Monday, November 26, 2012

Can You Do That to Shakespeare?

Can You Do That to Shakespeare?

                      In the Raspberry Hills Library English Book Circle the question has often been raised of how much we can accept things done to the classics. Can Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law really do that to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson?  Can Laurie R. King really have a feisty young Marry Russell marry an aging Holmes?  Can Jean Rhys really tell Bertha’s story of how she went mad and ended up in Rochester’s attic?
                      Views often differ sharply in our friendly group.  “No!” say some.  “Yes!” say others.
                      This discussion slides easily into Shakespeare.  Can Caliban really be played by a twitchy grunge Goth behaving like a speed freak? Can Richard III really be a Hitler-like charmer in the 30’s?  Can Romeo and Juliet really live in a machine gun mafia run disco Catholic Miami? Can Othello really be played by a short skinny white girl? Can Twelfth Night really be set in a tire factory with a 60’s pop soundtrack?  Can Love’s  Labour’s Lost really be a Hollywood 30’s song and dance musical? Can Hamlet really be about a cyber-techno-capitalist corporation battle?
                      Well, yes. Obviously.  All of these have been done. You’ve seen some of them.  I’ve seen all of them. Some people have hated them.  I am one of those who loved these productions, or at least found them interesting.
                      The question is not really should it be allowed to do this kind of spin-off on Shakespeare, but how can it not be. If all we had to look at was four hundred years worth of people standing around a stage in Renaissance or Roman clothes reciting the plays, Shakespeare would now be one of those old poets like Spenser that only literature majors bother to read.  Instead, everybody in the world knows Shakespeare (only a small exaggeration, don’t you think?)
                      Admittedly the productions that got me addicted to Shakespeare were quite straightforward adaptations:  Branagh’s Henry V, a simple performance at the Roundhouse in London of Henry IV, Part Two, Branagh’s Hamlet (well, that was set in the 1800’s for some reason but that was hardly noticeable). However some of the radically changed concepts of several of the performances mentioned above have really fired that addiction.
                      What Shakespeare wrote is so big, so deep, so complex, so significant to so many people and eras in the past four hundred years and probably the next four hundred years that there is no way that his plays can’t be brilliant no matter what’s done to them. Or if not brilliant or even successful, at least the experimentation enriches the canon immeasurably. And we must remember, Shakespeare’s plays themselves were mostly spin-offs of earlier works.
                      So I say spin-off away!  I’m waiting for a sci-fi intergalactic Macbeth.  Or a Comedy of Errors set in apartheid South Africa of the 50’s.  Or why not Sherlock Holmes and his young wife Mary Russell incorporated into Richard III to find out if he’s really guilty of killing those kids? Or Jane Eyre deciding that Mr. Rochester is an old fogey and running off with Hamlet, thus saving his life (maybe that’s already happened; I haven’t read all of Jasper Fforde yet).
                      So don’t be so nervous, all you skeptics of spin-offs!  Shakespeare can take it! Shakespeare thrives in any interpretive environment in which inspired creativity rules.


  1. No doubt you can do it, Ruby, and so can - and have - many others. The question is: should they? On the whole, I'd say "yes, certainly". But let me add a conservative touch of scepticism, an attempt to temper a little your boundless enthusiasm for modernism.

    First of all, there is nothing wrong with traditional presentations. Nobody lives for 400 years following Shakespeare on the stage and screen closely. There is a constant influx of newcomers and they have the right to see the plays, if not acted in a replica of the Globe, at least done in a more traditional way. That doesn't necessarily mean something dull or unimaginative, although it goes without saying that the conservative approach is no guarantee that anything valuable will be produced. But the passion for extravagant experiments with Shakespeare's plays seems to be as strong as the one with Wagner's music dramas (or indeed with all opera): newcomers will soon be - already are? - in a real danger of not being able to see traditional staging at all - except on film.

    Heaven knows Shakespeare can take a lot of modernization, cuts and re-arrangements - and benefit from them all. But easy now! We should never forget that the text is the first authority. I have seen McKellen's "Richard" or Baz Luhrman's "R&J" at least five times each and I love both movies. But both do occasionally come dangerously close to spectacle for spectacle's sake or cut the text almost to the point of gross oversimplification.

