Theater

My Four Centuries With Shakespeare

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I was just starting out as a critic when Will Shakespeare died, four hundred years ago this month — but I knew immediately that this was going to be big. The theater would go on, but it would never be the same. I waited anxiously for his collected plays to be published, and I bought the First Folio as soon as it was remaindered. (Criticism wasn’t a profession back then, so there were no review copies.)

As I’d predicted, the theater did go on after Will died, but it got way tackier. It had already mostly moved indoors, and ticket prices had gotten insane. The new writers didn’t have Will’s depth or his moral sense and offered barely a flicker of his poetic flair. One of them, John Fletcher, carved some cheesy messes out of Will’s unfinished scripts, but that didn’t wash. (When people revive those things nowadays, claiming to find traces of the real Will in them, I just shake my head and sigh.) All we got were jibber-jabber topical comedies and what amounted to splatter movies in blank verse. I could hardly blame the Puritans when they shut the theaters down altogether, using England’s civil war as a handy excuse.

When they got thrown out in 1660, and the theaters reopened, only a few of us old-timers really remembered what Shakespeare had achieved. There were women on the stage now, and people started saying that Will’s whole plot shtick about girls pretending to be boys was ultra-dated. The hot new kind of play was wiseass comedy about money-hungry young men chasing sex-hungry married women, such as She Would If She Could and The Wives’ Excuse. Will’s celebrity rep lingered, so they tried updating some of his scripts, chopping up the comedies and sticking the best bits into slapstick one-acts called “drolls.” Stupid Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear with a happy ending: Cordelia lives to marry Edgar. To me that was even worse than Fletcher’s messes.

Things dragged on that way for what felt like two hundred years. David Garrick came along and taught the people to idolize the name Shakespeare — he’s the one who invented Shakespeare festivals and turned that hick town Stratford into a tourist trap — but he still rewrote the plays up and down, leaving out whatever didn’t suit his or his audience’s taste. After his time, every actor wanted to be a Shakespearean superstar, hamming it up center stage while the supporting roles got cut to shreds. What a parade: J.P. Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons, then Edmund Kean, Macready, Henry Irving, and, over here in the U.S., Edwin Forrest, Charlotte Cushman, Edwin Booth. John Drew and Ada Rehan, acres of others. The French were still bitching that Will was a barbarian who didn’t know the Aristotelian Unities, but the Germans got so hooked that they claimed him as a homeboy and started calling him “unser Shakespeare.”

At least they played, though in translation, his every word. Outside of Germany, you can’t imagine the nonsense we had to put up with. The stars could get incredibly self-indulgent — Kean used to have a sofa brought onstage so he could play Othello lying down when he was drunk — and the productions got ever more cluttered with fancy “realistic” scenery and historically accurate costumes. As if Will ever cared about such things! And at the same time, the pedants were giving him hell for slips like thinking Bohemia had a seacoast, while this new set of crazies started yattering that somebody else must have written the plays, because a kid from the boonies couldn’t have known all that worldly info. Trust me, people who cared about Will’s work needed a lot of patience to get through those decades.

By the 1880s, Shakespeare had come to loom so large in people’s minds that it appeared they would believe almost anything of him except the words he wrote. I was nearly ready to give him up as a lost cause when William Poel and his friends arrived to bring a little sanity to the subject. Poel had some eccentric notions, and he was squeamish about Will’s lewd jokes. But his Elizabethan Stage Society started the fashion of staging the plays the way Shakespeare’s company had published them, with only minimal alterations to the text. It made the star actors (who did most of the commercial productions back then) start using more authentic texts too — though they still couldn’t resist actorish indulgence: Herbert Beerbohm Tree played Malvolio with four junior Malvolios onstage mimicking his every move.

But Poel’s example inspired a smart young actor-playwright-director, Granville Barker, whose productions in the 1910s knocked everybody on their ass. Barker stripped the stage bare, putting the text and the action front and center. His essays — they’re still among the few necessary reads on Shakespeare — caused as much controversy as his productions. To stage the plays, he said in a 1915 lecture, “all you need is a great white box.” Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream took that challenge, but not till 55 years later.

I had hoped that, thanks to Barker, things would get back on track for Will. No such luck. Barker’s bare stage and reliance on the text just didn’t suffice for those who craved showbiz. The century since Barker’s heyday has made Shakespeare stagings ever crazier. First came the analogies: Henry V as a basketball game, or All’s Well That Ends Well at an 1890s Ruritanian court. Then the wacko reinterpretations started. I don’t mean the ones that find something meaningful buried beneath the text — we know Hamlet has a mother problem. I mean the kind that invents some nonsense, like Prospero having a mother problem, or Paulina being Leontes’ real mother. Between actors’ weird misreadings of lines and directors’ mishandling of scenes, I’ve seen stuff so crazy it would make old Kean, slurring ” ‘Tis monstrous, you chaste stars” while lying on his back, look sane by comparison.

And now we’ve got the deconstructionists, too. They insist on taking poor Will apart, when he’s barely had a chance to pull himself together since he died. They frame all his plays in comment, to explain to you that it’s all an illusion — as if you didn’t know that when you came in. Deconstructionists are basically jerks; they remind me of Peter Quince and his amateur troupe, only they’re trying to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, never realizing that it’s a parody of them. One reason we still love Shakespeare, after all that’s been done to him, is that he knew a jerk when he saw one. Can you imagine what fun he’d have with the current Republican Party? But don’t get me started on that. I’m trying to think good thoughts, to help Will’s plays last another four hundred years. If the planet survives, chances are they will.

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