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A New Noble Kinsmen: The Play On! Project and Making New Plays Out of Old

by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and Alex N. Vermillion

Originally published in Theatre History Studies, Volume 36, 2017, pp. 231-247 (Article) Published by The University of Alabama Press

When evaluating any play, dramaturgs ask of it: “Why this play? Why this play now?” The answers to these questions are complicated when evaluating the purpose and power of a play that is a retelling of a currently existing dramatic story. What does it mean to make a “new” play out of an “old” play? Why do we need to make a new play out of an old one? This line of questioning belies subtextual questions such as, What is the issue with the older version of the play that hinders an audience’s understanding of or appreciation for the story being told? Has something changed about our society and the way we view the older version of this story that needs to be addressed for the story to resonate with contemporary audiences? How do our answers to these questions shift if we are talking about one of the most revered playwrights of the early modern era? To engage these questions, this article discusses Tim Slover’s “translation” of The Two Noble Kinsmen, commissioned as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project and supported by a workshop and production process at the University of Utah during the 2015–16 and 2016–17 school years. It seeks to document the successes and challenges facing Slover, the dramaturgs, the students at the University of Utah, and the leaders of the Play on! project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) involved in this experiment to modernize the language of the canon of Shakespeare. What adds to the difficulty of this Play on! project is that Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version of The Two Noble Kinsmen is a modernization and dramatization of another “old” text: Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale.” Slover’s translation of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen continues their precedent by making “new” writing out of “old” writing, and that positions his resulting new play as a dramatic metanarrative that continues the bold statement foregrounded by Shakespeare and Fletcher’s original version. We explore these iterations of old and new texts to argue that for the continued relevance and survival of some stories, those stories must be changed and updated as language shifts and evolves. We also challenge a contemporary academic assumption that early modern English is close enough to contemporary English that it is easily understandable to a lay audience. The OSF project sets up a paradoxical task—to preserve Shakespearean text by rewriting it—and therefore opens debate about the general comprehensibility of early modern plays left unchanged, the continued role of Shakespeare in contemporary culture, and the type of newness desired in contemporary American theatre created by focusing on contemporary language.
Slover’s task is a heavy one: The goal of the OSF project is translating Shakespeare’s plays in a way that requires examining the language “with the same kind of rigor and pressure that [Shakespeare] did” and keeping in mind the poetical, metaphorical, and thematic elements of the original text while rediscovering the play in contemporary language.1 Dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers is assisting Slover in an experiment that involves students in the Theatre Department at the University of Utah in pursuing that goal, and already the artists and students are discovering the difficulty of accomplishing this paradoxical task. For example, if the point of the project is to leave as much of the play intact as possible, do precedents such as trimming Shakespeare for time still apply when a production is attached to the commission (and if so, at what point does it venture out of the realm of translation and into the world of adaptation)? In addition, what techniques do actors use to help them determine the meaning and intention behind a line when the verse and punctuation is, for one reason or another, not reinstated in a section of text in the translation? These kinds of dilemmas demonstrate the nuts-and-bolts decisions facing artists at work on Play on! commissions, and they carry particular weight because of the controversy that surrounds OSF’s project.

Controversy over Play on!
From its inception, the OSF’s enormous three-year project has provoked vigorous and thoughtful expressions of support and skepticism from the media, academia, and theatre audiences and practitioners alike. Many critics of OSF’s project express fear that it will replace the original texts and/or that the artists involved are complicit in “dumbing down” the language. James Shapiro, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of critically acclaimed books on Shakespeare such as Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, claims the project is “a waste of money and talent,” arguing that commentary that Shakespeare’s language is “unintelligible goes back to his own day” and that that did not stop audiences from attending the performances.2 As detailed below, the most contested issue in these debates is whether or not Shakespeare’s language presents a legitimate barrier to most contemporary audiences. Green-Rogers takes it as a foundational precept, however, that Shakespeare was not, in fact, writing to confuse, trick, or dazzle audiences with confounding wordplay as evidence of his own cleverness. Shakespeare wrote of subjects familiar to the audiences of his time using both colloquial and very elevated language. The subject and language of his plays were accessible to all who attended the plays or could afford to purchase a copy of a quarto of his work—a quality the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is determined to emulate in their new scripts. In addition, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s partnering with the University of Utah emphasizes how these new texts can be used as a learning tool alongside the original texts to break barriers in the comprehension, especially of verse, and illustrate the historical and performative significance of the older texts.
Despite a rocky start and initial negative publicity, the project has blossomed into a process that Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, states is “about creating a new body of work, one that represents what we hope will be a fruitful encounter between contemporary writers and the English-language dramatist who is frequently considered the greatest that has ever lived.”3 Rauch hopes that, as a result, the project will “specify up” the language of Shakespeare to “excavate some of the specificity and detail that may be lost to contemporary audiences. The clarity we aspire to get from the translations will make us better appreciate the vibrancy of the original.”4 The idea of “specify up” has resonated at the University of Utah, as the students in working on the project with Slover and Green-Rogers debated the nature of the “insanity” of the Jailer’s Daughter (act 3, scene 2). Providing more specific framing for her contexts may allow an actor to make a stronger choice in terms of that character’s development.5 Small revelations like this in the classroom allowed for a better understanding and appreciation of the story that the original text revealed and followed the parameters outlined for the Play on! projects.