    Then there is an important, if rather personal, difference between interpretation and travesty, between visual splendour and kitsch. I haven't seen Othello "played by a short skinny white girl" but I can't imagine how it can have anything to do with Shakespeare. Nor have I seen "Twelfth Night" "set in a tire factory" - and I'm not sure I want to. Intergalactic "Macbeth"? That would require enormous amount of genius to keep my attention.

    Let me give you an operatic example for travesty and kitsch of epic proportions. I was unfortunate to see this live (the first two acts at least, couldn't stand more) in the Dresden Semperoper a few years ago. See the following link for some fabulous photos:

    Whatever that was, it was certainly not Verdi's "La Traviata". Leaving aside the abominable singing and the amateurish conducting, it was an epitome of visual ugliness and a complete dramatic travesty. I am deeply suspicious of people who appear to enjoy such productions. If they don't but only pretend to, well, that's not much better, is it?

  2. Modernization and minimalism, though generally fine approaches, all too often seem to me simply an excuse for pathological laziness or self-indulgent show-off. Perhaps even more often are they a veil behind which to hide stupendous amounts of mediocrity. There is no excuse for any of these.

    To give two Shakespearean examples. I have found interesting "Hamlet in Manhattan" with Ethan Hawke, but if this modernization has "contributed to the canon" at all, let alone "immeasurably" so, I am not aware of its contribution. An interesting curiosity, certainly, but even with better acting and better production designer it could never be anything more than that.

    (Incidentally, Branagh's "Hamlet" and especially "Much Ado" are excellent examples of far subtler modernization, one that at once guarantees feast for the eye yet enhances the drama. Neither is the case with Hamlet and the "Denmark Corporation" or with the dismal Victorian "Merchant" with Olivier.)

    Few would deny - and I'm definitely not one of them - that the 1979 TV "Macbeth" with Ian and Judy is one of the finest on record. Amazing acting indeed! But boy, is Nunn's production hideous! There is no production really; just darkness and night-gown like "costumes". Some people find such stagings "illuminating" and "inspiring" and "evocative" and I know not what. I find them disgusting. In this particular case the stupendous principals completely transcend the production. But how often does that happen?

    That's a very shrewd point that "Shakespeare’s plays themselves were mostly spin-offs of earlier works". Absolutely true, of course. But we must remember that Shakespeare, to put it mildly, vastly improved on his sources. Perhaps some brilliant modernistic directors can improve on Shakespreare, Verdi and Wagner. But can they really?

    That said, there is no reason why Richard III shouldn't be combined Sherlock Holmes, as you suggest. It might turn up a truly great stuff. But this is no longer Shakespeare. And we should remember that.

    To cut the long story short, there is no reason why we should be sharply divided on the matter. I say "Yes" to those who try to improve Shakespeare or to make him more accessible to a wider audience with all possible methods including modernizations, minimalism, etc. But I say "No" to those who use Shakespeare as a convenient peg to hang their own fantasies which, as it happens, have nothing to do with his plays. Yes, sometimes it may not be very easy to separate the two groups. But it's worth the effort.

    On the whole, however, I remain a conservative and a sceptic. The number of modernizations I have really liked is way smaller than those I have not been able to stand. Likewise the number of traditional versions - traditional in the widest possible sense of the word - I have enjoyed greatly far, far outnumber the modernistic ones that can be said to be close to my heart.

    Shakespeare can take a lot, but he can't take everything. Creativity is a fine thing, but it can go wrong like anything else. In itself it is by no means enough to play/produce Shakespeare. This is like calling John Cage the greatest composer of the twentieth century because he was the first who had the brilliant idea to "compose a piece" with 12 twelve radios sounding different stations at the same time. This is not creativity. This is perversity.

