Double-casting through the years

Today’s blog is an excerpt from PlayNotes, our educational resource guide. The following was written by Chip Morris, one of our Education interns.


If I were asked what stood out the most to me about A.R. Gurney’s play Later Life, my response would ultimately be Gurney’s storytelling through his ensemble of characters. Of course Austin and Ruth are highly essential to the main plot of the play, but it’s the characters like Sally, Judith, Jim and Walt that really bring Later Life to life. The setting of Later Life takes place on the terrace of a lively party, so naturally the coming and going of several characters would only be commonplace in suspending disbelief. Gurney is able to construct this active atmosphere consisting of a handful of characters with the use of just two actors which is known as double casting. Double casting is a theatrical tool used by directors and playwrights to enhance themes and parallels while allowing actors to create a larger ensemble of characters with a small cast of actors.

Double casting is a major element in Later Life because Gurney decided the device would best emphasize some of the themes of his play. For example, the actors playing Austin and Ruth are very much like their characters in that they are stuck serving one role. The act of fulfilling one role, as Austin and Ruth do, shows that they are unwilling to change out of fear that it may be too late to start a new life. This presents a huge contrast with the actors who are playing multiple roles. When discussing his play Later Life, Gurney states, “As the exuberant life of the party swirls around him, with many guests coming and going, interrupting, bickering, explaining, but always committed to living their lives, even as our hesitant hero seems unwilling or unable to change his own.” Gurney incorporates commentary on WASP culture in his plays and Later Life is no exception. In simple terms, a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) is a person that comes from a place of privilege, more commonly in the New England area. The ensemble roles all share a pretty noticeable commonality in that they all just about fit the bill of being a WASP. Double casting in this play is strong in this instance because it highlights the fact that this ensemble of party goers isn’t all that diverse. Sure, characters like Duane and Jim may have different characteristics that make them their own person, but at their cores they are a product of the WASP culture. Having a larger cast can still get Gurney’s point across, but having one actor playing these multiple parts really hits home in regards to the cultural background that these characters are meant to share. According to Gurney, casting it either way isn’t necessarily wrong. He says, “Either way, the play is supposed to be a celebration of human possibilities and a sympathetic portrayal of those who will forever remain outside the party, frozen into playing only one part all their lives.”

Double casting didn’t begin in the 1990’s as a result of Gurney by any means, but he certainly aided in reigniting its use and popularity. Looking into the past, it is considered that double casting was a powerful storytelling tool used all the way back in the Elizabethan era (roughly 1550-1600) by Shakespeare himself. A work of Shakespeare’s that ties greatly into this particular subject is King Lear because of its dualistic nature, especially when it comes to characters like Cordelia and the Fool. It isn’t confirmed whether or not these characters were originally played by the same actor, but there have been significant amounts of scholarly debate as to whether or not it was actually so.

In his article titled ‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’ – The Double Role of Cordelia and The Fool in King Lear, author Ralph McLean states, “On the heath, Lear is surrounded by those still loyal to him; yet in disguise: Edgar as Poor Tom, and Kent as Caius. The doubling of Cordelia and the Fool would complete the disguise of the characters loyal to Lear, not of course, for those acting in the play, but it would be unmistakable for those watching in the audience.” This alone is a clear example of how dual casting can really emphasize themes through character even in a time that we wouldn’t consider to be exactly modern or contemporary. It even establishes a connection between audience and play because they see what the characters cannot. Some of Shakespeare’s dialogue in King Lear creates symbolism that further backs up the idea that the double casting of Cordelia and The Fool can be effective. McLean states, “This symbolism is used to great effect in the last lines of the play when Lear laments, ‘And my poor fool is hanged.’ (5. 3. 304)

The reference is most likely to Cordelia, who we know by this stage has been hanged, but it may also be a reference to the fool who has been absent from the play since Act 3 scene 6. From a theatrical point of view, it makes Lear closer to the audience if he sees what they see. That is, if Cordelia has perished, then the Fool has also perished.” Whether or not Shakespeare’s writing in King Lear actually meant for this interpretation in regards to double casting, McLean makes as powerful closing statement. He writes, “However, one thing is for certain, doubling of characters did take place in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and it was used as a deliberate theatrical ploy in many cases, instead of the necessary solution to a problem caused by a shortage of personnel. Being aware of the potential of the dual role of characters can provide a deeper understanding of the play and it also allows the very words which those characters speak to take on a double meaning.”

Looking at the world of theater and playwriting today, the use of double casting is just as present and powerful in contemporary storytelling as it was in the past. Double casting is used in a wide variety of popular shows, but there’s one in particular that has recently taken the theatrical world by storm.

You might know it as Hamilton, a new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Famous figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Marquis De Lafayette are both played by actor Daveed Diggs while characters John Laurens and Philip Schuyler are both played by actor Anthony Ramos (just to name a few). These roles easily could have been divided between other actors, but they weren’t by the playwright’s discretion. In the opening number, Daveed sings, “I fought with him.” As Lafayette, he fights alongside Hamilton in the revolutionary war against the British. As Jefferson he fights against Hamilton through political means. Thus duality is created. If a single actor didn’t play both roles in the case of Jefferson/Lafayette, the duality wouldn’t be as strong or apparent with Miranda’s intent to create parallelism through double casting.

It could be argued that having actors paying several roles in a production is nothing more than a means of solving issues in budgeting or cutting back on actors. However, when parallels displayed through double casting are presented in the historic works of Shakespeare or the contemporary musical work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, much like in Gurney’s Later Life, it just cannot be ignored. This storytelling devise has proven to work in the past, present, and certainly in future plays to come. To close with Gurney, he states “I ask for only two supporting actors to play these many characters partly in the hope of appealing to producers economically. But limiting the casting this way also dramatizes, through the versatility of the actors playing their several parts, that there is a variety of roles available to all of us in life.”

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