Swans Commentary » swans.com April 10, 2006  



Improving Shakespeare


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - April 10, 2006)   No sooner had Charles II ushered in the Restoration in May 1660 than Shakespeare was reincarnated on the English stage. He had been dead for forty-four years, all the members of his company were moldering in their graves, and the man himself was largely a blur in the English memory. But within the space of seven short years, Shakespeare had been "rediscovered" or, to put it more accurately, "recycled." Three of the most popular musicals of the period were Macbeth, The Tempest, and that 17th century blockbuster The Fairy Queen foraged out of A Midsummer Night's Dream. "The age demanded an image of its accelerated grimace," wrote Ezra Pound of the Twenties. "Something for the modern stage...." -- and so did the Restoration. Its "accelerated grimace" demanded music, spectacle, and sentiment and there was no shortage of authors around to provide them using whatever material was at hand, including the works of William Shakespeare.

The rediscovery of Shakespeare also ushered in the era of free adaptation, although if one wants to be a stickler about it, the Elizabethan Age was just as busy revamping and recycling the works of earlier writers and Shakespeare himself was one of its most industrious recyclers. Almost all of his plays can be traced back to prior sources and neither he nor any of his contemporaries had any qualms about rewriting their predecessors. What makes the Restoration somewhat special was the extent and boldness of the transformations which, when examined carefully, are no less extreme or innovative than the Shakespearean revisionism we find on our stages today.

It is a little startling to read first hand 17th century accounts of certain Shakespearean plays that we usually consider to be "tragedies." To the playhouse, wrote Samuel Pepys in 1667 "where we saw Macbeth which though I have seen it often, yet it is one of the best plays for a stage and variety of dancing and music that I ever saw." Two years later, Pepys enthuses over The Moor of Venice, a rip-roaring recension of Othello which bears little resemblance to the original but which, nevertheless, held the stage throughout the 17th century. Nahum Tate's rewrite of King Lear, in which Cordelia is spared and happily goes off to marry Edgar, was a raging success during the same period when Shakespeare's original was virtually unknown. The aforementioned Tempest was turned by Thomas Shadwell into a full-scale opera which, according to John Downes, a sharp-eyed prompter of the period, "had all new in it, as scenes and machines, particularly one scene painted with myriads of aerial spirits and another flying away with a table furnished out with fruits, sweet meats and all sorts of viands just when Duke Trinculo and his companions were going to dinner. All things performed in it were so admirably well that not any succeeding opera got more money." This was not only the era of free adaptation but the advent of "special effects," innovations we mistakenly assume originated in Hollywood.

The ever-watchful Downes also refers to a new company formed in 1706 called Her Majesty's Company of Comedians under the governance of Colonel Breet, which starred a Mr. Doggett who, in Downes's words was "very aspect-bound, wearing a farce on his face; his thoughts deliberately framing his utterance congruous to his looks. He is the only comic original now extant." And one of his greatest comic triumphs was The Jew of Venice, the 1706 appropriation of The Merchant of Venice, a title which most theatregoers had never heard of and, if mentioned, would probably have prompted the response: "Nay prithee, good sir, you mean The Jew of Venice with jolly Mr. Dogget in the lead role." Indeed, one had to wait a full half-century before Charles Macklin restored Shylock to his original Shakespearean context. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, 18th century playgoers had two choices: in the tragic version, Romeo and Juliet perished at the end, and in the other they survived. Downes reports that "'Twas played alternately tragical one day and tragi-comical for several days together," so theatergoers could choose whichever mood they preferred -- an early example, perhaps, of "inter-active" Shakespeare.

These patched-over productions were not simply novelties; they were all the rage. If one needs confirmation of the fact, one need only turn to Robert Gould, the poet, who in a 1689 verse ostensibly praising Shakespeare, wrote:

Homer was blind, yet could all Nature see.
Thou wer't unlearned, yet knew as much as he.
In "Timon," "Lear," "The Tempest". We may find
Cast images of thy unbounded mind.
These have been alter'd by our poets now,
And with success too, that we must allow
Third days they get when part of thee is shown,
Which they but seldom do when all's their own.

"Third days" refers, of course, to the third performance, which was traditionally the night when the author received all the box office takings, and what Gould is celebrating is the greater bounty reaped in by "adapters" as a result of pilfering Shakespeare's works.

