Richard Maxwell took on William Shakespeare in single combat last week, and retreated battered from the field, a hopeless loser. But don’t blame Maxwell, who owes his defeat as much to larger forces in the culture around him as to his own limitations. And don’t, if you’re an admirer of his, start defending him indignantly just yet; I have several key points to make in his favor. Meantime, BAM can be congratulated on this: The disaster of Maxwell’s staging of Henry IV is not the usual BAM bomb brought on by the merger of directorial egomania, Eurotrash nontaste, and the fashion-chasing stupidity of the American rich. In Maxwell, BAM actually has someone who represents, though he manifestly neither understands nor fulfills, what could be the next wave in theater: the one in which all the irrelevant, pretentious junk that has accrued in the staging of plays since the era of Wagner and T.W. Robertson (contemporaries) will be cleared out. With Maxwell, we are clearly starting over at square one. Now if only he knew how to start.
William Shakespeare was a practical man of the theater. We know that he wrote his own plays—despite all recent idiocies to the contrary—because nobody who was not a working theater artist would have bothered with the infinitude of technical details that make them stageworthy. He wrote to be played; his plays were published, by the troupe of which he was part owner, mainly as souvenirs after they had outlived their use in performance. His genius as poet and dramatist, already acknowledged in his own time, is predicated on his work’s accessibility: Given a few footnotes to explain the archaic words, anyone can understand Shakespeare, and nothing happens in his plays that does not make perfect sense, at least onstage. Two centuries of academic scholarship have clarified many tiny points in the texts, but academic pontificating about their “interpretation” has mostly caused confusion. The only real way to understand Shakespeare is in the theater.
The good part of Maxwell’s approach is that he has thrown away all the interpretative clutter. Aside from simple painted drops to indicate changes of place, his Henry IV contained nothing but people in crudely appropriate costumes (by Kaye Voyce), mostly standing still and saying the words to each other conversationally. There was no attempt to “interpret,” and only occasional attempts even to inflect or color the speeches. The physical staging was minimal: no blocking, virtually no comic business, and precious few props except swords. Most of the cast spoke clearly, if uninterestingly; you could receive the play without any intrusive actorial or directorial shenanigans, fancy lighting, or sound effects. The show evoked the innocence, and the ineptitude, of middle-school Shakespeare. If it failed to bring the play to life, it at least offered a chance to see what Shakespeare could do alone, unencumbered by artifice or showy interference.
And Shakespeare won, albeit mutedly. We saw that he doesn’t need Brit orotundity, ornate decoration, elaborate staging, or cockeyed gimmickry to tell his tale. Where the lines are built for modern comprehension, he can even get a laugh or make a rhetorical point without assistance. The effect was like a strong snort of real vodka, instead of that flavored horseshit the manufacturers hawk these days. As such, it revealed the extent to which most of the “Shakespeare” we experience is little more than flavored horseshit, compared to which even Maxwell’s woeful results are an improvement. So his disaster carries an important lesson for us all regarding the way we think about the theater.
Why then do I call Maxwell’s results disastrous? Simply, because to strip everything away is to leave nothing, and audiences don’t want to sit through nothing. This was proved by the slow steady trickle of ticket holders to the exit doors all evening long. The house lights, left on, encouraged restlessness; there were large gusts of contemptuous laughter at the more deeply inept moments. This too was revelatory, showing how quickly an uptight modern audience might become a lively mob of Elizabethan groundlings.
The groundlings were hungry for theater, and deserved to be fed. Here Maxwell failed them. Merely to pronounce Shakespeare is nothing. He and his Globe colleagues were alive not only to the currents of their time but to the elements of their craft. They did not rely on gimmicky business, designer gewgaws, or pseudo-intellectual concepts; these are 19th- and 20th-century accretions. Within the anti-illusionist conventions of their stage, they lived their roles, using all the professional skills at their command. They learned to speak with an understanding of rhetoric, rhythm, and color as well as sense; they knew dance, singing, and stage combat. They were celebrated all over Europe for embodying their characters fully and believably. Maxwell’s troupe eschewed these skills, though five or six of his cast clearly could have summoned them up. Without them, he is only another phony being primed for the showbiz racket, Eurotrash festival branch—an anti-phony phony for smart-set cynics, as opposed to the artsier phonies who prey on gullible middlebrows. Neither category has anything to do with the theater, which is eternal, unbound by fashion or convention. If Maxwell wants to achieve anything honest there, the right way is to absorb and purify the theater’s tradition, not to dismiss it before he starts. Otherwise he will always be at square one.
“Bitch-Slapped by Shakespeare: A BLT Boy in a Tuna Niçoise World, Richard Maxwell Takes On Henry IV, Part I” by Charles McNulty