Culture Drama Theater

Bardolatry and Its Discontents

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Seattle does not have nearly enough Shakespeare productions.

I know you’re thinking I’ve gone off my chum. But humor me a minute.

A few years ago, Lyn Gardner of The Grauniad suggested that perhaps what the English theater needed was a rest from Shakespeare. Locally this same cry was taken up by Brendan Kiley and others and extended to the idea of a full moratorium of three to five years, depending on whose opinion one encountered. On the surface, the arguments seem impeccable. Not doing Shakespeare would free up theaters to produce other plays by other playwrights. New plays would have a better chance of production, as the resources would be. In actuality the likelihood those resources would go to new plays is minimal, while the likelihood that the number of Shaw and Wilde and the occasional Restoration comedy would go up is rather higher.

People give many arguments for not needing any more Shakespeare productions, some motivated by envy, some by boredom, some by anger.

“I’m tired of Shakespeare taking up all these stages that should be given to new plays.” [Read: my plays.]

“I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet four times this year. Can’t we have something else for a change?” [Read: someone should put on one of my plays.]

“Goddamnit, can’t these people speak ENGLISH, for Christ’s sake??” [Read: I write plays the way people really talk ‘n’ stuf.]

The first two arguments are not compelling. Shakespeare takes up space, yes, but in truth many theater spaces are dark much of the time; beyond that, Shakespeare is hardly in competition for space if one accepts the reality of non-traditional spaces as readily as the Seattle dance community does, for instance. The argument that there is too many productions of the same play, too, are tangential. The same people complaining about four different versions of Romeo and Juliet often have watched Avatar or Star Wars multiple times and songs from their teenaged years have triple-digit play numbers in their iTunes libraries.

These arguments distract from the real issues at hand. It isn’t that Seattle has only a few stages that are always playing Shakespeare; many of them never see a Shakespeare production at all. It isn’t that one has seen Romeo and Juliet four times; many have definitely heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 more than four times in different versions and would gladly hear it again.

It is the third motivation for wanting to impose a moratorium on the Bard that most interests me: anger. “What the hell are they saying and why won’t this bastard get off the stage?!” is a legitimate interrobang. What is perhaps less obvious is that anger stems virtually from always a lack of understanding. When someone says, “I don’t understand!” it may well be the cry of an angry person. An example here comes from a discussion in Canada on the subject of a Shakespeare moratorium:

I’ve seen dozens of theatrical and cinematic productions of Shakespeare. I studied it in high school, like everyone else. I loved the Slings & Arrows television series. I even liked Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

All this and yet I still can’t understand a frickin’ word of it. Let’s stop pretending those play were written in English – or any version of English that’s accessible to contemporary audiences. They weren’t and it’s not.

This is why I hate Shakespeare: I don’t understand the dialogue. At all. And I really feel like I’ve given it a fair shot. I don’t think I’m alone on this. [italics mine]

Enough with the Shakespeare. I mean, seriously. A five-year artist-led moratorium. Yes! For the love of god.

These are the words of a person who is frustrated. But more importantly, they are the words I have myself heard from dozens of other people throughout the years. Shakespeare. Impenenetrable. Inaccessible. The words go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Theater groups rarely help in this regard. Shakespeare is treated with a true idolatry–Bardolatry. Watching Shakespeare’s plays audiences often feel confused and that it is their fault they are confused. Producing groups do not help when they treat audience members like sheep and imply that they need not understand Shakespeare. Theaters simply pass down the Law and expect that the barbarians must simply arrive at the Church of Theater, convert to the cause of Bardolatry and receive William’s Holy Word like a communion wafer. Whether or not the barbarians understand transubstantiation is immaterial to the purposes of the Church. All that matters is that there are followers. This is the much-vaunted “butts in seats” notion, in which finance is always put well before the audience’s spiritual welfare, the same way that monies gathered from tithing are more important to a corrupt ecclesia than the actual practice of good works.

Good work is the entire problem. It is not about space, it is opportunity. It is not frequency at issue; it is quality. Groups perform Shakespeare outdoors when they could just as easily choose something else to show their audiences. When a person sees a great opera or film or reads a great poem or book, she does not complain. If asked, “Have you seen…” invariably her voice will warm with enthusiasm and say, “Oh yes! I’ve seen it four times!” This is a far cry from asking a stagehand condemned to the oblivion of watching a bad show night after night, “Have you seen…?” The stagehand may well use the same words. “Oh. Yes, I’ve seen it. Four times.” But the tone of reply will be much different.

