I couldn’t think of a better title for this post yet.
A recent theatre grad friend of mine — we’ll call him AS for the sake of internet anonymity — has a blog in which he also discusses theatrical theory, particularly with regard to small theatres. He argues taht we need to tear Shakespeare off his pedestal as the greatest playwright ever, and perhaps even stop performing him for a couple of generations. The only function his plays seem to serve these days is to make bank for theatre companies that need a play with name recognition.
I think it’s a good point, but I think his stance is far too extreme. Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Shakespeare has such wide renown that snootier theatre audiences will be drawn to it no matter who produces the show (while they turn their noses up at new works with no name recognition). I’ve been one of the managers of a small professional theatre company since 2006, and there’s been a huge difference in attendance between shows with name recognition, and those without. Our production of “Hamlet” in early 2008 produced the largest audiences we’ve seen at our theatre, while two shows last year — “The Little Death,” a West-Coast premiere of a new work, and Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” a new, commissioned translation of a little-known but old play — produced some of the smallest audiences we’d seen in awhile. Since part of our mission statement is to promote new works and local artists, this is intensely frustrating for us as a company. We have to do one big show with name recognition to make any money that season, while our passion projects are oft overlooked by both critics and the public (some of those same critics, I might add, work at The Stranger, Seattle’s most pretentious newspaper, which also happens to be free — and ALSO happened to publish an article a couple of years ago telling local theatres what to do. They demanded local theatres produce more new works. Without the new work getting reviewed, however, the show gains little to no recognition and flops, making theatre managers like myself more hesitant to try it again).
Another reason Shakespeare in particular is performed more often than other classics by big names like Calderon, Euripides, and Moliere, is that, unless we commissioned our very own translation, we would have to pay a publishing company on a weekly basis for the rights to use their translation, AFTER the painstaking process of getting permission. Companies that don’t want to deal with that nonsense for every show every year often pick a Shakespeare (or sometimes a Ben Johnson, Kit Marlowe, or Aphra Behn) so they don’t have to deal with that copyright trouble. While I fully respect translators and I don’t think that particular system is flawed, it can be kind of an ordeal for smaller companies, especially when the show is not guaranteed to garner an audience, so you’re paying a weekly stipend to the publishing company on negative revenue.
Being in this position as a company manager is frustrating. Picking a Shakespeare play often feels like giving up or selling out, because you KNOW it will have draw, and you can launch right into production without worrying about asking for permission first. That also means you have more of a budget to throw at the set, lights, costumes, sound effects, music, and anything else your artists need. So, it’s good for your artists, who have a project to work on, but is it really benefiting the culture overall? No.
After all of that complaining, does Billy Shakespeare offer anything to us as theatre artists, audiences, and critics anymore? Yes, of course he does. Is he only making academics and snobs happy? Of course not, if you look closely enough.
One of my favorite aspects of working on a Shakespeare show is the language. I am not referring to Will’s supposed “poetry.” Is there anyone who honestly enjoyed reading the bruised, battered, vaguely iambic pentameter-esque mush of dialogue that is “King Lear”? The only way to enjoy a play is by seeing it, so an edited version of “King Lear” performed by virtuoso actors has appeal. What I mean when I say that I enjoy Shakespeare’s language is that, for a modern theatre artist, Bill’s writing is a puzzle game. We’re not used to speaking like that anymore, of course, so we have to learn how to use the iambic pentameter to inform our characters — when are the iambs dropped or added, when are they picked up by other characters onstage, and which characters pick them up? How does that inform the pace of the dialogue? What does that obscure word mean? You can even use some of the more clearly written iambic pentameter to scan how to pronounce unfamiliar words before you look them up. It’s a pretty incredible device, and most Shakespeare enthusiasts credit Willy with using the dialogue as a subtle method of directing the cast (I don’t think it was that subtle, as there wasn’t a director at the time). It is truly amazing to me how Shakespeare’s language blossoms when an actor simply knows what they are talking about — and not just the gist of what they are supposed to be saying, but when everything clicks into place, the pacing, the pronunciation, every layer of meaning — that is where the real poetry comes from.
Of course, this is true of any playwright’s writing. It’s true of Mamet, that’s for sure, and while I’ve never had the joy of seeing a Caryl Churchill production onstage, I’m sure it is true of her unique experiment in writing realistic dialogue as well.
