Filed under: art, Gender politics, resistance, theatre | Tags: battle, Feminist, fight, Henry V, Shakespeare, The Guilty Feminist
After November, I cowered, I shook, I felt defeated and demoralized but I have turned a corner. I walk through the streets of NYC differently. I move like a truck. I don’t get out of men’s way. I take up space like it’s mine.
I wore army green on New Year’s Eve because I was ready for battle this year. I am on notice to fight for every one of my rights, the rights of others and even the rights we haven’t got yet.
Then – listening to one of my favorite podcasts, the host read her feminist version of the famous battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and I cried like a baby. It was such a rallying cry. Particularly the first line about closing up the wall with our female dead. And I realized that in all of history, we’ve never had a speech like this for us. (At least not that I know of…) There’s never been a “Let’s storm the bastille” sort of battle for women. For all of history, women have borne the brunt of rape, of domestic violence, of domestic murder, of honor killings, of female infanticide and genital mutilation and we have never had a war over it.
And I’m not saying we should. I’m generally opposed to war. But…to imagine a world wherein we call upon our sisters to come together and go over the breach…well it’s a very different world than we’ve always lived in. We may need more models like this – a female Henry V – Imperator Furiousa liberating other women in Mad Max, Katniss Everdeen defending her sister in the Hunger Games.
I’m usually not a big fan of “Let’s re-write Shakespeare” but in this case, I make an exception, as this feminist breach undid me. And I needed undoing. And now I’m ready for the fight.
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Filed under: Gender politics, Shakespeare | Tags: desire, Juliet, Lady Sex Pirate, Romeo, sexuality, Shakespeare, subjectivity
While working with some 9th graders on Juliet’s “Gallop Apace” speech in Romeo and Juliet, I opened the door for the students to tell me what was happening. They worked it out faster than most groups do and quickly leapt to interpretation. One girl reported that Juliet was scared to have sex for the first time. I asked her to tell me where she saw that in the text and the line she pointed to means nothing of the sort.
In response to all of this, I did something I try to never do when teaching Shakespeare. I declared a meaning. I declared that, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a stitch of fear in this speech. I felt bad about denying this girl her interpretation (which, let’s face it, is, of course, really about her own fears) and felt like I’d dropped my teaching ball a little bit. It happens. And when it does, rather than put myself in the corner for failing to live up to my own standards, I try to figure out why I slipped.
My guess is that this is an example of my Shakespeare teaching agenda intersecting with my feminist impulse. This culture tells girls that sex is the most important thing and simultaneously suggests that it is something to be afraid of. The cult of virginity is such that many girls come to believe that sex is something that will be painful and irrevocably transforming. The good girls, the nice girls, the one’s many of us identified with, wouldn’t WANT to have sex! Gasp! Horror! We’re nice girls! We don’t have DESIRE.
But here is Juliet. No fear. Just desire. Just excitement. She knows she’s supposed to put on a show of disinterest about her feelings for Romeo – but she doesn’t. In the balcony scene, she dismisses propriety and coyness and she’s like, direct. “Dost thou love me?” She then suggests they get down to getting married ASAP. Once she’s married, all she wants is for night to come so she can be with Romeo. And maybe it’s not explicitly sexual. Maybe the consummation of the marriage isn’t what she’s looking forward to. But in any case, she wants Romeo. She wants Romeo as soon as possible. Even if she hasn’t the slightest clue about sex (which I doubt, she was raised by the Nurse – who does not hold back in discussing the body) she is till clear that Romeo is what she wants.
And then of course, they do consummate the marriage, and she is very satisfied with whatever happened in that exchange and she does not want it to end. Juliet has desire upon desire and she (mostly) gets what she wants. She’s a feminist role model.
I am so very tired of this culture telling girls that they must be sexually attractive but not sexually active. I am weary of girls twisting themselves into knots to be appealing objects while simultaneously negating their own desire. We, as a culture, need to learn how to allow girls to be sexual subjects, to take ownership of their bodies and their desire.
