Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida Troilus and Cressida In (and Out Of) Performance

If there is any Shakespearean play for which the phrase "in performance" is an anomaly, this is the one. For almost three hundred years - from the beginning of the seventeenth to the beginning of the twentieth century - Troilus and Cressida disappeared from the stage. Indeed, some critics, citing the printer's assertion in his preface to the play, believe that Troilus wasn't performed in the seventeenth century at all. The play's philosophical, speechifying character fits the theory that Troilus was not intended to be performed publicly; of all of Shakespeare's plays, this is the one most like the so-called "closet dramas" (such as Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Mariam), which were spoken aloud in private homes by the educated classes. However, there is evidence of at least one performance by Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, prior to 1603.

There is a persistent legend that holds that the first performance of Troilus and Cressida was an unmitigated disaster, after which the play was immediately pulled from the stage and never performed again. Indeed, there is no trace of a performance tradition for Troilus and Cressida in the subsequent centuries. This fact has led many to feel that more than any of Shakespeare's plays, Troilus was written for "our" time, not "his." As George Bernard Shaw put it in the late nineteenth century, in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare "is ready and willing to start at the twentieth century if the seventeenth will only let him." It is possible to overstate the feeling that Troilus and Cressida is a twentieth century play, but without a doubt, the last two centuries have been far more willing than the prior two to stage such a cynical, indeterminate, philosophical drama.

Because of its long draught, twentieth-century productions dominate the performance history of Troilus and Cressida. At first, these performances emphasized the discursive philosophizing of the play. The producer George Rylands was one of the first to champion the play in the early 1900s; his productions emphasized the text in an academic fashion, refusing to gloss over the difficulties in Shakespeare's language and thinking that are so eloquently represented throughout Troilus. This academic style was to be the standard for the play until mid-century.

Later productions, struck by the apparent modernity of Shakespeare's conception, explored the bitterness conveyed by the apparent disillusionment with war. Tyrone Guthrie's 1956 Troilus at the Old Vic in London was sardonic and unapologetic. This enormously influential production was set at the beginning of World War I, which Guthrie explained was the last time Europeans thought of war as a game. Later productions would also draw on Vietnam as a setting - a similarly disillusioning event in the history of western warfare.

Another cultural development that found its way into productions of Troilus and Cressida from the mid-century onward was the rise of feminism. In many productions, such as Howard Davies', Cressida was turned from the flirt of the European middle ages to an unwilling victim of patriarchal politics. Davies staged the kissing scene in Act Four as a near-rape, and depicted Cressida as a woman in love with Troilus who only moved on to Diomedes because she sought his protection in a hostile Greek environment. The tendency to see Cressida as a simple victim of male power has had its critics, however; many have wondered whether it isn't possible to have a Cressida who is responsible for her own moral decision to break her vow with Troilus without damning her. The question of Cressida's agency remains a topic of much debate.

In all, Troilus and Cressida is an odd play, and oddly suited to our time: it is at once very familiar and very distant. It matches a modern obsession with subjectivity with the indeterminacy of language, the balance of female and male forms of power, and a very outdated legend about a true man and a false woman. It is important in reading and staging the play not to err too greatly in either direction, for it is neither a simple morality play about treacherous women nor a simple call for an end to war and male domination. It possesses both of these characteristics, and it is all the more interesting for the mixture.