Behind the scenes at Orlando Shakespeare Theater

The Writing of Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles – PART II


John P. Keller as Pericles. Photo by Luke Evans.

The following blog post is the third installment from actor John P. Keller, taking on the lead role of Pericles in Orlando Shakes upcoming modern verse production, of his documentation of the controversial project to translate Shakespeare into contemporary modern English.  


The Translation, Adaptation, or Re-Writing of Shakespeare’s and Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles. Part II

John Keller

John P. Keller

It’s ok we are not re-writing Shakespeare we are re-writing… “Wilkins?”

Pericles is my favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps my actor ego plays into that—always believing I would make a good Pericles (the jury is still out, we don’t open for another few weeks). Perhaps it’s because I love a great action adventure in all forms and this play—and maybe Cymbeline—are the closest Shakespeare comes to an Odyssean epic. This play also has one of the most superbly crafted scenes in all of Shakespeare, the dangerous and redemptive Act V boat scene—a superbly crafted moment of unknown identities which surprises with the continual ebb and flow of possible resolution and furthered conflict.

It is a common scholarly belief, based on empirical data, that Shakespeare is not the primary author of Pericles. It is probable that George Wilkins, sometime around 1607 or 1608, wrote the first two to three acts. His novel with the published titled “The Painful Adventures of Pericles, Prince of Tyre” contains whole passages of mirrored text. Most theater companies that produce Shakespeare’s Pericles Prince of Tyre usually contend with the performative hurdle of a play that is written in two pretty distinct voices. The differences in text and poetic flow found throughout the production as well as the challenges of vast changes in geographies and a bountiful cast of colorful characters makes Pericles a very challenging play to produce.

In my first article, I discussed how many artists responded to the initial announcement of the translation project with a mix of disbelief and disgust. However, if the conversation lasts more than that momentary outburst, it works its way around to discussing which plays might actually benefit with some dramaturgical aid. Shakespeare’s full body of work accounts for 39 plays, but, most of us have only heard of around a dozen or so—and probably only 3-5 are widely known in pop-culture. We can assume the success of these well known plays derive from the beauty of the poetry, the fantastical quality of the story telling, and reverberating psychological truisms. So what about the play’s outside of this revered circle? Well, Pericles is one of these outsider plays.

Shakespeare’s Pericles is magical, it is epic, and it also has some incredible pathos. However, in many ways it trips over itself. Performing the original text requires a lot of “figuring out” to create a sense of flow and understandability to the language and the plot. A common refrain during text work of Shakespeare’s Pericles was not feeling Shakespeare’s familiar poetic flow. His “voice” is specifically absent in the first two and a half acts.


John P. Keller as Pericles. Photo by Luke Evans.

The following is an example of Wilkins’ dense language in Act I Sc. 2 of Pericles:

Let none disturb us.
Why should this change of thoughts,
The sad companion, dull-eyed melancholy,
Be my so used a guest as not an hour
In the day’s glorious walk or peaceful night,
The tomb where grief should sleep can breed me quiet?

Then it is thus: the passions of the mind,
That have their first conception by misdred,
Have after-nourishment and life by care;
And what was first but fear what might be done
Grows elder now, and cares it be not done.

Reading these passages gives me the impression of a writer attempting to mimic Shakespeare.

It is generally agreed in our rehearsal room at Orlando Shakes that you could sense the moment when Shakespeare takes control of the text in Act III, Sc. 2 of Pericles. Cerimon speaks the words:

She is alive! Behold
Her eyelids, cases to those heavenly jewels
Which Pericles hath lost, begin to part
Their fringes of bright gold. The diamonds
Of a most praised water doth appear,
To make the world twice rich. Live, and make
Us weep to hear your fate, fair creature,
Rare as you seem to be.

It’s as if Shakespeare threw Wilkins out of the writer’s chair and said “oh just let me do it!”

Later in the play there are some speeches, that as an actor, seem so much more discernible, emotionally present, and quite frankly actable. Like this speech from Act V, Sc. 1:

I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one
My daughter might have been. My queen’s square brows,
Her stature to an inch, as wand-like straight,
As silver-voiced, her eyes as jewel-like
And cased as richly, in pace another Juno;
Who starves the ears she feeds and makes them hungry
The more she gives them speech.

The idea that Pericles had two originating authors birthed some new gnawing questions relating to our current controversial dilemma about authorship and re-writes: What makes text work or not work performatively? What textual tools can be adjusted to make the actor profit better in their work?

In PART III, I will discuss the actor’s process of bringing the text to life and highlight compressions between the original and McLaughlin texts.

John P. Keller


John P. Keller is a New York based Actor as well as the Director of Education and Community Outreach for coLAB Arts in New Jersey, an organization that links artists with social advocacy and non-profit organizations to develop transformative new work with communities. He has taught at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers, the Rutgers School of Social Work, and at Westminster College of the Arts, Rider University. 



One response

  1. sissy103

    Whacking away at the text of Pericles doesn’t bother me too much, as Shakespeare probably didn’t write some of it anyway, but I understand the other 38 plays are being mutilated as well, and that is unbelievable and disgusting.

    I’ve yet to decide whether I’ll see Orlando Shakes’ Pericles. It is hard to turn down a play directed by Jim Helsinger or a performance by John P. Keller, but even harder to support the altering of Shakespeare’s text.

    February 17, 2016 at 11:12 am

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