Parameters for a New The Two Noble Kinsmen
To each artistic pair invited to participate in the project, OSF Director of Literary Management and Dramaturgy Lue Douthit presented the same challenge, which reflects parameters she developed after pilot “translations” by Ranjit Bolt and Tim Cavendar: “First, do no harm. There is language that will not need translating and some that does. Each team is being asked to examine the play line-by-line and translate to contemporary modern English those lines that need translating. There is to be no cutting or editing of scenes and playwrights may not add their personal politics. Second, put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his. This means the playwright must consider the meter, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor, rhetoric, character action and theme of the original. These translations are not adaptations. Setting, time period and references will remain unchanged.”6 In this same press release, Douthit stated, “‘Translate’ is an inadequate word because it implies a word-for-word substitution, which isn’t what we’re doing. I’m going for something much more subtle. But I like the rigor that ‘translate’ implies. What excites me the most about this is who will dig into these texts.”7 Play on! at its core therefore embraces the idea of creating new writings out of old writings. The artists commissioned by OSF for this project understand that the goal of the project is to create companion texts to Shakespeare’s plays that are meant to help illuminate the original text while also standing on their own as pieces of new writing that may be performed.
In a way that benefits the context for The Two Noble Kinsmen, Slover is known for writing “history plays.”8 As David Ivers, former coartistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, notes about another one of Slover’s plays, March Tale, which is set during the English Renaissance and is about Shakespeare’s troupe, “it’s a very difficult thing to write a period play, and Tim’s natural dexterity with language and understanding of structure make ‘March Tale’ a mustsee.”9 Slover’s skill set includes an ingrained sense of Shakespeare’s history and an understanding and respect for the language, style, and rhythm of Shakespeare. Slover states: “Recent scholarship has focused on Shakespeare as a collaborator with other writers—a subject which also interests me—and The Two Noble Kinsmen certainly fits that category. . . . Many think of The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, but it was The Two Noble Kinsmen that he actually wrote last. What drew him to this final collaboration? What about Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ attracted his attention? Perhaps the answer to these questions can be found in the script, itself.”10
The other half of this artistic pairing is Green-Rogers, one of Slover’s former colleagues at the University of Utah and a freelance dramaturg who works on reimaginings of Shakespeare in performance. Green-Rogers brings to the process of creating a new text a clear reverence and need for understanding the old text, all bathed in a healthy dose of playfulness. She is working on two of the scripts in the Play on! project (The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Comedy of Errors).11
In spring 2016, students in the New Play Workshop course at the University of Utah aided Slover in developing the first draft of the script. His companion piece was workshopped within this class in the way new plays are often workshopped in theatrical settings. This course, taken by students in the BA in theatre studies and the BFA in actor training program at the University of Utah, creates a space in which new plays by playwrights of professional and student backgrounds may have access to student directors, actors, and dramaturgs to facilitate a playwright’s lab experience. Slover and the University of Utah Department of Theatre’s administration felt strongly that it would be ideal to use this pool of actors during the script-creation phase of the project. In fact, many of the people in this class may end up acting in the scheduled spring 2017 production of the play at the University of Utah and could help collaborate on the new language they will eventually present onstage.
Alex Vermillion, a senior in the English Department and a theatre studies minor, is the student dramaturg assigned to aid Green-Rogers on this project. Green-Rogers and Vermillion created a dramaturgical website and workbook that was used to study (and scrutinize) Slover’s language choices. This workbook presents a side-by-side view of the quarto version of the original text, the Arden version of the text, and Slover’s version of the text. This comparison of the three texts allowed Green-Rogers and Vermillion to assess how closely Slover adhered to the rules set by the project during the first draft and may be useful as a pedagogical tool for those studying Shakespeare and Fletcher’s work in comparison to Slover’s modernization. As of this writing, the script for The Two Noble Kinsmen is still in development. An adaptation created specifically for the production (supported by the New Play Workshop class) occurred ahead of the translation of the entire script because of the need to prepare for the spring 2017 production at the University of Utah.