There are a lot of women working in this arena. There are Ted Talks. There are academic papers on sexual subjectivity. There’s an anti-slut shaming podcast. We have Caitlin Moran advocating for Lady Sex Pirates. There’s an expanding sense of changing how we deal with women’s sexuality. It’s hugely important work. But it feels as though it will be a while until this sort of things makes its way down to girls who are coming of age now.
Meanwhile, there’s Juliet Capulet, a character that almost every girl in high school will encounter. And yes, that 400 year old character had to get married to enjoy her sexuality and yes, it’s true, ends up dead. But not as punishment for sexual transgressions (as many more contemporary stories would have it.) Juliet models an enthusiasm and yearning that is culturally significant, even now, so many years after she was written.
That’s why I tripped over myself a little bit on this topic. It was all a little bigger than I was prepared for. I couldn’t not advocate for Juliet’s desire. Juliet’s desire is as boundless as the sea.
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Filed under: education, Shakespeare | Tags: Ira Glass, Pizza, Shakespeare
Every few months or so, my social media channels light up with outrage about the latest article or blog in which someone declares that s/he hates Shakespeare or thinks Shakespeare is over-rated or that they just don’t want to teach him anymore. The first of these that I read made a little angry, I confess. It was a pretty bone-headed look at work that is complex and intelligent. But the subsequent ones have barely registered with me. I had to check the dates on each new post. Was this the same one or some new one? They all sound the same.
I think sometimes with these sorts of essays, people feel like they’re saying something revolutionary and edgy when they declare their dis-allegiance with Shakespeare. Like when Ira Glass declared that Shakespeare sucks. To me it just seems silly. It‘s like someone writing a post every few months declaring that pizza is no good and we should not have to eat it anymore.
I feel about Shakespeare like I do about pizza. They’re both delicious, classic constructions full of infinite possibility. If you don’t like pizza, that’s fine. You don’t have to eat it. If you haven’t had it, though, you should try it. Try it maybe more than once. If you just have school pizza or frozen pizza, it’s probably not gonna be terrific. Get yourself to a high quality pizzeria that uses fresh ingredients and it will be hard not to find SOMETHING you like.
I realize that, in schools, people sometimes forcefeed folks their Shakespeare – that in that context, it’s a little like that cardboard stuff they call pizza in school cafeterias. Of course people don’t want to eat or teach that. . .but there are dozens of ways to approach teaching Shakespeare that don’t require swallowing it like medicine. (If you need help finding those ways, I know many organizations who could help, not to mention a Shakespeare Consultant who’d be glad to be of assistance – full disclosure – it’s me.)
There are a million pedagogical reasons to teach Shakespeare in schools. Working with Shakespeare can teach you such educationally valuable skills as close reading, text analysis, poetic devices, narrative structures, empathy, motifs, themes and so on. It is rigorous, complex and interesting text. Engaging with it can expand your view of the world. But for me, all of that is beside the point. I teach it because it tastes good to me. It’s the best pizza. And people have continued to teach it for centuries, not because it’s their medicine and they have to take it, but because it gives back when you engage with it.
I have, on occasion, started my residencies with students by asking them to tell me why they think people are still reading and performing these plays 450 years after the writer’s death. Their answers (once they get a taste for it) are never “because it’s part of the canon” or “because we have to.” They point to the richness of expression, the power of the words. Those things work across the centuries.
Are there other plays, other writers, other stories we could be and should be exploring? Absolutely. Explore them too. No one needs to eat ONLY pizza every day. But a world without pizza would be emptier – and less delicious.
I will say, though, that if pizza doesn’t float your boat, then maybe you don’t need to be the one to introduce it to people. Let someone who loves pizza take a newbie to their first pizzeria. And if you honestly hate Shakespeare, it’s fine with me if you don’t teach it. It’s probably better for everyone involved if you don’t have to force something you don’t like down the throats of your students.
But, if you’re an English teacher, it’s hard to imagine you won’t find something to love in it, too. Its basic ingredients include some of the most exciting uses of words in the language. If you love words and hate Shakespeare, it’s a little like loving dough, tomato sauce and cheese but hating pizza. But anything’s possible. If you were forced to eat pizza as a child or there’s just something about it that doesn’t suit you, there’s no need to feel like you have to have it. I’ll be happy to bring your students the Shakespeare. And we can all have pizza together.
