The earliest account of Twelfth Night on the stage comes from the diary of the barrister John Manningham who witnessed a performance of a play entitled "Twelve night or what you will" at the Middle Temple on 2 February 1602. Scholars assume that the play was enacted by Shakespeare's company, the LORD CHAMBERLAIN'S MEN. Manningham singled out for particular praise the character of Malvolio, whose deception he described as "a good device," thereby prefiguring the most dominant trend in the staging of Twelfth Night for the next four centuries. In the reign of King James I there were two further presentations of the play, both of them at court. The first was performed by the KING'S MEN on 6 April 1618; when the play was next performed, in 1623, it was known simply by the name of its most popular character, Malvolio. With the reopening of the theaters after the Restoration (1660), an adaptation of Twelfth Night was performed several times by Sir William D'Avenant's company, the Duke of York's Men. The celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys witnessed three different performances of the play between 1661 and 1669, none of which he praised. Scholars suggest that the romantic nature of the comedy failed to suit the tastes of the late seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, however, Twelfth Night became established as a popular favorite on the London stage. David Garrick presented the play at DRURY LANE in January 1741. The cast included Kitty Clive as Olivia, Hannah Pritchard as Viola, and Charles Macklin as Malvolio, a role which he enacted with acclaim for many years after. Throughout the rest of the century Twelfth Night was performed on a yearly basis at Drury Lane and COVENT GARDEN, where the principal actor invariably took the part of Malvolio.
The early nineteenth century witnessed profound changes in the interpretation of Shakespearean drama by prominent actor-managers. In particular, emphasis was placed on the playwright's fusion of festive, musical, and spectacular elements. This trend was inaugurated by Frederick Reynolds, who in 1820 presented an operatic adaptation of Twelfth Night at Covent Garden. The text was heavily interpolated and embellished with musical interludes derived from The Sonnets, The Tempest, and Venus and Adonis, among other Shakespearean works. The emphasis on pageantry and music in Twelfth Night persisted in the nineteenth century, but was subjected to noteworthy refinements by successive actor-managers. Samuel Phelps, the actor-manager of SADLER'S WELLS, staged noteworthy productions in 1847 and 1858. Presenting Malvolio as a Spanish Golden Age hidalgo, Phelps transformed the steward into what a reviewer in the Weekly Dispatch described as a figure of "frozen calm" and "solidified presumption." In September 1850 Charles Kean presented a scenically lavish revival of the play at the NEW PRINCESS THEATRE, with his wife, Ellen Tree, winning acclaim in the role of Viola. Far more visually stunning, however, was Henry Irving's 1884 production at the LYCEUM THEATRE. Irving cut the music and songs of the play, employing instead spectacular scenery comprised of sixteen different set designs. Irving himself took the role of Malvolio, portraying the character as a Spanish Golden Age figure reminiscent of Don Quixote. He eschewed a comic interpretation of the role, highlighting rather what he perceived to be the character's tragic nuances. Thus, Malvolio's scene in the "dark house" (Act IV), was played, according to William Archer, in a "nerveless state of prostrate dejection." Frank Benson commented that Irving's conception of the role compromised the casting of the other performances: "the ladies were too mature and, what was almost equally disastrous, the comedians were not funny; the sprightly Feste was played as a decrepit old man and Fabian was the brightest spark of the plotters." During the first performance of this production the audience responded with apathy until the finale, when Irving was interrupted by booing and hissing. Although Ellen Terry rendered the role of Viola admirably later in the season, her first night's performance was hampered by illness. Irving later took the production to America, where, despite having replaced half the cast members, the play similarly failed to please audiences.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were several notable revivals of Twelfth Night on both sides of the Atlantic. Augustin Daly's staging of the play, which opened at Daly's Theatre in New York in 1893, was accounted one of the director's greatest successes. Taking extreme liberties with the text, Daly cut approximately six hundred lines from the play in order to purge it of elements that might compromise its "poetry" and "beauty." He additionally transposed and rearranged the musical scenes in the work, employing as an introduction to the first act a group of fishermen and peasants singing "Come unto these yellow sands." Daly promoted the pageantry of the play by using the elaborate costumes of Graham Robertson and by staging such memorable scenic effects as a violent storm and a moonlit rose garden. The play itself consisted of only four acts, and the character of Malvolio was reduced to the dungeon scene in Act IV. This production was in full sympathy with contemporary taste and was well received both in America and in London the following year. Ada Rehan's Viola was considered a highlight of this staging. William Winter wrote "Viola is a woman of deep sensibility: and that way Miss Rehan has comprehended and reproduced her, permitting a certain wistful sadness to glimmer through the gauze of kindly vivacity." For George Bernard Shaw, who deprecated Daly's handling of the text, Rehan's performance was the sole redeeming feature of the production: "the moment she strikes up the true Shakespearian music, and feels her way to her part altogether by her sense of that music, the play returns to life and all the magic is there." In 1894 the production opened at Daly's Theatre in London, where Rehan played Viola for 119 performances.