Shakespeare and Language
We ground our process at Utah in the observation that when a playwright creates a new play, as Shakespeare and Fletcher did when they penned The Two Noble Kinsmen, he or she crafts the story, characters, and language with a target audience in mind. These tasks are no different when a playwright translates a classic text; language and adaptation choices must consider the audience. There is an implied contract between the audience and the performance (regardless of whether the performance is a new, contemporary play, or classic text) that the language onstage will not impede the audience’s understanding of the performance, unless the audience is watching in a country in which they do not speak the language. However, as time passes, and the Western canon ages, this implied contract has been broken; words fall into disuse or a word’s denotation or connotation shifts. Examples of these words and phrases in act 3, scene 1 of The Two Noble Kinsmen include: “laund” (clearing), “house-clogs” (shackles), and “gyves” (fetters). Slover replaced the antiquated words with the contemporary words found in the parentheticals and then, if needed, adjusted the sentence to account for its new rhythm. This small action made those lines easier for the students to comprehend during the workshop.
One critique of the objectives of Play on! is that audiences are already able to understand Shakespeare’s words, through either sufficient education and preparation or simply by dint of clear and vivid performances. Yet, the fact that we do have, and need, specialized training and additional books when it comes to understanding, theorizing, and performing Shakespearean texts serves as the proof that the Bard’s language is not as natural and comprehensible as some argue. And in fact, this challenge with regard to language has, perhaps, shaped The Two Noble Kinsmen from its inception: Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was written in the 1380s, during a period of transition between Old English and Middle English, and Chaucer used words from these two types of English interchangeably in this work. For this reason, by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Chaucer’s use of language may have been as confusing to those studying and reading his work during the English Renaissance as Shakespeare’s early modern English is to some now.
In addition, Shakespeare was using language that was “new” to his audience as well. He transformed nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, was liberal and creative in his use of prefixes and suffixes, and, on occasion, created new words entirely.12 However, while noting Shakespeare’s creation of “new” language that we continue to use, we must also recognize that there are words Shakespeare created (or used liberally) that have crept out of common usage. Those words leave us with a gap in terms of meaning and understanding in the language of Shakespeare’s plays, just as a gap existed between Chaucer’s tale and Shakespeare and Fletcher’s reimagining of that text. What, in theory, Play on! hopes to achieve is the same feeling of “newness” of The Two Noble Kinsmen from Shakespeare’s time period for a contemporary audience by embracing modern slang (when appropriate), updating archaic terminology, and searching for equivalent and effective idioms, just as Shakespeare and Fletcher did with the text of Chaucer, thereby bringing subtle or hidden jokes in Shakespearean texts to life with language modern audiences will understand and embrace.
Take, for example, 2.3, when the Jailer arrives to inform Palamon that he must move jail cells because the windows “are too open,” making him a flight risk.13 Palamon resists this move because it would mean he would not be able to see the garden, and therefore, the woman he has fallen for, Emilia, when she is out for a walk. The Jailer threatens him with additional shackling and Palamon’s response in the original text is “Do, good keeper!/ I’ll shake ’em so, ye shall not sleep; I’ll make ye a new morris” (274–76). Slover’s translation turns that line into “Then I’d shake them so loud you’ll never sleep—I’d Morris dance in them!” This small shift in language allows for a clearer understanding of the joke (that Palamon is referring to a dance with the word “morris”). Even if a reader is not familiar with a “Morris dance,” the clue that it is a dance will allow a reader (or performer) to infer that the joke is born out of the noise the chains would make during that type of dance (not just the shaking of the chains that the first part of that line sequence implies). This embedded help in understanding Palamon’s statement allows a production to avoid removing the line “I’ll make ye a new morris” or delivering a “bad joke” (which may happen in a production of the original text) and allows a reader to understand what is occurring without having to look for a footnote, an endnote, or a dictionary.14
Despite the clarity that has come from these changes, there have also been challenges with the language in translation. During the New Play Workshop class, there were numerous instances in which the dialogue between the two lead characters, Palamon and Arcite, felt stilted. Changes were made to no avail. However, some dramaturgical digging held the key to the problem. Later in the process, it was discovered that Slover’s translation had removed the verse and shared lines in those passages. Dialogue that was meant to be rapid fire was being delivered at a much slower and unmeasured pace, which detracted from the emotion of the scene. Although the changes to the verse and shared lines will remain in the adaptation performed at the University of Utah in 2017, discussion about the translation text and how these lines will read in the final version submitted to the Play on! project is ongoing.

