We know little about the contemporary reception of but it is easy to fancy its being what we call today a 'hit.' It gratifies the essential theatrical craving. ... We live in the midst of a confusing world. We are forever making blunders ourselves and becoming the victims of blunders of other people. How restful yet exhilarating it would be if for once we could get above it all and from a vantage point watch the blunders going on below us. Well, that is just what the theater permits us to do for an hour or two.
– Harold C. Goddard, 1951
Although The Comedy of Errors is the only play by Shakespeare which includes the word 'comedy' in its title, critics have persistently wanted to dismiss it as a farce, unworthy of serious consideration, however great its success as a theatrical frolic.
– Anne Barton, 1974
The stage history of The Comedy of Errors could be compared to that of the late comedic actor Rodney Dangerfield. It gets no respect—and there, in some ways, lies the key to its success. The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, the shortest in length (1777 words), and the briefest in duration of plot, with all of the action occurring in just one day. It also is one of Shakespeare's least celebrated plays, frequently disregarded by critics, scholars, and artists alike as an "apprentice" work, a farce not to be taken seriously.
A promotional poster from an 1878
production of The Comedy of Errors
In spite of its inferior reputation (and in part because of it), The Comedy of Errors has found superior success on stage. Unencumbered by the weight of a "masterpiece" text, directors generally have made up for the play's lack of distinction by making the most of its seemingly boundless potential for adaptation. Some have played it fast and furious with Shakespeare's story, bringing it to life, with varying degrees of success, through musicals, operas, circuses, puppetry, film noir, rock 'n' roll, and even hip-hop and rap. Other directors have viewed the play's characters and events in a darker light, discovering a deeper comedy about self-identity, gender, family and love. Others have simply let Shakespeare's rigorous text and carefully constructed dramatic structure work its own magic—and mayhem—conjuring out of this once ancient misadventure of mistaken identity a surprising mix of humor, humanity and modern insight.
Like many of Shakespeare's plays, The Comedy of Errors is an adaptation itself, based largely on the work of Titus Maccius Plautus, a Roman playwright famous for his farcical comedies. The earliest recorded performance of The Comedy of Errors took place on December 28, 1594, at one of the four Inns of Court (London's schools of law). The Gray's Inn Record of that night suggests the spirit of the night was akin to the play's own unruly atmosphere:
It was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors [was played by] a Company of base and common fellows … So that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors.
Perhaps not the ideal environment for Shakespeare's intricate plot. But the audience—a gathering of lawyers and law students celebrating Innocents' Day with dancing, drinking, juggling—at least would have been familiar with Plautus's work in Latin, and so probably would have recognized how Shakespeare embellished it, adding a second set of identical twins to Plautus's pair, and transporting the action from the Greek city of Epidamnus to the Turkish city of Ephesus, known at the time for the kind of inexplicable trickery and sorcery that appears to transpire in the play.
Most likely, this initial performance was staged in the simple medieval style of "simultaneous settings," meaning that every location in the play appears on stage at the same time, adding to the comedy's confusion and potential for error. The compact setting of the play was perfect for such a neoclassical stage (never again used to such an extent by Shakespeare) as well as the Inn's crowded environment, since all of the action takes place in just four confined areas: the city streets of Ephesus and three specific buildings—the Phoenix (the house of Antipholus of Ephesus), the Porpentine (the house of the courtesan), and the Priory.
Evidence (or rather a lack thereof) suggests that only one other performance of The Comedy of Errors took place during Shakespeare's lifetime. Presented on Innocents' Day in 1604 before King James I at the Palace of Whitehall, this staging also appears to be the last recorded performance of Shakespeare's comedy for more than a century. Like all plays at the time, The Comedy of Errors would have been forced from the stage in 1642 by the close of the theaters during the Puritan dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. But when theaters reopened 18 years later with the restoration of England's Charles II, the script of The Comedy of Errors seems to have stayed shut. In a period preoccupied with the satire and sophistication of the comedy of manners, there was probably little room for this "low" Comedy, with its absurd storyline, ribald humor, and physical buffoonery.
Those elements proved popular in the eighteenth century, however, when an enthusiasm for adaptation bestowed multiple identities upon a comedy about mistaken identities. For more than a century, Shakespeare's play slipped on and off stage in shifting guises—often without the benefit of his poetry or dramatic framework. The first of many versions, Every Body Mistaken, took place in 1716. The next, See if You Like it, or 'Tis All a Mistake—described as a comedy in two acts "taken from Plautus and Shakespeare"—was performed in 1734 and played for more than 70 years at London's Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres. In 1762, actor and playwright Thomas Hull presented the period's most popular adaptation, The Twins, or The Comedy of Errors, featuring songs and other new material that would keep it on the Covent Garden stage, in various incarnations, for years to come.
