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Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Cue Scripts
“Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter.”
-Othello, Othello I.ii.83-84
As with numerous other theatrical practices, learning one’s lines in the world of early modern theater was dramatically different than the way in which the same task is undertaken today. English satirist Stephen Gosson put the matter succinctly in 1579 when he wrote, “Players action, doeth answere to their partes.” This statement is true on multiple levels; not only did an actor craft his performance based on his assigned character within a play, but also on the literal, tangible “part” which he received in order to learn his lines for that character. These parts came in the form of cue scripts, which contained only one character’s complete lines, along with each line’s “cue,” a mere two or three words of the preceding speech. The word cue or queue derives from the Latin quails meaning “what” and quando meaning “where.” Cue scripts were used both because of the high cost of parchment at this time, and also to ensure the concealment of the prompt book. Given the proximity of the playhouses in London during the early modern period, acting companies were competing for audiences and thus revenue. Cue scripts were a way of ensuring that one actor could not sell his copy of the play to a competing playhouse or publisher, as he was only ever given his own part of the script.
Full scripts were a luxury and a rarity, especially given the malleable nature of crafting a play and prepping it for performance. Instead, players were only presented with their individual parts in the shape of cue scripts. It was based on these last few words that an actor had to learn when to deliver his lines, a challenging exercise which required a good amount of mental dexterity. To further complicate matters, cue scripts did not specify by whom the cues were spoken, so an actor was required to be alert at all times for his cue, which could come from any other player onstage at any time, and which could be unmistakably unique or as mundane as “my lord.” This meant that it was just as crucial for an actor to memorize his cue as his own speech. All cues also had to be listened for with great concentration, because if a cue was missed, the onstage action would come to a halt. Consequently, the actor had to essentially always be “on cue” in order to not miss any of his lines. By the same token, an actor had to be careful to articulate at least the end of each of his speeches correctly, so that he would provide an identifiable cue for his fellow actor. This meant that there was little room for improvisation at the end of each speech. The cue script amounted to the actor’s knowledge of the play he was in.
Here is an example of a basic cue script format for a scene in Hamlet:
Enter two Sentinels-[first,] Francisco, [who paces up and down at his post; then] Bernardo, [who approaches him].
. . . unfold yourself.
Long live the King!
. . . Bernardo?
. . . upon your hour.
‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
. . . sick at heart.
Have you had quiet guard?
. . .mouse stirring.
Well, good night.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
. . holla, Bernardo!
Say- What, is Horatio there?
. . . piece of him
Welcome, Horatio. Welcome, good Marcellus.
. . . again to-night?
I have seen nothing.
. . . ‘twill not appear.
Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we two nights have seen.
. . . speak of this.
Last night of all,
When yond same star that’s westward from the pole
Had made his course t’ illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one—
. . . it comes again!
In the same figure, like the King that’s dead.
. . . to it, Horatio.
Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio.
. . . fear and wonder.
It would be spoke to.
. . .is offended.
See, it stalks away!
Physically, early modern cue scripts were comprised of multiple sheets of paper pasted together and secured with wooden dowels at either end, which allowed them to be rolled up into a small scroll. It is from this practice that the term “role” derived, in reference to an actor’s part. In the sixteenth century, constructing these cue scripts was a specialized job. A copyist was hired by the company, and it was his job to write out the part for each character. First, a sheet of paper was divided lengthwise and cut into six-inch widths, which were then pasted end-to-end to form a continuous strip. In addition to the closing words of all preceding speeches, stage directions for the character were included in the left-hand margin. On a basic level, cue scripts were convenient and economical and easy for private study.
Some concessions, however, had been made over time in the history of cue scripts. The earliest extant English parts provided the actors only with their spoken lines and no cues at all. Scholars believe that the eventual inclusion of cues marked a change in acting style from the medieval to the early modern eras, accompanied by a lessening in the conspicuousness of a prompter on the stage. During the Middle Ages, the prompter may have stood mid-stage and pointed to the actor’s speeches with a baton. By the sixteenth century, the prompter was relegated offstage to the tiring-house, and the cue scripts had become the primary learning tool for memorization of parts. This privatized rehearsal to a large degree because cue scripts allowed an actor to prepare for a role independent of the company. In a business which depended on putting up as many plays as possible in a short amount of time in order to make a profit, such a method was the most practical and time-efficient for companies to use.
Shakespeare’s works, along with numerous others of sixteenth and seventeenth century playwrights, are littered with references to “cues,” such as the quote from Othello presented at the beginning of this article. These casual allusions would seem to indicate a familiarity of play-going audiences of the time with the practice of cue scripts, as well as an appreciation of how it might be used to either a humorous or dramatic effect. Characters often exhort each other to remember their “cues” in different situations. In a comedic moment in Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice urges Claudio, “Speak, Count, ‘tis your cue” (II.i.281). In a darker moment during a monologue in King Lear, Edmund proclaims, “My cue is villainous melancholy” (I.ii.134). There is an inherent implication in the text that the audience will understand these allusions to this performance practice. Another particularly famous “cue” reference of the early modern period may be found in an unexpected place: the epitaph for the famous actor Richard Burbage, member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men/the King’s Men and star of many of Shakespeare’s plays. The cue was said to be inscribed on Burbage’s grave (although it is now lost), and read simply “————Exit Burbage.” It is the ultimate exit cue, but also a bit of theatrical humor and an appropriate tribute to a great actor which any member of society might have understood.
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Cue scripts are not extinct in modern Shakespearean theater. In fact, actors still use cue scripts at the American Shakespeare Center, and they have played a particularly central role during the Actors’ Renaissance Season and in programming such as the Shakespeare and Leadership Team-Building module and various workshops and lectures.
- Stephen Gosson, The Ephemerides of Phialo (1579), quoted in Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.
- Don Weingust, Acting from Shakespeare’s First Folio: Theory, Text, and Performance (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 145-146.
- Marchette Chute, Shakespeare of London (New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), 157-158.
- Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern, Shakespeare in Parts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 16, 62-65.
- Palfrey and Stern, 87.