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Filed under: art, Gender politics, musicals, theatre | Tags: Broadway, Feminist, His Girl Friday, Lea DeLaria, Legally Blonde, Musical Theatre, nostalgia, old movies, old-fashioned, On the Town, sexist, sexuality, Shakespeare, the Broad Experience, The Thin Man
When I first moved to NYC, I saw a production of On the Town on Broadway, directed by George C. Wolfe and featuring Lea DeLaria. I was skeptical about it but found myself delighted and uplifted by what felt like a very old fashioned musical. Earlier this year, I got to see a new production of the show and this time I found the old-fashioned sexism completely alienating and frustrating. I was baffled by this difference in my responses to the same musical and have been trying to understand how these two productions could have such different effects.
First, of course, I’m different than I was. A lot has happened since I arrived in NYC in 1998. But I’m not significantly MORE a-tuned to my feminist lens than I used to be. I’m more public about it now, sure, but I was closer to those women’s studies classes, then. So – I don’t think it’s my feminism that’s changed.
I have always had some (seemingly) contradictory impulses – the feminist and the nostalgic. It’s not all bell hooks and Gloria Steinem over here with me. I love old movies. I could watch The Thin Man series again and again. Give me a Katherine Hepburn film or His Girl Friday for the 100th time – yes please. And while some of those films feature really ballsy gutsy women – they are still dated. Myrna Loy isn’t the detective in The Thin Man, her husband is. But I’m fully able to set aside the old fashioned ideas and enjoy myself for movies like The Philadelphia Story. I even loved the film of On the Town. (I mean, come on – Gene Kelley and Frank Sinatra?!)
But I just could not get over the sexism in this production in On the Town. Perhaps it’s because they updated some things for a contemporary audience. There was much more frank acknowledgement of sexuality, for example. We got hip thrusts and dick jokes. Homosexuality was acknowledged and enjoyed – but the gender roles did not get an update. In fact, it felt like we got a reinforcement, a revival of some 50s style ideals.
Is it in the text that the Miss Turnstyles pageant features the lead dancer donning an apron and preparing a meal for her future husband? Maybe but I don’t recall it from before. The production I saw in 1998 didn’t take anything it did too seriously. While it was very earnest – it did nothing in earnest. This is a fine line, I acknowledge, but I think it’s an important one in this sort of gender roles throw-back situation.
The thing I remembered most about the 1998 production was Lea DeLaria’s portrayal of Hildy, the taxi driver. I found some clips of her performance and it gave me an opportunity to compare the two productions. The song “I Can Cook, Too” is some sexist shit if you look at it earnestly. Its lyrics advertise a woman’s worth solely as a home-maker and cook. You take it seriously at your peril.
Oh, I can cook, too, on top of the rest,
My seafood’s the best in the town.
And I can cook, too.
My fish can’t be beat,
My sugar’s the sweetest around.
I’m a man’s ideal of a perfect meal
Right down to the demi-tasse.
I’m a pot of joy for a hungry boy,
Baby, I’m cookin’ with gas.
Oh, I’m a gumdrop,
A sweet lollipop,
A brook trout right out of the brook,
And what’s more, baby, I can cook!
Some girls make magazine covers,
Some girls keep house on a dime,
Some girls make wonderful lovers,
But what a lucky find I’m.
I’d make a magazine cover,
I do keep house on a dime,
I make a wonderful lover,
I should be paid overtime!
DeLaria’s 1998 version has nothing to do with cooking. At all. It’s almost as if the lyrics are incidental. You can hear and understand them but it is 100% about the subtext. The character knows she’s hot stuff and she’s going to let us (and her conquest) know. The extra layer of this performance was that Lea DeLaria has a very public persona as a lesbian. We (most of us) know how much DeLaria is NOT going to be “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” Watching her subvert both the song and her persona is what makes it all the more subversive and fun.
