language and all.

These 'problem plays' immediately followed Hamlet and the timeless romantic comedies Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, and immediately preceded the great tragedies Othello, Macbeth and King Lear, which Punch once humorously described as a play about the difficulties of raising children in a damp climate.

(Left) 'King Lear and Fool in a Storm'
 by Sir John Gilbert.

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