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  • A New Noble KinsmenThe Play On! Project and Making New Plays Out of Old
  • Martine Kei Green-Rogers (bio) and Alex N. Vermillion (bio)

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 [End Page 231] 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...


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pp. 231-247
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