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Short Shakespeare!

The Taming
of the Shrew

March 24, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Rachel Rockwell

A Look Back at The Taming of the Shrew in Performance

Though readers and scholars never lost sight of Shakespeare's text since it was first published in the first Folio in 1623 (at least 30 years after it was first seen on stage), the stage history of The Taming of the Shrew has been less faithful to Shakespeare's text. Shakespeare's play was popular at least into the 1630s when it was printed again as a separate "quarto"—the equivalent to our paperback books. John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor as the resident playwright for the King's Men, offered a sequel to Shrew that he called The Woman's Prize or the Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio suffers "taming" by his second wife, Maria, who uses sexual denial to challenge his views of marriage. Between 1663 when Shakespeare's version of The Taming of the Shrew last appeared on London's stage as an "old revival," and 1844, when it was finally restaged in its original, Shakespeare's text disappeared in performance for 181 years. Its story, however, remained popular and was borrowed and adapted frequently by other playwrights.

In 1663, following the reopening of London's theaters—and a failed revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream—the King's Company made a final attempt to produce a Shakespearean comedy, using an adaptation of Shrew written by an actor named John Lacy. Renamed Sauny the Scot and set in London, this adaptation excluded the Christopher Sly Induction, and portrayed Grumio as a stereotypical Restoration Scotsman. Fifty-three years later in 1716, Charles Johnson produced a farcical version, The Cobbler of Preston, in which Christopher Sly would become the hero of this tale.

David Garrick, the famous actor and director of London's Drury Lane, returned to an abbreviated version of Shakespeare in his Catherine and Petruchio, first produced in 1754. Garrick's play, which eliminated Christopher Sly, Bianca, and her suitors completely, remained popular for more than a century, serving as a "star piece" for famous lead actors. An opera written in 1828 was based on Garrick's rendition of the story, not Shakespeare's—by then long silenced. It was not until Benjamin Webster revived Shakespeare's text in 1844 that The Taming of the Shrew reclaimed its place in live performance—but still it competed against Garrick's adaptation for the next 40 years. Shrew was considered the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's most successful experiment in presenting Shakespeare in modern dress. In addition to the modern costumes, the 1928 production featured press photographers and a movie camera in the wedding scene, and a young Laurence Olivier in a small role.

Here in the United States, the play has evolved its own unique history. Shrew was the first Shakespearean film with sound to be made in America. It starred Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford—the leading couple in 1929. In 1930 the famous husband-wife acting duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, toured The Taming of the Shrew throughout the United States. The production included a clown band, dwarves and acrobatics. It is commonly held stagelore that the offstage relationship of the couple, as witnessed by stagehand-turned-producer Saint Subber, was the inspiration for the Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate. Shakespeare's text takes a backseat in the musical adaptation in which a divorced couple, cast as Kate and Petruchio, push each other's buttons throughout the rehearsals for a play.

In the twentieth century, The Taming of the Shrew proved as popular as it was controversial. Franco Zeffirelli created his famous version for the screen in 1967, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Like Pickford and Fairbanks before them, Taylor Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in the 1953 movie, Kiss Me, Kate and Burton were the most famous Hollywood couple of the mid- Sixties; their tumultuous off-screen relationship brought new levels of ferocity to their on-screen battles. This work, like Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, is characterized by the relationship between two characters: the Bianca subplot recedes into the background, and the Christopher Sly framework disappears entirely as a stage device of no use to Zeffirelli's naturalistic vision as a director. Kate and Petruchio fall in love at first sight, and the subsequent taming plot is approached by the film's stars as an elaborate game. Their battle is not one so much between the sexes as between two bohemian anarchists and the conventions of the hypocritical and repressed society in which they live. There is no submission by Kate in Zeffirelli's eyes: she delivers her speech with knowing looks shared privately with Petruchio.

