This fellow is wise enough to play the fool;
And to do that well craves a kind of wit:
He must observe their mood on whom he jests,
The quality of persons, and the time,
And, like the haggard, cheque at every feather
That comes before his eye. This is a practise
As full of labour as a wise man's art
For folly that he wisely shows is fit;
But wise men, folly-fall'n, quite taint their wit.
Viola, Twelfth Night, III.1
Last night I saw a production of Twelfth Night. At least I saw as much as I could until my dainty daughter’s snoring forced us to leave at intermission. The production wasn’t that bad. In other words, my daughter’s condition cannot fairly be laid at the feet of the performers. They were sweetly earnest. The real problem, aside from it being a school night, was with the venue’s problematic acoustics such that the female actors in particular were impossible to hear. But the funniest scene in the play—which is one of the Bard’s most bawdy, witty portrayals of drunken indulgence ever—was admirably played. That scene, however, is what sent me abreacting back into the depths of my thespian past such that I must now unburden myself in hopes of purging the residual shame.
It was a dark and stormy December night more than two decades ago. The night of the premiere of my creation “Wise Enough to Play the Fool.” This was the second piece in what I envisioned would be a long series whereby I would single-handedly revitalize Shakespeare for the masses. These were one-hour comedy sketches created entirely out of bits of Shakespeare, which I had vowed to debut only in bars.
The first one had been a smash hit. Probably because of extenuating circumstances that involved a first “free drink” for all attendees.
This second one certainly had promise, though. The piece, written for four actors to perform playing multiple roles, centered around a drunken redneck bar patron who was forced to attend a 12-step comedy defensive driving course--where all of the “lessons” were made out of Shakespeare’s most famous drunk scenes. One such lesson was the scene from Twelfth Night to which I referred above. Here’s a sample:
SIR TOBY BELCH
. . . . Does not our life consist of the
Faith, so they say; but I think it rather consists
of eating and drinking.
SIR TOBY BELCH
Thou'rt a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink.
Maria, I say! a stoup of wine!
The attendees at this second premiere were also treated to free drinks. Indeed, the denizens at the Deep Ellum establishment on this particular night had access to a bar that was to be fully open—all night long.
As we prepared to begin the show, the hipsters were pouring through the door. But not for our little show. They were coming for the club’s “holiday party” to which only the owner’s employees, best clients, top bands, and a thousand or so of his closest friends had been invited.
How is it that we came to be part of the entertainment line-up that included some of the region’s most promising unsigned metal bands of the day?
Well, one of my glamorous young actors happened to be dating the much-older coke-head owner of said club. And he had invited us to “open” the evening—as a show of support for her artistic endeavors. He’d even offered to pay us $5000 for the gig—a veritable fortune in theatrical terms!
But by curtain time, it was clear that this was all a horrible mistake. Yet I couldn’t see how to stop the tape, prevent the nightmare from unwinding. After all, we had spent weeks preparing for this night. That very day, we’d invested hours setting up our portable lighting, creating a “backstage” for our prop tables and quick change stations. We had checked and rechecked our meager soundtrack and ambient microphones using the club’s state-of-the-art sound system. Now the show must go on.
So it did. And all I, the director/playwright, could do was watch in horror, impotent, as my actors valiantly struggled to perform before an ever-expanding, utterly oblivious crowd eager for stimulants of every variety—except for those then being offered up on stage. Blenders roared, feedback from sound checks blasted over various speakers, a tattoo-artist set to work on his whirring equipment, and drunken revelers shrieked greetings to old friends and new peddlers of illicit substances from every corner of the cavernous bi-level warehouse space.
After the longest hour ever logged on earth, when my crew finally stumbled to the end of what had proved to be an extended pantomime, my face was drenched in tears. Luckily, the atmospherics were so deafening no one had heard me sobbing like a motherless child. The only good news I could parlay to my cast when it was all over was that the open bar was now open to them as well.
A simple, most basic one: Know thy audience.
In fact, the next time I am lecturing my students about how it is critical that they write their legal briefs for a precise audience—because no one is paying them to write great literature or academic treatises or self-indulgent exposés—I must permit my mind to flash back to that ugly night in the ___ club in Deep Ellum. I possess no more visceral memory of the costs of failing to ascertain in advance who one’s audience is going to be. And the biggest price I paid—and continue to pay—is that so many witty lines from a great play like Twelfth Night remain inextricably bound up in my imagination with that experience when I was not “wise enough to play the fool;” I was just a fool.