From Language to History
Translating the language of a historical text can be interpreted as an act of violence against the history and context of the play. Changing a term from its original language loses the cultural and historical vocabulary of that period. However, Shakespeare, by manipulating some of the historical events represented in his plays, also played with the “old” way of telling history and made way for a “new” manner of viewing these events. Felix C. H. Sprang says that Shakespeare’s histories “invited early modern Londoners to position themselves as ‘modern’ vis-a-vis ancient Rome and medieval England. . . . His late plays seemed less concerned with ‘medieval’ themes or ideas than with an exploration of narrative structures and generic boundaries.”15 Through his writing, Shakespeare sought to do what many modern directors and playwrights aim to do when producing historical plays: Tell a story with a setting and characters so fully realized that any new or unfamiliar information becomes an easily digested part of a compelling, propulsive narrative. After all, for the audience one of the most seductive pleasures of a play is being transported to locations and situations far outside themselves, and Shakespeare accomplished this by taking on the role of educator as well as entertainer. For instance, Shakespeare often has a minor character enter his plays first (e.g., Rumor, in Henry IV, Part II) to capture the rather rowdy and loud audience. During these speeches, the minor characters provide the audience with background information for the play they are about to watch. If a contemporary audience of a Shakespeare play is prevented from understanding the historical background provided by this opening speech, due to a language barrier, then the meaning and the reception of the production is threatened (since a contemporary audience does not have the information needed to understand the play as members of Shakespeare’s audience would have).
In the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a contemporary audience’s ability to understand the language of the play is troubled from the start because of the stylistic differences between Shakespeare and his Chaucerian source text. Chaucer used didactic repetition and little to no imagery and saved old stories by rewriting them as literature, while Shakespeare used repetition for style or to set the mood, combined history with modern stories to dramatize them for his audience, and provided many details about the setting of his scenes. Although they both used historical sources from classical Greek and Roman literature, Chaucer was more likely than Shakespeare to reference his sources in his works. While Chaucer and Shakespeare both spoke and wrote in English, there were significant differences in language and language structure between the late 1300s and early 1600s—much like Shakespeare’s language differs greatly from our modern language, owing to the four-hundred-year gap between Shakespeare and the writing of this article. Slover embraces these precedents to bring the world that Chaucer began and Shakespeare and Fletcher dramatized to contemporary audiences.
Shakespeare took a risk, just as Slover and the other playwrights participating in the Play on! project are doing, by incorporating twists on words and meanings that move between historical and linguistic contexts. Peggy A. Knapp, in Time-Bound Words: Semantic and Social Economies from Chaucer’s England to Shakespeare’s, states: “Semantic and social changes must be seen in a dynamic and fluid relationship, in which new social formations modify the range or inflection of verbal signs and those signs in turn impel or retard social change,. . . . for example, the shift from a primary meaning for thrift as feudal proprietary to one which stressed economic frugality under Calvinist influence. But other kinds of semantic participation in social transformation are more gradual and diffuse. Kynde, for example, slowly loses its medieval connection with kin, and its early modern spelling kind begins to appear as the neutral ‘category’ or ‘sort,’ in an intellectual climate inclining toward systematicity and away from birthright.”16 The words in Knapp’s study are “bound to and bounded by the social formation in which they occur, the horizon of what is imaginable in a particular time and place,” and because they are bound by time and place, they are “headed somewhere—not necessarily for glory. . . . but headed for new territory.”17 Words continually change because they are signifiers. Language is not natural or inherent; Shakespeare knew this, and the artists involved in Play on! are tasked with taking great care to preserve the deep meaning and significance conveyed by every aspect of Shakespeare’s language and legacy.
Moreover, because The Two Noble Kinsmen is an adaptation itself of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” Shakespeare and Fletcher begin the text by establishing that adaptation is a boon, rather than a liability, in the creative process. In the prologue of the play, they state:

New plays and maidenheads are near akin: Much followed both, for both much money gi’en, If they stand sound and well. And a good play, Whose modest scenes blush on his marriage day And shake to lose his honour, is like her
That after holy tie and first night’s stir
Yet still is Modesty and still retains
More of the maid, to sight, than husband’s pains. We pray our play may be so, for I am sure
It has a noble breeder and a pure,
A learned, and a poet never went
More famous yet ‘twixt Po and silver Trent. Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives; There, constant to eternity, it lives.
If we let fall the nobleness of this
And the first sound this child hear be a hiss, How will it shake the bones of that good man And make him cry from under ground, ‘Oh, fan From me the witless chaff of such a writer
That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood!. . . 18

