- The History of Cardenio
Over the last decade, interest in William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s “lost play,” Cardenio, has surged, with eleven productions worldwide of Stephen Greenblatt and Charles Mee’s re-visioning of the play for The Cardenio Project beginning in 2003; several productions of two plays implicated in the Cardenio story, Lewis Theobald’s Double Falsehood and Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy (or The Lady’s Tragedy); and the twenty years’ labor that has produced the subject of this review, Gary Taylor’s recreation of the play, The History of Cardenio. For two decades, Taylor has worked in the manner of an art restorer, scraping away material that stylometric analysis demonstrates to be the intervention of Theobald from what remains of the language of Fletcher and Shakespeare in Double Falsehood, reconstructing what Theobald’s Restoration sensibilities might have found offensive by examining Thomas Shelton’s translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (as well as Cervantes’s original text); and, finally, relying on his knowledge of the writing styles of both Fletcher and Shakespeare, working to reconstruct their prose and verse.
All of these endeavors have produced satisfying theatre-going experiences for people around the world, affording them something unique: a chance to see a play that is Shakespearean-ish, but with which they are utterly unfamiliar. Taylor’s script has been given numerous staged readings, including one in New York City directed by Joe Cacaci in which Richard Dreyfuss and Whoopi Goldberg took parts and one with [End Page 649] Chicago Shakespeare Theater actors on Navy Pier at which Terri Bourus originally encountered the play. There has also been a full production, co-directed by Lori Leigh at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, which Bourus also saw. Bourus’s production in April 2012 opened the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Campus Center Theater, just as Gregory Doran’s 2011 version of Cardenio served as the inaugural production at the renovated Swan in Stratford. As Bourus acknowledged in her remarks at talk-backs after the performances as well as in a roundtable discussion at a graduate student conference held in conjunction with the production, she benefited from having seen Taylor’s script through numerous stages of textual revision as well as in several different productions.
I confess that I walked into the theatre at IUPUI during preview week with low expectations. Taylor had graciously given me the script beforehand, so I knew that—on the level of plot, characterization and language—his Cardenio constituted a quantum leap from Theobald’s Double Falsehood. Taylor’s script aimed to reinvigorate the characters Shakespeare and Fletcher would likely have lifted from Cervantes, restoring, in particular, its earthiness (Violenta faces three sexually-suggestive or outright threatening situations) and the parallels between Quesada and Quixote, both driven mad by books. I feared, though, that even the brand-spanking-new theatre at an urban IU outpost would not offer much with which a director or cast could profitably work to show Taylor’s script to advantage. The stage proved to be an elevated proscenium complete with a red curtain, and wings of uneven size to stage right and left. Such a stage, of course, creates an uphill battle for actors attempting to engage their audience, receding away from and below them in docile rows.
Within the first ten minutes of the preview performance, however, it was clear that I had underestimated Bourus’s ingenuity as a director, and the mettle of her actors. Bourus cleverly used the deeper stage left wing for the game of bowls involving the fathers of...