In 1897 William Poel presented Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple in a revival that sought to present a faithful Elizabethan version of the play. Influenced by later stage traditions, however, Poel also emphasized the musical nature of Shakespeare's language and cast the principal roles with operatic vocal ranges in mind. Malvolio, for example, was cast as a baritone, Viola as a mezzo-soprano, and Orsino as a tenor. Similarly, the American producer E. H. Sothern attempted an historically accurate presentation of Twelfth Night in productions in New York and London in 1905 and 1907 respectively. By contrast, Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1901 production at HIS MAJESTY'S THEATRE represented the zenith of the Victorian preoccupation with spectacle. Olivia's garden, for example, was rendered by Hawes Craven to imitate an elaborate picture in Country Life. In his portrayal of Malvolio, Tree departed from tradition by focusing on the farcical nature of the role. Shaw praised Tree's striking appearance as an "intolerably condescending blue-eyed peacock with a red twirl of beard." Another experimental approach to the interpretation of character was inaugurated by Harley GranvilleBarker's 1912 production at the Savoy Theatre. Henry Ainley gave a complex rendering of Malvolio as a simultaneously conceited and pathetic middle-aged figure. Similarly, Hayden Coffin's Feste centered on the role's melancholic undertones, an interpretation that was to become influential in later revivals of the play.
After a period of approximately twenty years during which Twelfth Night was infrequently staged, the play was revived in several notable productions at the OLD VIC THEATRE in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1932 Edith Evans gave a memorable portrayal of Viola in a production directed by Harcourt Williams. Five years later, Tyrone Guthrie staged a presentation of the play that featured a hyperbolic portrayal of Sir Toby Belch by Laurence Olivier; Alec Guinness as Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and Jessica Tandy as both Viola and Sebastian. Guinness revived the play for the 1948-49 season, focusing the drama on a grief-stricken Feste played by Robert Eddison. This staging was additionally considered noteworthy for the use of Michael Warre's revolving stage and the commanding presence of Cedric Hardwicke in the role of Sir Toby Belch. Kenneth Tynan maintained that "for delicacy of insight and shady, cock-eyed charm I have seen no performance in Shakespearian comedy much better than this."
One of the most prominent American productions at this time was the Theatre Guild's presentation at the St. James Theatre, New York, in the 1940-41 season. This production was directed by Margaret Webster and starred Maurice Evans as Malvolio, a performance that departed from tradition in making use of a Cockney accent. Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt commented that "Olivia's majordomo emerges as the correct British butler." Grenville Vernon enthused over this performance, maintaining that "Mr. Evans reaches the peak of his accomplishment in the most subtle, most beautifully articulated performance of the part I have ever seen." Joseph Wood Krutch, however, asserted that Evans's comic portrayal debased the role and was "false to Shakespeare's conception." Another portrayal that received mixed reviews was that of Helen Hayes in the part of Viola. Krutch argued that "so far as she herself is concerned there is in truth, very little left to be desired." Stark Young, by contrast, criticized her delivery of Shakespeare's blank verse, maintaining that she turned "most of all that poetic treasure into mere chirpy prose." Similarly, Rosamond Gilder commented that Hayes's performance lacked spontaneity and that only once or twice did she "release the full lyric loveliness of the part." Critics generally agreed that the production provided a splendid evening's entertainment, while nevertheless judging Webster's direction to have emphasized lively stage business at the expense of poetic interpretation.
