Twelfth Night

Performance history

During and just after Shakespeare's lifetime

The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night, 2 February 1602. The only record of the performance is an entry in the diary of the lawyer John Manningham, who wrote:

At our feast we had a play called "Twelve Night, or What You Will", much like "The Comedy of Errors" or "Menaechmi" in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called "Inganni". A good practice in it to make the steward believe his lady-widow was in love with him, by counterfeiting a letter as from his lady, in general term telling him what she liked best in him and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel, etc. and then, when he came to practice, making him believe they took him for mad.[21]

Clearly, Manningham enjoyed the Malvolio story most of all, and noted the play's similarity with Shakespeare's earlier play, as well as its relationship with one of its sources, the Inganni plays.

At this particular performance, Manningham also notes the interesting dimension that is added when a male actor plays a female character who disguises herself as a man. Some scholars attribute this to an innate Elizabethan structure that systematically deprived gender diversity of its nature and meaning.[22] Although male actors playing female roles were a natural feature of theatre productions during the Elizabethan era, they hold special significance in the production of this particular play. As the very nature of Twelfth Night explores gender identity and sexual attraction, having a male actor play Viola enhanced the impression of androgyny and sexual ambiguity.[23] Some modern scholars believe that Twelfth Night, with the added confusion of male actors and Viola's deception, addresses gender issues "with particular immediacy."[24] They also accept that the depiction of gender in Twelfth Night stems from the era's prevalent scientific theory that females are simply imperfect males.[23] This belief explains the almost indistinguishable differences between the sexes reflected in the casting and characters of Twelfth Night.

It may have been performed earlier as well, before the Court at Whitehall Palace on Twelfth Night (6 January) of 1601.[25] Twelfth Night was also performed at Court on Easter Monday, 6 April 1618, and again at Candlemas in 1623.

Restoration to 20th century

The play was also one of the earliest Shakespearean works acted at the start of the Restoration; Sir William Davenant's adaptation was staged in 1661, with Thomas Betterton in the role of Sir Toby Belch. Samuel Pepys thought it "a silly play", but saw it three times anyway during the period of his diary on 11 September 1661, 6 January 1663, and 20 January 1669. Another adaptation, Love Betray'd, or, The Agreeable Disappointment, was acted at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1703.[6]

After holding the stage only in the adaptations in the late 17th century and early 18th century, the original Shakespearean text of Twelfth Night was revived in 1741, in a production at Drury Lane. In 1820 an operatic version by Frederic Reynolds was staged, with music composed by Henry Bishop.

20th and 21st century

Influential productions were staged in 1912, by Harley Granville-Barker, and in 1916, at the Old Vic.

Lilian Baylis reopened the long-dormant Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1931 with a notable production of the play starring Ralph Richardson as Sir Toby and John Gielgud as Malvolio. The Old Vic Theatre was reopened in 1950 (after suffering severe damage in the London Blitz in 1941) with a memorable production starring Peggy Ashcroft as Viola. Gielgud directed a production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Laurence Olivier as Malvolio and Vivien Leigh playing both Viola and Sebastian in 1955. The longest running Broadway production by far was Margaret Webster's 1940 staging starring Maurice Evans as Malvolio and Helen Hayes as Viola. It ran for 129 performances, more than twice as long as any other Broadway production.

A memorable production directed by Liviu Ciulei at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, October–November 1984, was set in the context of an archetypal circus world, emphasising its convivial, carnival tone.[26]

When the play was first performed, all female parts were played by men or boys, but it has been the practice for some centuries now to cast women or girls in the female parts in all plays. The company of Shakespeare's Globe, London, has produced many notable, highly popular all-male performances, and a highlight of their 2002 season was Twelfth Night, with the Globe's artistic director Mark Rylance playing the part of Olivia. This season was preceded, in February, by a performance of the play by the same company at Middle Temple Hall, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the play's première, at the same venue. The same production was revived in 2012-13 and transferred to sell-out runs in the West End and Broadway. Stephen Fry played Malvolio. It ran in repertory with Richard III.

Interpretations of the role of Viola have been given by many well-renowned actresses in the latter half of the 20th century, and have been interpreted in the light of how far they allow the audience to experience the transgressions of stereotypical gender roles.[27] This has sometimes correlated with how far productions of the play go towards reaffirming a sense of unification, for example a 1947 production concentrated on showing a post-World War II community reuniting at the end of the play, led by a robust hero/heroine in Viola, played by Beatrix Lehmann, then 44 years old.[28] The 1966 Royal Shakespeare Company production played on gender transgressions more obviously, with Diana Rigg as Viola showing much more physical attraction towards the duke than previously seen, and the court in general being a more physically demonstrative place, particularly between males.[29] John Barton's 1969 production starred Donald Sinden as Malvolio and Judi Dench as Viola; their performances were highly acclaimed and the production as a whole was commented on as showing a dying society crumbling into decay.[30]

Malvolio is a popular character choice among stage actors; others who have taken the part include Ian Holm many times, Simon Russell Beale (Donmar Warehouse, 2002), Richard Cordery in 2005, Patrick Stewart, in Chichester, in 2007, Derek Jacobi (Donmar Warehouse) in 2009, Richard Wilson in 2009[31] and Stephen Fry at the Globe in 2012.[32]


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