By Diana Major Spencer

In the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s annals, Romeo and Juliet ranks with Hamlet as most popular. Almost every introduction to the play attests to its instant and ongoing popularity, evoking the combined innocence and passion of young love pitted against the vagaries of parental (dis)approval and fateful disasters. Time and again, audiences suffer the yearning, the horror, and the futility of these “star-cross’d” lovers, always coming back for more, wishing, perhaps, they’d have better luck next time.

Yet introductions also include—for amusing contrast, no doubt—a diary entry from March 1, 1662, in which Samuel Pepys reports seeing Romeo and Juliet and proclaiming it “a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life.” Rather than disparaging Pepys’s lack of taste, however, let’s review the remarkable performance history of this remarkable tragedy:

After Shakespeare, changing theatrical tastes and the turbulent reign of Charles I (1625–49) plunged the stage into a Rake’s Progress of libertinism, murder, and overt sexuality, which, combined with political upheaval and insurrection, brought Parliament, in September 1642, to ban theater altogether from the kingdom:

Whereas the . . . Estate of Ireland, . . . and the . . . Estate of England, threatened with . . . a Civil War, call for all possible Means to appease and avert the Wrath of God . . . ; and whereas Public Sports do not well agree with Public Calamities, nor Public Stage-plays with the Seasons of Humiliation . . . : It is therefore . . . Ordained, by . . . this Parliament assembled, That, while these sad causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, and be forborn, instead of which are recommended to the People . . . Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God, which probably may produce outward Peace and Prosperity, and bring again Times of Joy and Gladness to these Nations (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp. 26-27).

Thus, Romeo and Juliet disappeared from the stage for at least eighteen years, until after the execution of King Charles (1649) and Restoration of the Monarchy in the person of his son, Charles II (1661), when the theatres were also restored.

Witnessing the opening night of Romeo and Juliet’s first production after this interlude was a devoted son of London, the administrative clerk and obsessive diarist quoted above, Samuel Pepys (whom I admire fiercely for burying his imported Parmesan for safety among his other treasures during the Great Fire of London!). From his diary, March 1, 1662:

This morning I paid Sir W. Batten £40, which I have owed him this half year, having borrowed it from him. Then to the office all the morning, so dined at home. After dinner comes my uncle Thomas, with whom I had some high words of difference, but ended quietly, though I fear I shall do no good by fair means upon him. Thence my wife and I by coach, first to see my little picture that is a drawing, and thence to the Opera and there saw ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do, and I am resolved to go no more to see the first time of acting, for they were all of them out more or less (The Diary of Samuel Pepys [unabridged] ed. H. B. W. Brampton, 1893: 427).

Pepys’s dyspepsia, both from quarrelling with Uncle Thomas and parting with money (except then he was buying books, imported cheese and wine, or visiting the theater 351 times that he mentions), may well have influenced his dismay regarding this resurrection of the Bard. Or perhaps that wasn’t Shakespeare’s play he saw.

Consider that Shakespeare’s plays were dated and Marlow’s Mighty Line had succumbed to the heroic couplet in the hands of no other than John Dryden, England’s first poet laureate and know-it-all. Dryden proclaimed, for example, that “the most unkindest cut of all” was redundant rather than emphatic; that double negatives cancel each other rather than accentuate the negative; and that prepositions don’t end sentences because, by Latin definition, pre- means before.

Dryden found Shakespeare to be “natural,” unschooled, and barely literate. Will’s blank verse had ragged edges. His plots ranged widely in time and space in flagrant disregard of Aristotle’s unities. He mixed comedy and tragedy, as well as aristocracy and servitude. In short, Shakespeare had a few good stories, but they lacked proper literary accoutrements. Thus, Dryden and friends set about “improving,” not just Shakespeare’s plays, but Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Milton’s Paradise Lost as well, in “superior,” end-stopped heroic couplets.

Dryden’s hand was in revisions of four Shakespeare plays: The Tempest (1667); Troilus and Cressida (1679); Antony and Cleopatra as All for Love (1677); and his earliest attempt in 1662, Romeo and Juliet, which his brother-in-law James Howard revised, with Dryden “perfecting” the verse. The Cambridge History of English Literature (1920) disparages Howard for “perpetrat[ing] a version of Romeo and Juliet (1662), with a ‘happy ending,’ which was performed on alternate nights with the catastrophe” (8:21n). English Dramatic Literature adds of Howard, “He is, however, best—or worst—remembered for his alteration of Romeo and Juliet, to which he gave a ‘happy ending’ and which was performed in this condition on alternate nights with the Shakespearean original” (3:396n).

In the spirit of English literatus A. W. Ward, editor of both literary histories above, it may be unfortunate—or fortunate—that no script remains of Dryden’s and Howard’s tragicomedy. Yet I can’t help suspecting that this missing play might be the very one Samuel Pepys found so odious on that March evening of 1662 when he was already distressed by squabbles and finances. Scholars say we can’t be sure, but since Howard’s version appeared on alternate evenings with Shakespeare’s, and Pepys asserted that he saw it “the first time it was ever acted,” that could identify it as the new play rather than “the first time [since the Restoration that Shakespeare’s] R&J had been performed.”

Even so, that dual run of Shakespeare and Howard/Dryden marked the last time for about 183 years that the Bard of Avon’s star-cross’d lovers would appear on stage. By 1669, only seven years after Howard’s fiasco, Thomas Otway changed the names to Caius and Lavinia, discarded Howard’s happy ending, and gave the lovers a reunion in the tomb before Caius succumbs to his poison and Lavinia is compelled to stab herself. Tear-jerking better suited the audience than the tragic futility and cosmic punishment of both parents and children in Shakespeare. Otway’s Caius Marius was performed through 1727, about 60 years—far longer than Shakespeare’s original.

Of even longer duration and greater success was David Garrick’s version, first staged at Drury Lane in 1748. Often credited with inventing Bardolatry with the first ever Shakespeare Festival, Garrick, the consummate Shakespearean, “improved” his idol’s original for the developing Victorian Era by washing out its mouth with soap. Mercutio and Nurse practically vanished, as did Juliet’s most passionate lines. Nothing rowdy, nothing off-color. Garrick further indulged his public’s theatrical expectations with a scene between Romeo and Juliet in the tomb, guaranteeing at least a three-hankie flood for their final embraces. Garrick’s sweet, slushy script proved the standard performing text until 1845, almost 100 years.

And then, in a most ironic fashion and in Garrick’s own West End neighborhood, Shakespeare’s original text (which might have pleased Pepys on a better day—if he had actually seen it) booted Garrick’s script off the London stage. Charlotte Cushman, an American woman, played the role of Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. Despite innuendos of indelicacy for the breeches role opposite her sister, presumptuousness for being an uppity American at the Haymarket, and impudence for preferring Shakespeare’s text to Garrick’s—Charlotte was celebrated by the Atlas, January 3, 1846: “The appearance of Miss Cushman at the Haymarket, and the debut of her sister, Miss Susan Cushman, has been the theatrical event of the week. . . Miss Cushman as Romeo has created no small sensation. . . . Perhaps a more intellectual and at the same time a more theatrically effective performance has never been witnessed” (qtd. in Lisa Merrill, When Romeo Was a Woman [Ann Arbor: UMichiganP, 2000], 115). Ironically, the British actors in Cushman’s tour-de-force complained that Shakespeare’s script was too difficult for them.

Thus Shakespeare at last resumes his rightful state as Author and Bard. Pepys is forgiven for disrespecting a fraud. And the real Romeo and Juliet reigns supreme—as well it should.