In the 1950s several productions attempted to unify the comic and melancholic strains in Twelfth Night. Hugh Hunt's revival at the Old Vic in 1950 avoided traditional approaches to the play's opening by employing mournful music in the first scene and by presenting an Illyria swathed in decayed grandeur. In commenting on the sets of Roger Furse, Richard David noted that "the Illyrian streets had the peeling and water-worn dignity of a side-canal in Venice." Hunt nevertheless infused his staging with a degree of liveliness, especially in the crowd scenes and musical interludes. The focal point of the production's comedy was Roger Livesey's portrayal of Sir Toby Belch, which T. C. Worsley praised as a "rich, bursting Sir Toby, who never misses an opportunity for a bit of business, but never gives us too much." Paul Rogers's Malvolio, which similarly contained an element of buffoonery, was less well received. J. C. Trewin found the performance "strangely out of the picture here." By contrast, Peggy Ashcroft's Viola was accorded general praise, with Trewin maintaining that "it is long since I have seen a Viola so fitted to the play." In judging the production as a whole, critics tended to deprecate Hunt's reliance upon low comedy. John Gielgud's 1955 production at the SHAKESPEARE MEMORIAL THEATRE was likewise received with muted praise, despite the central performances of Laurence Olivier as Malvolio and Vivien Leigh as Viola. This staging also featured a witty, gay Feste, played by Paul Daneman, and a sombre Sir Toby Belch, enacted by Richard Burton. Despite a strong cast, critics charged Gielgud with failing to unify the romantic comedy of the play within his production's espousal of realistic characterization. This was particularly apparent in Olivier's Malvolio, which presented the steward as a self-made man who had carefully studied aristocratic ways and speech. Olivier lent the character a degree of seriousness and dignity that critics found wholly original. The reviewer for The Times nevertheless noted that this interpretation resulted in the miscarriage of Malvolio's comic scenes.
Tyrone Guthrie's production at the STRATFORD FESTIVAL, Ontario, in 1957 succeeded in integrating the romantic and comic plots of the drama. Critics such as Henry Hewes felt this had been achieved by a careful fleshing out of the comic roles. In praising Christopher Plummer's portrayal of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, for example, Hewes commented that "making Shakespeare's clowns into real people instead of mere affectations has the advantage of keeping the audience ready to laugh as they see each new situation approaching." Guthrie further innovated in his handling of Feste, played by Bruno Gerussi, who became, according to Arnold Edinborough, "a sad, ageing fool full of the pathos of his position where he is retained not for his wit but for his length of service." A similar sensitivity to the romantic roles characterized the production. Edin-borough maintained that "as the bright-eyed and shrewdly naive Viola, Siobhan McKenna was entrancing and her swaggering self-importance was beautifully undermined by the sensitive playing of Frances Hyland as Olivia."
