Sunday, 27 March 2011
This Year 'Don Quixote'?
They become known in a strange way, perhaps because we have read a lot about them, or they are books that are part of our overall heritage. I think I know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I do know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I have just never read it. I doubt if I ever will. But I know what people mean when they talk about tilting at windmills; I recognise a drawing of Quixote and Sancha Panza. I believe Cervantes to be a great European writer. Why do I believe that? What possible grounds do I have for believing it? Other people's opinions, the fact that it has an honourable and permanent place in the canon? So, 'Don Quixote' has an honourable, permanent place on my shelves. It would be wrong to get rid of it.
I feel exactly the same about Don Quixote. I too have a copy and, like Susan Hill, I have never read it. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop me from being convinced that I know what the novel is about. After all, I did once, long ago, see a stage version at the National starring Paul Scofield. That has to count for something, surely?
Well, two people who we know did read the book were William Shakespeare and the up and coming star of the King's Men, John Fletcher. I don't know about you, but I always find it astounding that Shakespeare and Cervantes lived at the same time, however, that is, in fact, the case. Indeed, they died on the very same day, April 23rd 1616.
Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 and the first English translation, by Thomas Shelton, hit the book stalls outside St Pauls in the early Summer of 1612, just in time for Shakespeare to pick up a copy and decide that one of the stories it contained would be ideal fodder for his Christmas production for the company he had been part of since its foundation in 1594. By this time most of his work was being done in collaboration with the young Fletcher and this was no exception. The play, Cardenio, was written, the music composed by Robert Johnson, who also worked with them on The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, and the whole entertainment presented at court over the Christmas period 1612.
What, you've never heard of a Shakespeare play called Cardenio? Ah, well there's the rub. We've lost it. Careless, I know, but nevertheless, a fact. What we do have is a bowdlerised version from the eighteenth century by one Lewis Theobald called Double Falsehood which he claimed was based on the Shakespeare and Fletcher original, but if he had the three copies he said he did they almost certainly went up in flames in the Drury Lane fire of 1809. Please, don't ask me to say any more, it's just too painful. If it's any sort of consolation, what does still exist is the music for that first production and you can see it, I believe, in the Bodleian Library.
Recently, however, there has been considerable interest in both the Theobald play and in attempts to use it as a basis from which to reconstruct the original Cardenio. There was an Arden edition of Double Falsehood published last year and there have been two university attempts, one here in the UK and one in New Zealand, to stage a version of what scholars have thought might be something like the original of 1612. Now, we have the first professional production opening at the Swan Theatre in Stratford next month. As you can imagine, this has caused considerable interest, not to say controversy, and I can't wait to see how Greg Doran (a director, for whom I have the greatest respect) has set about rebuilding a script from very little original material. Fortunately, there are going to be several opportunities during the coming months to talk with him about the process, including an afternoon workshop in June that I've managed to wangle myself a place on.
There is no way that what we are going to see on stage this summer can possibly be thought of as a reliable reconstruction of the performance King James and his court saw during those seventeenth century Christmas festivities. Theobald must have completely gutted the original. For instance, there is no subplot in Double Falsehood and I am reliably informed, by someone who definitely knows, that there is only one play from that period which doesn't have at least one subplot and often more. Shakespeare certainly always liked an extra line of plot development knocking around. Nevertheless, if even just a few lines are reliably by Shakespeare that has to be worth something.
And now, I have to decide whether I am going to celebrate this event by making this the year in which I change my relationship to the Don. Is this going to be the year when I finally take my copy down from the shelf and actually read it? Maybe, we'll see.