Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Michael Langham
Michael Langham

Michael Langham’s Timon of Athens (1963)

 

Link to Script

Link to 1963 Program

Link to 1991 Program

Link to 1963 Press Reviews

Link to 1961 essay by Michael Langham: An Approach to Staging Shakespeare's Works

Link to Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens

 

Michael Langham was born in Somerset, England in 1919. He studied law at the University of London, with the intention of becoming a barrister. In 1939 he enlisted to serve in World War II, and spent five years incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war. Interestingly, it would be this period that would alter his career from law to a professional in the theatre. During this time, he claims that the only way to maintain his sanity was to “study plays and direct the other prisoners while concentrating on not being bitter about it” (Campbell, Nora. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, 107). He made early successful debuts at the Royal Shakespeare Company and London’s West End, before being selected by Tyrone Guthrie, the founding Artistic Director at the Stratford Festival of Canada, as his successor in 1955, a position he held until 1967. It is important to note how the transition from Guthrie to Langham meant that Canada’s national theatre devoted to Shakespeare was from its inception to the anniversary of Confederation strongly shaped by English, colonial influences.

Langham, while artistic director at the Stratford Festival, developed a forceful and non-traditionalist view of performing and staging Shakespearean works. This interpretative style often put him at odds with traditionalist attitudes towards Shakespearean performance practices and interpretations, which had been entrenched in the early years of the Stratford Festival, and throughout much of Canadian theatre and broadcasting in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Importantly, Langham’s unconventional directorial approach was an early mode of adaptation as made manifest in decisions about interpretation and production design that took liberties with the originary Shakespearean text largely based on the director’s intentionality and vision. In Langham’s case, interpretation was associated with a profound desire to make Shakespeare as compatible and intriguing to a modern audience as possible. In 1961, Langham presented a paper entitled An Approach to Staging Shakespeare’s Works at McMaster University. In the talk, Langham revealed his view on directorial methods and styles and his reasoning behind them. Some of the most salient points he makes include:

• “Seek the smallest hint of the essence of a work and expand on it.”

• “Study the text carefully; allow the story’s impression to emerge; don’t take Shakespeare’s stories literally; their narrative serves as a structure within which Shakespeare weaves and spins his themes and reveals his characters.”

• “The Shakespeare texts should be regarded as musical scores” (Campbell, 132).

Timon of Athens Douglas Rain as Apemantus, John Colicos as Timon, 1963
Timon of Athens Douglas Rain as Apemantus, John Colicos as Timon, 1963

These practices and principles become especially significant to the history of Shakespearean adaptation in Canada when considered in the context of Langham’s 1963 Stratford production, Timon of Athens. This much-lauded production served as an inaugural lesson in production, directorial interpretation and interpellation, and adaptation at the conservative and traditionalist Stratford Festival. And this free-thinking approach was to set the tone for later production-style adaptations of Shakespeare that were increasingly to take liberties with the source text in the name of finding new, contemporary meanings for Canadian audiences. These liberties would come to include: changing the period of the play along with concomitant design changes; small changes to the original text in the name of highlighting a particular interpretive approach; and the addition of supplemental multimedia materials (through lighting, music, costume, and other media interpellations).

Langham’s Timon of Athens was set in the roaring twenties and dirty thirties, where the cast wore modern dress, smoked cigarettes, carried briefcases, and held lavish parties at villas and mansions. In order to properly situate the setting, Duke Ellington, a modern jazz giant and a regular contributor to the Festival, composed twenty original songs, a score that enriched and cultivated the themes and contexts already established within the work as adapted by Langham.

The Timon of Athens production corresponded with Langham’s 1963 agreement to remain as Artistic Director at Stratford for five more years and his renewed desire to make the Festival a more relevant and contemporary component of modern Canadian theatrical culture. His ambition was to have the audience relate to the human experience and truth portrayed on the Shakespearean stage, rather than treating it as a pilgrimage to an academic and literary Mecca with Shakespeare as the canonical god––an experience that promoted Shakespeare’s literary superiority and charged exorbitant ticket prices at the expense of connecting with its audience. This gambit was an obvious departure from the conservative direction of Tyrone Guthrie, and his vision was largely displaced by his successors, Jean Gascon and John Hirsch, who were criticized for performing plays by writers only known to a knowledgeable theatrical crowd, which isolated the middle class audience Stratford was seeking to attract. Langham, then, functions as an early contributor to the movement to make Shakespeare more accessible to a wide audience by means of production adaptations, a process now common, though by no means universal, across the spectrum of Canadian theatre.

Langham’s 1963 season, which included Troilus and Cressida, The Comedy of Errors, and Timon of Athens, was called “off beat” by the Globe and Mail (Campbell, 163), as Langham strove to create a repertoire that took advantage of the full scale of emotions characterized by Shakespeare in plays often deemed problematic or less than Shakespeare’s best work. Langham’s rejection of paternalistic notions of what constituted the best in the Shakespearean canon and his intent on portraying often misunderstood, unknown, or unpopular works from that canon parallels with many of the popular sentiments and events occurring in North America in the early 60s as the protest movement against the war in Vietnam took root and as people entered into the unfamiliar territory marked by President Kennedy’s assassination. America’s growing presence in Vietnam, the burgeoning interest of young people in mind altering drugs, and the sentiments of disillusionment, spontaneity, non-conformity and the gritty world of real life experiences in musical, literary and theatrical arenas all played a role in shaping the theatrical aesthetic that Langham was driving toward in his work in the 60s.