Alysha Umphress who played Hildy in the recent Broadway production has an extraordinary voice and is a stellar performer. But when she sang this song, many aspects of the production turned her into “a pot of joy for a hungry boy.” The musical arrangements encourage us to see her as a sweet, harmless ingenue with some sexy decorations. The tempo is much slower. It’s nice! Pretty!
There’s nothing “nice” about the arrangements of DeLaria’s song. It blares. It drives forward. The Nancy Walker version (the original Hildy here in Bernstein’s recording) drives even more quickly. It’s like a city street. It’s noisier and more energetic than either of the revivals. It’s all edges. Umphress’ version is all curves.
The choreography, too, gave Umphress some Betty Boop style demonstrations of how she is “a man’s ideal of a perfect meal.” She seemed like she had to genuinely convince this sailor to sleep with her. (Jesse Tyler Ferguson who played the sailor in 1998 looked convinced by DeLaria’s Hildy and delighted from the start.) This 2015 Hildy was choreographed to bend over to show off her ass in a coy “Oh, is that my ass?” way.
Now, let me pause for a moment to discuss this particular bit of choreography. In the film Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon pulls it off with self-awareness and aplomb. (Although this same character does not so fare so well in the extremely sexist stage version of this show. Skip it, my fellow feminists. It’s a horror show.). Aside from the ladies in Legally Blonde, I’ve almost never seen this move look good. And almost every woman had to do it this production.
Why does it look awkward? Because in real life almost every woman learns from an early age how to be extremely conscious of bending over. On the Broad Experience podcast, a woman who works in construction talked about her hard and fast rule for herself to never bend over to look at something at work. She always squats or sits. She says it would make her “too vulnerable” to bend over. Any character who does it “by accident” is clearly not doing it by accident and if they’re doing it on purpose, it signals to most women that she is offering herself up as an object. Not a person to have sex with – just an object, to ogle.
This is fundamentally the difference for me between these two performances of “I Can Cook, Too.” Lea DeLaria is nobody’s object and still signals very clearly that whoever sleeps with her is going to have some sexy fun. Umphress has to negotiate a very tricky switch between being object and subject, between expressing her own desire – and somehow advertising herself as desirable.
This confusion between subject and object was all magnified by the set up they gave her for the number. The production made it clear that she cannot, in fact, cook. She doesn’t know how to work the oven and her frying pan is dusty. The effect of this is to make it seem that Hildy is lying about everything and it makes it seem like she’s probably not so great in the sack either when it comes to it. So a song that for DeLaria was an empowering sexy showstopper, in this newer production, while the skill and musicality of the performer earns lots of applause for its performer, it ultimately disempowers the character. It was weirdly uncomfortable applause.
Fundamentally, the style of the production seems to be the key whether it’s a fun old-fashioned romp or a discomforting throw-back. When everything is snappy and just a tiny bit self-aware, the sexism is just old fashioned amusement. When it seems like its all meant to be taken seriously, it dies.
I don’t mean to flog a dead horse by talking about this newer production, it’s already closed and looked due to close when I saw it. But as we continue to revive the old stories, there are things I think it makes sense to pay attention to and make adjustments for. We already do this with classics like Shakespeare. You can’t stage The Taming of the Shrew without thinking through how you’re going to deal with the problem of a play that celebrates a woman’s subjugation. You have to have a perspective on it.
I think the same is true of the old standards in musical theatre. You have to give it a little think before you do it or over half of your audience is going to think it’s just old fashioned instead of fun nostalgia. And those audiences might not come back for the next one.
In its way, On the Town could be seen as super progressive. Two of the three female leads are frank in their desire and do not hesitate to pursue it. The show doesn’t punish them for this as so many stories (even now) will. The other female lead, while she isn’t the pursuer, does have a job as a “Cooch dancer” which makes all three of the women in the show not your usual ingénues. I think it could be possible to do feminist On the Town. The female characters are BOSS but they weren’t this time. Maybe for the next go round.
I look forward to a time when Broadway starts to get with the current moment, when more women can direct there – even the feminist ones – ones who can update our old fashioned catchy musicals with some contemporary smarts.
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Filed under: art, education, music, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: Belinda He, building a self, building a soul, Google, humanities, liberal arts, Mystery, Not Knowing, Sarah Lawrence College, Shakespeare, the Arts, William Deresiewicz
This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.
