Go Deeper

Thought You Knew “Romeo and Juliet”? Think Again

Posted August 16th, 2010

Romeo and Juliet has a long history of adaptation and reinvention. We thought on the occasion of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s radical take on the play—recomposing the script from retellings of the plot—we’d find an expert to give you a little context. Celeste DiNucci’s dissertation at the Univiersity of Pennsylvania argued for increased attention to the presentational aspect of Shakespeare’s plays. She also won the 2007 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions! Celeste offers this tour through the recent production history of Romeo and Juliet:

Convertibles, domestic violence, Vietnam vets, switchblades, Sicilian vendetta—is it what “Shakespeare had in mind”? Like it or not, over the course of the 20th century, Romeo and Juliet worked its way out of the “doublet and hose” and into the zeitgeist, where it took on the trappings of—well, whatever was the concern of the moment. Nature Theater of Oklahoma promises to explore not only the play that Shakespeare wrote, but also the place it has taken in our cultural consciousness.

Actually, present-day audiences probably wouldn’t even recognize the truly “traditional” R&J (and even less the “historically authentic” one). We’ve come to expect a naturalistic style, especially in this play about youth, and not the sometimes flowery elocution of classically trained and “experienced” (read: older) actors, done up in their romantic best. But by the 60s, wigs and velvets had given way to long hair, leather jerkins, and sexually open (and often aggressive) jesting among the young noblemen of Verona.

Peter Brook had started this trend when he declared that his 1947 production at Stratford would “forget the conventions of painted curtains and traditional business, and . . . do everything to make you feel that the play is something new . . . We must make you feel this is not the Romeo and Juliet you have all loved and read but that you have come into an unknown theatre in an unknown town prepared for a new experience.”

After the jump: Are you experienced? Celeste walks you through the wild array of Romeo and Juliet adaptations.

As noble as Peter Brook’s intentions might be, it must be next to impossible for audiences to forget everything they know of Romeo and Juliet—it’s become a part of our cultural memory and shorthand, the paradigmatic romance. We tend to forget that the lovers are barely teenagers, or that Romeo is actually madly in love with someone else when the play begins. What tends to stick with us is the story of young passion and conflict between families (and generations), largely because those have anchored the most well-known and influential interpretations of the play for the last 50 or so years.

Romeo and Juliet is originally set in Renaissance Verona, but modern productions have invested it with all of the familiarity of contemporary life. On Broadway, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story created a sensation, setting the R&J story in the context of warring youth gangs in New York City. This “translation” tapped into the beginning of the rise of “youth culture” and rode it all the way to the present. Franco Zeffirelli’s influential London production of 1960&mdash:and especially the groundbreaking film that it gave rise to—may have had the look of a town of the Italian Renaissance, but the youthful energy, the long hair, and the juxtaposition of the passion of the younger generation against the restrictiveness of the older were all part of the Age of Aquarius.

From our historical vantage point, Zeffirelli’s R&J may seem to be a traditional retelling—it looks and sounds largely like the Shakespeare that we think of as “old school,” after all—but at the time his production opened, he actually had to browbeat his male actors into growing their hair long for the show: “At first the boys were embarrassed, they wore their hair under berets on the underground . . . [but] by a strange coincidence, at the end of the run the fashion for long hair was in full swing . . . Romeo and Juliet slotted neatly into the world of the Beatles, of flower power and peace-and-love.”

From there, all hell broke loose. The ethnic conflict of West Side Story seemed almost quaint compared to the growing awareness of the war machinery and its endless sacrifices of young people worldwide. Among the first to explore this theme was a production at the Stratford Festival in 1968 that paired a French Canadian actress, Louise Marleau, with a very Anglophone actor named—wait for it—Christopher Walken. (I can hear it now—”What light?—through yondah window—breaks?”) Mercutio in this production was played as a battle-scarred veteran, disillusioned with the conflict-ridden world of “peacetime,” so that his fatal fight with Tybalt became a suicidal act—a powerful statement in the midst of the Vietnam War.

The themes of youthful passion sacrificed to the political machinations of parents and family were only amplified in the context of global turmoil. In 1994, Palestine and Israeli companies created a joint R&J, with Arab Montagues and Jewish Capulets. In the balcony scene, Romeo spoke Arabic and Juliet responded in Hebrew. The production occasioned many a disruption and even death-threats to the actors. Alongside the political-ethnic conflict was, of course, the racial-ethnic conflict. In New York, the Hull Truck company put on stage two mixed-race actors as the lovers–Roland Gift, the lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals, as Romeo; and as Juliet, a young and beautiful actress of Asian descent, Daphne Nayar (who it happens I went to college with! Hey, Daphne! Hollah!). Other productions cast the two families as Spaniard/Colonial Cubans vs. indigenous/slave-descendant Cubans; white colonists vs. black natives on an African island; and, in Australia, European Capulets vs. aboriginal Montagues. A production by Harvard-based Cornerstone Theater Company brought the play to Port Gibson, Mississsippi, and enlisted local performers to help explore the racial tensions that divided the town.

Of course, gender bending wasn’t far behind. Joe Carlarco’s Shakespeare’s R & J uses the conceit of an all-male boarding school to stage an exploration of same-sex passion that spills over into their everyday lives, with the supporting actors’ homophobia informing their on-stage disapproval of Romeo’s new love.

These days, Mercutio is often depicted not as merely flamboyant but as clearly gay—Harold Perrineau in Baz Luhrmann’s film comes to the Capulet’s party in drag.

In the 80s, besides the racial or cultural differences to mark the two warring families, there were also socioeconomic conflicts to explore: the conservatism of the class system and the bankruptness of the overly materialistic “haves” vs. the struggling “have-nots.” Michael Bogdanov’s 1986 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre put this clash in harmony with a generational one. Romeo and Juliet were depicted as “victims of their parents’ materialism.” The old-money Montagues and the nouveau riche Capulets were both clearly invested in possessions, social status, and public image, and the staging reflected their embarrassment of riches. (In fact, at one point Tybalt entered by driving a red convertible onto the stage, so that Guardian critic humorously dubbed the production “Alfa-Romeo and Juliet.”) Other figures were also “translated” into the modern power structure: the Nurse was a social climber, the Prince a Mafia capo, the Apothecary a drug pusher. The ending of this production was particularly disturbing (especially in light of our own recent economic developments): “Capulet and Montague shook hands for the photographers; their reconciliation was a business merger or media event rather than a true recognition of their responsibility for their childrens’ deaths.”

The production caused an outcry from the critics, who dubbed the ending “doubtless to the taste of modern skeptics, but a grotesque distortion of Shakespeare.” But who’s to say what is distortion and what is “legitimate interpretation”? Is it even possible for us to disentangle the “authentic” Shakespearean play from the passions it evokes in us, which, of course, are part and parcel of our contemporary life? I can’t wait to see how NToO takes on these questions.

–Celeste DiNucci

[N.B. via Celeste: The dates, facts, and quotes in this article are largely taken from the Introduction to the “Shakespeare in Production” edition of Romeo and Juliet, ed. James N. Loehlin, Cambridge UP, 2002.]