    1. Oh, just what I like, a debate on Shakespeare! We certainly don’t see eye to eye on this question, do we, Alexander?
      Let’s take Trevor Nunn’s "Macbeth" of 1979. You don’t like the staging. I find it a masterpiece. Surely neither of us is right or wrong, it’s just a matter of taste?
      And why wouldn’t a "Richard III" combined with Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell still be Shakespeare? Granted, there are certainly a lot of spin offs that go so far that the Shakespeare isn’t easily recognizable anymore but is that really a problem? Take "West Side Story", for example. Is that still Shakespeare? Not really but it’s a great musical and it makes very good use of the original (which wasn’t an original) that was the source of inspiration.
      Personally I find Shakespeare a very convenient peg to hang fantasies on. What a wonderful peg of pure gold that only glows more beautifully with the attachment of a few rough uncut stones of creative ideas, which might just be small gems in their own right. I must say that in all of the productions I mentioned in my essay I found no evidence of what you called “pathological laziness” or anybody who was a “self-indulgent show-off” or even “stupendous amounts of mediocrity”. Certainly some failure to reach glorious results but I’d rather give them credit for trying and having interesting ideas than being ho-hum (I have in fact seen some ho-hum productions of Shakespeare too, and they’ve been pretty straightforward).
      With all that said, I must confess that I haven’t seen the Ethan Hawke "Hamlet" since my pre- Shakespeare days and I might very well find it silly next time I see it (which will be soon). I have never seen Olivier in "The Merchant of Venice" or "Othello" but from what I’ve read of them I probably don’t really want to. Or at least I don’t expect to like them. And I agree - few of the examples I have used could be credited individually with contributing “immeasurably” to the canon but surely the wide range of attempts to make Shakespeare come alive to audiences today (and earlier) must be said to have done so? It’s not a matter of improving Shakespeare really, is it? It’s a matter of keeping him alive in our society. I don’t like every interpretation done of Shakespeare but I like very much indeed the fact that so many people are finding so many ways of doing it.

  3. Yes, of all our disagreements, this appears to be the stongest. Fortunately, we do agree on one point and this is the most important one: no rigth or wrong in these matters; just a matter of taste. We all have our prejudices; it's foolish to deny them, it's deplorable to impose them on others. We should cultivate them. I should like to believe that's what we are doing here.

    That's why I don't like the word "debate". It implies an attempt to influence opinion. We are just exchanging reflections, a very different thing. And a rather pointless one, I'm afraid.

    The problem is that most of our opinions are so different that it hardly makes sense to exchange them.
    Still, for what it's worth, a few reflections on your last post.

    There is nothing wrong with spin-offs that have nothing to do with Shakespeare but basic plot details (which are naturally not original: like many great story-tellers, Will came too young in a world too old). "West Side Story" is a masterpiece (the musical if not the 1961 movie) and "O" is a very clever teen adaptation of "Othello" (much like "Cruel Intentions" is related to "Dangerous Liaisons"). But these are entirely independent works. They have nothing to do with Shakespeare. Otherwise we might just as well say that Will's "Romeo and Juliet" is an adaptation of Brooke's "Romeus and Juliet" and his "Othello" is an adaptation of Cinthio's lurid melodrama. Even the plots are not that close, not to mention the characters or the poetry and the prose. It doesn't matter who likes better what: the works are just vastly different.

    I don't mind people who think these "adaptations" superior to the Bard's plays. But I don't see the point of linking Shakespeare's name with such spin-offs. Let them stay or fall as independent works. Who cares that certain plot details came from Will or from Plutarch or from Santa Claus?

    Moving to real adaptations of Shakespeare, that is ones that use his text, no matter how freely adapted, I agree it is not so much a question of improving Will. But when I see sets, costumes and, above all, horrendous delivery of the text that, to my mind, have nothing to do with Shakespeare's spirit, I can only assume those actors, directors and producers wanted to improve on Will's lame creations. But what's the use of keeping alive Shakespeare who's no longer Shakespeare?

    Well, this, of course, is an intensely personal matter. If parodies and farces using Shakespeare's texts can stand on their own, if the public at large loves them and thinks they are superb interpretations, then they deserve their existence and even popularity. I reserve my personal right to see them once (at most!) and then ignore them.

