Friday, October 23, 2015

Let’s Talk About Shakespeare, Shall We?

In Which the Author Saves His Outrage for More Important Matters

Okay, even though I said in our last meeting that I wasn’t going to talk about this whole “Let’s Update Shakespeare” thing, I guess the time has come to do so.

In what may strike some of my constant readers as surprising, this plan doesn’t bother me in the least.

I do think that, in its current form, it’s incredibly stupid and yet another step down to the road a complete illiterate society – particularly in regard to cultural literacy – but it’s hardly worth getting outraged over.

(Sidenote: In 2006, I was in Los Angeles for … something … and spent a pleasant evening at the Arclight Cinemas. On the program? Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. I’m sure many – if not most – of you have seen it by now, so I won’t bother to recap the plot. Suffice it to say, it was that rare movie that, when I came out of it, had altered my perceptions of the world in which I live. From that day to this, everywhere I look, I see evidence of its predictions coming true.)

But I digress …

Part of this dumbing down (if I may call it that) is the way media companies insist on repackaging, rebooting, and remaking old properties, movies, TV shows, comics – whatever. Inevitably, when one of these projects is announced, folks all around the Internet get their proverbial knickers in a proverbial twist and bitch about how something they loved in their childhood is about to be irretrievably ruined. While it usually is (has any remake ever worked?), I don’t understand why people get themselves upset by it.

I’ll admit I used to get upset about this stuff myself until I had the epiphany that, while the new version was inevitably going to suck, the original was still around and unlikely to go away, so the inferior version could be happily ignored. (Just today, I saw some outrage over remakes of both Mary Poppins and The Wild Bunch. Reasonable minds can disagree over whether these were done correctly the first time (hint: one was, one is not so good), but why get upset over the idea at all?

Interestingly, I think the theatre is the only place where “reboots” are not only encouraged, but the norm. While we all want to do new work, more often than not, we’re working on a script that someone else has done somewhere else. With very, very rare exceptions, multiple movies or television shows are not shot from the same scripts; nor are books or comics redone from the same texts; they’re just reprinted. But how often do we do productions from an existing script? And how many times does that script get done in the same area over and over? I think there must have been about 20 Addams Familys, Chicagos, August: Osage Countys, and Glengarry Glen Rosses over the past year – each of them presenting the same characters speaking the same words. If something like that happened on multiple television networks or at the movies, people would be astounded, but when it comes to plays, we don’t even blink.

Let's see Terry Crews do some damn Shakespeare!

This is particularly true for poor old Shakespeare. The canon is relatively small (36? 37 plays?), so you’re going to see the same plays over and over (and in some cases, over and over and over and over; nothing against the folks who want to do them, but I really don’t need to see Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet or a couple of others again; I’ve seen them, I got them, I’m done with them).

Because of the limited tunestack and the multiple productions of them, it’s only logical that directors are going to screw around with them in terms of setting, “concept,” textual cuts, and even scene order. As much Shakespeare as I’ve seen (and it’s a lot), I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones that didn’t cut the text. (I’d offer a link to that tired Onion article about “Director does Shakespeare production in setting author intended;” but you’ve all seen it … ). Why do we do it? Two reasons. One, they can be pretty damn long (even when done well), and there’s stuff that just doesn’t translate from 17th century England. (Especially the clowns. My gosh; is there anything less funny than a Shakespearean clown?)

Even with that, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any production of any Shakespeare play that I didn’t zone out of at least once. It happens. But that – and one other reason I’ll deal with in a minute – has never been a barrier. To say the most obvious thing ever, as long as the actors know the intentions of what they’re saying are, you don’t need to understand every word. Sit back and they’ll get you through it.

So it’s not just that the language doesn’t need translating, though, it’s that, in many cases, the people who’ve been hired to do it shouldn’t be allowed to write a grocery list, let alone rewrite Shakespeare. (I’m not going to mention names, but suffice it to say when I saw some of the names either writing or dramaturging, I rolled these tired old eyes at the usual suspects.)

Will gets the news

 Lemme give you a for instance. NPR covered the story and cited this translation by Kenneth Cavender from Timon of Athens.

The original:

Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench
And minister in their steads. To general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do’t in your parents eyes. Bankrupts, hold fast; rather
Than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal;
Large handed robbers your grave masters are
And pill by law.

Cavender’s improvement:

And clowns, kick the grizzled old senators
Out of their offices and legislate in their place ...
Innocent virgins, turn sluttish now – why wait? –
And do it while your parents watch ... Bankrupt?
Keep your money, and if your creditors demand
Payment, pick up a knife and cut their throats.
Workers, steal – your bosses are crooks

In fine suits, bandits raking in their loot,
Legalized pirates.

I can only speak for myself here, but I find the original perfectly comprehensible. Granted, I had to read it more than once and have read and acted in a lot of Shakespeare on my own, but I understand what it’s saying – as would any actor who’s playing the role and who should be able to convey the meaning. The “translation” is easier for a modern American audience to understand, but loses everything in terms of poetry and flow of language. Basically, it sucks.

