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Major productions of The Two Gentleman of Verona have been scarce in relation to the other plays in the canon. As noted by Carol J. Carlisle and Patty S. Derrick, the play has been produced in London a mere 24 times since Shakespeare’s time and five times ever in New York City. STC has produced it just once before, in 2001. More troublesome, many of Shakespeare’s most famous interpreters have tried to “fix” the play, particularly its problematic ending. Censored and abridged, structurally rearranged and reinterpreted in song, the play has nevertheless proven remarkably durable throughout the ages.
1587–1598 Shakespeare writes the play; no record of its Elizabethan performance exists.
1762 The play’s first recorded performance, at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1762, is also the first adaptation. In Benjamin Victor’s version, directed by David Garrick, the scenes are rewritten and reordered to further lighten the play’s mood. John Philip Kemble later revives Victor’s adaptation in 1808.
1821 Two Gents is adapted into a popular opera, with a libretto by Frederick Reynolds and music by Henry Bishop. In addition to further edits, the collaborators augment the play with a sizeable dash of spectacle. The show includes an elaborate half-hour Carnival pageant, complete with bonfires and the Temple of Apollo. George Bernard Shaw writes in response to the opera: Everybody who pays to see what is advertised as a performance of Shakespeare’s play … does care more or less about the art of Shakespeare. Why not give them what they ask for, instead of going to great trouble and expense to give them something else?
1841, 1848, 1857 The three most famous (read: only) 19th-century stagings of Shakespeare’s text “unaltered” are mounted by the three most famous actor-managers of their era: William Macready, Charles Kean and Samuel Phelps. They are all commercial failures.
1892 and 1896 In an Elizabethan Stage Society production, William Poel attempts to return to “authentic” Shakespeare. Poel uses only minimal cuts, dresses his actors in Elizabethan garb, and turns them loose on a bare stage. For the next half-century, nearly all productions of Two Gentlemen in London and Stratford feature Elizabethan dress.
1904 Royal Court Theatre. Directed by Harley Granville-Barker.
1926 Apollo Theatre. Directed by Robert Atkins and starring John Gielgud.
1956 Michael Langham’s production at the Old Vic decisively breaks with the Elizabethan trend, setting Two Gentlemen amidst Regency-era Britain in the time of Byron and Shelley. The Romantic sensibility suits the swooning passion and poetic ideals of Shakespeare’s play.
1960 Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company presents Two Gentlemen in sequence with all of Shakespeare’s comedies.
1970 Robin Phillips’ contemporary interpretation at the Royal Shakespeare Company stars Helen Mirren as Julia and Patrick Stewart as Launce. Set at a decadent Italian resort, the wealthy young lovers traipse around a real swimming pool, rebelling against the mob-boss Duke.
1971 John Guare, Galt MacDermot and Mel Shapiro create the Tony Award winning adaptation, Two Gentlemen of Verona (a rock opera).
1991 David Thacker’s 1930s-era RSC production sets the tone with a live, big band orchestra. Popular songs like “Night and Day” and “Blue Moon” are laid in swinging counterpoint to the action.
2001 Douglas C. Wager’s production at STC is inspired by the film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Setting the production in the 1950s, he explores the idea of one young man that covets the life of another and the tension it breeds between Valentine and Proteus.
2009 Director Joe Dowling’s Guthrie Theater production also sets Two Gentlemen in the 1950s—but this time, on the set of television studio. Cameras broadcast the action onto large screens mounted next to advertisements for E-Z Pop and Leave It to Beaver. The entire play took the form of a sitcom being filmed for a live studio audience.
The climactic clash of the final scene is notoriously difficult to stage. In Shakespeare’s play, Proteus is about to force himself on Silvia when Valentine arrives to rescue her. Proteus apologizes, and Valentine forgives him—some would say much too quickly. Then to make matters worse, Valentine offers Silvia to Proteus. How have directors throughout the centuries dealt with this difficult climax?
When Valentine rushed in to save Silvia, Proteus wheeled around, ready to defend himself. Seeing his opponent was Valentine, Proteus dropped his sword in horror and the actors froze. The moment became an expressive tableau that gave Proteus’ remorse symbolic power.
Valentine kissed Silvia, and then crossed and kissed Proteus as well. Delivered in this way, after the kiss, Valentine’s line, “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”, took on new meaning: the love Valentine had for Silvia, he also offered to Proteus. Their friendship was mended.
As Proteus begged for forgiveness, Silvia stood behind him, silently imploring Valentine to forgive. By emphasizing Silvia’s mercy as well as Valentine’s, Valentine’s clemency makes more sense.