Stage history

The Comedy of Errors (1983) Luciana (Jane Booker) is accosted by Antipholus of Syracuse (Paul Greenwood). Photo: Joe Cocks Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of The Comedy of Errors from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.

On the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December) in 1594, 'a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menaechmus) was played by the Players' as part of the rowdy Christmas celebrations held in the hall of London's Gray's Inn. The boisterous events of the night are recorded in the Gesta Grayorum (not published until 1688) and give us the earliest record of the performance of Shakespeare's play.

Gray's Inn was one of London's prestigious Inns of Court, a centre for the study and practice of law, famous for their celebrations and boisterous, highly literate body of law students. Because of its brevity and its litigious preoccupations, it has been argued that Shakespeare wrote the play specifically for this occasion. The richly carved screen at the end of the great hall, with its five arched doorways and gallery above, would have provided an excellent background to a specially erected, temporary stage.

The continuing popularity of the play as a part of the Christmas celebrations is demonstrated by the record of another performance on the Feast of the Innocents, this time as part of the Christmas revels at Court in 1604, when 'The plaie of Errors', by 'Shaxberd' was performed by his Majesty's Players.

When playing for the general public, Shakespeare and his fellow players performed on the simple thrust stage of an open-air playhouse. Plays were performed in daylight, in the afternoon, on an uncluttered stage, with a balcony and a trapdoor. No scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the language. Music and costume added to the effect, the latter being especially important in a play such as this where the audience must be persuaded of the confusing similarity of two sets of characters. The gifted boy players in the company took the female roles and the dramatist must have been sure of his actors' comic talents, both physical and verbal, in the creation of roles such as the Dromios and Doctor Pinch.

Popular taste in the following couple of centuries demanded that major changes be made to Shakespeare's play. Adaptations such as the farce Every Body Mistaken, in 1716, and 20 years later, See if You Like It, or 'Tis all a Mistake were performed in London. The most successful adapter was Thomas Hull, whose version The Twins was popular at Covent Garden throughout the much of the second half of the eighteenth century and the early years of the next. Hull's version pleased his audiences with its sentimental songs and other additions to the wooing scenes.

An operatic version of the play delighted Viennese audiences in the late eighteenth century. The Anglo-Italian composer Stephen Storace and Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, worked together on Gli Equivoci, based on a French translation of Shakespeare's play. In this version, Aegeon and Emilia are cut and Euphemio (so called instead of Antipholus) and Dromio are shipwrecked on Ephesus's coast. Frederick Reynolds's musical version in London cheerfully appropriated poetry and songs from across the Shakespearean canon, adding hunting expeditions, drinking parties and anything else that offered an opportunity for a spectacular musical diversion.

It was not until Samuel Phelps produced the play at Sadlers Wells in the mid-nineteenth century that something approaching Shakespeare's original could be seen on the London stage. The success of Phelps's production prompted another faithfully text-based production at the Princess's Theatre in 1864. One of the strengths of this production was its casting of identical twins from Ireland, Charles and Henry Webb.

A musical version of the play by Rodgers and Hart was a big hit in New York in 1938 with the title The Boys From Syracuse. It was later filmed.

Phyllida Lloyd directed a successful production at the Bristol Old Vic in 1989.
At Shakespeare's Globe two years later, Kathryn Hunter directed the play, choosing to use a single actor to double the parts of the two Antipholuses and another to double the two Dromios.

In 1983, James Cellan-Jones directed the play for the BBC television series of Shakespeare's plays. Clever editing allowed the doubling of Michael Kitchen as both Antipholuses and Roger Daltry as both Dromios.

Productions 1938 - 2005 »

Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo shows Luciana (Jane Booker) being accosted by Antipholus of Syracuse (Paul Greenwood) in the RSC's 1983 production.
Photo: Joe Cocks Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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