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Journal of Theatrical Combatives May 2008

Blood, Revenge, and Safety on Stage:
An Explication of a Stage Duel in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette

copyright © 2008 Meron Langsner, all rights reserved

I give you the aftermath of a duel: Mercutio lies dying in his kinsmen's arms, his last breath leaving him, as Romeo braces himself to claim vengeance. Tybalt, laughing, picks up the fallen Mercutio's rapier, parading it before his cronies. He spits on it and kicks it towards Romeo's feet; mocking his perceived cowardice, mocking the death of his friend, and mocking his stained honor.

Mercutio's last breath leaves him. Romeo, enraged and heartbroken, draws his sword with his right hand, swearing vengeance. He spots Tybalt across the stage from him, and, picking up the sword of the fallen Mercutio in his left hand, sings out a challenge before charging Tybalt with both weapons.


Thus begins a climactic moment in Romeo et Juliette, Gounod's opera adapted from Shakespeare's classic play, performed in 2004 to packed houses in downtown Boston by Boston University's Opera Institute and Chamber Orchestra.

The story is Shakespeare's, the songs Gounod's, the staging is the work of acclaimed director James Marvel, and the violence… well, the violence is composed by the author of this piece.

A fight director's job makes for a lot of cocktail party conversation--they pretend to fight; or, more specifically, they compose fights and get other people to act them out safely and convincingly on stage. Sometimes it's just a slap or a fall, sometimes it's a fistfight or domestic violence. The good stuff though, the things that one becomes a fight director to do, those are the swordfights: the climactic duels, the moments about to be described to you.

Romeo is charging with a heavy rapier in each hand, swinging first to the belly, which Tybalt jumps back to evade, and then to the head, which he ducks. Now, Romeo swings both swords together at Tybalt's flank. Tybalt must use both hands on his lighter sword to maintain a defense strong enough to hold himself together. The fight continues. The audience sees a maddened hero in a state of bloodlust. The actors themselves are running through the steps as they would a dance. But this is a dance with all manner of sleight of hand and safety measures. In fact, all performers involved in an onstage fight are required to attend a special rehearsal, or Fight Call, each night before the performance to ensure safety during these sequences. To paraphrase many a stage combat instructor, they are not really fighting, they are performers using props to tell a story.

Let's revisit that first charge. The singer playing Romeo sets himself and measures the distance to the singer playing Tybalt. Romeo makes eye contact to check in and see that his partner onstage is ready for the sequence. Tybalt is ready. Romeo cues the belly cut. Tybalt sees the cue and moves before the cut starts. That movement is the signal for Romeo to continue the cut, and he takes a step forward and swings the sword (three feet of steel, not sharp, but neither would it tickle) through the empty space that only a split second ago contained the body of his fellow performer. Depending on the sightlines, the sword may never go anywhere near him; there is a technique wherein the sword stays almost in line with the attacker's belt and only swings outward to the side once it is clear of the defender's space. Now the head cut, using the other sword. The drill is almost the same, Romeo cues towards Tybalt's head, Tybalt ducks, Romeo swings. The double flank cut with a parry is a bit simpler; Romeo cues and swings, Tybalt meets the attack with his own blade, and the swords glance off of each other with the illusion of solid impact. This illusion is created by the attacker, who, if he executes the technique properly, spends the bulk of his momentum in an arc that peaks a few inches from the point of impact on his partner's sword. The result, if done right, is a clear ringing sound as the blades meet. These performers have trained hard, and the audience hears two almost simultaneous bell like rings. When done wrong, there is a dull clanking sound, and risk of broken blades and injury.

If a fight director has done the job well, it should be difficult for an audience to know when the director's work has ended and the fight director's has begun. Ideally, the director’s work will overlap into the fight director’s and vice versa. In the case of this scene it would be difficult to trace where the decision for Tybalt to spit on Mercutio's sword came from. What is known is that somewhere along the line the fight director decided that Romeo should pick up his dead friend's sword in addition to his own. Symbolically it makes sense; dramatically it makes sense. Choreographically, the audience has just seen a flashy duel between Tybalt and Mercutio in which both used one sword. The fight was full of quick movements, stylish choreography, and nimble sword work. To give the audience something even remotely similar is to risk losing its interest. Audiences are fickle, their attention is hard won and easily lost, so double swords and a mad charge it is.