The general assumption was that Shakespeare, the ignorant, "unlearned," old-fashioned playwright of the former age, clearly needed help and there was no shortage of writers and actors willing to assist. Long before Rodgers and Hart turned out their musical comedy The Boys From Syracuse or Trevor Nunn added songs and hijinks to his Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors, there had already been two smash-hit musical versions: See If You Like It (1734) and The Twins (1762). These incorporated songs from other, unrelated Shakespearean plays and clearly, there was no opprobrium attached to doing so. No critic raised any objections about "unity" or "stylistic consistency." The only niggle was that mentioned by the reviewer of The European Magazine who wrote: "The songs were wholly selected from Shakespeare's plays and poems though we think that selection might have been more appropriate to the scene. In actors and singers however, the drama is most strongly cast and bids fair to attain a higher popularity than it has ever done before."

Taming Of The Shrew was considered to be a particularly needy case and John Lacy came to its aid with Sauny The Scot as David Garrick was to do a little later with his version entitled Catherine & Petruchio. Both of these plays held the stage for about a hundred years, entirely edging out Shakespeare's original. By the time Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate arrived on the scene in 1948, the material had been well and truly excavated and lovingly re-paved by dozens of adapters over a period of some four hundred years.

The charitable way of viewing all these "improvements" is to see them as a compliment to their original author. Although distorted, bastardized, and radically reconstituted, all of these creative interlopers were still working with the spirit -- if not the letter -- of William Shakespeare. And there is something to be said for the fact that, despite centuries of boneheaded revisionism, the originals remained marvelously intact. Having been mugged, raped, ravaged, and pillaged, they emerged none the worse for wear. We still have Macbeth, Lear, The Merchant, The Dream, The Shrew, etc., and, should we wish to reassert their integrity, there are plenty of reverential theatre companies all over the world ready and willing to give us Shakespeare "straight."

But what is more fascinating is how we cannot help but respond to the mythology that resides at the very heart of these plays. Many of Shakespeare's characters -- e.g., Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Richard, Henry V, Shylock, Falstaff, Othello -- are for us what the gods were to Athenians, or the Roman versions of them became for the Holy Roman Empire. They are exemplars of certain human characteristics (brooding Hamlet, paranoid Macbeth, raging Lear) which have acquired iconic status and therefore we feel obliged to worship, emulate or decry them. The same goes for the "legends" which these "gods" inhabit. So when we recount their experiences and change them to suit our current mores or altered sense of morality, we are doing nothing more than asking the age to reflect the "accelerated grimace" of our own time. And because ours is an irreverent and cynical time, we tend to mock these "gods" and alter, and even reverse, the meaning of the legends in which they originally appeared. There is something culturally satisfying about toppling the idols we inherited from our forebears or severing the bonds that tie us to the beliefs and practices of earlier generations, and Shakespeare is full of such idols and presents us with innumerable opportunities for iconoclasm.

The free adaptation of established work, (which we sometimes call "classics") is an opportunity to challenge the assumptions of the past -- and to challenge them where they are most positively enshrined: in culturally embedded works of art that invite us to admire values no longer held and encourage us to assert alternative beliefs. If one were to do this in religious matters, we might be labeled apostates. If we tried to do it in politics, we might be called traitors. But when we do it in art, we are simply adding to a dialogue that has been going on for centuries. It is the coward's way of being a rebel -- the intellectual's way of being an iconoclast. It serves a cultural purpose which, in a curious way, is profoundly conservative -- no matter how radical the views expressed. We may aggressively abuse tradition but still, it reinforces our knowledge and appreciation of the past and gives us a sense of where we stand in an ever-changing cosmology.

In the case of Shakespeare, however, we are obliged to split hairs. An "adaptation" may simply be a convenient abbreviation of the work in question. When we call something "A Free Adaptation," we mean we have been rather more liberal in rearranging, possibly even adding, new material; in extreme cases, radically restructuring the primal source. When we employ the two most treacherous words in the lexicon -- "based on" -- we mean we are fully aware of the resemblances that our work has to previous work and we acknowledge the debt, or perversely -- just don't give a damn! There may be intermediate stages between these three categories but essentially, almost all work derived from classical sources, falls into one or the other. Excepting of course, "translation" -- which opens up an entirely different can of worms since a "translation," though claiming fidelity to a writer's work by simply moving it from one language to another, can easily be astoundingly original and can often qualify as a new work in its own right. (Since that is one of the most treacherous of all literary terrains, I have no intention of going there.)