The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.
We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)
Why do camels spit? Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.
However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.
This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.
In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.
Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.
And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?
We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.
Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.
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Filed under: art, business, dreams, Non-Profit, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: donor, Non-Profit, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, patron, Shakespeare, translation
You guys. In my previous post, I really wasn’t mad about this translation thing. I had stuff to say about it, sure, but I had no angry feelings about it. Translations are nothing I hadn’t really dealt with before. But then I read the American Theatre magazine article about the project. And now I AM mad, y’all. Not about the “translations” – I give no real shits about them. But I’m mad because I just finally understand a) how this translation project came to be and b) why we’re talking about it.
The American Theatre magazine article talked about the origins of the project, among other things. It revealed that this project is the result of a “dream” of a long-time patron of the OSF. In other words, a wealthy man who has spent years giving money to one of the biggest Shakespeare institutions in America had a whim and the festival leapt to accommodate it. In other words, this is a story about the power of money.
If you or I said, “You know what I’d like? Some Shakespeare translations…” – OSF would have sent us straight to the bookstore for a copy of No Fear Shakespeare and that would be the end of it. But this guy wants translations. He’s paying for them. He gets what he wants. Which would be one thing if he were doing it himself. That is, if he found the writers on his own and commissioned them and put out the press releases himself, it would be different. But we wouldn’t be talking about it in that scenario. Headlines in our major publications would not read “App Developer Commissions 36 Writers.” He could have spent all that money on cars and it would likely have the same effect on American Theatre.
What we have here is a complex and potent mix of the respectability of OSF and the power of one wealthy patron. Because this guy is paying OSF to do it, he gets his dream AND the stamp of approval of the Shakespeare Festival with the biggest footprint in the country. And it ripples across the nation, changing the landscape as it goes.
I think part of the reason people are concerned about this particular shift in the landscape is because it seems out of line with OSF’s mission. And not just like an organization that funds cancer research suddenly funding a symphony but more like a cancer foundation suddenly funding cigarettes. And because it’s an important cancer foundation, suddenly people start to think, maybe cigarettes CAN help with cancer. It creates cognitive dissonance. The largest Shakespeare Festival in the country starts doing something, everyone starts to feel like they should be doing it too.
And that’s where things get really sketchy. Because, as I’m discovering, these plays are not just hanging out in Oregon – no, no, Shakespeare Festivals all around the country are reportedly signing up to get on board this money train. I don’t think the impact will be big or long lasting but for a little while here – the American Theatre is going to have to deal with one guy’s “Dream.” This means one theatre company’s desire to please a patron radiates to stages everywhere.
This gets under my skin because this is how so much crap gets done in this country. We’re not getting these new “translations” because people asked for them. (Good lord, if we’re getting translations we’re asking for, I would LOVE to get my hands on some actual good translations in other languages. Would someone publish affordable, readable Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, French or Russian translations? Please?) We have “translations” because one guy with a lot of money wanted them. If you’re a big donor to a major arts institution you can pretty much have what you want. Which – again – would be fine if we were talking about straight up patronage – from patron to artist. But non-profits are supposedly for the benefit of the public. They’re meant to be for us, the people, and instead, this example shows, they are really for the donors.
Whose dream are we going to produce next? The guy who loves Beckett but wishes he were just a little more optimistic? The mogul who thinks Arthur Miller is great but would really be so much better if he were boiled down to a Power Point Presentation of meaningful moments? I don’t know, man. Maybe I’d be singing a different tune if someone offered me a ton of cash to fulfill his fantasy. It’s possible I would. I’m pretty sure I’d “translate” a play myself for the right price. But, I saw that movie Indecent Proposal and I don’t think I’d like where it would lead me.
This is what we get with a capitalist model of art. We get what someone else pays for. This guy pays for American Theatre for a while, as a whole – he gets to have it and it doesn’t matter what we want. No one asked for this. It was just one guy’s “dream.”