People are happy to see things four times when the piece is brilliant. People complain when they see a play four times only when the play or production does not have sufficient depth to sustain repeated viewing, or when the play and the production straight up sucks. Most people agree that Shakespeare’s plays, in the main, do not suck. Therefore the appalling tedium, frustration and anger must stem largely from bad production, where producers do not deal with the material as sufficiently complex or deep.

I agree with Dr. Johnson that Shakespeare is a great mirror for humankind. His plays are not only a great mirror for mankind’s psychology, they are a great mirror for the state of theater production itself. When Shakespearean acting is bad, other acting tends to be bad as well, and for the same reasons. When Shakespearean productions are bad, other productions are also bad. Careful study of why Shakespeare is bad can reveal deeper flaws in contemporary theater.

Therefore I am rallying that we need more productions of Shakespeare because they will in themselves help theater personages everywhere figure out what is truly wrong with theater in Seattle. But I do not want more boring, middlebrow Shakespeare, with half-baked “high concepts.” I want god-awful Shakespeare. I want painful Shakespeare. I want everything in the book and everything that isn’t thrown at Shakespeare, so we can see what sticks, and I want producers to risk everything with every production as though no one ever produced Shakespeare before.

I want to see them all: all-female versions of Pericles, set in outer space, using models of the Curiosity rover as transit, all to make a point about feminism in the ideas of Cixous and Carol Gilligan; German expressionist versions of Othello, with all characters in blackface except Othello, who wears stark white greasepaint as “a thoughtful exploration of reverse racism”; Julius Caesar done completely with barking dogs in costume, except for Antony who speaks Latvian; Henry IV in period dress, but with Falstaff as a member of the paparazzi and Princess Hal as a supermodel with an aspiring career. Theater makers of Seattle, please: I implore you. Do it all. Truly it may seem there has been no notion so foolish, so vapid, so destructive, so embarassing, so “high concept” that it hasn’t been tried on Shakespeare. But I think not. I firmly believe there are still some left. Producers must try everything, no matter how seemingly stupid, to remove Shakespeare from the realm where familiarity breeds contempt. Because, as Lyn Gardner notes:

Overfamiliarity is a curse. Because we ingest Shakespeare along with our mother’s milk, it is easy to sit through those famous speeches such as “To be or not to be” or “All the world’s a stage” and listen, but not really hear. You may love or loathe the director’s approach, but a production such as Calixto Bieito’s Catalan Macbeth can make you feel as if you are seeing the play for the very first time. And the fact that directors such as Bieito are not hidebound by a reverence for Shakespeare means you get productions that may not be to everyone’s taste but are driven by a genuine passion for the play. Which is more than you can say for a great many English productions of Shakespeare in which the verse-speaking is so poor it mangles the poetry and the decision to stage is entirely to do with GCSE set texts and the box office rather than any driving artistic vision.

More importantly than trying every stupid human trick in the book is to try them exclusively on Shakespeare, because over the past four hundred years his works have proven resilient. A new play by a new playwright may require an extreme sensitivity to the text. Shakespeare clearly does not. A new play may have only one chance at a good production that marries its sensibility to its presentation, only one chance at an argument why this play should ever been seen or read again. Before hanging the living author out to dry with incredibly stupid ideas and bad taste thus consigning her play to oblivion, a director ought to have tried them on Shakespeare first.

The truly important thing behind it all is that as a community, actors and directors must rediscover this “genuine passion for the play.” If that passion leads to a myriad culs-de-sac, this is not bad. Failure is the wages of theater. Theater is based upon imperfection and inconclusiveness–so why not fail spectacularly by trying for perfection, trying for conclusiveness? It would be a great improvement over continually treading the same middle range of experience in which so much bad theater mires itself.

If Harold Clurman is right and “Bad theater is the fertilizer from which good theater grows” then the cure for Seattle’s general mediocrity is not a moratorium on Shakespeare. On the contrary, Shakespeare attracts bad theater ideas as assuredly as ripe fruit attracts fruitflies. Shakespeare is the bedrock of bad theater and Seattle needs more bad theater. Not boring, not mediocre–bad, downright awful, aesthetically bankrupt. Theater that falls flat on its face, painfully and, if one is lucky, hilariously as well.

The culture’s “overfamiliarity” with the Bard has created a sort of dense but useless overgrowth in which no one can any longer see the forest for the trees. This is where slash-and-burn technique can do us all a favor. Set this Elizabethan world alight and burn it to the ground so that a small community of real theater artists may then settle the land. Make the theatrical landscape fertile again. Then, perhaps, we can talk about a fallow period.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net