Cutting Plays for Performance

A Practical and Accessible Guide

By Toby Malone and Aili Huber

Forthcoming from Routledge Press, December 2021

Hamlet. Act Two, Scene Two. A group of travelling players have arrived at Elsinore. Our inspired title character exhorts his guests to reprise one of their past performances: an epic depiction of the fall of Troy. One player steps up with relish, and performs the evocative scene with details, images, and free-flowing descriptors. Sixty lines into the speech, Hamlet remains enthralled. Not everyone shares his enthusiasm: Polonius, the pedantic politician, has become impatient.

"This is too long."

The nerve! Hamlet is exasperated. Too long? What are they supposed to do? Cut it?

Not necessarily. But believe it or not, yes, a cut might be the best solution of all. To many directors, dramaturgs, and actors, cutting plays is an integral step in the process of theatre. Cuts might happen in deep pre-production, or at a table read, or in rehearsal, or even, quite rarely, in performance. Cuts happen to control the play’s length, to address modesty issues or cultural differences, or to fit a directorial concept. Cuts are common. Standard, even.

To an outsider, cuts may seem audacious, hubristic, or even sacrilegious. You want to cut a play a playwright has authorized as complete? Who do you think you are? Such dismay has historical precedent. The famously opinionated George Bernard Shaw believed if you can’t perform Shakespeare uncut, then you shouldn’t perform it at all. The plays, Shaw suggested, were that length and had that content for a purpose. To change the content was to remove some of the play’s spirit: in his inimitable style, Shaw suggested adapters “[l]et Shakespear alone if you dont believe in him” (sic). Without a doubt, Shaw would be horrified to know how often his own works are cut to size today.

To the purists, cuts may seem like unnecessary brutality inflicted on a beloved text, perpetrated out of fear of a classical play’s inherent intricacy. In fact, cutting is not only common, but also necessary. Polonius’s instinctive, "This is too long," does not necessarily betray a lack of sophistication, but perhaps an audience’s very real awareness they are no longer engaged. A company may faithfully retain every line in an original practices staging of Aeschylus’s The Persians (472 BCE), yet might potentially undermine their narrative if the audience’s attention wanders. Another company may insist their production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1677) is letter-perfect, and have the time and audience to embrace it. When these rare opportunities for uncut performance arrive, they can be instructive and fulfilling, albeit quite long.

So: the question is, what do you cut? And how? And what happens to the rest of the play? Is it the same play? What about the purists? Is this sacreligious?