If we had public funding for the arts, then we would have more of a voice about what was actually meaningful to us. In places where the people pay for the arts through taxes, there is real ownership. You can say, “This is our building. This is our theatre. We paid for it. We want a voice in what gets done there.” People advocating for gender parity and diversity in the UK have made much good progress using exactly this tactic. Until we have publicly funded art, though, the people that do pay for it are really the only ones deciding what happens on our stages. That’s why the majority of American plays produced are about wealthy couples on the Upper East Side of New York City. Because guess who’s paying for most of the play development programs and new productions?
OSF isn’t doing anything other theatres aren’t. Non Profit Regional theatres all over the country are producing shows because Broadway producers are paying them to put their shows up on their stages. An investment banker who funds lots of Musical Theatre at the Public Theatre, gets to have his musical produced there.
We don’t see diversity on our stages because it’s not what the current donors want. We could increase theatre’s diversity in a heartbeat with a series of large donations. I see now we’ve been going about our activism in entirely the wrong way. We don’t need diversity committees and speeches at theatre conferences. We just need dollar bills. With enough money you can clearly have anything you want at any American Theatre.
Anyway. I’m not mad about the translations. I predict no significant impact on my life. But I am mad to have more evidence for how vulnerable American theatre is to the worst sides of capitalism. This is how we do it. But I don’t have to like it.
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Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: OSF, paraphrasing, Shakespeare, Sir Ian McKellan, translation, WTF
A few people have asked me what I think about the latest Shakespeare controversy – the one about Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) commissioning a bunch of playwrights to “translate” Shakespeare’s work. I’d like the record to show that I said: “Whatever.”
OSF can do what they want, spend their money how they want. Shakespeare can take it. He’s been rewritten, translated, turned upside down and inside out and he’s just fine. I may have spent a career in Shakespeare but I’m not too precious about it. “Translate” it if you feel like you have to (this is actually called paraphrasing, by the way, but call it what you want.) I think it’s kind of dumb and a waste of resources myself, but Whatever.
I don’t envy the writers’ task, given the constraints. Adaptation? Sure, that’s super fun. (I cannot wait to read Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale that just came out.) “Translation”? Ye gad. No thanks. If there’s one thing spending a lifetime dealing with Shakespeare has taught me it’s that the deeper you go with the words, even a single line – the more you feel like the way Shakespeare wrote it is actually the most elegant, most compact, most muscle-y way to express that thing. And when you have two ways he wrote it, due to multiple editions (quartos, folios – varying editors’ opinions) you really run out of options for other ways to say the thing(s) he said. The act of translating almost always leads back to the original texts. I’ve paraphrased enough of it to know that nothing I can say will ever meet it. And if I had to say it in iambic pentameter, as well? Oh lord. Forget it.
A lot of supporters for the OSF project are celebrating the idea of accessibility; They say this will bring the plays to people for whom the language is an obstacle. I find this confusing as we’ve had side by side paraphrased editions for decades. (No Fear Shakespeare being the one I run into the most.) If you want “Peace. Peace. Peace.” paraphrased to “Quiet. Quiet. Quiet.” you can find that. I just think it’s silly.
And I generally find “translated” text more difficult to understand. These translations may sound like more familiar language sometimes but the meaning is often convoluted – and they have to make lines with multiple meanings just mean one. These editions shut as many doors (if not more) as they might conceivably open. I think any translation will. It seems to me that this new project is just a way to get some more No Fear Shakespeare editions, without the No Fear stigma. Which again, Whatever. You do you, OSF.
I don’t think this project is really for the people who want more access to the work. I think it’s for the people who fund it and administer it. For years I’ve worked on Shakespeare with all sorts of people, including newly arrived immigrant teens. These are the people who might be said to have the most obstacles to the text in that they barely speak English and have often been labeled as urban underprivileged at-risk youth. But my students understand the value of Shakespeare’s language. They understand that they are learning something other people think they cannot learn. They know they’re getting challenging, meaty words to say and they know they might not encounter them in their daily life. And that’s partly why we do it. Because it’s fun and juicy and your mouth feels good with that rhythm and sound in it. But while the students are happily engaging with the challenge of rigorous language, their administrators and funders and grant organizations are scurrying around in the background worrying that it’s too hard for them. They’re worrying about the same students who, after working with two translations of a speech in their native (Spanish) language, insisted that we return to Shakespeare’s text. In my experience, it’s marketing departments and school administrations that want “accessible translations”.