The same text is used to very different ends in another production readily available and widely known: Jonathan Miller's Shrew filmed for the BBC television series in 1980. Miller, like Zeffirelli, banished Christopher Sly from his stage, but the similarity in interpretation stops there. In the hands of John Cleese as a cerebral, funny and rather gawky Petruchio, the taming of Katherine becomes more a studied lesson play or well-devised therapy process than a sexy game of mutual attraction. Miller's Petruchio teaches rather than tames his Kate. Kate's closing speech is portrayed as a statement of Elizabethan family and sexual values. The film ends with the wedding party joining in to sing a Puritan hymn extolling marital harmony.

Just two years earlier, in 1978, a very different interpretation of Shakespeare's text, directed by Michael Bogdanov, appeared on London's stage. Like much of the Royal Shakespeare Company's work in this period, Bogdanov's work was deeply influenced by Jan Kott's groundbreaking book, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which posits that the themes relevant in Shakespeare's particular moment of history are equally relevant throughout human history. History repeats itself, and we return to the same problems wrapped in different circumstances (for example, the feud of the Capulets and Montagues as portrayed through the experience of rival gangs in New York City in West Side Story). Bogdanov's Shrew made a strong and relentless statement against the repression of women by a capitalist society. The production began with a drunken Christopher Sly planted as an "audience member. "The innkeeper was played by a female "usher" who, in attempting to throw this rowdy "patron" from the theater, is victimized by Sly's inebriated abuse. The Sly Induction was so realistic that at one performance audience members called the police to intervene. The struggle between Katherine and Petruchio was violent and abusive. Paduan society was portrayed as a cold, repressive bed of capitalism where women were bought, sold and used. In light of Bogdanov's dark interpretation, Katherine's final speech was a somber one—with evidence of the woman's angry but suppressed resistance to the role she had been unfairly dealt in this society of males and money.

In the 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company tour, director Di Trevis used the play-within-a-play as a springboard for a commentary on property and poverty. The show began with the players crossing the stage in tattered costumes. Leading the procession pulling an oversized property basket on wheels was a young unwed mother, who would later take on the role of Kate. Both the players and the characters in the play were portrayed as needy. Like Sly, the players were playthings for the wealthy, and acting provided them with a life of fantasy and some income.

Turkish director Yücel Erten interpreted the play in 1986 as a love tragedy. In Erten's production, Petruchio broke down Kate's defensive wall as she fell in love, and subsequently his humiliation of her resulted in her emotional breakdown. After delivering her infamous speech of female submission, Kate removed her shawl to reveal her slit wrists and suicide.

While David H. Bell's upcoming production is the first abridgement at CST, The Taming of the Shrew has appeared on its stage as a full-length production twice before. In fact, it was Bell who brought Shrew to CST's stage three years ago. Set in 1960 along the Via Veneto, an area in Rome made famous by Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Bell's production opened the Theater's 2003 season. Bell created a world of glamour, wealth and high fashion. The set was filled with the balconies, fountains and marble arches of a glamorous Italian street. Around the café owned by Kate's father, papparazi swarmed and Vespa scooters zoomed. To reflect the time period of the show, Bell updated certain lines: horse references, for example, were changed to motorcycles. Bell staged an optimistic view of Kate's taming, and the "Kiss me, Kate" scene left the audience believing that Kate and Petruchio were very much in love. Kate's final speech was delivered by actor Kate Fry as a woman changed by love, not tamed by torture.

A decade earlier in 1993 staged at CST's previous home, the Ruth Page Theatre, Artistic Director Barbara Gaines directed CST's first production of Shrew. Gaines retained the Christopher Sly framework of the original script and set the production in Renaissance Italy. Actors were dressed in ornate colorful costumes, with the warm woods of the set inviting the audience in to this antique world. Gaines chose not make a political statement with Kate's transformation from shrew to wife, but allowed the audience to interpret Kate's final speech on their own.

Teen comedies dominated movie screens in the 1990s, so it was perhaps no surprise that a teen flick, called 10 Things I Hate About You, premiered in 1999. What is surprising, however, is the fact that its story is based upon Shakespeare's 400-year-old play. The setting moves to Tacoma, Washington. Kat (Katherina) is now an antisocial, Sylvia Plath-reading, ball-breaking, vicious field hockey-playing high school student, frequently called a "heinous bitch" by her sister Bianca, who is the most popular and sought-after girl in school. In the movie's contemporary high school world, Bianca doesn't want to get married. She just wants to go on a date with a boy, which her pregnancy-phobic father forbids until the older sister starts dating. Money is still the impetus for Patrick (Petruchio). Cameron (Lucentio) sets a plan in motion where Joey (Hortensio) pays Patrick to date Kat so that Cameron can have a chance with Bianca. Patrick, who is feared by fellow classmates, is the only one not deterred by Kat's man-hating reputation.

