Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Good While it Lasted

I've been thinking a lot about Twelfth Night of late. The first record of its playing is 1602, which is a couple years after the great comedies for pairs of women roles (played by boy actors). If you look at A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, and Merchant of Venice, for example, there are two really nice women's parts (which would have been played by boy actors in the early modern theater).

Most Shakespeare folks think that there were two really strong boy actors who played these roles originally, and that Shakespeare wrote really good women's parts because he had actors who could pull them off. Later, he seems to have had one really incredible boy actor to write for (think Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and so forth). But for a while, he had two.

That while probably started in the mid-1590s, so if the boys were, say, 12 or so when they started, they'd have been 19 or so when Twelfth Night gets onto stage.

I was thinking, did he still have these boy actors? Was part of the gender play with these two boy actors in having them play women playing men as they got closer to adulthood?

So then I started fantasizing that the younger of the two might play Viola, and the elder Sebastian (though it seems one was shorter and darker than the other). Wouldn't that have been cool? All the jokes about immaturity and not having a beard. Wouldn't those be even better?

But Sebastian is a minimal part, right? So then I started fantasizing that you could double Sebastian and Maria. ("Doubling" means the same actor plays two roles; it seems to have been pretty common in the early modern period in plays where a large cast of characters was played by a relatively small company of 18-25 or so. Usually an actor would double two small parts.)

There are rules of thumb about doubling parts, though. We think it took about 100 lines for an actor to go from one character, change costume, and reappear as another character, so in addition to the "doesn't appear together thing," an actor doubling as Sebastian and Maria would have to have a fair chunk of text separating their appearances.

Unfortunately, reality isn't nearly as cooperative as I'd hoped, and in Act 3, scene 4, Maria enters with Olivia on the heels of Sebastian's scene. Can you tell how excited I was getting as I looked through the entrances and exits before that, though, how much I wanted it to work out?

Stupid Shakespeare.


  1. What an interesting idea! And a pity it doesn't work. . .

  2. Too bad your theory didn't work out, but it is fun to speculate, isn't it?

    I have a gut feeling that Viola may actually have been a new boy, although it's hard to put my finger on why. I guess I picture Hermia / Beatrice / Rosalind as parts written for the same personality (who grew from "though she be but little, she is fierce" to "more than common tall" over the space of a few years). Whereas with Viola, I get a different vibe -- I imagine a kid who naturally projects a bit more wistfulness and vulnerability? Maybe the same one who played Ophelia, and would play Cordelia in a few years?

    And oh man, that kid who played Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra (and Volumnia?) must have been phenomenal. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall.

  3. There are some doublings that really do not work out! I was once left on stage as Celia saying 'But who comes here?' about a Corin who simply hadn't got his beard on and thus did not arrive. Improvising Shakespeare on the hoof is not a good idea!

  4. Well, you sold me until the last paragraph. It's exciting to think about, anyway.

  5. I have a friend who did the reverse with Urinetown production - she cast two actors each for two of the female parts (the woman who watches the bathrooms and the daughter of the bad guy), and had them perform at the same time, trading off lines that were distributed between them. They were each physcially similar, but played the part differently, and there ended up being a whole subplot between the two characters playing the same character at the same time (if you get what I mean). It added a whole 'nother eery and funny layer to what is already an eerie and hysterically funny play. So brilliant, that I don't think I want to ever see a regular production of the musical.