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Directing the Concept:A Question of Interpretation

By Edward Isser


The recent production history of Measure for Measure illustrates the centrality of a director's vision in shaping an audience's understanding (or sometimes misunderstanding) of the play. Few works have been viewed in such radically different ways in so short a span of time. In addition, few plays have such a pivotal turning point as the last image of Measure when Duke Vincentio proposes marriage to Isabel. Ralph Berry asserts that the "play's litmus quality" depends on this final action.

In the Folio text, Shakespeare offers modem directors no hints as to how this moment should be staged. The final speech of the Duke offers a multitude of staging possibilities:

Slandering a Prince deferues it.
She Claudio that you wrong'd, looke you reftore.
Ioy to you Mariana, loue her Angelo:
I haue confes'd her, and I know her vertue.
Thanks good friend, Efcalus, for thy much goodneffe,
There's more behinde that is more gratulate.
Thanks Provost for thy care, and fecrecie,
We fhall imploy thee in a worthier place.
Forgiue him Angelo, that brought you home
The head of Ragozine for Claudio's,
Th'offence pardons it felfe. Deere Isabell,
I haue a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you'll a willing eare incline;
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.
So bring vs to our Pallace, where wee'll fhow
What's yet behinde, that meete you all fhould know

In production, choices have to be made and illustrated to bring closure to the play. A quick scan of major productions in the past 30 years reveals an emerging set of patterns that correlate to specific conceptual decisions. These choices fall under three main groupings: The traditional (Isabella accepts the Duke), the ambiguous (lights fade before a choice is made or the other actors exit leaving Isabella alone on stage) or the radical (Isabella clearly rejects the proposal of the Duke). Berry's study looked at two versions that used ambiguous, but pointed endings--David Giles's 1969 Stratford, Ontario, production and John Barton¹s 1970 RSC version. In both, Isabella was left alone on the stage. Although she did not explicitly reject the Duke, there was little doubt that she had no desire to join him. The only overtly radical version noted by Berry was Jonathan Miller's Greenwich Theatre production in 1975 where Isabella clearly refuses the Duke¹s proposal.

Since 1975, the ambiguous ending has fallen into disfavor, with the majority of directors opting for the clarity offered by either a traditional or radical approach. Jerry Turner (Oregon Shakespeare Festival: 1977), Will Huddleston (Berkeley Shakespeare Festival: 1977), and Deborah Warner (Kick Theatre, Edinburgh: 1984) left no doubt that Isabella rejected the Duke at the end of the play. A number of directors--though opting for the traditional ending--tried to add a level of ambiguity by creating a long pause before Isabella accepted the Duke's proposal. This device was used by Carl Johnson in 1980 at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Trevor Nunn in his 1991 RSC production, and Steven Pimlot in his 1994 RSC production. Pimlot went a step fiuther by having Isabella slap the Duke before embracing him. The ambiguous ending was used by Michael Langham in his Stratford, Ontario, production in 1992. Langham, however, brought the lights down immediately after the Duke's proposal--so that it was not so much ambiguous as confusing.

Contrary to Berry's thesis--that feminism has caused a rethinking of Measure--the vast majority of recent productions have embraced the traditional ending. In fact, a number of productions have been almost retrograde. In Barry Kyle's 1978 RSC production, Isabella was a sexual siren so enthusiastic about the Duke's offer that the second proposal was unnecessary. Friedrich Beyer's 1980 production at the Stadtheater in Basel, Switzerland, created a romantic moment at the end with the Duke and Isabella alone on the stage--embracing, and Joseph Papp's production in 1985 at the NYSF was a knockabout comedy.

These radically different staging choices all have textual support. The ambiguities and uncertaintities surrounding Measure--as a so-called "problem play"; as a work that delves into incendiary sexual politics; and as a piece with so many contemporary resonances--leaves little interpretative wiggle room. Directors must embrace one of these clear cut staging choices.

* * *

John Barton makes a compelling argument in Playing Shakespeare that merely changing the period or location of a play does not constitute creative conceptualization. A change in locale or century may provide easy staging dividends and may seem to be creative, but it often serves only to add a layer between the text and the audience, a filter that obfuscates and avoids difficult interpretative choices. Barton argues that such arbitrary decisions "can be glib solutions if a director and designer seize on it without really and honestly working out the implications" (Playing Shakespeare London: Methuen, 1984: 186).

Such a dynamic is at play in the production history of Measure for Measure. In the past twenty years the play has been set in a wide variety of locales in varying historical periods: l7th century America (Thomas Collin's 1980 production at the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival); a punk rock Vienna (Caroline Eve's 1980 production at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts); a Weimar cabaret (Jean Pierre de Drecker's 1981 production in Ghent); 18th century Vienna (Adrian Noble's 1983 RSC production); contemporary Vienna (Michael Bogdanov's 1985 production at Stratford, Ontario); contemporary America (R. Jeffrey Cohen's 1988 production at the Rapp Resident Theatre in New York); 1920's Vienna (Michael Kahn's 1992 production at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre); and, most bizarre, on a spaceship that suggested George Lucas's Star Wars (Judith William's 1979 production at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival).