Kat's taming is, in fact, quite a bit tamer than her namesake's. The famous speech of submission at the end of Shakespeare's play is transformed in the film into Kat publicly reading a poem she has written about Patrick, first listing all his vile characteristics, and culminating with the line: "But mostly I hate the way I don't hate you. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all." True to both its derivative genres—teen movies and Shakespeare comedy—10 Things I Hate About You delivers a happy ending.

The twenty-first century has ushered in a trend in performance that faces Shrew's gender politics through re-inventing a convention from the Early Modern English stage: single-gender casting. Of course, men played all roles in Elizabethan times, but in 2003 Shakespeare's Globe started an all-female troupe called the Company of Women. In its inaugural season, the company performed Shrew, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Lloyd did not feminize the story or characters in any way. The patriarchal structure remained firmly in place, with the machismo of many of the male characters was highly exaggerated. Petruchio, for example, urinated on a pillar of The Globe's stage. Kate's final speech was presented as an obvious satire. She leapt on to a table and lifted up her dress, embarrassing Petruchio who couldn't convince her to come down. Encouraging all the wives to place their hands under their husband's feet brought only gales of laughter in response. The all-female cast of Shrew shifted the play's controversial theme from female submission to male power in general.

In 2005, the BBC launched a new series of contemporary Shakespeare adaptations, entitled "ShakespearRe-Told." Screenwriter Sally Wainwright reframes Shakespeare's story in modern-day Britain, where Katherine Minola is a successful, outspoken politician, poised to become the next leader of the opposition party. Her sister Bianca is a jet-setting model, who vows she'll marry only when her older sister does-which means never. Bianca's spurned boyfriend has a cash-strapped aristocrat friend named Petruchio, who decides that the unattainable, unlovable—and very wealthy—politician will be his. Petruchio traps Katherine at their honeymoon villa in Italy, slashing the car tires and hiding her phone and clothes. The two do, indeed, fall in love—just as Katherine wins the leadership of her party and kicks off her campaign to become prime minister. When Bianca insists that her boyfriend Lucentio sign a pre-nuptial agreement, Kate delivers an impassioned speech, declaring that wives obey their husbands, and that if her sister requires a pre-nuptial agreement, then she shouldn't get married. In the end, the credits are run against a backdrop of blissful family photos of the new prime Minister, her adoring husband and their triplets.

As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival in 2006, Propellor, an all-male English theater company, brought The Taming of the Shrew to the stage. Director Edward Hall (who directed CST's production of Rose Rage: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 here and subsequently in New York) chose to preserve the Induction with Christopher Sly and the play-within-a-play. In an interesting twist, Sly was eventually goaded into taking on the part of Petruchio in the play. The sets (moveable mirrored cupboards that allowed actors to appear and disappear) and the props and costumes (a mix of contemporary and traditional) created a dream-like world. This surreal world created by the director and the play-within-a-play framework helped to distance the production from the script's politically incorrect issues. Hall's Kate was broken by Petruchio's taming tactics, and delivered her final speech as a brainwashed shell of a woman. Audiences may have been more able to witness Kate's torture and engage in a production in which the character was played by a man. British theater critics saw correlations between the production's disturbing tactics of taming to the tactics of torture being utilized in the current war on terror.

The same playwright and the same words have been understood and approached in countless ways through four centuries. Actors will continue to explore the themes and gender politics of Shrew as the world and its attitudes continue to evolve. Each time a director approaches Shakespeare, he or she hopes to bring to light something previously hidden. And what is quite remarkable about Shakespeare's art is that, 400 years later, they can still succeed in doing just that.

– Contributed by the CST Education Department

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