Yet, while directors and audience were reveling in the rediscovery of Shakespeare's delightful comedy (however diluted), scholars continued to disapprove of—or simply disregard it. As late as 1817, even England's leading expert on Shakespeare's writings, William Hazlitt, had few compliments for The Comedy of Errors, which, he explained, "is taken very much from the Menaechmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it ... This play (among other considerations) leads us not to feel much regret that Shakespear [sic] was not what is called a classical scholar." The overall lack of criticism on The Comedy of Errors leading up to the nineteenth century suggests it was considered to be of little importance. That attitude was echoed-and probably underscored- by the fact that two full centuries passed without a production reflecting Shakespeare's own version of the play.
When it did regain the spotlight in 1855—thanks to British theater manager and Shakespeare enthusiast Samuel Phelps, who restored Shakespeare's original to the stage—audiences were in for a treat, along with some over-the-top entertainment. By 1865, the play regained enough of its cultural standing to be presented as part of the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations at the Princess's Theatre in 1865. That production featured two Irish brothers, Charles and Henry Webb, playing a pair of Dromios looking and acting more like court jesters than servants, a sign of what was to come. In 1927, a production at the Old Vic featured two sets of twins wearing clown noses—one pair of nostrils turned up, the other pair turned down. The clown or fool, central to nearly all of Shakespeare's works, always existed within the cast of The Comedy of Errors. But by the early twentieth century, it seems the clown also became central to the play's success on stage, with productions of The Comedy of Errors employing not just clowns, fools, and goofs, but also acrobats, mimes, comics, dancers, singers, and anyone else capable of burlesque, buffoonery, slapstick, silliness, pratfalls and folly.
Part of the inspiration for that kind of human circus may have been Theodore Komisarjevsky's 1938 production—an amalgam of ballet, operetta and farce spilling across a Toy Town setting of dollhouse buildings watched over by a surrealist clock. His staging of the play transformed The Comedy of Errors into a literal playground for audiences and actors alike, with characters wearing mad costumes from mismatched time periods, and singing and dancing to tunes by a mixture of musicians. Summed up by a local newspaper as "mime, music, and madness," the production infused a true sense of fun and sophistication into a play previously considered pure nonsense. It also reestablished the play's close relationship with physical comedy as a means of expression and exploration beyond mere entertainment.
Since then, countless productions of The Comedy of Errors have drawn upon the play's foundation in farce, clowning, and commedia dell'arte. One of the most memorable modern examples is Chicago's Goodman Theatre's 1983 production starring the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Avner the Eccentric. Adapted, abridged, and rearranged to accommodate the skills of the acrobatic comedians and their juggling, plate-spinning, tumbling, and physical comedy, Shakespeare's words became part-circus, part-play. The unconventional production transferred to Lincoln Center and ultimately took a turn on Broadway.
It wouldn't be the first appearance of The Comedy of Errors on Broadway, however. The same year Komisarjevsky shook up the theater world with his production of The Comedy of Errors, America was recovering from its own shake-ups of the Great Depression, the first World War, and the prospect of its involvement in another one. A period of chaos and uncertainty, it was also Hollywood's Golden Age, an era of radio shows, comic books, jazz music and Broadway musicals. One of those musicals, The Boys from Syracuse, turned out to be a full-scale success, turning Shakespeare's neglected comedy into a mainstream hit. Featuring music and lyrics by the legendary duo Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the musical comedy (adapted from The Comedy of Errors by George Abbott) ran in New York from 1938 to 1939. In 1940 it was made into a popular film bursting with anachronistic gags, such as Dromio of Ephesus organizing a labor union, a parchment newspaper with the headline "Ephesus Blitzkriegs Syracuse," and characters zooming around in checkered-chariot taxicabs. Revived on Broadway in 1963, The Boys from Syracuse ran a second time for 502 performances.
Stage performance, like other forms of art, is a product of its times and culture. Just as political events, social movements, or current schools of thought may influence a director's vision, they may also change the tastes of an audience. When The Boys from Syracuse was revived by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company in 2002, it met with mixed reviews. Half a century after its Broadway premiere, some critics found the original glamour of the production gone, leaving only out-of-place gags and an underdeveloped script strung together for the sake of the legendary songs.
Yet that same year, what might be considered a modern-day equivalent to The Boys from Syracuse appeared at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the form of the rap-infused, hip-hop musical, The Bomb-itty of Errors. Conceived as a senior thesis by a group of NYU theater undergraduates, this five-person streetwise adaptation was first staged off Broadway in 1998, and subsequently restaged in Chicago, London and Edinburgh. Against a corrugated metal, graffiti-sprayed wall (equipped with the essential doors of farce), director Andy Goldberg's production reworked Shakespeare's own adaptation into an all-male, 16-character plot, told by four "MCs" and a disc jockey who stood nearby, mixing music and occasionally mixing it up with the others. Bomb-itty 's plot follows Shakespeare's own, with the two sets of twins morphing into quadruplets, who were born into a troubled New York family and split up in infancy to different foster homes. Luciana is transformed into the dim-witted, blonde-wigged younger sister; Dr. Pinch morphs into the Rasta herbalist sent in to cure Antipholus's madness; and Angelo into a riddle-loving Hasidic goldsmith. Here in Chicago, as in every other city it played, this "mindbending love letter to the Bard" earned rave reviews: "Holding a mirror up to the nature of their own times, putting their ear to the pavement, employing the scratch-and-spin techniques of high-style house DJ, and substituting rapid-fire jive for courtly jigs, the show is a brilliant, energizing gloss on Shakespeare," said the Chicago Sun-Times.