In the following year there were two notable revivals of the play. Michael Benthall directed a romantic and bitter-sweet Twelfth Night at the Old Vic that nevertheless provided an element of farce in Judi Dench's portrayal of Maria. Despite praising the sets and costumes, which evoked the early eighteenth century, critics generally felt that the production was poorly paced and unsatisfying. Peter Hall's revival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was rather more successful. Hall sought to give equal weight to the comic lightness and melancholic heaviness in the drama through a combination of visual effects and innovative characterization. Lila de Nobili's set designs were described by Robert Speaight as "a rich symphony in russet," and the court of Illyria was reminiscent of Charles II's, with costumes patterned after the portraits of Van Dyck and Rubens. Most noteworthy among the principal roles was Geraldine McEwan's Olivia, which portrayed the Countess as a sharply satirical figure incapable of seriousness. While this staging pleased audiences, critics such as Roy Walker voiced certain objections: "This was a Twelfth Night that did not altogether succeed, but a production that continually threw fresh light on a comedy about which most of us have long ceased to think freshly." By contrast, Jack Landau's 1960 AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL production was much less ambitious. Seeking to make Twelfth Night accessible to an audience unfamiliar with seeing Shakespearean plays on the stage, Landau set the play in a Victorian seaside town, thereby eliciting unintended comparisons with the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The latter part of the 1960s witnessed two notable RSC productions, each of which exemplified opposing trends in interpreting the play. Clifford Williams's 1966 revival dispensed with a serious approach to Twelfth Night, "presenting it," wrote the critic for The Times, "as a hard-edged almost Italianate comedy firmly steeled against pathos and poetry." For this very reason, most critics responded without enthusiasm to the production. Hilary Spurling maintained that the set design, which evoked the Italian High Renaissance, lacked the fanciful quality typically associated with Shakespeare's Illyria. Additionally, most critics felt the performances to have been unmemorable. J. C. Trewin asserted that "Mr. Williams has been at pains … to mock the affectation of Orsino (Alan Howard) and of Olivia (Estelle Kohler), the first a near-burlesque of romantic passion, the second a mere kitten." Jeremy Kingston, however, praised the strong performances of Diana Rigg as Viola and Ian Holm as Malvolio, hailing them as the "chief pleasures of the evening." Despite wishing for a tenderer Twelfth Night, Robert Speaight concluded that "it would be priggish not to admit that this production was enormously diverting, even if now and then it won its laughs at rather too high a price." John Barton's 1969-70 production took the very different course of providing what Gareth Lloyd Evans termed a "gravely lyrical interpretation of Shakespeare's work that derived from the text itself." Irving Wardle qualified his praise by stating "this not the funniest or most inventive Twelfth Night I have seen; but I can remember no production that held all the comedy's elements in such harmony." For many critics, the focal point of the production was Emrys James's Feste, which Simon Gray declared "a theatrical triumph." Donald Sinden's Malvolio was similarly praised by the majority of commentators. Speaight noted that Sinden's handling of the role in the vein of high comedy left "the right bitterness in the mouth when the play's flight from realism might have seemed too precipitate." In judging the production as a whole, Benedict Nightingale concluded that it was "Barton's peculiar and perverse achievement to send us out of Shakespeare's 'happiest comedy' feeling that neither [Olivia and Orsino] nor anyone else will live happily ever after."
In the period 1974-75 two productions on either side of the Atlantic offered markedly different interpretations of Twelfth Night. In 1974 Peter Gill's directorial debut with the RSC presented a sexually charged revival of the play that was dominated by the image of Narcissus. A portrait of the self-absorbed youth, gazing at his reflection in a pool of water, was the focus of designer William Dudley's otherwise spare set, and served as a continuous reminder to the audience of the themes of ambiguous sexuality and erotic self-deception. For Michael Billington, this resulted in a production that was "curiously short on social and human detail." This was further accentuated by what critics generally felt were the uncomic performances of Patricia Hayes as Maria, Frank Thornton as Sir Andrew Ague-cheek and Ron Pember as Feste. Additionally, Jane Lapotaire's androgynous rendering of Viola was faulted by Irving Wardle for serving solely as "a blank screen on to which others project their fantasies." At the 1975 Stratford Festival in Ontario David Jones's production was deemed by critics to have steered a moderate course between the excessively romantic stagings of the nineteenth century and the more cynical interpretations of such twentieth-century directors as Tyrone Guthrie. Clive Barnes characterized Jones as "one of the new-style British classics directors who are original without being outlandish and place the simple, yet imaginative interpretation of the playwright's concept as absolutely paramount." This exceptionally successful production of Twelfth Night highlighted the play's themes of love and identity, particularly as expressed through the characters of Malvolio, played by Brian Bedford, and Viola, played by Kathleen Widdoes. Bedford presented Malvolio as a prim, self-righteous puritan and played directly to the audience. Berners W. Jackson likened the actor to a virtuoso musician playing "upon a cacophonous instrument, directly manipulating the responses, not only of the whole group, but also of individuals."