In spite of my antipathy toward the project, I totally understand the motivation behind it. The variety of voices, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds of the writers is only to be welcomed in terms of telling the stories, but where I think Ashland went wrong was in not going far enough. The writers are limited to keeping the originals as intact as possible while clearing up only occasional moments of potential confusion. If there’s anything we know about Shakespeare, though (and we know quite a lot – and more than enough to tell the Oxfordians to shut the hell up because Shakespeare wrote the damn plays), is that he did nothing so much as steal plots and characters from other writers and (mostly) improve them.

Given the choice of seeing someone ruin Timon of Athens by making it more “accessible” or seeing someone take the plot and ideas and make something new out of it – I know which option I’d take. The original is always going to be there, so why not take a damn chance?

Friday, October 9, 2015

In Defense of Snobbery

In which the author endorses the idea of liking some things and disparaging others.

My name is Dave, and I’m a snob.

And so are you.

Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a column by its main film reviewer, A.O. Scott, on the subject of film snobbery. It turns out the word “snob” has an interesting (to me, anyway*) history. It started out as a term for a shoemaker, but, according to Scott, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary, “’in time the word came to describe someone with an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.’ A pretender. A poser. A wannabe. An arriviste.

Scott goes on: “In this country, the meaning that has long dominated has to do less with wealth or station than with taste, and the word’s trajectory has almost completely reversed. Americans are in general a little squeamish about money and class - worshiping one while pretending the other doesn’t exist - and more comfortable with hierarchies and distinctions that seem strictly cultural. A snob over here is someone who looks contemptuously down, convinced above all of his or her elevated powers of discernment.”

 This guy.

Now, anyone who knows me, or follows me on Facebook (that is, those who haven’t gotten fed up and hidden me …) knows I have opinions. Lots of them. I like to think I express as many positives as negatives, but the general consensus seems to be “oh, you hate everything.”  That I don’t is beside the matter.

Those opinions are based on an aesthetic I’ve formed over the decades. This is good. That is bad. I don’t expect people to always agree with them (even if I’ve frequently said that everyone agrees with me eventually; it’s just a matter of when … ), but I hold them dearly, cherish them, let them keep me warm on a cold winter’s night. To take Shakespeare out of context, they’re an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own.

(Parenthetically, I suppose I might have written this time about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s stupid plan to adapt Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. Given some of the people chosen to do the work, it’s even more ill-considered than I would have thought initially. I actually know some of them personally, and am amazed they can string two sentences together, let alone be chosen to improve the Bard. But, as always, I digress – and am showing my snobbish discernment … )

My point, though, is that, as we go through our lives and become exposed to more and more media – be they books, movies, plays, television programs, whatever – we develop tastes that lead us to prefer some of them and disparage others.

Now, I’m not saying that all of those preferences are good. There are plenty of TV shows, books, and movies that I’ll devote time to even as I know they’re inferior (and not even in an ironic hate-watching sense). I’m a sucker for movies where stuff blows up or that involve intricate capers (if one of the Ocean’s movies is on, I have to watch it) and most comic book movies. I know they’re junk food, but will still ingest a lot of them (they’re the artistic equivalent of hot dogs – which I hasten to add, I also love). Sometimes you just need them.
Bad as they might be, I’ve assigned them some merit, or I wouldn’t spend time on them. I admit I prefer to spend my time with stuff that I know is worthwhile, but you can’t always have that, can you?

Be still, my heart.

My point is, though, that because I’ve established a value system that rates some things as good and worth watching and some as bad and still worth watching, and some that I can dismiss out of hand as being awful (or seeming to be) in advance, I can be considered a snob. And so can anyone who’s decided not to see or read something because they know in advance that it’s going to be terrible. (To invert the disclaimer in the financial advisor commercials, past results are indications of future performances.)

It’s like senses of humor. During my last show, one night in the dressing room, most of the rest of cast spent a good chunk of time reenacting “great moments” from Billy Madison. Now, not having liked anything I’ve ever seen Adam Sandler do, I’ve avoided all his film work, and based on the excerpts, I’ve been more than justified. But every Sandler movie I’ve ignored is someone’s all-time favorite. (We’ll ignore the fact that these people are idiots.)

But for every movie you love, every book you venerate, every television show you cannot miss, every joke you think is hilarious and have taken the time to rate as essential, there’s someone who absolutely can’t stand it. And every actor, author, and comedian you wish would be wiped off the face of the Earth without a trace is a person who someone else would be devastated to lose.

My point is that we should just own up to the fact that we’re all snobs; that we all have things that we venerate and things we look down on as being unworthy. Oddly, though, while there’s never any way we can all agree on the former (I know there are plenty of people who hate Stephen Sondheim, Michelle Obama, and Martin Scorsese), there are plenty of people (the Kardashians, the dentist who shot the lion) we can all agree to dislike.

So, yeah. I’m a snob. And proud of it. And you are and should embrace it as well.

(*Just noting that, if you reacted with a “he thinks that’s interesting,” it’s evidence of your own snobbery. Just sayin’.)