Okay, so the language is fun, but is it really something that can attract a non-academic audience? Sure. When edited to a reasonable length and order, Will’s shows tell incredible stories — love and lust stories, betrayal stories, horror and suspense stories. Are they the best human nature tales ever? Of course not — Skakespeare’s scenes are often set in the wrong chronological order (a problem I ran into while editing the show I am directing now), and the characters repeat themselves across acts, because their audiences at the time would have been yelling at the stage, yelling at their friends, leaving in favor of bear-baiting or dog fighting. To make sure everyone was caught up on the story, the actors had to say over and over what was going on, entire scenes were devoted to explaining what was about to happen and what had just happened. So no, not every single word Bill wrote is worthy of the stage, and in fact about 1/3 of any script SHOULD BE cut when performed in a modern theatre. Our audiences may or may not be paying attention, but we don’t have nearly as many distractions to compete with (although texting is beginning to replace cabbage-throwing).
So Shakespeare’s stories are worth preserving and performing. Why is that, though? His sticking power comes from being a rule-breaker. Like Dante and Chaucer before him, Shakespeare intended his works for a “vulgar” audience, and I rather think he’s rolling in his grave knowing that his works are a static, stereotypical part of every school child’s curriculum. He wrote some ballsy political commentary (while still avoiding religion, as was the tyrant Queen Elizabeth I’s edict after she took the throne), he didn’t adhere to Renaissance rules about time and space, he even later ignored the primary rule of all playwrights in the world at the time — use allegory, don’t write about your own country. Plays were set in far away lands, like Poland or Italy or ancient Greece, but never set in the playwright’s homeland. Ever. Until Shakespeare. He was not afraid to use his country’s immediate past as allegory for the present (the histories), or even set shows in nearby places like Scotland or Ireland (“MacBeth” and “Kind Lear” respectively). Can you imagine how unnerving that must have been for an audience, dealing with constant religious-based civil war and terrorism? To see your own land onstage, not just reflected in a distant, comforting metaphor.
Of course, Billy’s work is reduced to allegory now, since we are so far away from his culture in time, but allegory is a time-honored theatrical tradition, so lack of immediacy to the present does not mean his works should no longer be employed to hold up the mirror to our natures.
The canonization of Shakespeare teaches us a couple of important lessons as well. Although the Globe Players became the King’s Players, patronized by James I of England, that does not mean Ol’ Liam in his day was considered the best of the best. He was well-respected later in life, of course, but other playwrights were more well-received (Ben Johnson being one of the favorites of the time). Shakespeare was not canonized until the Restoration, when the English were not only trying to reestablish their monarchy, but their entire artistic heritage. The puritans had destroyed all of it as obscene, obliterating theatres from the map and banning live performances of all kinds. Of course the English after Charles II reacted with fanaticism of the opposite stripe — they saved what they could (which apparently was mostly Shakespeare, as he was a prolific writer), and staged it as soon as they could. They reveled in the very *Englishness* of it. That reverence for a culture lost and barely revived, considerably reinterpreted, is really a great lesson to the entire machine of Western Imperialism, which has a tendency to steamroll over any smaller cultures that get in the way. These cultures are going to lash back at some point and create artistic idols of their own, to hold up and compare to ours, and after some revisionist history, they will be deemed better. Our culture will either squash them again, or be destroyed in the face of this new wave. So we should not idolize our artists, no, for artists are merely human beings processing the world in the only way they know how. But, to entirely eliminate Shakespeare from the curriculum, from performance, would only create another backlash of worshippers who would bring him back in full force. Because Shakespeare is the majority of what survived until the Restoration.
Instead, I strongly recommend temperance. A lot of additional history needs to be added, and more than just Shakespeare needs to be read. His contemporaries should be held up along side him as further examples of the creative boom in England at the time, in reaction to the constant fear of terrorism and censorship. We should use Shakespeare’s history like we use his plays — as a mirror to ourselves, an allegory to what has happened and will happen to us. Once he is shown to be only a part of a movement, the reverence will die down and theatres across the country will feel a lot less pressure to perform him for the sake of the box office. Perhaps new works will even flourish in this time, given room to breathe and less comparison to an upstart crow? This theatre artist can fervently hope.