In the general field of classical adaptations, the great distinction to be made is between Rip-Offs and Reincarnations. In the case of the former, we all tend to recoil. There is nothing more disagreeable than a puny contemporary mind "talking back" to a vastly superior intellect from the past. When paltry and presumptuous writers or directors "take on" Shakespeare or Molière, Chekhov or Ibsen, they simply advertise their inadequacy and are summarily rejected. When a playwright such as Bertolt Brecht matches wits with Shakespeare or John Gay, our experience of classics is enriched. When Welles or Kurosowa cinematically rethink Shakespeare, the originals are enhanced.

The Rip-Offs are easy enough to identify. We see them almost every season -- both on stage and in film -- and there is no need to catalogue bathos. As for the Reincarnations, the works which amplify and enrich the older works on which they are based, I would, include the following.

Dryden's ALL FOR LOVE,
Verdi's OTELLO,
Jarry's UBU ROI,
Porter's KISS ME KATE,
Bond's LEAR,
Bernstein, Robbins, & Sondheim's WEST SIDE STORY,
Luhrman's ROMEO & JULIET,

Obviously, this is an arbitrary expression of personal taste and tastes will always differ. But what I am trying to define here are works that truly "adapt" themselves both to their primal sources and their own times and, in so doing, produce an original work of art that is both distinct from the work that inspired it and yet beholden to its existence.

What then, is at the core of classical adaptation?

Often it's no more than a desire to trim down a work that strikes us as having rather more verbiage than is required. Both directors and adapters perfunctorily edit Shakespeare almost every time they revive him. Sometimes, as with Brecht, there is a desire on the part of a writer to dispute the opinions and conclusions posited by an earlier work. Here, a writer is obliged to restructure and reorganize the intellectual blocks of the original material and here, adaptation can become dangerous and enthralling; dangerous because if the adapter loses "radio contact" with the original work, he can easily fall into the interstices that exist between classicism and modernism; enthralling because, if deftly handled, he can illuminate telling differences between old ideas and new ones that have supplanted them. This kind of adapter is making unexpected connections between two kindred scripts and is often as creative and original as the creator of the primal source. He has in effect, become a coauthor, and the fact that three or four centuries separate him from the work's inception in no way diminishes the value of his contribution. Author-adapters of this kind, it seems to me, are the wave of the future and can be the power-source that will keep classical theatre pulsating and alive for generations to come.

In museums we readily accept the fact that we are viewing fragments of rare artifacts from ancient times; fractured statues, broken pillars, damaged wall paintings, shards of vases, and pottery. We recognize that these are precious survivors from periods that have been lost to us but, as we view these splintered treasures, we try to imagine them whole and complete. In the case of writers like Shakespeare, we have the full-fledged entities handed down to us through the First Folio. But here too, our imaginations supply the "missing parts" -- the mores of the period, the look and sound of the people, the cultural climate and temper of times now vanished. When we "adapt" these works, we are performing the same acts of imagination as we do with antiquities. We are filling in the interstices that exist between Elizabethan and Jacobean worlds and our own, using the only tools we possess, which are our contemporary sensibilities. Consciously or unconsciously, we match up the old and the new -- testing the validity of received ideas with those newly-minted. The fact is Shakespeare needs us rather more than we need him. Without the addition of our contemporary sensibility, Shakespeare would be woefully incomplete.

But why must we constantly refashion and rewrite him?, some will ask. Why can't we take him as we find him in his pristine literary state? To which I would answer: for the same reasons that we are constantly reinterpreting history, reevaluating the lives of its leading figures, and revising the significance of its most seminal events; trying always to dig deeper and learn more than the generations before us.

What makes Shakespeare "our contemporary" (in Jan Kott's inescapable phrase) is not so much that we are able to discover modern parallels in his plays but that the only equipment we possess to assimilate his canon at all is our own five senses. We adapt ourselves to Shakespeare in the dictionary sense of earlier works "adjusting to new environmental conditions"; modifying our organism to make it more fit for existence under the conditions that now prevail. It is not so much that Shakespeare's eternal intelligence has anticipated our own times by being inherently "contemporary," but that we contemporize him by simply experiencing him. - As we "adapt" him, he is adapting to us.


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Published April 10, 2006