Alex Davis’s article “Living in the Past: Thebes, Periodization, and The Two Noble Kinsmen” establishes that “the point of the prologue of The Two Noble Kinsmen is to stage a form of historical awareness that is predicated on a sense of the difference of the past. And yet, perhaps the most immediately striking thing about these lines is just how lightly they historicize the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer. . . . Chaucer is presented as above all grave and noble: a laureate poet. . . . He is presented, in fact, as something like an English Petrarch.”19 That kind of reverence for Chaucer is lampooned and yet still supported by Shakespeare and Fletcher. This attitude remains in Slover’s translation, since Slover is evoking the same sense of the difference from the past to which Davis refers. Slover’s translation of The Two Noble Kinsmen participates in this lineage of positive “adaptation” across history, as illustrated by Slover’s reworking of that same section of text:

New plays and new brides are much the same:
Both much desired and both expensive to maintain. And a play, if good, when first it meets your sight
Is like the blushing bride after her blissful opening night: Happy, modest, content, and smiling a lot
A good new play, like her, is again as eagerly sought.
This one’s father was a poet of fame: Geoffrey Chaucer, lively and profound This story was his and bears his name. Ours is its child, and if the sound
That first it hears is hiss of blame,
His voice will cry from underground,
Who threats to blast my poet’s crown?”20
Although Slover is prohibited from lampooning Shakespeare and Fletcher’s lampooning of Chaucer in his translation, due to the rules of the Play on! project, the humor in this moment was not lost on the students working with Slover and Green-Rogers on the translation. Students chuckled during their first read of Slover’s script, getting the joke that might have been lost on them had they been reading the original text.

Which Story Is Being Told?
A final problem for new plays made out of old ones concerns the potential for changes to the through lines of the plot and characters. The Two Noble Kinsmen combines factual history with mythological figures from ancient Greece; it begins with three queens whose husbands have been killed in battle by Creon of Thebes. Creon is an evil tyrant who refuses to properly bury the kings. The queens plead with Theseus and Hippolyta, the rulers of Athens, to avenge their husbands’ deaths, and he accepts their request. As history imparts, Ancient Thebes fought for its freedom for many years, going back and forth as enemies and allies of Sparta. During this time, Thebes invited Philip II of Macedon to aid in their fight, but once given power Philip II decides to conquer Thebes for himself and rule Thebes with his son, Alexander the Great. However, in 335 BCE, the citizens revolt against Alexander the Great and Philip II, which results in Alexander the Great and Philip II destroying the city and subjecting the Thebans to slavery. The citizens revolt again in 292 BCE, ushering in the Siege of Thebes.21 It is this battle that the three queens allude to in The Two Noble Kinsmen.
This source material raises a question: which version of the story is being adapted by Shakespeare and how does that affect what Slover is translating? Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” is not the first literary account of the Siege of Thebes in the manner described in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Boccaccio first retold the story of Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia (characters found in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version) in his epic poem Teseida delle Nozze d’Emilia (1340). Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales at some point in the 1380s and “read a number of works by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75) in this period, and as his poetry grew increasingly ambitious he turned to Boccaccio again and again for source material and inspiration.”22 Richard Allan Underwood notes that Shakespeare’s adaptation is more similar to Chaucer’s than to Boccaccio’s. Underwood states that “the Theseus character in Boccaccio is relatively kind,” “Chaucer’s Theseus is a sterner figure,” and “Shakespeare’s Theseus is more complex.”23 He goes on to state, “Shakespeare’s depiction of Theseus begins in public spectacle. . . . In Fletcher’s scenes especially . . . Theseus is forever marveling at the combatants who will help decide which man marries Emilia. . . . On the other hand, as in Chaucer, he is an angry Theseus who must be knelt to. . . . Shakespeare’s Theseus of The Two Noble Kinsmen is often arrogant and angry, impatient to dispose of Emilia.”24
Shakespeare and Fletcher’s characters resemble those of Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” more so than those of Boccaccio’s Teseida. The character of Emilia, for example, gains more autonomy with each revision/adaptation of her story. Although Boccaccio’s Emilia may possess more “three-dimensionality”25 in a literal sense, it is Chaucer who deemphasizes Emilia’s physical description and chooses instead to shape her character through voice and dialogue. Chaucer’s Emilia delivers a full-length speech to the goddess Diana, in which she prays to keep her virginity. Dissatisfied with a mere three descriptive dimensions or, indeed, a single impassioned speech, Shakespeare picks up where Chaucer left off. The Emilia of The Two Noble Kinsmen is active, complex, likable, and opinionated. She delivers multiple speeches and openly speaks of the love she feels with one of her ladies. Her “decision to be a participant is crucial to her role in the play. . . . Shakespeare goes beyond Boccaccio and Chaucer in having her think feelingly of other women who will condemn her [for the bloodshed of these two cousins].”26 The nuances of how these characters have evolved into Shakespeare and Fletcher’s version must remain in Slover’s script, because the rules of the Play on! project discourage Slover from shifting the characters in his own ways. Although this prevents Slover from following in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s footsteps in terms of bringing something new to his version of the story, it also underlines the importance of Slover’s work as a companion text. Slover’s text allows a reader to more easily understand the adjustments Shakespeare and Fletcher made to the characters in this story from an English Renaissance perspective when compared to Chaucer’s text.
Shakespeare and Fletcher combined the previous versions of this story to add dimension to the characters, to provide more historical context, and to bring a story to life by adapting these poems into a play. Created for Jacobean audiences, The Two Noble Kinsmen provided a story that incorporates themes of love, honor, lust, kinship, and virginity—all of which lent urgency, currency, and entertainment value to a familiar tale. However, for Shakespeare to adapt Chaucer’s works (or indeed, for Chaucer to adapt Boccaccio’s), the process had to begin with an in-depth understanding of the language of the original text and from there start the process of making new texts out of the old writing. Created for twenty-first-century audiences, Slover’s new The Two Noble Kinsmen begins with a similar in-depth understanding of the source text to create, again, a new text from the old.