The antagonists break apart. Romeo taps the ground in front of him with one rapier, leading Tybalt on and taunting him, and, incidentally, moving the fight and the three-foot-long pieces of swinging metal away from the chorus members who surround the scene. Tybalt attacks. His sword is lighter and faster, with a fighting style to match. Romeo parries with one hand and then the other, managing to defend against a series of attacks that appear to be lightning fast. He counters. Tybalt catches the attack with his own sword and casts it aside with a broad circular movement called a bind. In the bind, the defender's sword moves the attacker's sword from one side of his body and up to its diagonal opposite. In this case the bind ends with a casting off of Romeo's sword but not a disarm. The bind is a big dramatic move, and the actors must be in tune for it to be effective onstage.

The bind in competitive foil fencing is almost identical mechanically, but, and this is a big but, a fencer's bind is tiny and too fast for the untrained eye to follow. The competitive fencer aspires to surgical precision and the ability to hit his or her opponent at will and before they even know what is happening. If the opponent cannot see it, spectators can expect no better. The aspirations of the stage fencer are in almost direct opposition. Onstage, each stroke of the sword must be clear to both the partner (as opposed to opponent) and the spectators.

At this point in the scene, Tybalt has just opened a path through Romeo's defenses. He attacks once more. Remember, this is an opera, the music dictates how long this fight will take, and it must make both musical and dramatic sense. Soon William Lumpkin, the conductor, will signal that the next sequence of notes be played by the orchestra, and Romeo will have a line to sing. The choreography must match and support that line. That sequence starts playing as Tybalt attacks.

Romeo catches the attack with one of his swords, and moves it into an envelopment; a movement from the same family of techniques as the bind, but even bigger and more dramatic. This fight must end within the next couple bars of music, however, so the envelopment is only the beginning of the endgame. While one of Romeo's rapiers moves clockwise, carrying Tybalt's sword with it, the other rapier circles counterclockwise to meet both other blades, trapping Tybalt's sword in a scissor. Romeo moves forward into Tybalt's immobilized sword hand, and while one blade keeps him safe and makes sure the sword points are well away from both of them, the other rises and one forearm touches another, with the details being lost in the deceived depth perception of the audience. The audience thinks it has seen Romeo smash Tybalt's sword arm with the pommel of his rapier. What in fact has happened is that the singers moved closer together and a bit of sleight of hand took place. Tybalt's sword slides down Romeo's rapier and away from them both. Romeo continues his forward motion until they are shoulder to shoulder. He collides with Tybalt and they begin to spin together. While Romeo's body is hiding the view, Tybalt takes a sword under his arm, creating the illusion of being run through. The music reaches a crescendo, Romeo completes the spin and sings his line, "Et toi!" or "at thou." As the spin finishes, Romeo is facing the audience with arms crossed and a blade on each side. Tybalt is thrown off of the impaling blade. He falls across the stage and curls up facing away from the audience. Romeo runs after him, swinging one sword in a wide arc. He makes eye contact with Tybalt. They check in with each other one more time as performers. Romeo completes the swing, and brings his point down a foot away from Tybalt's stomach, tilted at a safe angle, again fooling depth perception from the audience perspective. All the angles are calculated to appear brutal according to the audience's perceptions while being completely safe for the performers. Tybalt takes hold of the blade and brings it close to his body. Romeo sings again as he twists the blade slowly. Tybalt writhes and is still. Romeo pulls out the sword. The orchestra plays on.


Mercutio’s body lies on one side of the stage, Tybalt’s on the other. Romeo, exhausted, shocked, and disgusted by it all, walks slowly across the stage, dragging the points of two rapiers on the ground behind him. The orchestra plays. The rest of the cast comes onstage, and the consequences of this recent violence begin to run their course as the plot progresses. The opera goes on.

MERON LANGSNER is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Drama & Dance at Tufts University, where he is currently teaching a course on armed stage combat. His dissertation concerns the representation of martial arts on the American stage. He is the Emerging Playwright in Residence at New Repertory Theatre through a grant from the National New Play Network and a part time faculty member at Emerson College. Meron has published work on stage combat and martial arts in Text & Presentation 2006 (McFarland), The Fight Master and The Cutting Edge (SAFD Publications), The Brandeis Graduate Review, and Physical Training: Fitness for Combatives (EJMAS).

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JTC May 2008