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Love's Labor's Lost

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at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Marti Maraden

Playgoer's Guide

THE STORY

King Ferdinand of Navarre convinces his closest friends, Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville, to commit themselves to study with him for three years, swearing off all worldly pleasures—like a good night's sleep, three meals a day and the mere sight of a woman. Setting an example for all to see, the King punishes a country swain named Costard for wooing Jaquenetta, a dairy maid. But after decreeing that no woman set foot within a mile of your Court and sentencing poor Costard for one simple transgression, how do you then receive the Princess of France with her three ladies-in-waiting when she arrives on affairs of state? One look at the French entourage ignites the men's romantic fervor—and sends their academic ardor up in flames. The four foresworn start setting their love to sonnets, each hoping to keep his rapture under wraps. But unfortunately Navarre's postal service (Costard again…) is not entirely foolproof, and letters are misdirected along the way, exposing each one in turn to his guilty cohorts. The men agree to abandon all scholarly aspirations, and band together in an all-out campaign to conquer the ladies' hearts. The success of their tactical maneuvers now hangs upon the strength of the French resistance that lies ahead.

BEGINNINGS

Love’s Labor’s Lost, alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, are thought to be the only Shakespeare plays without clearly identifiable primary sources, although prolific scholarly writing has offered much speculation to the contrary. But scholars have come to view the story as a stewpot of sorts, composed of a number of contemporary personalities, combined with several commedia dell’arte stock characters, then seasoned with a generous portion of the Elizabethans’ obsession with the English language and rhetoric. Believed by most scholars to have been written ca. 1594–95, Love’s Labor’s Lost first appeared in print (as far as we know) in a 1598 quarto, with a title page that boasted: “As it was presented before Her Highness this last Christmas”—thus intended to catch the eye of Elizabethan readers infatuated with all things royal.

IN PERFORMANCE

If indeed “this last Christmas”—i.e. 1597—served as the play’s stage premiere, Love’s Labor’s Lost enjoyed a Christmastime revival for the Court of King James I in 1605 before disappearing from the stage for more than 200 years. In 1762 an anonymous playwright penned The Students, with a title page claiming it to be a “Comedy, Altered from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour's Lost and adapted to the stage.” This, along with David Garrick's musical adaptation a decade later, never actually reached the stage. The first time in more than two centuries that Love’s Labor’s Lost was seen in a theater was in 1839 when Madame Eliza Vestris, actor, director and theater manager, staged the play at Covent Garden with only minor alterations to Shakespeare’s original text. Madame Vestris’s version brought Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost from the open-air Elizabethan theater into the “modern” theater, out of the library and back to the stage.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Love’s Labor’s Lost had become a respectable and relatively familiar piece. A changing perspective toward the play was indebted to the 1932 production staged by Tyrone Guthrie, one of the most influential directors of the twentieth century. By mid-century, a sea change had taken place from productions that avoided the script’s melancholy ending to ones that now embraced it. This tonal shift from comic to dramatic became evident in director Peter Brook’s 1946 production when the potential for tragedy closely resonated with society in post-WWII England. When the BBC undertook the six-year project of filming all of Shakespeare’s plays for television, Love’s Labor’s Lost was one of the last to be recorded and aired.

The growing popularity of the play in the last forty years has transpired in part at the expense of its men, seen through the lens of feminism. In 1999 actor/director Kenneth Branagh revisited Love’s Labor’s Lost and with the help of Miramax began filming. Inspired by the play’s musicality, Branagh set his adaptation as a cinematic musical from the 1930s. Branagh cut the text extensively (the entire film lasted just over ninety minutes), while adding a variety of dance routines and songs. The play’s signature “hiding scene,” staged as a song-and-dance number, sent scholars and critics alike into a frenzied flurry of commentary—especially after Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet a few years earlier had omitted practically nothing from Shakespeare’s original text.

Marti Maraden’s 2017 production is the second time that Love’s Labor’s Lost has been staged at Chicago Shakespeare. In 2002, Artistic Director Barbara Gaines staged the Theater's first production of the play. Gaines spoke about the timeliness of Love’s Labor’s Lost, “The anniversary of September 11 is near at hand. All of us feel the sweetness of life much more acutely now than a year ago…We have to celebrate what we have.” 

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