Those of us who work in Shakespeare education and performance help increase access to the words every day. Part of the joy of the words is in the Not understanding. There is magic in mystery. And understanding can be a lifelong journey. For example: I studied Hamlet in college. I have performed it in several iterations. I have directed bits of it. I have taught it a multitude of times. I have a writing practice wherein I look at a sentence of Hamlet every day. I am constantly discovering things I missed in my previous encounters with the play. It keeps giving back to me.
Are there words that are obscure now? Absolutely. Is it necessary to understand every one of them to experience the play? Absolutely not. One of the real pleasures of teaching Shakespeare is getting to say to students: “This is a word that no one is entirely sure of the meaning of. Experts in the field have spent lifetimes debating it and there is no right answer. That makes your idea as good as an expert’s.” That’s access.
But listen. I’m not outraged. I’m not worried. Shakespeare is not under threat. And I doubt the No Fear Shakespeare editions have anything to worry about either. The people who choose the No Fear editions will likely continue to use them – and ultimately it all leads us back to the guy who wrote it all in the first place. He’s sort of impossible to knock off the throne. I know there are those who would very much like to see him unseated. And, you know, Whatever to that too. I love a lot of the words that guy wrote. You don’t have to. And you can love some words and not others. My least favorite play could be your favorite. It probably is.
I know there are barriers to engagement with the work. That’s true of anything that has depth. Complex stuff requires time and attention. Beethoven. Picasso. Martha Graham. All of it. On the WTF podcast, I’ve listened to the host, Marc Maron, talk over the years about how he just didn’t like or “get” Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Consultant in me was always tempted to try and explain – or defend – or something. But mostly I just thought, “Wow. It’s too bad he’s never seen a really good production.” Then, Sir Ian McKellan was a guest on the show and they talked about Shakespeare. McKellan suggested that Maron had just never had someone say it to him before. So he gave him a personal speech. And lo and behold, Maron was amazed and astounded and it moved him. He felt every word. At the end of the podcast, he vowed to get into Shakespeare big time. So did many of his listeners.
For me, we don’t need “translation” for more understanding of Shakespeare. We need more stellar performers and productions. We need education and exploration. We need time and skill and attention. But I get that those things don’t make the news. NEW things make the News. These “translations” are new. And it is kind of interesting to watch the internet go crazy over the work of a writer who’s been dead for so long. As someone who works in Shakespeare, I’m glad to know so many people still care so much.
So, if a “translation” is something you feel like you need for yourself, I’m glad OSF is giving you what you want. Do I think you would have a better time with Shakespeare’s actual words? I absolutely do. I have a lot of colleagues who can help facilitate that engagement and enjoyment should you find yourself in the soup of it. We work hard to help everyone find a way in to a play. Using the words. Because the words are the center of the experience, not the problem.
But I suspect these OSF translations are not for you. These translations are for those other people. And by other people, I mean the people the funders want to be seen funding. Those (probably young or poor) people who need help with the hard words. Deep down, projects like this feel paternalistic to me. They seem to be asking: How can we help those people get exposure to these plays? Which assumes there’s something in these plays besides the words. And there isn’t. Shakespeare’s work is made up of words. Some you know. Some you don’t. Some nobody knows. The words are the good stuff. Everyone (no matter who they are) gets a chance to enjoy the good stuff. Or hate the good stuff. Or be bored by the good stuff. “Translate” the good stuff and it’s just not so good. Actual translation, like, into other languages is a very rich territory, of course. Actual translation is a conversation between languages and cultures. Paraphrasing? Well, you do it as an exercise – and then inevitably end up back to the good stuff.
But – “translate” if you must, OSF! Knock yourself out, you gorgeous playwrights! I’m glad someone’s paying so many of my writing brethren and sistren to do writing things. I hope you don’t bang your heads too hard against your desks as you struggle with finding new text. I’ll be over here chewing on some good Shakespeare words that I am hella not going to translate for anyone.
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