Performance History and the Future of Kinsmen
The performance history, or lack thereof, of The Two Noble Kinsmen illustrates how a text and the perceptions of that text can impede the performance of a play and exacerbate confusions in audience comprehension. Called “a deeply flawed play” by people such as Michael Kahn, the artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Two Noble Kinsmen has within the past fifty years begun to fascinate Shakespeare scholars and performers more. Despite high-profile productions such as the one at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016, the play still suffers from the stigma of being one of the last plays of debatable Shakespearean authorship.27 The editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s most recent publication of the play, Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, acknowledge the difficulties this play presents, stating that people who do not have a background in Latin or poetry would “need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structure and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with the words in the play.”28 For this reason, producers of Shakespeare tend to shy away from this play, despite the growing enthrallment. Even the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has produced this play only once, in 1994, as an additional piece, because they do not view it as part of the canon.29
Despite this play’s complicated authorship and production history, OSF decided to include it in Shakespeare’s canon when selecting works for the Play on! project. In an interview, Douthit explained the reasoning behind the play’s inclusion: “There have been other plays that some scholars have been advocating for [inclusion in Shakespeare’s canon] but Edward III and The Two Noble Kinsmen seemed the most legitimate not only in terms of language but in production history with Shakespeare’s company. . . . There is something about the feel of the play that I think is in Shakespeare’s wheelhouse. . . . Formally, it ranges all over the place, and has a bit of a throwback to the morality plays that influenced Shakespeare at the beginning of his career. I liked the fact that he returns to his early morality roots infused with the Jacobean masques.”30 Slover’s journey toward creating a companion text for this play begins from this place of revering the text, its history, its range, and the lack of attention shone upon it.
Adhering to the rules of the project has so far presented the playwright and dramaturgs with many challenges, but these are challenges they all embrace. As Slover states, “The most challenging aspect has been working with archaic metaphors in the dialogue. They are not likely to communicate sense and meaning to a contemporary audience—and moreover, the concepts that the metaphors are being employed to make vivid are also likely to be obscure. In those cases the policy I have adopted is to create both metaphors and the ideas which are being illuminated that are as close as possible to the originals but more likely to communicate to a modern audience in performance.” Resultantly, Emilia’s line in 1.3 of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s original text—“Thanks, sir. Remember me / To our all-royal brother, for whose speed/ The great Bellona I’ll solicit; and, / Since in our terrene state petitions are not/ Without gifts understood, I’ll offer to her / What I shall be advised she likes. Our hearts / Are in his army, in his tent”31— becomes in Slover’s text “I thank you, sir. Remember me to my royal almost brother-in-law. For his sake I go to lay on the altar of the great Goddess of War whatever gifts she likes best. Our hearts are in his army, in his tent.”32 The students in the New Play Workshop class noticed how much easier it was to comprehend that passage in Slover’s version, and this made the students even more interested in comparing the original with Slover’s text.
Despite these challenges, the process of excavating Shakespeare and Fletcher’s use of language is proving to be a rewarding exercise. Slover continues, “In accordance with guidance from Lue Douthit—and my own inclination—I have adopted as a guiding principle being very respectful to the script as written. What that means is that my goals are always simply clarification and ‘dramatization,’ that is, making the new script both accessible and playable without changing the content, characters, or tone. J. R. R. Tolkien writes usefully about the need for employing heightened language when writing modern fairy stories. The Two Noble Kinsmen is akin to a fairytale, and so, I believe, calls for that kind of language.”33 Slover’s employment of fairy tale–like language in his script becomes apparent in the Jailer’s Daughter’s speech in 2.1.: “They seem to think no more about their captivity than I think about ruling Athens. They have good appetites, they’re cheerful, they talk together of many subjects—but never of their shackles or misfortunes. Every now and then, one or the other begins to sigh, but stifles it quickly. And then the other rebukes it so gently and sweetly that I could wish I was that sigh—or, better yet, someone to be so rebuked.”34
Play on! has its own deadline for delivery of the final The Two Noble Kinsmen script, December 31, 2018, but Slover accelerated his process to meet the public reading of his version of The Two Noble Kinsmen, in April 2016, and the production in April 2017. Slover and Green-Rogers found that working with student actors to facilitate the crafting of language during the process was invaluable. Some students remarked that they entered the process assuming the language would be easier to deliver because it was modernized, only to realize that because Slover followed Shakespeare and Fletcher in employing heightened language, they needed the same skills they were learning in their Shakespeare class to perform Slover’s text. This information was useful not only to Slover but also to the Play on! project, in terms of the efficacy of the rules in place for the project. We learned that the rules of the Play on! project also function to maintain the rigor of the language.
The controversial premise and launch of Play on! does not seem to affect the energy and excitement of the students working on the project at the University of Utah—and for that reason, the project may be well on its way to achieving its goal of inspiring a new love of Shakespeare (and a new text), as desired by the David Hitz, Lue Douthit, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Most importantly, in the New Play Workshop class at the University of Utah, the irony is not lost on any of the participants that a process normally used to support the development of “new” texts has now become an avenue by which a deep engagement with an “old” text may occur.

