The Dutch Courtesan

A Mad World My Masters – Introduction

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    In 2011 I directed Thomas Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters with a student cast and production team on the largest stage of the Department of Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV) at the University of York. At its first performance on 23 June, it was filmed, using a four-camera set-up, by a team directed by Patrick Titley, one of TFTV’s lecturers in television production.

    This was the latest in a series of early modern stagings I have been responsible for at York. In the earliest of them – Etherege’s She Would If She Could and Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside – I used Restoration and Jacobean costumes respectively. More recently, however, I have favoured contemporary settings and costumes. Equally, in those early productions I used an uncut and unaltered text, whereas my latest shows have introduced some limited cuts, and I have also on occasion emended the dialogue to render it more comprehensible to twenty-first century spectators.

    The aim is always to work from very close study of each play in its original circumstances of composition and performance, but to seek to find a way of using that knowledge to provide an experience which makes direct and potent sense to audiences encountering the play now.

    Similarly, in the case of A Mad World, we thought very carefully about its having been composed for a boys’ company. Recreating that experience now, however, is impossible, though re-staging the play with a school age line-up still offers a fascinating experiment. In the end, our production was designed to be performed by a cast of university-age students, with the female roles played by women, before a 2011 audience. It, therefore, inevitably provides a very different experience from anything which would have been on offer in the early years of the seventeenth century; but we hope that it is fully alert to, and builds responsively upon, the mercurial details of Middleton’s brilliantly inventive writing for his play’s first actors.

    Given the commitment to making the plays work now, it has gradually become my opinion that this goal is often best served by making limited textual adjustments to a script in order to prevent spectators feeling as if they are experiencing its action through a glass darkly.

    In the second season of its existence (1964-1965), the National Theatre mounted a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, and Derek Jacobi. The company’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, approached the poet Robert Graves with what was then an unusual proposition – namely, that he should revise the script, “replacing dead similes, archaisms and words of changed meaning with living Elizabethan words and images”. In their correspondence, Tynan and Graves scrupulously pondered alternative possibilities. Graves, for example, rebuffed Tynan’s suggestion that “an approved wanton” should become “a proven wanton”, on the grounds that it introduced an ugly chiming (“the en and on”). Equally, they took maximum care to obey the self-denying ordinance that any words inserted should have been current in the relevant sense in the late sixteenth century.[1]

    Spool forwards four decades to the latest National Theatre production of the play, directed in 2007 by the National Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner, with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker as Benedick and Beatrice. One of this Beatrice’s surest laughs was earned by her delivery of “How long have you been witty?”, when confronted by the unanticipated sharpness of Margaret’s retorts, where Shakespeare had, in fact, written: “How long have you professed apprehension?” (3.4, 62-63).[2] The yield in clarity of meaning and comic effectiveness for a modern audience is undeniable. Yet I suspect that neither Tynan nor Graves would have been entirely happy with such a radical change. In 1965 it might have seemed to them a bridge too far. Times change, and tastes change too, as also, arguably, has the ability of many theatregoers to respond fluently to some of the more arcane insinuations and equivocations to be found in early modern dialogue. So, the argument for intervention grows more tempting.

    My own loyalties are with the key principles Tynan laid down. I prefer, wherever possible, to offer direct exchange of word for word, phrase for phrase, and strive to ensure that any word substituted was used in early modern English in the apt meaning.

    I confess to one further liberty I have sometimes allowed myself. In the first scene of A Mad World, My Masters, for example, Middleton imposes upon Follywit extended passages which are, at core, expository. I sought to ease the actor’s burden by interpolating occasional, brief, interjections for members of his gang, to help break up these long, uninterrupted spans of flamboyant self-display, and thus also allow him the re-energising stimulus of being allowed to respond to their provocations. The few additions to our acting script here, and throughout, are, however, all written by Middleton – though, as it happens, not for A Mad World!

    Similarly, the Courtesan’s Mother makes a brief appearance in the first scene and is then off-stage till her crucial reappearance late in the action, where her improvisatory cunning assists in reshaping the play’s course. I thought that there could be a benefit in carving out for her at this introductory moment a little more dialogue than Middleton chose to bestow on her. So, I have allowed her a favourite line about Chaucer from another Middleton comedy, which, I hope, fits snugly within her existing dialogue.

    One further intervention needs to be admitted. I have given each of the gang-members and servants a name, where the first quarto accords several of them only a generic description. Once again all of these additions derive from other Middleton plays.

    The structure of Middleton’s action, the sequence of his scenes, and the pattern of the incidents within those scenes, however, all remain unaltered, and we hope that none of the changes introduced blunts the witty originality of this early masterpiece.

    I have explored some of the discoveries we believe we made about the play, in the course of preparing the text for, and rehearsing, this production, in “A Mad World, My Masters: From Script to Performance”, Shakespeare Bulletin, 31 (2013), pp.3-28.

    We trust you will enjoy the film of our production.

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

    1. 1) Kenneth Tynan, Letters, ed. Kathleen Tynan (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994), pp.303 & 306.
    2. 2) William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p.625. This textual alteration was discussed by Oliver Ford Davies, who played Leonato in the 2007 production, during a masterclass in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television on 1 March 2013.