    1. It’s nice to see that we agree on the essentials! Not only is there no accounting for taste but there’s no point in trying to convince someone to change theirs. “Exchanging reflections” is of course a better description here, although I’m not adverse to the word debate, which in the meaning structured presentation of different views can bring out different aspects that can perhaps bring us pause…an ”aha, I hadn’t thought of that!” reaction, which only enriches our appreciation.
      And then I must admit that I have been fuzzy in my definitions, confusing spin-off with interpretation. Of course there is a big difference in the spin off aspect of borrowing more or less intact the story line but not using the text, as in West Side Story, and using Shakespeare’s basic text but in different settings, times and characterizations as in McKellan’s Richard III, Luhrman’s disco-mafia-Miami Romeo and Juliet or the now infamous Othello-as-a-skinny-white-girl. Sorry about that, but even so the two often overlap and the border is difficult to establish at times.

  4. By the way, it occurred to me (but a little too late to include it above) that there is one case - perhaps the only one - where something that's based on Shakespeare but may well have nothing to do with him should be - indeed, must be, for there's no other choice - used together with Shakespeare's name. This is of course Will's frustratingly obscure life. The classic screen example is "Shakespeare in Love". I've recently revisited this movie and I have found it more gorgeous than ever. It may well have nothing to do with the real circumstances of how "Romeo and Juliet" came to exist, but this doesn't matter at all, and wouldn't even if we knew them. But that's a kind of spin-off to the topic. -:)

    1. Like I said before, “Spin-off away!” Here I agree completely! Long live “Shakespeare in Love”!

  5. It seems reasonable to take Hamlet’s instructions to the players of the travelling theater troop to be Shakespeare’s thoughts on theater art. When the manuscripts contain so little beyond the spoken lines, this thesis gives us valuable directions for interpreting the plays. Hamlet’s views in act 3 scene 2 apply directly to the question of this debate “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action … o’erstep not the modesty of nature … For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature… scorn her image… though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve”. Here are valuable guidelines for analyzing the use (and abuse) of adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. With the “mirror of nature” rule in mind, think of Othello as a skinny white girl instead of a big black soldier and ask yourself what distorted, warped mirror would be in use there and what would/should that do to the rest of the play? And what mirror does a traditional presentation hold up to the reality of a modern audience and if none, is that why it is considered boring? These are the types of questions that need to be answered in evaluating performances. [The “mirror of nature” rule is associated with materialist art theory, misunderstood by many to imply social realism but since mirrors can be manipulated, the images are not always what you take them to be and mirrors can be used as creative tools. Karl Marx, the founder of materialist art theory, was a fan of Shakespeare (See review of the book Marxist Shakespeares Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, Routledge 2001).]
    The whole text from Hamlet:
    Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
    you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
    as many of your players do, I had as lief the
    town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
    too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
    for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
    the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
    a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
    offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
    periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
    very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
    for the most part are capable of nothing but
    inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
    a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
    out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
    Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
    be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
    word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
    the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
    from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
    first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
    mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
    scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
    the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
    or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful
    laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
    censure of the which one must in your allowance
    o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
    players that I have seen play, and heard others
    praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
    that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
    the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
    strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
    nature's journeymen had made men and not made them
    well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

    1. A most judicious comment! Using Shakespeare himself, why didn't we think of that? "Mirrors can be used as creative tools" - I like that.

  6. For those interested in a truly bizarre twist to "Can You Do That To Shakespeare," please take a squint at my newly Kindlized book, Assassinating Shakespeare, about wandering around Africa performing street shows with puppets in the late 1970s.


    Thomas Goltz

    1. Thank you, Thomas! This looks like a must-read for sure, and appropriate in this connection. It will be included in my next book order.

  7. I've been browsing Hazlitt's dramatic criticism and accidentaly stumbled on a sentence that reminded me of this post. It was written a little over 200 years ago, October 16, 1814, and published in The Champion: "We occasionally see something on the stage that reminds us a little
    of Shakespear." ;-)

    1. Occasionally we do! ;-) Thanks for commenting