Saturday, March 8, 2008

Willy Don't Give A Damn

I need to rail. I have heard some silly, silly assumptions of late, and, while I am by no means an expert, I feel the need to rant my little knowledge here. Forgive the indulgence.
Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed. They just were. So much so, that almost all the editions of the text we have were published posthumously by actors who played the roles. One reason for all those textual confusions (e.g. "too sullied flesh" vs. "too solid flesh"), prepare yourselves, is because sometimes actors mess up lines. In truth, without any hard evidence, I suspect the number of professional actors who are consistently letter perfect, never mind know an entire script years after they performed it, is quite small.
Shakespeare didn't intend for his plays to be read. He wrote plays cause he was pretty good at it and wanted to make a living, and when he made enough that he didn't have to work anymore, he stopped. The majority of his audience was likely illiterate anyway except for the people who paid him to write them sonnets. I'm sure he doesn't mind if you read his plays alone in your room to yourself. He might even be flattered, if he hadn't died 400 years ago, that is.
But the text is widely available, if you are upset with any stage productions you see. The "sanctity of the text" is protected in print and the millions of other productions happening around the world at this very moment. I mention again, the author and all his descendants of consequence are long since dead, so they don't mind either.
But, what of these productions? Why don't they do it like Shakespeare did? Well, this is a complicated question, so it requires a multiple part answer.
First, it was 400 years ago. We can't be sure how the plays were performed because we weren't there. None of us. For all you know, we are doing it EXACTLY like they did.
Second, based on what we think we know, some things have changed since then. It's no longer considered indecent for women to be seen on stage, so young boys no longer need to play women's roles. Most of our theatres are indoors and productions are accompanied by sets and lights. We are also more of a visual culture than the Elizabethans. As in, we believe they were able to take in information aurally much faster/better than we can, because that was pretty much the main form of communication. Therefore, the actors probably spoke a lot faster so, the plays were a lot shorter (there are several references in the plays about the play itself only being 2 hours long). This is to say nothing of the cultural changes - domestic abuse, antisemitism, and slavery aren't as funny as they used to be in popular culture. Contemporary productions often try to make the play relevant to today so it doesn't stand as a museum piece, which leads me to my next point.
Thirdly, the nature of live theatre is that it is never the same twice. It is temporal experience that experiences vast changes based on all kinds of things, most especially the audience. Therefore, it is impossible to do Shakespeare like Shakespeare did it. Even he was unable to do it the same way he did it.
Finally, after 400 years, don't you think the plays would get a little old if they were done EXACTLY the same way all the time. Part of why these plays have been so popular for so long is the room they allow for interpretation and experimentation.
Maybe you disagree. If that's the case, then you can sit in your room, alone, and read him to yourself. Willy don't give a damn.

A Post Script: I'm at a production of As You Like It a few years ago, and Rosalind comes to the edge of the stage and delivers the epilogue. The young woman behind me leans over to her companion and whispers, "I hate when they break the 4th wall." No one likes a nosy dramaturg, so you must suffer. The 4th wall is a late 19th - early 20th century invention. While the hallmark of most American theatre today, the notion that the characters on stage believed themselves to be real and living life in the world, unaware of the hundreds of people watching them was completely foreign to Elizabethans. You would be hard-pressed to ignore an Elizabethan audience, as they were generally loud, smelly and obnoxious. Willy makes fun of them and makes jokes specifically to them all the time. I believe that many characters motivations throughout the plays are to get the audience on his or her side before they do something terrible (Look at Richard III).
Thus endeth the lesson.