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The Merry Wives of Windsor

December 3

January 19, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

Performance History

Whether his dramas should be taken as plays or as literature has been disputed. But surely they should be taken as both. Acted, or seen on the stage, they disclose things hidden to the reader. Read, they reveal what no actor or theater can convey.
—Harold C. Goddard 1951

The Merry Wives of Windsor, its rich humor and its comic Falstaff have been favorites of theatrical producers and audiences for centuries. So beloved, the comedy has invited countless interpretations, revisions and adaptations, aligning it to the particular tastes of diverse times and places.

Although little is known about the early production history of Merry Wives, we do know it was presented by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, sometime between 1597 and 1601. Shakespeare’s own script was presumably used either at the Globe Theatre or at the court of Queen Elizabeth, perhaps both. Revived at court for King James I in 1604, its final audience prior to the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 included Charles I among its audience at London's Cockpit Theatre in 1638. But in 1642, the Puritan faction gained control of the city early in the Civil War and ordered the closure of the London theaters in September. And until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the theaters remained shut for the next eighteen years. During the interim years, many actors fled to France, where they participated in continental theater to maintain employment. When Charles II—the son of the beheaded Charles I--was reinstated and the theaters reopened, English actors brought back many of the practices they’d learned in France. (It was not until then, for example, that women appeared on the English stage.) English tastes had grown to embrace permissive, lighter dramas, rejecting the strict Puritanism of the Commonwealth that had governed from 1642 to 1660. The comedy of manners became a staple of Restoration drama, as did heroic love stories. In fact, many of Shakespeare's plays were rewritten to satisfy these tastes--including a happily ending adaptation of King Lear.

We know little of the character of The Merry Wives performed by the King's Company. Samuel Pepys, who saw the play three times between 1660 and 1667, found the country gentlemen and the French doctor well done but believed the rest went "but very poorly, and Sir J. Falstaff as bad as any." Restoration audiences, having developed a taste for French theater, would have thought a play privileging Windsor’s country virtue over Falstaff’s more cosmopolitan nature to be rather rustic. Merry Wives, like so many other Elizabethan plays, was now considered old-fashioned and ripe for adaptation.

The result was John Dennis's adaptation, entitled The Comical Gallant, which opened in 1702 at Drury Lane. Dennis reshaped the original text, introducing the kind of comedic unity that the rational, enlightened eighteenth- century audiences expected. His plot centered on young Fenton’s love interest with Anne Page. Mistress Ford became Fenton's aunt and go-between with Anne, eliminating the need for Mistress Quickly. It is Fenton in Dennis’s adaptation who comes up with the Falstaff plot and enlists the Host of the Garter Inn to instigate a quarrel between Sir Hugh Evans and Dr. Caius to upset their suits.

As the eighteenth century progressed, theaters returned to productions increasingly closer to Shakespeare’s original. Still, variety was not wholly lost on audiences of the 1700s. Cuts were made to tighten up the play, sometimes leaving out the Latin grammar lesson, sometimes ignoring the business with the Germans and the horses, and other times close-to-entire acts were excised. Women were cast as Falstaff, to varying degrees of success. The play was staged in the American colonies, playing in Philadelphia in 1770 and New York in 1773.

Eventually, Victorian sensibilities found Falstaff too gross for their tastes, and the successful Merry Wives productions were the refined, operatic ones, and therefore the nineteenth century’s major adaptations were not British, but German and Italian. Both Nicolai's 1849 The Merry Wives of Windsor and Verdi's 1893 Falstaff resonate with the aesthetic concerns of John Dennis, emphasizing the Fenton-Anne love interest and condensing the rest of the story. Shakespeare's easy translation into musical settings attests to his master wordcraft, his resonance with multiple generations, and his adaptability to various theatrical forms.

Compared to the attention usually given to Shakespeare’s works, Merry Wives received little critical study in the twentieth century. There have been some particularly memorable productions, though few challenges to its fundamental theatrical form. Oscar Asche produced a wintry Merry Wives at the Garrick Theatre in 1911, tapping into William Page’s note of a “raw rheumatic day.” His 1929 return to the play featured Anne Page "riding pillion [passenger] on Fenton's motor-bicycle"  in a modern-dress take. Glen Byam Shaw, in 1955, followed in the wintry Merry Wives vein and, like Asche, was uniformly criticized for it. More recently, the creative team behind Cats mounted a 1979 Merry Wives production. Bill Alexander's 1985 Stratford production set the play in the 1950s—its iconic image that of the “New Elizabethan” Mistresses Ford and Page in a salon comparing love letters under hooded hair dryers. The last ten years of performance history have seen a 1940s post-war take, a new musical rendition of, a modern-day sitcom lens for The Merry Wives from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and California Shakespeare Theater took on a puppet Merry Wives adaptation in 2006.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director, Barbara Gaines, first directed The Merry Wives in 1997 at the Ruth Page Theatre with a setting of the late 1600s, donned in the regalia of The Three Musketeers. Her second take in 2004 was set in New England in the late 1700s, with Falstaff’s followers resembling our friendly, recognizable minutemen. Each time that Gaines, or any director, takes on this play, they’re faced with the same questions that have confronted directors since Shakespeare’s death. Do I privilege the ensemble or particularly strong individual characters? What are Falstaff’s motivations: vanity, greed, defeat? Is this a particularly English play or can the specificity of place and culture play less important roles? How will I tap into the historical setting and the role of the middle-class? Does it dwell primarily in the world of romantic comedy or outrageous farce? Each choice affects the vision that the director brings to stage, the way in which they communicate the energy and vitality that is so much The Merry Wives of Windsor.

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