Part of what makes the Folger Shakespeare Library special is that while scholars are busy creating new knowledge in the reading rooms, actors and musicians in the adjacent theater are busy creating world-class performances. Amazing things result when scholars and artists break down the wall that traditionally separates them and start collaborating.
That’s what happened in November 2014, when Folger Institute, Folger Theatre, and Folger Consort joined forces to explore Restoration Shakespeare: the adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that were popular with audiences from 1660 to about 1710. As spectators like Samuel Pepys noted, what made these performances so appealing was their winning combination of acting, music, and dance.
The performance of Restoration Shakespeare—how it lived on the stage—was the focus of the workshop that I jointly directed with the musicologist Amanda Winkler from Syracuse University. Over three days, we brought together theatre and music scholars, actors, singers, and musicians—including Folger Consort’s Bob Eisenstein—to explore Charles Gildon’s adaptation of Measure for Measure (1700), which includes Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (c. 1689) presented as three separate musical interludes—that is, entertainment for both the audience and the characters within the play.
At first glance, the coupling of Measure for Measure with Dido and Aeneas seems odd. What does a play about the corrupting effects of power in fashionable Renaissance Turin have to do with an opera taken from Virgil’s epic The Aeneid about the doomed love between a Trojan hero and the Queen of Carthage? Why in 1699 did Charles Gildon put these stories together for performance at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields? He must have believed that the audience would enjoy it. Times were tough in the London theatre world, and the company led by the star actor Thomas Betterton (who played Angelo) needed a ‘hit’ to keep afloat.
We explored these questions in our workshop. One scene in particular proved revelatory: in Act 3 of Gildon’s Measure for Measure, the villain Angelo watches the final section of Dido and Aeneas—whose high point is the dying Dido’s famous lament (‘Remember me, but ah forget my fate!’)—as he waits for Isabella’s arrival. Angelo had sentenced her brother Claudio to death, but then agreed to commute the sentence if the virgin Isabella would sleep with him.
We were intrigued by this cryptic stage direction, ‘Before [the music] is quite done, Isabella enters’. It wasn’t much to go on: At what point exactly in the music does Isabella appear? Where does she enter from? How long does it take for Angelo to notice her, and vice versa? Does she stop to watch the performance of Dido or does she go straight to Angelo? Do the singers and musicians notice her? The script offered no clues. Yet how you choose to stage that scene, how you time that entrance, is key to the audience’s interpretation of the play.
After trying out several options, we decided Isabella (played by Nafeesa Monroe) should enter from the back of the theater and walk through the actual audience as Dido (sung by Emily Noel) began her famous final lament. Slowly the actress processed, until she reached the stage. Angelo (played by Louis Butelli) then spied her and proclaimed, ‘I see my Ev’ning Star of Love appear’. Through this staging, we discovered unforeseen parallels between the unhappy Isabella and the wronged Dido. Without question, this theatrical moment was made more powerful by Nafeesa’s sensitive performance: as Isabella stopped to ponder Dido’s tragic fate, she felt a horrible premonition of what might befall her if the treacherous Angelo had his way.
In the discussion afterward, we all agreed that it was the collaboration between performers and scholars that generated these insights. Through performance we gained a new appreciation for the experience of Restoration theatergoers who no doubt did enjoy that intriguing union of Measure for Measure and Dido and Aeneas.
This workshop planted the seed for the Folger Consort performance of Measure for Measure and Dido and Aeneas at the Kennedy Center on October 1, 2016: Measure + Dido. This concert staging represents the Folger at its best: sharing with the public the discoveries and unexpected insights that arise when scholars and artists work together.