Many revivals of Twelfth Night in recent decades have employed the seasonal setting of the play as a guiding metaphor of the drama's action. Terry Hands's 1979 RSC production, for example, opened with an Illyria shrouded in winter and closed with the arrival of spring. This threw into relief the centrality of the play's romantic relationships, which critics agreed were rendered with energy. Benedict Nightingale commented, "in Illyria love is a sudden and alarming affliction, a variety of glandular fever virulent enough to send the mercury racing up and over the humiliation threshold." In particular, Gareth Thomas's Orsino and Kate Nicholls's Olivia were faulted for indulging in hyperbolic emotion. J. C. Trewin asserted that "we know that Orsino and Olivia are given to excess, but it was long since they had been acted with more resolute and superfluous vigour." Even more contentious was David Mamet's 1980 production of Twelfth Night at the Circle Repertory Theatre, New York, which also made use of a winter setting. This revival engendered heated critical comment for its bold use of costuming. Adopting an anachronistic approach that clothed characters in garb from a variety of centuries, Mamet explained that he allowed the actors themselves to choose the costumes that they felt were appropriate for their characters. Many critics asserted that this directorial choice was nothing more than an irresponsible gimmick. Michael Bertin, however, argued that it was "a fine intuition into the play's heart," explaining that "uniformity in costuming is … a relatively modern innovation." This production further elicited contrary responses regarding Marshall W. Mason's performance as Malvolio. John Simon described Mason's Malvolio as "a prissy antiques salesman trying to screw up his courage to turn a trick on Central Park West," while Bertin characterized the performance as "elegant and reserved." Lindsay Crouse, by contrast, won unanimous approval for her rendering of Viola, which Edith Oliver hailed as "the best I've ever seen," noting that the actress spoke "her poetry … as easily as breathing, never slighting its music or emotion or force."
In the same year as Mamet's production, the BBC Television version of Twelfth Night was aired in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Reviewers on either side of the Atlantic found John Gome's direction of the drama to have been competent but not outstanding. Although, G. M. Pearce described it as "cheerful" and "vigorous," and Maurice Charney called it "modest but very satisfying," almost all commentators concurred that the production failed to achieve a unique interpretation of the drama.
In the 1980s, several productions of Twelfth Night strove with varying degrees of success to achieve an interpretation of the play that transcended traditional approaches. John Caird's 1983-84 production with the RSC was viewed by the majority of critics as the summation of the twentieth-century preoccupation with the play's melancholy. As Irving Wardle stated, "quite a deal of poison has been seeping into this play … but John Caird's production is the first I have seen that projects Twelfth Night as an all-out dark comedy." Set in the Jacobean period, the production accentuated a sense of decay and confinement by employing a ruined garden, rusting gates, and a mortuary chapel as components of the set designs. For many commentators, the strengths of this revival were the musical score of liona Sekacz and the performances of the principal actors. Nicholas Shrimpton hailed Gemma Jones's Maria as "the most original piece of characterization in the production … this was a high-spirited, horsey girl from a country background, now living in reduced circumstances as a paid companion." Additionally, Emrys James's Malvolio was praised for its fresh power by several critics. Richard Findlater asserted "this Malvolio is odious, even dangerous, in his moment of naked triumph, taken with splendid comic brio, and nakedly hurt in his hour of humiliation." Wilford Leach's New York Shakespeare Festival production in 1986 generated far more hostile responses from reviewers. Mel Gussow explained that it was not "a question of liberties taken but of abandonment of the play's essential nature as one of the most irresistible of Shakespeare's comedies." This production advocated an approach to the play that stressed elements of low comedy and farce. Actors were clothed in Renaissance dress, and the set featured a revolving platform with a central stage tower that flashed "Welcome to Illyria." The butt of critical disapproval, however, was directed towards the central performances. Tony Azito's clownish rendering of Feste failed to tap into any of the role's deeper significance. Gussow described him as a "body in motion but out of sync with his character." Kim Greist's rendering of Viola fared slightly better. John Simon asserted "Miss Greist cannot act very much … but she has a tolerable voice, is not deliberately offensive, and tries hard." The sole performance to receive a modicum of praise was F. Murray Abraham's Malvolio. John Beaufort mirrored the opinions of most commentators in writing that Abraham projected "the fussy aplomb and self-infatuation that make the censorious steward all too susceptible to the cruel trick played on him."
