The Original Old White Guy

Two of my proudest days as a mom were when each kid came to me separately to tell me how much first she, then he, loved Romeo and Juliet. R and J is, in my book, one of the better things to love. Like them, it was the first Shakespeare that I ever read. But unlike them, I didn’t get fed some line, probably by a teacher, of it not being a very good play.

What horse shit.

Shakespeare wrote some crap – he was, after all, the quintessential commercial playwright, and was in it to sell tickets and kiss royal ass. No one should scoff at these motivations; it is wholly noble to prefer feeding your family mutton over offal, as well as to pander to the Powers That Be who keep your company viable. So while the end results range from creaky and wooden to sublime with a whole lot of stuff in the middle, it appears that Shakespeare’s shit sold. And like any great artist, some of it holds up and some of it doesn’t (but we might as well keep it all alive, because, well, it’s Shakespeare).

On the low end, there’s Titus Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The gore of Titus is really all that makes it interesting (Aaron the Moor does add a bit of sexy fun), and….well, there’s really nothing to save LLL. It’s one more of those dual romances where the main woman is kind of a bitch and plays hard to get and the main guy is all Gentle Yet Firm and conquers her with his wit, and then there’s a sort of phlegmatic secondary couple, and thank you, Shakespeare, for influencing Rogers and Hammerstein to do the same thing in every damn one of their musicals.

While not sublime, R and J is much closer to the high end of the canon, and while obviously not a comedy – marriage and death, quite a double whammy – has the most comic relief of any of the tragedies, making it fairly balanced and accessible to kids, which is a good thing. Has anything, before or since, better captured the terror and thrill of hurtling head over heels in love for the first time?

It’s this that both kids resonated with. Of course, the daughter was very girly about the whole thing and unfortunately set herself up for nothing but heartache when her first crush didn’t turn out nearly as poetically. The son, still miraculously more interested in video game geekery than chicks, had a slightly more dispassionate take. Writing the required essay, he latched onto Juliet’s plea to Romeo to not swear by “th’inconstant moon.” Romeo, in my son’s estimation, is responsible for all the “senseless waste of human life” (to quote John Cleese entirely out of context) because he is the inconstant moon, so fickle and flaky that he takes stupid risks with fatal results. He pointed out to me something I’d never noticed before: Pretty much everyone yells at Romeo at some point for being a wishy-washy jerk, in particular Friar Lawrence:

Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine
Hath wash’d thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!

(Rosaline, of course, is the never-seen chippie that Romeo has set his cap for before Juliet catches his eye.)

In my son’s estimation, R and J are doomed even if they don’t die. “There’s no way they’d stay married, Mom. They’re so different, they could never get along.” Having watched his parents try, and fail, to have love conquer all, the child knows whereof he speaks.

It’s this amazing quality, to reach across centuries and open a door that a kid will gladly walk through, that makes studying and seeing Shakespeare so important. But on film, only if radically adapted. The great Shakespeare movies belong to Kurosawa, where the scripts have been completely rewritten, stripping away the trappings and froufrou so that the essence of the stories shines with blinding, painful light. When Toshiro Mifune completely loses his marbles in Throne of Blood‘s banquet scene, it’s scary as hell; this Macbeth, here named Washizu, has turned a corner from good soldier to ambition-destroyed madman, and because we have admired and identified with him as the first, we see our own reflection in the second. The carnage scene in Kurosawa’s Lear, Ran (Chaos, pictured below), would drive anyone to the abyss, and when Tatsuya Nakedai stumbles forth from the massacre, his ravaged face is as horrified and horrifying as a Goya black painting. Kurosawa understands that, beautiful as Shakespeare’s language can be on the page, the plays are something much, much greater. They are humanity at its boiled-down essence, with hideous strength but also (and more rarely) moments of transcendent grace.

Other film adaptations strike me as flat, at best, and very annoying and pretentious snobbery at worst. Film is not a speech medium; a single frame tells too much and a bunch of words just add to the confusion. Whether starring Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson, big-screen adaptations tend to look pretty and view like giant coffee table books, with little imagination or attempt at understanding.

