Romeo and Juliet

September 15

November 11, 2010

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Gale Edwards

A Look Back at Romeo and Juliet in Performance

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

Romeo and Juliet. The young lovers' names have become part of the English idiom: "he's a real Romeo," someone says of a flirtatious young man, or perhaps a movie ad campaign proclaims it "a Romeo and Juliet for our times." All around the world, people use these names to signify romantic love, even if they've never read or seen Romeo and Juliet—a strong testament to the play's extraordinary popularity.

Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare's early tragedies; it was written in the same period as comedies such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Taming of the Shrew. The first printed text of the play, which was published in 1597, stated that the play had been performed often, "with great applause." The presence of stage directions in this first printed script would suggest that it was written down from the memories of actors following a production; but the first written documentation of a performance comes from the 1662 diary of Samuel Pepys. Though Mr. Pepys disliked the play, it must have been well received by others, because another revival opened just a few years later. This version was directed by James Howard, who rewrote the ending of the play and kept the lovers alive. He also staged the original ending, and alternated the sad and happy endings from night to night so that audience members could see whichever they liked!

In 1748, the famous actor-manager David Garrick staged his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. He simplified the language, cut a few characters, eliminated all the bawdy references (as the times required...), and added some extra speeches. Garrick's version would be performed for the next 100 years, making Romeo and Juliet the most popular of Shakespeare's plays through the late eighteenth century—though it was Garrick's version and not Shakespeare that held the stage. Subsequent nineteenth-century productions restored Shakespeare's text (they still made cuts, as do today's directors), but frequently rearranged scenes to accommodate the elaborate scenery in vogue at the time. Often cuts were made so that famous actors in the title roles would be assured more stage time than anyone else. Although Shakespeare makes it clear that Juliet is not yet fourteen and Romeo not much older, it was not unusual for the actors in these roles to be in their thirties or even their forties. In a 1912 speech about William Poel's 1905 production of Romeo and Juliet, George Bernard Shaw said:

When Poel found that a child of fourteen was wanted, his critics exclaimed 'Ah—but she was an Italian child, and an Italian child of fourteen looks exactly the same as an English woman of forty-five.' William Poel did not believe it. He said, 'I will get a child of fourteen,' and accordingly he performed [Romeo and Juliet] in that way, and for the first time it became endurable.

One of the milestone English productions of the play took place at London's New Theatre in 1935. John Gielgud directed and played Mercutio, Laurence Olivier played Romeo, Peggy Ashcroft played Juliet, and Edith Evans, the Nurse. Olivier and Gielgud, each fascinated with both Romeo and Mercutio, switched roles after six weeks. Critics and audiences praised each actor for the different qualities they brought to both parts.

By the 1930s, Shakespeare's original text had been restored, but directors still cut most of Shakespeare's sexual references. The comedy in Romeo and Juliet relies on bawdiness and innuendo, but until the 1960s many productions focused more on the tragedy and romance of the play. In the 1960s, productions around the world began to work with the play's sexual humor, pointing up the contrast between the play's notion of sex as vulgarity and the ideal love that Romeo and Juliet share. A production set in the sexually repressed Victorian era could contrast the "dirty" jokes of the all-male street scenes with the "clean" sexuality of the lovers.

One famous production was staged at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962, by Italian director Franco Zefferelli. In keeping with the more permissive atmosphere of the sixties, Zefferelli restored the comic bawdry, and emphasized the youth and passion of the lovers. Although critics complained that some of Shakespeare's language was neglected, audiences loved the vitality and sexuality of the production. Critics loved the way the scenic design "blended...harmoniously with the surrounding city architecture." The culmination of Zefferelli's production was the 1968 film version starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The youth and beauty of the lovers was emphasized, and the movie, with its beautiful sets and music, was a great hit with teenagers, who strongly identified with the characters.

Romeo and Juliet is also loved in countries where English is not the native tongue. Productions in Communist nations like the former Soviet Union have tended to emphasize the politics of the play over the love story; in these productions the lovers' union defied not only their families but also a corrupt medieval government. Other stagings picked up on the theme of political corruption, setting the play in places like fascist Italy or Thatcherite England. Many recent American productions have cast the Capulets and Montagues as different ethnic groups in an effort to make their feud relevant to contemporary audiences. One of the first versions of the play to explain the fued by ethnic hatred was the musical West Side Story, still successful on both stage and screen. It updated Romeo and Juliet, setting it in New York City in the 1950s; the lovers are called Tony and Maria. Its feud is between rival gangs, one Puerto Rican (the Sharks) and the other melting-pot white American (the Jets); Maria's brother is the leader of the Sharks and Tony's best friend heads the Jets.

By 1996 as Zefferelli's young lovers began to look outdated to young students of the play, the 33-year-old Australian film director, Baz Luhrmann (whose previous film, Strictly Ballroom, showed the artist's propensity for a quirky, operatic directorial vision), took on the world's most famous love story. Luhrmann's title, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, flagged the association to his source that many critics of the film dismissed. He set his story not in a distant, long-forgotten Verona, but instead in a very Latin, very Catholic, Verona Beach—a violent, multicultural, amphetamine-driven city, where the guns and switchblades of deadly street gangs have replaced rapiers and daggers. Like Zefferelli, Lurhmann, too, cast two young actors in the title roles; unlike his predecessor, he chose two of the leading teenage heartthrobs of the day—Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Mercutio was portrayed as a black drag queen; the Friar, as a tough, tattooed clergyman of the streets. Some dismissed Luhrmann's production as having very little in common with its titular playwright and play: his liberal cutting of Shakespeare's text (approximately half of the original found its way to the screen) and its young actors' flattened delivery of the language frustrated many. But other scholars and critics hailed the production's bold expression of its source material, and it is hard to dismiss how palpably frightening Verona's violence became in the hands of Luhrmann's street thugs.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has previously staged Romeo and Juliet as an abridged production for students and families six times, most recently in 2003 when it was adapted and directed by Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin. In Griffin's contemporary production, the actors were dressed in a striking palette of black and white, set against a stark, industrial set of metal and opaque glass. Past Short Shakespeare! productions of the play have been set in contexts as diverse as the American prairie of the early settlers and traditional Renaissance Italy.

Romeo and Juliet was first staged at CST as a full-length production in 2006, directed by former Hartford Stage Artistic Director Mark Lamos, who focused on the musicality of Shakespeare's language. Set in lavish fourteenth-century Italian Renaissance dress, the stage was awash with vivid color. In addition, two notable adaptations of the play have been staged at CST: a musical spoof by The Second City, entitled The People vs. Friar Lawrence, the Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet; and Shakespeare's R and J, a modern retelling through the eyes of four adolescent, prep school boys, discovering the play and their own sexuality.

Romeo and Juliet will continue to be performed around the world, and its "star-crossed lovers" immortalized in operas, ballets, films, and paintings yet to be realized. It is a story that has inspired the creative genius of artist after artist, and continues to touch the imagination of audiences worldwide.

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