1. “Play on! Further Reading,” Oregon Shakespeare Festival, accessed March 5, 2016, https:// www.osfashland.org/experience-osf/upcoming/play-on/play-on-faq.aspx.
2. James Shapiro, “Shakespeare in Modern English?” New York Times, October 7, 2015, https:// www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/opinion/shakespeare-in-modern-english.html.
3. Bill Rauch, “Why We’re Translating Shakespeare,” American Theatre, October 14, 2015, http:// www.americantheatre.org/2015/10/14/bill-rauch-why-were-translating-shakespeare/.
4. Ibid.
5. During the class, the students spent time debating whether the Jailer’s Daughter was going
insane because of her love for Palamon or whether she began to play “insane” because of the situation she had put herself and her father in by releasing Palamon without Theseus’s consent. Many students felt that the clarity that came with Slover’s translation of 3.2. placed the Jailer’s Daughter character on a clearer path as to why she acts the way she does later in the play.
6. “OSF Launches Three-Year Shakespeare Translation Commissioning Project,” Oregon Shakespeare Festival, accessed October 14, 2015, https://www.osfashland.org/pressroom/press-releases/play-on.aspx. In April 2014, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival
{ 245 }

presented Cavander’s Timon of Athens. This was the watershed moment for the project. Rick Harmon of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote in his review of the production, “Cavander has streamlined this plot, which strengthens its characters. At the same time, he has made the lines more understandable to modern audiences while retaining the feel and eloquence of Shakespeare’s language.” Rick Harmon, “Review: ASF’s ‘Timon’ premiere superb.” Montgomery Advertiser, May 7, 2014, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser. com/story/life/2014/05/01/review-asfs-timon-premiere-superb/8589499/.
7. Douthit, qtd. in “OSF Launches Three-Year Shakespeare Translation Commissioning Project.”
8. Ellen Fagg Weist, “Utah Playwright Makes Shakespeare’s Love Story Come Alive,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 14, 2016, http://www.sltrib.com/home/3391564-155/utah-playwrightmakes-shakespeares-love-story.
9. Ibid.
10. Timothy Slover, e-mail communication with Green-Rogers, February 26, 2016.
11. Christina Anderson is the playwright on the Play on! translation of The Comedy of Errors. 12. Rachael Scarborough King, “Coined by Shakespeare? Think again,” Boston Globe, August
18, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/08/17/coined-shakespeare-think-
again/tWFE6b8qTD5gnybL5fOn8H/story.html. 13. Line 265.
14. The authors acknowledge that some of this confusion could be cleared up in a performance by way of the actor performing a piece of a morris dance. However, this does not clear up this confusion for someone reading the original text rather than viewing its performance. This small shift in the language clears up the ambiguity no matter how you encounter Slover’s text (on the page or on the stage).
15. Felix C. H. Sprang. “Never Fortune Did Play A Subtler Game.” European Journal Of English Studies 15, no. 2 (2011): 115, accessed January 5, 2016, doi:10.1080/13825577.2011.566692.
16. Peggy A. Knapp, Time-Bound Words: Semantic and Social Economies from Chaucer’s England to Shakespeare’s (London: MacMillan, 2000), 6.
17. Ibid., 8.
18. John Fletcher, William Shakespeare, and Lois Potter, The Arden Shakespeare: The Two Noble
Kinsmen (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 117–78.
19. Alex Davis. “Living in the Past: Thebes, Periodization, and the Two Noble Kinsmen.” Jour-
nal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 40, no. 1 (2010): 173–95, accessed January 5,
2016, doi: 10.1215/10829636-2009-018.
20. Timothy Slover, The Two Noble Kinsmen, draft, June 27, 2016.
21. See A History of Macedonia: 336–167 B.C., by Hammond and Walbank, for more informa-
tion about the Siege of Thebes.
22. Geoffrey Chaucer and David Wright, The Canterbury Tales, Oxford World’s Classics
(London: Oxford University Press, 1986), xiii.
23. Richard Allen Underwood, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Its Beginnings, (Salzburg, Austria:
Salzburg University, 1993), 11–12. 24. Ibid., 13.
25. Ibid., 14.
26. Ibid., 19.
27. John Pancake, “Shakespeare’s ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ a Pleasant Surprise to Find—
and Watch,” Washington Post, August 19, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/ { 246 }

