Much A-don't about abridgments
A thought experiment: let us entertain the notion that Luther College’s music department decided to put on Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony,” and in this performance, elected to trim the work by half an hour, rescore it with electric strings and synthesizers instead of the dreadfully passé woodwind section, and, for good measure, to advertise it as a production truly recognizing the spirit of Beethoven’s original.
I imagine the uproar would be deafening.
The treatment of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of his great comedies, a joint production of Professor Mark Z. Muggli and the Luther College Theatre/Dance Department, was not entirely dissimilar from this nightmare scenario. The play’s ambiguities and subtlety are ironed out by an abridgment that evidently seeks to confirm the notion that today’s audiences are too dull and impatient to tolerate literature — in all of its difficulty, complexity and nuance — in its uncut form.
There was no indication given in the program as to the content cut (or to use Professor Muggli’s word, “snipped,”) but an examination of the text after seeing the play’s Saturday evening performance revealed that many of the most noticeable cuts were to characters’ monologues, but also, contrary to Muggli’s column published last week in Chips, extended to an entire character.
Much Ado, despite its comedic trappings, is a complex play. It deals with the nature of the relationships between men and women, the anxieties surrounding marriage and courtship and their often destructive manifestations in social rites, customs and standards.
Shakespeare uses dialogue and stage actions to convey a good deal of this thematic content, but it is in the monologues where the play’s nuances and some of its most rewarding material lie.
Shakespeare uses monologues in his plays to offer an insight into characters’ minds and psyches that cannot be easily communicated through dialogue or stage action. The monologues allow us to understand characters’ motivations, to hint at thoughts left unsaid and to breathe life into the play’s characters — in sheer utility and power, the monologue is unparalleled among other devices available to the dramatist.
The extent of the monologues’ cutting sees Beatrice’s metaphorical description of human relationships as a dance, and a continuous cycle of wooing and repentance until death her evocative rejection of marriage as being “over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust,” and Benedick’s description of Beatrice as a woman followed by “all disquiet, horror and perturbation” eliminated.
Vicious condemnations are flattened, their vitriolic relationship tempered, their pairing forced into the mold of a more conventional bickering couple. The emotional resonance of the play suffers for it.
The decision to exclude the character of Balthazar — a court musician and servant of Don Pedro in the original — from the play is curious, not in the least due to Muggli’s desire to return the play to the actor-based ethos of turn-of-the-17th-century theatre. One would think the inclusion of a diegetic musician as opposed to the performance’s jazz combo, would have assisted in cultivating an acting-troupe feel. Moreover, Balthazar’s contributions to “Much Ado’s” thematic material offer valuable — and disturbing — insights into the complex relationship between men and women both in the context of the play and for us, in the twenty-first century.
“Much Ado” is a valuable text for reasons other than its comedy. Its broad-ranging depictions of human relationships offer an intriguing glance into the gender politics of the sixteenth century and what those say about us today. The decision by Muggli to halve the script renders “Much Ado” a shell of itself; a broad-strokes, emotionally flat romantic comedy where the original was a hilarious — but also complex and tense and even distressing — work of art.