Sunday, May 02, 2010

Not the Real Shakespeare

Flavia has a post that makes me laugh. She recently went to see a Shakespeare comedy produced by a regional theater company, who staged it in modern dress, worked to keep the piece "accessible and appealing," and used some good, old-fashioned slapstick. In short, the production was straight out of the standard Shakespearean-performance playbook: faithful to the text but using costumes and set as an interpretive gloss. At the end of the evening Flavia overheard a number of other playgoers who had enjoyed themselves enormously but were under the impression that they'd seen an adaptation, rather than Shakespeare's play. After all, how could it be the "Real Shakespeare" if it's accessible and fun?

I've run into this many times over the years with modern-dress Shakespeare, which some people view as Not Shakespeare even when the language is unchanged and the story choices are enormously traditional. What I enjoy best about this misapprehension is the how people feel free to respond honestly to the play when they don't think it's Shakespeare's original, and become willing to talk about the parts they dislike. This can be especially hilarious when it comes from professional reviewers who haven't read the play for a long time. My favorite in that genre came from a reviewer who was absolutely furious that a director at the Goodman in Chicago had "added" a scene full of wise-cracking musicians to Romeo and Juliet, especially when it was "added" at such an inappropriate moment, just after Juliet has taken the potion that fakes her death! What was the director thinking? The answer, of course, can be found in any edition of the play, because it wasn't the director's addition: a glance at, say, a Pelican paperback of R&J would have cleared it up.

Years ago, after the credits for Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet had finished crawling by, one of the friends I'd seen it with stood up in disgust. "I really hated what they did to Juliet's family," she said. "They're so much worse than Romeo's family."

"But that's how it is in the play," I said.

"That much worse?" my friend replied.

The answer, although I didn't voice it, is "yeah." Romeo's mother is barely in the play, with fewer lines than it takes Mercutio to clear his throat. And since Romeo's parents never actually come face to face with their son, they don't get the kind of quality time that the Capulets spend forcing their daughter into an arranged marriage and threatening her with beatings. But the point isn't whether my friend was right or wrong; it's that she only felt free to express herself when she thought the storytelling choices belonged to someone else. My friend thought that Shakespeare's development of those characters was lame, and maybe she's right. But it was only okay to say it when she had someone else to blame.

The Real Shakespeare turns out to be an extraordinarily slippery cat. When something in his scripts rubs the audience the wrong way, somebody must have changed things without permission, because the Real Shakespeare never makes mistakes. (The actors have screwed it up again!) But on the other hand, if you enjoy yourself too much in the audience, like Flavia's new friends did, that can't be the Real Shakespeare either. How could the Greatest Poet Ever be so damned silly? I guess the obvious conclusion is that the Real Shakespeare was artistically infallible, but also sucked. It's up to those rascally actors to spoil everything, and play his comedies for laughs.