In 1987 two English revivals of Twelfth Night returned to the use of seasonal stage effects. Bill Alexander's RSC production set the play in an Illyria that resembled a sun-drenched Greek island. While Michael Ratcliffe maintained that "there can rarely have been a version of this disturbing comedy so bland, humourless and cold," Gary O'Connor hailed the production as "outstanding," commenting that the use of dazzling white architectural motifs in the set design accentuated "the confusion woven by illusion and self-illusion." The most controversial aspect of this staging was Antony Sher's Malvolio. Sher, whose costume was reminiscent of the liturgical garb of an Orthodox priest, took seriously the possibility that Malvolio becomes mad as a result of his confinement in the "dark room." For Stanley Wells, this portrayal was ultimately a failure. He maintained: "Sher technically as brilliant as ever, allows the effort to be both funny and original to take precedence over the establishment of a credible character who believes in himself." Taking the opposing view, O'Connor lavishly praised the performance as "a gloriously infected piece of work," asserting that the actor's comic excess was "beautifully judged in its degree." In contrast to Alexander's staging, Kenneth Branagh's production with the Renaissance Theatre Company set Twelfth Night in a wintry Illyria that evoked the England of Charles Dickens. H. R. Woudhuysen cautioned, however, that this was not "the Dickens of Pickwick or A Christmas Carol but of Bleak House and Little Dorrit, where secrecy and tragedy will eventually give birth to revelation and joy."
Making full use of the play's seasonal associations, the set of the Riverside Studios featured a Christmas tree and a snowy cemetery in the center stage that was used for Malvolio's imprisonment. Critics generally approved of the director's sole liberty with the text: Branagh transposed the first and second scenes of the drama in order to combine the charm of the play with its underlying strangeness. Audiences and critics were pleased with Branagh's direction; Kenneth Hurren declared it to have been "quite the most enjoyable production of the comedy I have seen for decades."
In recent years Twelfth Night has continued to prove popular on the stage. The productions of Peter Hall and Ian Judge have further demonstrated a shift away from the general trend in the theater of imposing anachronistic ideological meanings on Shakespeare's works. Peter Hall's 1991 production at the Playhouse Theatre, for example, intentionally avoided any allusion to contemporary social and political concerns. Critical opinion varied markedly as to the success of Hall's approach. Peter J. Smith argued that the production "failed to satisfy," despite having "captured both the magic and the melancholy of the script." Similarly, Eric Sams maintained that the staging was hampered by a lack of direction. Bernard Levin, by contrast, lavishly praised Hall's shaping of the drama, making particular mention of the cast's sensitivity to Shakespearean diction. Hall set the play in the Caroline period, and the stage designs presented an Illyria that Christopher Edwards described as a "glorious autumnal prospect—apple trees and falling brown leaves—which dips down to a stretch of mist-shrouded water." Among the performances, Eric Porter's Malvolio proved the subject of controversy. Irving Wardle, for example, maintained that nobody would shed any tears for Porter's "fatuously capering Malvolio," while Michael Coveney took the contrary position that "there is simply no better Malvolio in the world than Eric Porter." Ian Judge's 1994 RSC production was similarly faulted by several critics for a lack of depth, although it charmed the majority of commentators with what Irving Wardle termed its "fresh and truthful detail." The set design featured a wintry Jacobean representation of the city of Stratford-upon- Avon itself. Judge explained: "When I look through the hedges of New Place or sit in the gardens of Hall's Croft, I understand Illyria." The director emphasized the comic and wistful nature of the play, thereby softening its melancholic elements. Russell Jackson maintained that "theatregoers who prefer their comic worlds a little more romantic may find this tame, and it will be too sentimental for those who want more bite in their comedy."