28. William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” ed. Barbara A. Mowat
and Paul Werstine, The Folger Shakespeare Library (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010),
29. Lue Douthit, e-mail communication with Green-Rogers, August 24, 2016.
30. Ibid., February 15, 2016.
31. Lois Potter, “The Two Noble Kinsmen/John Fletcher and William Shakespeare,” MLA In-
ternational Bibliography, EBSCOhost, accessed August 27, 2016.
32. Timothy Slover, The Two Noble Kinsmen, first draft, March 27, 2016.
33. Timothy Slover, e-mail communication with Green-Rogers, March 2016. 34. Timothy Slover, The Two Noble Kinsmen, first draft, March 27, 2016.

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Martine Kei Green-Rogers

Dramaturg, Comedy of Errors, Coriolanus, Henry VI Pt. 1, Two Noble Kinsmen


MARTINE KEI GREEN-ROGERS is an Assistant Professor at SUNY: New Paltz, a freelance dramaturg, and the President of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.

Her dramaturgical credits include: The Greatest with the Louisville Orchestra, Fences and One Man, Two Guvnors at Pioneer Theatre Company; Clearing Bombs and Nothing Personal at Plan-B Theatre; the Classical Theatre Company’s productions of Uncle Vanya, Antigone, Candida, Ghosts, Tartuffe, and Shylock, The Jew of Venice; Sweat at the Goodman; productions of Radio Golf, Five Guys Named Moe, Blues for An Alabama Sky, Gem of the Ocean, Waiting for Godot, Iphigenia at Aulis, Seven GuitarsThe Mountaintop, Home, and Porgy and Bess at the Court Theatre; The Clean House at CATCO; Hairspray, The Book of Will, Shakespeare in Love, UniSon, Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, Comedy of ErrorsTo Kill A Mockingbird, The African Company Presents Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Fences at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; 10 Perfect and The Curious Walk of the Salamander as part of the 2006 and 2007 Madison Repertory Theatre’s New Play Festival; and A Thousand Words as part of the 2008 WI Wrights New Play Festival.

She also works with the Great Plains Theatre Conference and is affiliated with NNPN.

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Alex Vermillion


Alex Vermillion is a dramaturg, performance artist, and artistic producer....

Alex Vermillion is a dramaturg, performance artist, and artistic producer. Zir dramaturgy credits include HENRY VI, PART III, BLUES FOR MISS LUCILLE, THE SEAGULL, and WAIT…NOW, WHAT?! at the Yale School of Drama; THE RULES and RE:UNION at the Yale Cabaret; COUNTING PEBBLES with Faultline Ensemble; THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, and ROMEO AND JULIET at the University of Utah; and THE TEMPEST at the Utah Children’s Theater. Alex’s recent performance credits include NON-PLAYER CHARACTER and zir new play titled FOR YOUR EYES ONLY at the Yale Cabaret. Over the past year, Alex has served as a Managing Editor at THEATER magazine. In the coming year, Alex will serve as Co-Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret. Alex will be completing zir M.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama in 2020. Alex received zir B.A. in English at the University of Utah in 2016.

Pronouns: ze/zir/zirs

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