First Things First: Successful Interpretation Starts With The Given Circumstances


In crafting a formal geometric proof, one first identifies the givens.  XY is a line segment bisected at point Z.  ABC is a right triangle.  Interpreting a play works much the same way.  Before the numerous creative choices can be made regarding design, performance, and staging, theatre artists gather up the sure facts of the play, the given circumstances.

Given circumstances are the relevant data composing the initial stasis of the drama.  Background information, in other words.  What has happened before the play begins to bring about the current state of affairs?  This includes basic setting information – where is the action taking place? – and also everything we know about the characters’ histories.

Some plays, particularly modern ones, offer very little in explicit GCs.  Grab a Beckett play, for example, and you are unlikely to learn much for certain about the characters or world beyond what occurs in the course of the play itself.  What happened to the outside world in Endgame?  How long have Hamm and Clov been down there?  Other modern works, particularly in the naturalistic style, dole out information so sparingly across the play that you often don’t discover key information until quite late.

Classical and Elizabethan plays, by contrast, tend to be quite generous with their GCs.  Often they come tumbling out in monologues at the start of the show (Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity…”) or in clear interpolations as new characters or plot developments are introduced (Antony and Cleopatra: Act I Scene IV, in which a messenger updates Octavius Caesar with all the latest intelligence from sea, while Caesar himself shares with us knowledge of how Antony used to be).

Although GCs may be finessed, in some cases, or de-emphasized under a particular interpretation, ignoring them may lead to sloppy, discordant work.  Imagine an actor crafting a performance of Mary Tyrone ignorant of all sense of who she was before her addiction.  Picture a director blocking Hamlet without any respect for the fact that the lead character is royalty.  Think of the dissonance of a Penelope in which neither actors nor designers acknowledge that these four men are the last remaining after the slaughter of more than one hundred competitors.

How could a mathematician establish a proof while ignoring her givens?

It is common in revisiting older plays to treat the period and setting as elastic.  Romeo and Juliet is rarely staged in a specifically 16th century Verona (given the conventions of Elizabethan theatre, one could well argue this was the case even in its initial production).  However, conscientious theatre artists do well to draw their “Verona” from textual and historical clues as to the kind of setting Shakespeare had in mind.  Regardless of architecture and dress, a “Verona” without urban violence, factionalism, and religion will not serve the story.  Similarly, a Measure For Measure need not be faithful to Vienna itself, but had better well be set in a city defined by vice, otherwise the actions of its major characters will be poorly understood.

Once the foundation of GCs has been established, strong choices may be made.  If the Poet of An Iliad has truly been wandering since the time of the Trojan War, what sorts of clothes might he be wearing now?  Perhaps he has picked up new musical instruments along the way.  Maybe his relationship to the Muse or to his audience has changed…

If Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy is the kind of man who worked his way from field hand to overseer to sole owner of the most fertile piece of land in the delta, then how might he react to his own frailty, to the ill-disguised machinations of those around him?  How does he stand?  And what do his hands feel like?  What does it suggest about the play as a whole that two of the central figures – Big Daddy and Maggie – have clawed their way up from modest roots?

If Chekhov’s cherry orchard is so beloved by his older characters, so full of memories of a faded youth, how might it appear on-stage?  Does it retain its beauty, confirming the perspective of that generation?  Has it become shabby and haunted, perhaps suggesting a different point of view?  Ought it to be represented abstractly, a scene hovering over the hearts of each character, ambiguous in form?  Many exciting solutions are possible, but only once the stated facts are taken into account.

And that is the way shows are designed, performed, and directed: one carefully considered interpretive act following another, building to a final, rock-solid form, made possible on the basis of given circumstances.  QED.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager