Three hours southwest of DC in Staunton, Virginia is the American Shakespeare Center, a theater which at first glance takes a distinctly non-traditional approach to the Bard. The stage has no dedicated lighting and no set. Sound effects are created by the cast themselves. Those same actors play contemporary music before every show.
While the minimalism of performances at the Blackfriars initially feels intensely modern, the ASC is committed to recreating the staging conditions of Shakespeare’s own theatrical space and to following the implicit stage directions embedded in the text. Instead of spectacle, the audience is presented with an enormous and engaging focus on language. This stripped-down approach underlines the immediacy of Shakespeare’s plays.
The first play I saw at the ASC was The Merchant of Venice. We had stopped in Staunton almost randomly and stumbled upon the theater. My parents and I enjoyed the production so much that a few weeks later, we drove back to Staunton for the weekend to see another three plays: Cymbeline, King John, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Three years and thirty ASC productions later, I signed up to spend the summer at the American Shakespeare Center Theatre Camp. After an informal casting audition, I was cast as Proteus—one of the titular Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In the fourth act of Two Gentleman, Proteus performs a love song, supposedly helping the wealthy Thurio woo the duke’s daughter Silvia. Since there is no stage direction or speech prefix to identify the singer in the surviving text of Two Gentlemen of Verona, editors rely on an embedded stage direction—a textual clue concealed within the dialogue. Julia, Proteus’s former love, overhears the musical wooing while in disguise. She exclaims to an innkeeper that “the musician likes [her] not” (in other words, she doesn’t like the musician) because he plays false.” The innkeeper assumes Julia means that the musician is “out of tune on the strings” but she explains, “Not so; but yet so false that he grieves my very heart-strings” (in other words, Proteus is cheating on Julia by wooing Silvia). Her line serves as stage direction, telling actors and directors that Proteus is playing an instrument in this scene. While having the same actor sing makes sense, there is nothing in the text which requires it.
When I played Proteus, our production leveraged that flexibility to take advantage of the cast’s skills. I was not a confident vocalist then or now, but I played fiddle on stage to satisfy the direction encoded in Julia’s line. The camper playing Thurio sang the lyrics and played guitar.
While the text doesn’t ever identify who is singing, it does reference a group of musicians. Shortly before the song is performed, Thurio and Proteus set off to find “gentlemen well-skilled in music.” When they return to the stage, Thurio turns to the musicians and says, “Now, gentlemen, let’s tune, and to it lustily awhile.” These men are not given names and never speak, suggesting they might have been played by professional musicians rather than actors. Even Julia, who later refers to Proteus as if he is the only musician, here looks for him “among these,” suggesting there are other musicians as well.
Perhaps this inconsistency—one musician or several—hints at a detail of the original performance history of Two Gentlemen of Verona. If the original cast included no singers, the play would need to justify the presence of professional musicians. If by the time the troupe revived the play an actor had learned to sing, or the company had grown to include a singing actor, Shakespeare might have edited Two Gentlemen of Verona to take advantage of his actors’ skills. These two versions of the play would leave behind their own oral and paper records and then be combined at some point on the way to the printing press.
Both the question of how many musicians are on stage and the question of whether Proteus sings are both raised by the text, almost as if Shakespeare himself is directing even contemporary productions.