Meanwhile, many modern productions of The Comedy of Errors have continued paying tribute to the very days of film-noir and screwball Hollywood comedies embodied in The Boys from Syracuse. In many productions of the late twentieth century—including the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2000 production directed by Lynne Parker-various permutations of Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, and the Marx Brothers have frequently appeared on stage, if only in spirit, alongside (or sometimes inhabiting) Shakespeare's mismatched twins. When used carefully, these modern incarnations of the classical clown can help "generate unusual satisfaction," as Parker's "pleasure-packed production of Shakespeare's early farce" did for many critics and audiences. But such devices can also generate the opposite, as another critic points out: in the search to produce a "palpable crowd-pleaser, … what you lose is something of the play's emotional reality."
That has been a recurring struggle for productions of The Comedy of Errors—finding a balance between Shakespeare's complex, comical story and all the extra ornamentation, improvisation, and invention it inspires. In 1962, a stopgap production directed by Clifford Williams for the Royal Shakespeare Company found that balance, bringing a temporary, tasteful halt to the chaotic adaptations of The Comedy of Errors becoming the twentieth century norm. His production employed conventions of commedia dell'arte—including slapstick, false noses, and narrative through mime. But contrary to some interpretations that pushed the play's potential for masquerade, confusion, and deception as far as it could go, Williams pulled his production back to Shakespeare's text for an intimate focus on the characters' relationships to each other and their social environment. The play was revived for three seasons before it toured to America, Eastern Europe, and returned for another revival in Stratford. Michael Billington, theater critic for The Guardian of London, called Williams' interpretation "a milestone in post-war theatrical production" showing that "behind the mistaken identities and manic confusions of farce there are often genuinely dark and disquieting forces at work."
A decade later, another milestone production managed to prove that it is possible to combine Comedy with song, dance, and modern-day taste without compromising Shakespeare's text. Presented in 1976 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Judi Dench as Adriana, this production was directed by Trevor Nunn—the acclaimed classical director who went on to helm the Broadway musical hits Cats and Les Miserables. Nunn's production featured a contemporary, eclectic score ranging from rock 'n' roll to Greek folk music. Nevertheless, he managed to write lyrics that stayed true to the play's dialogue and spirit, achieving the "opposite extreme of lavish ornamentation," according to The Times of London.
Yet another RSC production directed by Adrian Noble in 1983 achieved just the opposite, offering a compendium of the play's most successful stage conventions, including elements of circus, silent film, music hall, commedia dell'arte, and rag-time music. Generally praised for its entertainment value, the production ultimately became for many an example of too much of a good thing—especially on top of a play already as rich and full of life as Shakespeare's.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater first staged The Comedy of Errors in 1998, directed by David H. Bell. The full-length production was set in turn-of-the-century Italy, in a romantically lush seaside village, with flower-adorned balconies overlooking the cobblestone streets and outdoor café below. In an opening scene before the houselights came down, lackadaisical waiters (four circus-trained actors called Bumbelini) silently swept the floor and set the tables—before mayhem broke out in the first of many episodes of juggling plates and assorted flying objects. This fairy-tale universe, glowing in the warmth of sunset-colored lights and the rustic costumes of the Italian countryside, was designed to beckon its Chicago audience from the harsh reality of the wintry Windy City just past the theater doors. Bell established a sense of community, with a shared history and close ties, against which outsiders, like the alien Syracusans, were judged. The final moments of the play, which followed two and one-half hours of hilarious high jinks, were moving and memorable for their tenderness and bittersweet joy as the family was at last reunited.
It is a play that director David H. Bell has returned to numerous times, and is one of his favorites. He brought the play to life again in 2004 as part of the Short Shakespeare! series at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This time, set in Depression-era United States, the production featured a "play-within-a-play" structure, in which a troupe of itinerant Shakespearean players traveled the country as part of the WPA Federal Theatre Project. Engrossed in a series of errors themselves, the troupe decided at the last minute to perform Comedy when the props and costumes for their intended Hamlet became stranded in Nebraska. This 75-minute adaptation played to enthusiastic audiences of students and adults alike.
In 2008, Comedy returns to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage, helmed for the first time by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines. Once again, the play-within-a-play conceit is utilized; this time, Londoners during the infamous blitz of World War II try to keep their cool while shooting a film version of Shakespeare's classic text. With a new framing script by Ron West, Gaines's production explores the comedic elements of Shakespeare's original, while delving into the deep human truths present in the classic text and powerfully evoked by West's frame and Gaines's directorial vision.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department