Timon of Athens is considered one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and difficult works. It is often pegged as unfinished or as an abandoned experiment. Criticism of the play is abundant including a critique of its pointless and undeveloped characters and a judgment on the second half of the play as being especially “bleak” (Williams, Gary. Timon of Athens: Shakespeare’s Pessismistic Tragedy, 7). There is no evidence that Timon of Athens was ever performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it has been infrequently performed in the following four centuries following his death. Gary Jay Williams estimated in 1979 that there had only been twenty professional productions on the English speaking stage of Timon of Athens since 1816 (Williams, Gary, 47).

Timon of Athens the party scene, 1963
Timon of Athens the party scene, 1963

It was in the spirit of the play’s incompleteness and desolation that Langham chose the work. In a 1991 interview, Langham speculated on Shakespeare’s possible intentionality with the play, stating “I think there is every indication that Shakespeare wrote it at a moment of feeling very low about the human race and then he recovered and pushed it aside. And then he got low again and picked it up again … until finally he just grew out of that negative feeling” (Timon of Athens 1991 house program, 12). This motivation appealed to Langham as it was representative of a part of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the human condition that had largely been ignored.

Yet, the opinions regarding the incompleteness of the play led Langham to ask himself “what would Shakespeare have done, what might he have done had he actually finished this?” (“Finishing Shakespeare’s Work” in The Stratford Beacon Herald, 1991). In order to re-imagine what Shakespeare might have done Langham had to make bold moves with the script; adding text and entire scenes, while changing and developing much of the structure of the play. This included changes to characterization, settings, and staging. Moreover, the oft-criticized second half required especial rewriting and additions in order to make the story feel more “complete.” This early form of the adaptive process departed radically from traditionalist notions of Shakespeare’s texts as unchangeable, and served as an early example of how changing the text, to even a small degree, and resetting the play within the director’s own interpretative and intentional contexts can inflect a play with a markedly different feeling and performance. This change of register as a function of production choices imposed by a director’s vision then becomes an important mode of adaptation in its own right, and particularly salient when considering the traditionalist time period, and the previously classic and conventional settings associated with the Stratford Festival.

The novel process of adaptation that Langham unleashed becomes immediately obvious upon looking at his 1963 prompt script. Nary a page goes by without deletions of scenes, speeches, or characters, and the addition of handwritten scenes, speeches, and intentions regarding delivery, acting style, and staging. This procedure of outgrowth and elimination all serves as a means to fulfill Langham’s vision of recreating Timon of Athens as a contemporary, relevant, and finished production that not only makes an uncommon comment about Shakespeare’s pessimistic and imperfect side, but also creates a politicized discourse on two eras of recent history.

Michael Langham in 1962
Michael Langham in 1962

The production is situated within the 1920s and 30s, with Duke Ellington’s original musical compositions blending Afro-American diasporic jazz stylistics with the themes of Shakespeare’s play, with such songs as “Market Crash”, “Revolutionary March” and “False Friends.” The mood and tempo of the songs set in the 20s are distinct from that of the songs of the 30s, which further situates the play in relation to the economics of the 1920s and demonstrates the 1929 stock market crash as “a dividing point between the good times and the bad times” (Timon of Athens 1991 House Program 11). This period was a time of intense juxtapositions: wealth and poverty, greed and generosity, and friendship and betrayal, all of which are present in the original Timon of Athens source material. This era was also marked by political and cultural formations based on monetary, racist, and classist principles, in which proto-fascism is coming into being. By staging Timon of Athens in this period, Langham’s production, in hindsight, additionally makes a comparative comment about the early 1960s when the play was staged. The 60s were a period when great strides were being made by the younger generation to surpass the conservative and right-winged views of their parents, and to adopt a more liberal and experimental approach to the world, including new approaches to culture, governance, community, environment, and education. This contrast between the period in which the play was set and the period in which it was staged is not unlike Timon’s own journey within the play, as he moves from superficial, urban playboy to a passionate, balanced dweller of the outskirts and margins.

The play was restaged in 1991 at the Stratford Festival with Michael Langham again as director. The production achieved considerable success and praise by contrast with the reluctance, criticism, and low attendance numbers of the original. Langham attributes this distinction to the relative ease of what it meant to revisit (in hindsight) the 20s and 30s in the 1990s (Timon of Athens 1991 house program, 11). In the 1960s, a more traditionalist view lingered especially amongst the older, upper classes who had experienced that time period and who were reluctant to embrace a different vision of the world that was erupting in the 60s. Another potential reason for the success of the 1991 production was the growing acceptability of Shakespearean adaptation as a means of encounter with the Bard, and the burgeoning originality evident in Canadian theatre by comparison with the more staid approaches of the 1960s and earlier.

Langham’s production of Timon of Athens and residency as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival are especially consequential when viewed as establishing an influential precedent to the explosion of adaptations in the last forty years of Canadian theatre history as documented by the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. His production of Timon, an adaptation in many senses of the word––in staging, production, script editing, and directorial additions––demonstrates how even the smallest changes can create in aggregate a substantial alteration in form, function and structure, and in doing so transform the play’s content, the audience’s perception of that content, and create unexpected insight into historical periods, modernity, and the dramatic shifts in the Canadian theatrical landscape that this production points toward. Worth asking is the degree to which this form of production-based adaptation gave license at a crucial stage in the development of Canadian theatre to more radical forms of adaptation that took greater liberties with the Shakespearean source?

Danielle Van Wagner (with Daniel Fischlin)

Link to Script

Link to 1963 Program

Link to 1991 Program

Link to 1963 Press Reviews

Link to 1961 essay by Michael Langham: An Approach to Staging Shakespeare's Works

Link to Duke Ellington's Incidental Music for Shakespeare's Play Timon Of Athens

 


 

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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.

 

 

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