Gus Cuddy | Essays:

On textual fidelity

14 November 2018

Peacham Peacham Drawing

The original production of Ibsen’s A Doll House caused quite a controversy. People were shocked by its empowering ending. Near-riots ensued.

But if you were, in 2018, to literally replicate this production (for argument’s sake in NYC, but really anywhere), it would be a complete disaster.

Many conservative thinkers think they are being more faithful to Ibsen by trying to be completely true to the literal letter of the play, including doing whatever it takes to get to “how it was” when it was it was first done. These productions involve period dress, stilted acting and accents, and a general feeling of Deadness. But while these productions might be staying true to the letter, they are completely vandalizing the spirit.

The spirit of the original Doll’s House involved controversy and shock, a feeling of disquiet and uncertainty. (This is why Ostermeier ended his with a shotgun.) If you put up a production that bores us to tears, you simply don’t understand the play.

This, of course, isn’t even to mention that every production of Ibsen we do in English is, in some way, an adaptation. It is shocking to me how much fidelity some theatre artists have to a stodgy translation of Ibsen or Chekhov from the early 20th century. These are the worst of the worst, academic translations that maybe worked then but ring completely false to our ears now. We need to find what the original electricity was, and try to convert it for today:

[This production] is faithful to the spirit rather than to the letter of the original thing. And the spirit is more important, because what we don’t have is a 458 BC audience; we have a now audience, and my responsibility is to keep them captivated and interested. I keep giving this analogy to everyone of adaptation being like a plug adaptor. So you’re standing in a room and your hair’s wet, and you’re holding a hairdryer. You try and plug it in but it doesn’t work. You can try and hammer it in if you want but you’re still going to have wet hair. You’re confident that the thing you’re holding in your hand, the old thing you’re holding, can dry your hair, if only you can get the energy present in the room into the old thing. That’s what it’s like with an old play sometimes…If I can find a way of reworking the way it connects with the room so that it comes alive, suddenly it feels like it felt in 458 BC again, one hopes.

– Robert Icke

In adaptations, we will never get it totally “true”. This is part of the beauty of theatre—it takes place now, in this place.

Even Shakespeare realized this: just look at the famous Peacham drawing of Titus Andronicus – Shakespeare realized that modern dress, and the spirit of the thing, was more important than the literal letter (i.e. literally setting it entirely in the Roman Empire).