Time to stir up a bit of controversy.
Summer Shakespeare Festival season is upon us. A good time to express profound irritation about a certain ubiquitous phenomenon. Many theater companies mounting summer Shakespeare productions seem to believe that their audiences are morons. That is, instead of simply casting a show with quality actors who commit to learning the verse (such that they actually know what they are saying) and cutting the extraneous stuff readily discernible in any Shakespearean text, theater companies across this great nation feel they must prop up any and every play with a “concept.” For instance, people producing Shakespeare for summertime entertainment seem convinced that a contemporary audience will “relate” to Romeo and Juliet better if the Montagues dress up in Civil-War era Union garb while the Capulets don the trappings of the Confederacy. Meanwhile, everyone still speaks of “fair Verona” and makes other references indicating that the play is supposed to be set in medieval Italy.
I do not think most directors of Shakespeare summer-stock believe deeply in these “concepts” or come to them organically through a deep-dive into the text. I think they are just asked: “Where are we going to set x this year? How about Love’s Labours Lost in the Roaring Twenties? King Lear in Bosnia? Hamlet in Gotham City?” Because, in the execution, these concepts generally amount to little more than window-dressing—a superficial add-on that inspires no one but the set and costume designers. At best, the effort produces a nagging dissonance that audiences strain to see beyond—like the experience of watching a somber movie while a brightly clad toddler bounces in the seat in front of you.
Don’t get me wrong. Some brilliant directors have come up with “concepts” that have truly reinvigorated a play and brought new fans to Shakespeare. Peter Brook’s 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream springs to mind. I never got to see that one thus do not know precisely of which I speak. (Although I did see other Brook productions—including an amazing, stripped down version of Carmen set in a red clay mud pit.) But I am not talking about productions that are wholly and thoughtfully transformed by a directorial vision. I am talking about the mindless, routine “tack on” that distracts and alienates, thereby having the opposite of the reputed intent, which is to render Shakespeare more accessible.
This syndrome—whereby a superficial, ritualistic layer is appended to a Shakespeare play to try to make it seem more immediate, but which ultimately distances the audience, is like what lawyers do when they insist on starting motions with certain poufy incantations:
TO THE HONORABLE JUDGE OF SAID COURT:
Comes now, Petitioner, a resident of X County, Texas, by and through Finch & Lincoln, his attorneys of record in the above-referenced matter, for good cause would respectfully show unto said Court the following pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 215(b)(3):
You can still find that crap in many form documents and in far too many papers filed with actual courts. As my colleague, Wayne Schiess, has deftly explained, lawyers cling to these arcane, jargon-laden trappings for several reasons—because they (mistakenly) think that is what judges want, they just mindlessly recycle boilerplate form documents, or they fear a change will suggest that they are somehow professionally deficient, not true members of the Lawyers’ Club. These same problematic impulses are behind much “concept Shakespeare.” People do it because:
- They (mistakenly) think that is what their audience wants.
- They habitually take this approach without pausing to question its utility.
- They think it is de rigueur—a requirement that reflects professional savvy.
But these things just ain’t necessarily so.
Lawyers and producers of summer Shakespeare alike should take a hard look at entrenched habits and ask: Do these habits have more to do with my own professional insecurity than with pleasing my audience who should, after all, be “the god of my idolatry”? (R & J, II.2.119). If so, perhaps it is time to abandon “the antic, lisping, affecting Fantasticoes” (id., II.4.27) and pursue some truly authentic re-conceptualizing instead.