Friday, April 25, 2014

“Enough with the g-d Shakespeare already”

April 23, 2014 was the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, the man who may well be responsible for Shakespeare’s incomparable oeuvre of plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. It was also the second anniversary of this blawg. I failed to mark the occasion because I was busy doing things of no particular importance to the world at large. But the good news is that Will’s celebration is going to continue for some time. The Globe Theatre, for instance, will be engaged in a year-long audacious tribute that will involve performing Hamlet in every country!

Meanwhile, a Seattle-based theater critic recently garnered considerable attention with an article that argues, among other things, that undue reverence for/reliance on The Bard is one of the things killing theater itself. See Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves In No Particular Order by Brendan Kiley. Kiley’s ten recommendations start with the entreaty that gives this post its name: “Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.” While Kiley accepts that Shakespeare was indeed the greatest playwright ever, he argues that Shakespeare’s work has become a crutch, something theater companies turn to when they have no fresh ideas. He insists that a five-year ban on “high schoolers pecking at Romeo and Juliet,” “NEA funding for Shakespeare in the heartland,” and “fringe companies trying to ennoble themselves with Hamlet” would do the entire art form a world of good.

I tend to agree that Shakespeare often seems to be a “crutch” for theaters—a means to ensure that at least one show in their season will result in substantial ticket sales because educators and parents can be counted on to step up and bus in the kids for the latter’s edification. Shakespeare in such instances is often served up like over-cooked collard greens or dry bran muffins. Which is probably not the most effective means to transform picky eaters into adventurous, passionate gourmands. . . . But there you have it. Theater is, as Kiley notes, on life support.
Among Kiley’s other recommendations, however, lies a hint about how a Shakespearean approach, at its best, could enliven a languishing medium. Kiley suggests that theaters should offer “Boors' night out”—at least one performance of each run when the audience is encouraged to participate on its own terms. This practice was routine in Elizabethan theater—where groundlings drank, heckled, hurled vegetables, barked directives and encouragement to the actors, sang along, and otherwise insisted on being a dynamic part of the action. A work of theater cannot feel like an ossified museum piece when the atmosphere is more like a day at Woodstock then a night at The Metropolitan Opera.

As originally realized, productions of Shakespeare’s plays involved vivid, immediate feedback and audiences entirely invested in the unfolding drama. Now? Much of the audience goes primarily for the picnic in the park beforehand and then the nice snooze that follows.

And maybe that is the problem with this blawg. Maybe I have been relying on Shakespeare as a “crutch” when Shakespeare per se just does not resonate with my intended readership (whoever that might be). Maybe my efforts to build bridges between Shakespearean themes and contemporary law practice smacks of esoteria. Good blogs, including the blawgs, which garner a loyal readership seem (1) to feature a compelling or at least accessible and trustworthy voice and (2) to provide either (a) really helpful information on a discrete topic or (b) solid entertainment. Putting aside the first prong, which no writers can fairly judge for themselves, I feel concerned that my efforts have not consistently satisfied either of the prong-two alternatives. To elevate my game, perhaps I need to commit fully to (2a) or (2b). Doing so may mean adopting a far more flexible approach so as to invite the kind of invigorating dialogue on display during “Boors’ Night Out” at Shakespeare-in-the-Elizabethan-Park instead of “Bores’ Night In” with three members of Academe.

Let me hear from you--but not all five of you at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. Dear "Complaint"-ant,

    It may be that theaters use the crutch you speak of because the old bard simply explored the great themes of the human condition better than anyone else has - and the audience, after all these years, still "knows" it. I imagine any given contemporary playwright is necessarily intimidated. It's a little like being in an audition lineup with Streisand, and right after she performs the Director turns to you and says, "Next." I mean what's a theater to do? How do follow up Shakespeare?

    I often run into that barrier as a novice writer myself. Speaking to some character or other incubating in my head, I ask: "What story frame could I give you, really, that hasn't already been told by someone else, and better too?" But then that is just an excuse, isn't it? An easy out?

    The Complainant here wonders whether her complaints are esoteric because the boors she writes for may be bored with the first pillar of her bridge over the muddy quagmire of law and culture. Well, "HEAR YE, HEAR YE!" The boors must protest. The passions that give that first pillar it strength still carry some force. True enough, the times they are a changin': humanity has evolved; some themes are more or less outgrown. Family feuds rarely interfere with young lovers these days; Jealous rage and religious/superstitious fervor both speak less forcefully to an audience that simply tosses wayward lovers out, or glibly substitutes science for faith.

    But in the right hands oh so many other ancient passions still fire today's souls?

    And when theaters, or playwrights, or bloggers grab one of those passion accelerants and strike the flint of commitment to it, glorious conflagrations do sweep across the full gamut of human quagmires.

    I personally read this particular Complainant with pleasure because her passions for Shakespeare and the law infuses every line. Her commitment to that passion stirs and informs my own troubled spirit. Her specific points of departure may be designed for a limited audience, but her (1) compelling voice is (2a) really informative and (2b) highly entertaining. If only she could envision how her thoughts become leaping stones for even her unintended reader. If only she could know that I, for one, leap recklessly deep into my own void because her voice remains to me a lifeline.

    So go ahead, dear Complainant, commit to informing or entertaining in any way you see fit, it matters little to me. For I respond not to the content, nor even the style, of "good blogs" such as this, but to the passion that feeds them (see P.B.Shelley - Ozymandias).