A truly egregious offender is Oliver. His Hamlet is awful to the point of unwatchability, starting with his mincing intonation that “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

What utter, complete nonsense, and what egomaniacal disregard for the text. Far from being unable to make up his mind, Hamlet is crushed by horror when, in the wake of his father’s death and mother’s incest (which is how in-law sex was viewed in the day, and think how you’d feel if your mother married your dad’s brother – eww), he sees the bloody spectre of his father who demands revenge for his own murder. Olivier’s statement is like saying someone under the wheels of a semi just doesn’t have the gumption to crawl out from the wreckage.

Hamlet’s tragedy, at least in part, is that he actually would have been a kickass king if his skeevy uncle hadn’t usurped the throne; far from being Olivier’s reedy twat, he doesn’t want to kill because he’s a good guy who doesn’t want innocent blood on his hands. Hamlet’s a nerd prince who seems to have been perfectly happy debating theology back in Wittenburg before getting sucked back into his mother’s sad psychodrama. The fact that he can muster up any energy at all to solve the crime is something of a miracle. You have to remember, when Shakespeare wrote the play, audiences didn’t know who killed the king, and there was No Freaking Freud, which has destroyed many a fine Hamlet production. (And seriously…have you ever in your entire life met a man who wanted to have sex with his mom? Oedipus rips out his own eyes, he’s so freaked out by it. So Freud can suck it, at least on that one.)

To be a little fair, much as it pains me, both Branagh and Olivier did fine Henry movies. But honestly, no American gives a rat’s ass about any Henry but the most American one of all, the fat guy with all the wives. And Olivier’s Richard III is just so obvious; I’ve already rhapsodized over Propeller’s choice, to make Richard III a dashing carapace over a festering interior. But that type of decision takes some objectivity; the director who casts himself has to keep his eye on all that scenery he wants to chew.

Other film adaptations – 10 Things I Hate About You, A Thousand Acres – raise the “why bother?” question. Shakespeare lifted plots all the time, and made them interesting. The movies above and others in their ilk….don’t. Which leaves one facing the perhaps painful truth that the answer is onstage.

And in that case, make mine as visceral and thrilling as possible. Chop it up as you will; like a master chef, a great director who understands the play will cut the fat in the right places. Adlib like a bastard in the comedies, particularly the more raucous ones; the funniest bits by far in Propeller’s Comedy of Errors, not the Bard’s finest hour as a writer, are either moments of inspired choreography, which are wholly conceived by the director and cast, or direct conversations with the audience, as when Dromio S. stops us from laughing to say, “It’s not funny,” or Dr. Pinch breathlessly thanks us for applauding his Elvis impersonation. Stringent faithfulness to the text misses the point; fidelity to Shakespeare’s finely-honed instinct to give the audience great entertainment yields results that make a 400-year-old text relevant to each subsequent generation.

I’ve been inspired to write this by reading some of the comments at the University Music Society site here in Ann Arbor and on Propeller’s blog, kept primarily by Tony Bell, the aforementioned Dr. Pinch (and a delightful writer; you will understand Propeller’s non-reverent and balls-out approach to Shakespeare better if you read his reports on everything from playing Margaret with Alzheimer’s to the correct procedure for carrying a lit sparkler in one’s booty). “Worst Shakespeare I’ve ever scene!,” grumps one Brit about Richard. “I did not appreciate all the violence!,” cries someone in my neighborhood. A cut above the rabble, Ben Brantley of the NYTimes sniffs, “…every time I revisit any of Shakespeare’s plays, the lesser ones included, I’m struck by resonant verbal patterns and echoes that I hadn’t noticed before. That is, if I can hear the words.” That’s about half of his one paragraph review of Propeller’s Comedy of Errors.

Like Freud in my book (and possibly no one else’s, but the beauty of blogging is that it’s all about the blogger), they can all suck it. If you want to be bowled over by the beauty of Shakespeare’s writing, read the plays. If you want to experience something that can take your breath away, that can open a door into the darkest and brightest parts of what it is to be human, get yo’ ass up outta yo’ chair and into a theater. Invest two hours in being alive.

Who knows, you might get addicted. Take the risk.

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