Problems of Stagecraft in The Tempest
Stanley Wells, University of Birmingham
This essay is offered as a tribute to Jan Kott in appreciation of all he has done to stimulate international enthusiasm for Shakespeare's plays.
The Tempest is a play that commands great admiration as a poem in dramatic form. As is well known, the editors of the First Folio gave it pride of place in that volume; and as Shakespeare's last unaided play, it is often regarded as the culmination of his career as a poetic dramatist: a final, highly personal, even visionary utterance concerned at least in part with the relationship between life and art, and having at its centre a figure who has often been regarded as Shakespeare's shadowing forth of himself.
Its plot is comparatively slight, having none of the density and complexity of the plays that immediately preceded it in Shakespeare's output such as the immensely intricate Cymbeline. Its language, on the contrary, is very substantial—far more so than would have been necessary to project the story in naturalistic terms; the poetry is rich, dense, suggestive, complexly resonant; wonderfully integrated yet also, because of the way the play is constructed, falling often into set pieces (Prospero's 'Our revels now are ended' is only the most obvious example) that are detachable and can almost be considered as poems in their own right.
Nevertheless, in spite of all its poetical power, the play has often 'proved curiously resistant to successful theatrical realization',1 and indeed has been subjected over the centuries to various kinds of adaptation in the attempt to increase its theatrical viability; and when it is performed in relatively unadapted form it often fails to live up to the expectations raised by the impression it creates, in reading, on the theatre of the mind. In short, this is a play that exemplifies more than most the tensions between literature and drama.
In this paper I want to examine certain aspects of the play in the light of the various kinds of problems posed by their theatrical realization: not simply practical problems such as may be posed by any playscript, but problems that derive particularly from features of dramatic style which, if they are not unique to this play, are at least characteristic of the mode in which it is written. And I will start with the opening scene, which in practice has proved one of the most problematical.
The Opening Scene
Representing a shipwreck caused by a storm at sea, this scene provides obvious opportunities for theatrical spectacle, opportunities which the theatre has not been slow to exploit. The opening stage direction of the original text, written to be performed on the bare boards of the Globe or the Blackfriars, refers only to sound: 'A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard.' No doubt the actors entering upon the stage would have been able to convey through gestures and bodily movements the impression that they were reeling around on a storm-driven vessel, and conceivably some properties were used to add to the atmospherics, but there could have been nothing like the visual effects demanded half a century later when the play was given at the Duke of York's theatre in an adaptation by Dryden and Davenant.
There, as the overture played, a curtain rose to reveal a new, emblematic 'frontispiece' with behind it
the Scene, which represents a thick Cloudy Sky, a very Rocky Coast, and a Tempestuous See in perpetual Agitation. This Tempest (suppos'd to be rais'd by Magick) has many dreadful Objects in it, as several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailors, then rising and crossing in the Air. And when the Ship is sinking, the whole House is darken'd, and a shower of Fire falls upon 'em. This is accompanied with Lightning, and several Claps of Thunder, to the end of the Storm.
The scene that follows, though it retained much of Shakespeare's dialogue, made lengthy additions to it, including a lot of nautical language indicating stage business designed to increase the impression...
(The entire section is 6,355 words.)