Introducing a Forgotten Play

Troilus and Cressida 1968 Royal Shakespeare Company- Some productions deliver the prologue with an imposing, anonymous warrior

Troilus and Cressida 1968
Royal Shakespeare Company- Some productions deliver the prologue with an imposing, anonymous warrior

The most noteworthy aspect of Troilus and Cressida’s early performance history is that it was barely performed, if at all. Even when introduced in the second edition of the first quarto, the preface vaunts the play as entertainment unsoiled by “the palms of the vulgar”, a production only existing as “a birth of your brain”. From its very inception, the play’s distinction seemed to be its resistance to staging, even its popular obscurity. As though to honor this prefatory omen, the play vanished from the stage afterwards for three hundred years. Between 1609 and 1907, no documented evidence of an English performance survives. So when the neo-Shakespeare upsurge of the 20th century plumbed the Shakespearean canon for material, Shakespeare’s untested Troilus and Cressida appeared, with plenty of directorial ruts and little precedent. The variety of approaches to the prologue alone attests to the uncertain challenge of stage performance without precedent– particularly this dodgy, gritty marvel of tale.

Though inevitably important to any scrupulous director, the dilemma of introduction was particularly crucial in the case of Troilus and Cressida, since audiences had few or no preconceptions of the play. As critic Robert Cushman reflected over a 1981 rendering, the introduction was crucial to “determine the tone of a production” (Apfelbaum 50—refer to bottom of page). Even more vexing is the prologue’s material itself, which asserts a first-person character, who simultaneously disavows both a certain identity or affiliation to “author’s pen or actor’s voice” (Troilus and Cressida 24).


In 1912, the Elizabethan Stage Society was among the first to resurrect the play to modernity and tackle these issues. True to the enterprise’s title, the performance mimicked, or at least speculated, the Elizabethan context; the costume and staging harkened back to Shakespeare’s time in an attempt to invoke the conditions that begot the play. The similarities ended there, however, since the director, William Poel elided half the prologue and swapped the gender roles of various characters to female actresses in a rendition that was surprisingly advanced for its time. Essentially, the original production brushed over the prologue as a troublesome clot best streamlined as a crisp, factual introduction (though Poel probably would have avoided such diction).
In 1938, director Michael Macowan further innovated the prologue when he assigned the role to a specific character- Thersites. Macowan cropped the prologue’s references to wielding arms for consistent characterization, and used the prologue to introduce Thersites as a journalistic reporter on the events of the play.


Still, the play, both acerbic and comic, seemed leery of its own identity, and Tyrone Guthrie’s New York staging in 1954 first imbued the prologue with a more specific attitude to address this lingering concern. In Guthrie’s rendition, Pandarus delivers the introduction, stressing the importance of the romantic plotline within the events of the war. Pandarus’ humor (not in the Shakespearean sense) and bawdiness were probably natural to the presentation. Later productions assumed this interpretation, or slotted other characters into the prologue. For example, a 1965 rendition helmed by John Papp placed Alexander in the prologue, but a forceful enunciation left the crowd somewhere between disconcerted and amused, which is altogether in the natural range of the play.


From that foundation, the Royal Shakespeare Company (which pervaded Shakespearean productions in the latter half of the 20th century) staged multiple performances that elaborated the role of the prologue. In 1985, Howard Davies and the Royal Shakespeare Society contrived an entire scene of stage action around the prologue. Paramus, casually reading a newspaper amidst decayed scenery, barely flinches as a gaggle of frantic soldiers hauls in a dying warrior. As one of the soldiers delivers the prologue upon the death of his comrade at the feet of Paramus, the uncle barely raises a lid to the grimness around him. By this point, the prologue was hardly an unruly outcrop to be edited or omitted, but an opportunity for directors to clarify the challenging ambiguity and contradictions of the play’s tone.




(This is only a sampling of 20th century approaches to Troilus and Cressida, and just peeks at the introduction at that. All information derived from Roger Apfelbaum’s Shakespeare’s: Troilus and Cressida: Textual Problems and Performance Solutions by the University of Delware Press. For more performances and deeper information, consult the text)