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?

1 comment:

  1. As a musician, I completely agree. Orchestras have a long tradition of performing the same works over and over so that new audiences can experience them, always sticking to the score note for note. The difference from one performance to another is in interpretation, nuance, tempo, etc (and OK, skill). We would be horrified if someone modified say Beethoven's Ninth, updating the words to the Ode to Joy and translating into English abd changing the tune and the orchestration while they are at it.

    OTOH, there is also a great tradition in music to take something old and build something new. As just one terrific example, take Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn (and that theme may not have originated with Haydn in the first place). Or Mahler working old folksong melodies into his symphonies, and building something completely new around them.

    So I agree. Leave Shakespeare alone, or use it as inspiration for something completely new. Stick to the script. Or be Leonard Bernstein and create a West Side Story.