Directing the Concept: An Exercise

A play's concept (or vision, interpretation, spine, style, or fable) is derived from a director's idiosyncratic reading of the text. Long before critics enunciated the ideas of reception theory, theater practitioners realized that there was no such thing as an ur-text: authorial intentionality was impossible to derive, and Elizabethan reception of the Bard's works were, for the most part, irrelevant or irrecoverable to modern audiences. Consequently, the director became an essential part of the interpretive process.

A valid, organic concept is not imposed upon a dramatic text, but rather is derived from the director's understanding of the play. The concept becomes a bridge between the written word and actual performance--the span between reading and telling--filtered through the consciousness and life experiences of the director.


Students can be taught how to arrive at a concept. Such pedagogical exercises should liberate the imagination of students and encourage their creativity. First and foremost, teachers must make clear to students that there is no absolute right or wrong in the process; at the same time, they must teach the students to distinguish between the facile and the insightful. Fundamental staging choices--period and decor--create chain reactions that dictate numerous subsequent directorial decisions. They become the first of many dominoes that fall in successive order.

EXERCISE 1: Reading the Play 1: The Narrative Outline

Instruct the students to set down on paper a detailed narrative outline of all major actions that occur in the play (or for the sake of brevity, one individual scene). Advise the students to be as objective as possible, to add nothing whatsoever except what is explicitly in the text, and to avoid any interpretative or opinionated expressions.

EXERCISE 2: Reading the Play 2: The Narrative Summation

Instruct students to put their narrative outline into prose form and impose a strict limit of one paragraph per scene. This forces the students to telescope their reading and to begin choosing what are the essential elements and moments. Again, it is crucial that you urge the students to employ absolute, clinical objectivity in this process. At this point you will be shocked that despite similarities among your students, radically different readings of scenes begin to emerge.

EXERCISE 3: The Interpretative Phase 1: The Fable Sentence

Now ask the students to describe in one sentence and only one sentence what they believe is the central issue in the play (or scene). Encourage the students to be as opinionated, loaded, and pointed in this sentence as they choose. To assist them in this creative and imaginative process instruct them to begin the sentence with "Once upon a time ......


"Once upon a time there was an ineffectual and weak leader who gave up his office and secretly went among his people and, after witnessing his lieutenant's abuse of power, learned to be an effective leader."


"Once upon a time there was a young, naive woman who was sexually repressed but after undergoing a series of trials grew to maturity and self-awareness and consequently was able to have a fulfilling relationship with a man."


"Once upon a time there was a woman who had been socialized in a patriarchal society who after undergoing a series of trials learned to be an autonomous, independent, self-actualizing individual."


"Once upon a time in a mythical Vienna there was such a fear of carnal activity that it led to mass psychosis and caused the most immoral of acts."

Every student will produce at slightly different--sometimes radically different--interpretative sentence depending upon what strikes him or her as the central idea of the play. It is entirely proper for you to challenge the students at this point--not with a value judgement, but with a series of probing questions. Ask the students to justify their interpretations; to find specific textual support; and to articulate what the ramifications of such a choice would be upon a production. If the students cannot defend their points of view, then have them return to the drawing board and try again.

EXERCISE 4: The Interpretative Phase 2: The Fable Statement

Now have each student pull out his or her narrative summation and rewrite it through the prism of the fable sentence. Encourage strong, bold, declarative statements. Insist upon an absolute limit of one page for the entire play. This reading of the play is a concept. All directorial decisions--set, costume, characterization, music, etc. will be made to illuminate this reading of the play to an audience.

EXERCISE 5: The Design Concept 1: Eclectic vs. Specific

Where and when is Vienna? Ask students to locate the play in a specific time and place that illuminates their concept. Encourage them to look for parallels, and resonances with particular periods and styles. What happens if: … The play is set in 1603, Vienna … 1703, Vienna … 1803, Vienna … 1903, Vienna … Contemporary, Vienna … What happens if we combine elements of each?

EXERCISE 6: Design Concept 2: The Unifying Image or Structure

Another approach to arriving at a design concept is to use a central, unifying visual image. This image should proceed directly from the director's reading of the text. An example of this was found in Adrian Noble's production of Measure (1983) where the stage was dominated by a large mirror. Noble's production emphasized the falsity of appearances and the general lack of self reflection among the various characters. The mirror was situated in such a way that the audience saw their own reflection with the actors in between. This was a strong design statement that illuminated and furthered the director's reading of the play.

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