From page to stage

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Caution: This blog post may contain spoilers if you are not familiar with the book Her Majesty’s Will by David Blixt.

In the blog post Inside Her Majesty’s Will Part One: Adapting the Novel Robert Kauzlaric started to address some of the challenges of adapting the novel for the stage, particularly the adding of a Chorus to help share Will’s inner thoughts with the audience. As is often the case with adapting a novel, this was only one of many changes that occurred between the page and stage. Many factors play into what stays and what gets left behind, but luckily author David Blixt was understanding and supportive of the process of bringing these characters and their story to the live theatre. Outlined below are a few such things to look out for if you are already familiar with Blixt’s version of the story – along with some historical tidbits as well.

Due to the practicalities and casting for this show, a few characters were cut before the script even made it to the rehearsal room. Many were minor characters that our young heroes come across in passing. For example, in the book Dick Tarlton is accompanied by his protégé, Robert Armin, who was in fact his successor both on the stage and in court, but he has been omitted from the play since he doesn’t significantly impact the story. Walter Williams, Walsingham’s “right hand man” in the book, was consolidated into the character of Phelippes in the play to avoid confusion among Walsingham’s minions and to create a more solidified character for a certain twist in the story. Although both were in Sir Francis’ employ, Phelippes is the more noted of the two as Walsingham’s cryptographer and forger and he played the larger part in the plot against Mary Stuart. The interaction with the local bumbling sheriff was also cut since it stalled the momentum of the play at a point where it needed to focus on other developments.

The two most notable absences in the play are of Thomas Watson and Shakespeare’s father. Watson was one of the famed “University Wits,” an informal group of university-educated dramatists in the 1580s that immediately preceded Shakespeare’s writing fame. They never referred to themselves by this name, but were given it as historians tried to identify some of the most important pre-Shakespearian influences. While Watson plays an important part in deciphering Kit’s coded message in the book, his presence is absent from the play (although many of his contributions toward moving the plot forward survive in the mouths of the other Wits). His name, however, is mentioned so as not to be forgotten as a contributor to this lively bunch of men. Shakespeare’s father is an influential, but complicated character in the book – one that drives much of Will’s actions, though he is only seen briefly near the end of the story. All the factors that drive Will from his home that are tied to his father – his father’s drinking, his decent into poverty, and family shame – are present in the stage version, but their complicated relationship is conveyed to the live audience by Will’s father’s intentional absence.

Condensing a novel to a stage production also means that time constraints make it necessary to pare the story down to its base elements, therefore quite a few fun and beloved plot points get glossed over as opening night of the production looms near. During this process there were structural changes that happened before rehearsals began, but there were also moments that the production team really did try to include in the stage performance, but alas ended up on the cutting room floor. This is particularly true for the two instances of betrayal that happen in Blixt’s book.

The first betrayal was between Kit and Will when Kit leverages his knowledge of Will’s background to Sir Francis Walsingham. The play moves at such a quick pace, covering only about a week (compared to multiple weeks in the book), that there wasn’t enough time to address the aftermath of such an event, nor to earn the subsequent reconciliation.

The second betrayal was by Em Ball. While it added complexity and an obstacle for our heroes to overcome in the book (and nodded to the historic Em’s reputation), it played against some of Kauzlaric’s hopes for the character on stage. He wanted Em to be an equal part of the troop that hangs out with the Kit at the White Hart, capable of holding her own with the educated men and full of her own valiant desire to save her queen. Aware of the limited representation that women have in this play, Kauzlaric felt it was important to show a brave, loyal, and proactive woman of the lower classes.

There were smaller bits that were lost along the way as well. For example, horse-stealing shenanigans were included in the play until rehearsals were moved into the playing space, as was the suggestion of a past relationship between Kit and Hank Evans. Scenes like the performance of The Spanish Tragedie, the Wits’ debate over England’s greatest king (or queen), and Kit and Will’s extensive travels have been cut significantly since the first draft. Also, while a working draft of the play at one time contained allusions to (nearly) all of Shakespeare’s plays, due to cuts and changes, many had to be lost along the way. There are still quite a few to be found for the attentive audience member.

Although these changes and omissions could be viewed as a loss to the story Blixt originally conceived, it is important to remember that literature and performance are very different mediums. While one structure and pace is better suited to the page, the essence and spirit of the tale is still alive and well in the staged version. We hope you bear this in mind as you “gently hear and kindly judge our play.”