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by Margaret Croyden
Shakespeare á la mode
Is there a dumbing down of Shakespeare
in order to make it contemporary?
The practice of modernizing Shakespeare has been sacrosanct for a long time. But what does it say about us? Margaret Croyden was asked to tackle this difficult subject in an address at the Brooklyn Academy of Music while the Royal Shakespeare Company was appearing there with their repertory this May. The Academy held a number of symposia on the meaning of Shakespeare from many points of view. Croyden spoke in a panel devoted to "Contemporary Artists and the Bard". Her address, reprinted here, challenges the modernization of Shakespeare and the star system that supports it.
When in the early sixties, the Polish scholar Jan Knott wrote his famous book "Shakespeare our Contemporary" and the Bertold Brecht Berliner Ensemble finally played in the West, both these men became so influential that it is said that they effectively revolutionized the approach to Shakespeare--at least in our modern age. Brecht with his extraordinary theatrical techniques and theories and Jan Knot with his philosophical approach that related Shakespeare to our own lives.
But change was already in the air. Peter Hall together with Peter Brook and Michael St. Denis were the newly appointed heads of the reorganized Royal Shakespeare Company and they were determined to break with the genteel, traditional approach to Shakespeare. Soon Peter Brook directed Paul Scofield in a dark and powerful "King Lear"--presumably influenced by the Knott book and Brecht's alienation methods. Dressing the company in leather (similar to Brecht's "Corialianus" which was in itself unconventional) and designing a minimalist abstract sculptural set, Brook created a sensation in Shakespeare production. And then Peter Hall and John Barton in 1963, directed the "War of the Roses" with the young Ian Holm as Hal--a monumental event for the newly reorganized RSC.
The production, designed in black and brown, was performed on an uncluttered, virtually bare stage, with sparse decor and a minimum of props that served as metaphors. At the time, this was considered a radical production. And indeed it was.
Things moved ahead: Peter Hall directed a hippie-like Hamlet with David Warner; Clifford Williams cast all males in "As You Like it," at the National, and the RSC workshops were experimenting with Artaud's theory of acting, and the Grotowski methodology that eventually lead to Peter Brook's "Marat-Sade," and to his deconstructed "Tempest" in '68. This was followed by his now famous "Midsummer Night's Dream" which was considered the turning point in Shakespeare direction.
New interpretations of Shakespeare were everywhere. In New York Joe Papp's company in the park was flourishing. Many of the Shakespeare plays were modernized, reinterpreted, interacially cast, and genders crossed. Certainly a precedent was set. In a Joe Papp production one could always find unconventional casting, and what became known as politically correct interpretations. Sometimes these productions caused angry criticism, sometimes they were welcomed. Free Shakespeare was a novel idea and Joe Papp wanted novel productions.
Radical Shakespeare then is hardly new. It has had a long tradition dating back to Myerhold and Gordon Craig and the RSC can take a good deal of credit for unconventional Shakespeare in our own age.
And yet today, one might ask what is unconventional Shakespeare? Is it upgrading time, place, and costumes, cross dressing, cross gendering, unorthodox casting, and unconventional speech? Has this modernization opened up a can of worms, so that artists are free to do anything to please the crowds and/or the critics. Has this so called freeing up of Shakespeare produced its own absurdity and vulgarity so that often productions are unrecognizable and unbelievable. And has this trend developed into a tiresome cliche as some English critics have maintained?
Maybe all this reflects our popular addiction to shock and sholock that destroys all feeling, but defines so much of our film and television. Maybe some of our best artists are influenced by the clever computer that produces astonishing impressions so that form has now taken precedence over substance, and real emotion has been superseded by visual cinematic effects. Or maybe the attempt at Shakespeare relevancy may actually be a cover for the failure of the imagination.
The most common device today in Shakespeare is relying on modern dress. I have seen actors in business suits, in tuxedos, in Edwardian, Victorian, 40's or 50's or 60's style but rarely are they dressed in the time of the play. (Henry VIII is a recent rare exception). I have often wondered how the change in costumes actually relates to the meaning of the play. Has the director a rare, distinctive vision or a singular, provocative idea, indiscernible to the ordinary spectator, and by changing the costumes, something astonishing would be revealed? Most of the time all that this produces is anachronisms. Can you say "My kingdom for a horse" and be dressed as an English Edwardian? Can you believe actors when they use "thee," "thou" "my liege" and other Shakespearean language as they strut around in business suits pretending to be kings?
Of course artists crave to be free to carry out their creative impulses. But are there any limitations? Is everything permisible? Ingmar Bergman introduced loud rock music at the end of "Hamlet;" Kenneth Branaugh inserted a sex scene with Ophelia; Raif Fines showed up barefoot, dirty, unkept and totally unattractive in his "Hamlet;" Ian McKellen turned his "Richard III" into a morality play producing a number of anachronisms; while Vanessa Redgrave in her "Antony and Cleopatra" juxtaposed the Egyptian queen with Victoria, cast a young frail woman as the conquering Octavious Caesar and coupled all this with odd costuming. All of which resulted in some inane distortions and bad acting. In other plays nobles, kings, and princes have been downgraded to middle class types, thereby diminishing the grandeur of great characters and leaving us with the impression of a kitchen sink drama with actors delivering poetry as prose.
Some directors have cut out the political aspects of a text entirely, cut important scenes; skipped monologues; rearranged sequences, and in effect, attempted to write their own Shakespeare play. Some have thought that focusing on the family alone in a world renowned tragedy would be sufficient. But in Shakespeare's tragedies, the families obviously are not ordinary dysfunctional families; these were people who ruled a kingdom. The layers of a Shakespeare play is what makes it great, otherwise the mere plots could be reduced to soap operas. And many times, have been.
The idea of making great classics relevant has been so widespread that it has spilled over to opera as well. Some directors have completely disregarded the librettos. Peter Sellars' "Don Giovanni" is no longer an aristocrat but a Mafia hood thereby destroying the social criticism of the nobility inherent in the story. In another of his Mozart productions, Sellars set the opera in a seedy modern lunchroom, and in another, a modern board room. In a production of "Traviata" (not Sellars) the heroine dies in an ugly hospital room in bed, with pipes in her arms.
Some people may think that criticism of this kind is based on reactionary classicism or on elitism--a pejorative word in today's world. Those who try to resist the dumbing down of great works are often considered retro--another pejorative word. The question is-- do we want to maintain some semblance of integrity towards the text of the greatest writer in the English language. Or does anything go? Is there too much dumbing down in an effort to win audiences because we fear that people today and, in particular, the young won't respond or understand a production without some gimmick. Is the Shakespeare genius not enough to carry the day now that we have reached cyberspace?
These questions are not new of course, I suppose they are raised in every generation. Yet I ask them again. It is my job to question, and hope for some answers. [Croyden]
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