Thursday, October 20, 2011

If You Meet Shakespeare on the Road, Kill Him

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.

No, this is not a Shakespeare truther post – I’m pretty sure the guy wrote his own plays, whatever the director of Independence Day and the Godzilla remake might think about it. And either way they’re brilliant plays, duh. No, my issue here is that we see too damn much of him – that he is, in fact, a crutch that needs to be kicked out from under our goldbricking world-historical/literary armpit so we can actually get on with the important work of walking for ourselves.

Ahem. Let me stress that the only reason I find his plays “overrated” is that NOTHING should be rated that highly. Many of them are great, and the ones that aren’t still have great stuff. He’s contributed mightily to the language, and he makes a fine reference point for all English-speaking people. But to elevate one man’s talent so high above so many others is to deify him, and that does no one any favors. There have been many other fascinating playwrights in history, but we get one production of one of their plays for every three Macbeths and five Midsummer Night’s Dreams.

Having lived in New York for 12 years and seen so many productions of As You Like It that the title no longer applies, I have a proposition: a five-year moratorium on productions of his work. By all means, teach him in high-school English classes and have students perform under the auspices of academia. But a reliance on his talent and reputation by practicing artists – especially though not exclusively those at the indie level – is doing him no favors, and, more importantly, it’s doing us no favors.

For Shakespeare himself, I feel that the constant flogging of his work has bled the spontaneity and freshness from it. When you go into a production saying, “This interpretation had better teach me something new about the play,” something has gone wrong. In the best art, experience comes first and analysis (a very likely distant) second. So many layers of received opinion and re-re-re-quoting have accrued on Shakespeare’s work that it’s hard to see what’s really there. A five-year break (which I only propose lest people scoff even more violently at 10) can allow them to breathe, wash up a bit and return to us refreshed.

In terms of ourselves, the problem even more stark. All I can think about is how much new stuff artists would be able to create if they spent less time bowing to the Bard. We’ve all done our requisite Shakespeare show: Piper McKenzie’s second production out of college was The Tempest (in which I enjoyed the youthful folly of directing myself as Prospero), and we did a show called Macbeth Without Words a few years back, which can’t exactly be said to exist outside of the original play’s shadow. But one could argue that these were closer to educational experiences than the creation of bold new work.

The cranky old man in me (who takes up about 72% of my body mass) thinks that this correlates with the overall addiction to nostalgia afflicting our culture at large. Take a look at what goes viral on that amazing enabler of communication the Internet, and you’ll see that a large majority consist of various pop-culture tropes and images from our childhoods that have been chewed up and spews back out like so many crumbs from Cookie Monster’s throatless mouth (see what I did there?). Most of our new bands sound like they were recorded in the ‘80s. Many new movies are remakes of movies from 30 years ago. Even in my own work, Theater of the Arcade: Five Classic Video Games Adapted for the Stage (which mashed up arcade games with famous playwrights, like Donkey Kong and Tennessee Williams – as backward-facing a concept as possible) got much more interest and attention than any of my other work to date.

There was a time, a century or so ago, when artists were obsessed with the future. “No more masterpieces!” bellowed a deranged Antonin Artaud, and the speed-loving (albeit Fascist-enabling) Futurists staged crazy cabarets of ultra-short plays that tried to stay a step ahead of a fast world they knew would only go faster. An unfair blanket statement I can make about my generation is that we’re fixated on the past – not simply the historical past (which artists have always proved can be fertile ground for talking about the present), but the recent past – our own pasts. Seriously, is there really that much left to say about Star Wars? And what about the example of Facebook – the most efficient tool to date for wallowing in our own prior experiences, where every format change gets us in a violent froth before it even has a chance to sink in? We obviously long for the stability and safety that society seems pretty hell-bent on denying us.

I’m not exempting myself here (as can be attested by my repeated listening to the retro-New Wave pleasures of the new Cut Copy album and my fierce anticipation of the re-released work of my childhood hero, Uncle Scrooge creator Carl Barks). And I’m not na├»ve enough to think we can escape the past. But let’s fight it. Let’s jump it, knock it sideways, steal its valuables and leave it to bleed in the alley. Let’s steal a car and drive off the road as far as it’ll take us. Who cares if we hit a tree? Who cares if we crash into a house? Let’s drive out where there aren’t any trees or houses, and see how we fare. Let’s strive to find not only new ways to talk but new things to talk about. If we go far enough, we’ll come back full circle and find the spot where the future meet s the past. Which is good – the past is still the future if we don’t know about it yet. Terra incognita exists in many directions. But something that other people have seen and read and hashed out to death for centuries – maybe it needs to be left behind for a little, to give it a chance to get overgrown and dangerous again.

Okay, so fine, I’ve clearly set up Billy Shakes a bit of a straw dog here – if anyone can handle it, he can. The same applies for plays where people sit in a living room talking about their lives, or the same old musicals, or whatever else. It’s just that, in our current culture, producing such plays – or anything that, regardless of its provenance, has “been done before” – isn’t as risky as putting our own voices and visions on the line for all the world to see and sneer at. As one educated, nostalgia-driven, artistically-inclined solipsist to the thousands of others out there: Let’s get a move on!


  1. Amen and amen. Five years off of Shakespeare while the American theater tries to ween itself from the highly-visible, clearly-branded, and yet copyright-free trove of plays that Shakespeare left. Investigate new plays. Investigate old plays. Write a play. It seems astonishing to me that these tiny towns all need Shakespeare companies to tell the story of a guy who lived in London 400 years ago, rather than telling their own stories.
    It's solipsistic and diminishing in its returns. Like classic rock.

  2. Great post! My theater company has pretty much put a moratorium on producing classics for its first two or three years.

    Unless, of course, it's a really good idea. No rules in art and whatnot.