Sunday, October 22, 2006

Shakespeare the Character

[Letter to Ron Rosenbaum, author of The Shakespeare Wars.]

Dear Mr. Rosenbaum:

I'm the Artistic Director of Folding Chair Classical Theatre, a small company in NYC. I greatly enjoyed your book. It continually provoked me, sometimes to kiss the pages; other times to hurl the book across the room -- never because the book itself was bad; rather, because the various scholarly and artistic theories so affected me. At least one chapter in your book profoundly changed the way I will rehearse plays from now on (see this link). Your book also inspired this and this.

You chose the most important theme for your book (and stated it clearly, colloquially and concisely): what's all the fuss about? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare? With the greatest respect, I'd like to suggest that you dodged one very important aspect of this question: the issue of intent.

I know that you mention "The Intentional Fallacy" a couple of times. Strikingly, in the preface you quote Edward Pechter's phrase "Shakespeare the Writer," which you define as "the voice, the mind we can find in the work." I like this, but feel more comfortable calling this voice "Shakespeare the character," though I'm not completely comfortable even with that. I do know that the plays and poems conjure a storyteller in my brain -- one that has certain views and an extraordinary facility with words. This storyteller -- this authorial voice -- is a sort of extra character. It's very easy to confuse him with Shakespeare the writer, and this can be a useful (in the sense of conversational "shorthand") and harmless confusion. But it a book like yours, which is all about "what is Shakespearean?", it's a dangerous confusion. Your book is more about questions than answers, and that's no fault. But, in your book, intent rarely coalesces into a question. Instead, it's a specter that haunts many of your pages.

You ask "Can we imagine Lear without 'Look her lips...' merely because we cannot be absolutely sure it is an addition by Shakespeare?" I find the word "absolutely" interesting. It's as if you're saying, "maybe if we're reasonably sure that Shakespeare wrote those words, that should be good enough." As if there are two camps: the camp that wants to delete text if there's any doubt as to authorship and the camp that is happy as long as the author is fairly likely to be Shakespeare.

You leave out another camp: the people who don't care whether or not Shakespeare wrote the words. The key question is this: what if Shakespeare came back to life and told us definitively that he didn't write "Look her lips..."? The first two camps would delete the lines. The third wouldn't. The third would say, "they're good lines, so who cares who wrote them?" And this third camp would be just as devoted to (just as in love with) the authorial voice as the other two camps. The question "what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?" is deeply important to this third camp, even though it ignores the risen-from-the-dead author. This group doesn't care about the author. They care about the storyteller character. (Maybe "they don't care about the author" is too strong. Rather, they separate the historical person from the effect of his words.)

I fear you'll read this and cry, "But I do raise the intent issue all the time. I began my book by separating myself from the biographical school of criticism!" I agree that you raise the issue, which is why I suggested that it hovers like a specter. But many sentences in your book imply that you do care about biography -- at least to some extent. How much to you care and why?

"I'm undecided about whether a playwright would wield his most powerful dramatic gifts over the course of a three- to four-hour production mainly to leave the audience ... undecided." Isn't that you worrying about Shakespeare's intent? Fine if that's your bent. But you don't explain to me why I should care what he intended (as opposed to what I experience when I read or watch his plays).

There's a very interesting section in your chapter on Paul Werstine. At first, you ask, "... was Hand D 'Shakespearean'?" Your quotation marks around "Shakespearean" lead me to believe that you were making a distinction between the historical person and the authorial character. But then you go on to say, "... the truth is [not] relative here: Shakespeare either wrote or didn't write it. Some passages are 'Shakespearean,' some are not." This sounds like a clear statement to the effect that, if Shakespeare didn't pen the lines, they aren't Shakespearean. Whereas I would say say that a line can be Shakespearean even if Shakespeare didn't write it -- just as a novel can be "truthful," even if though it isn't true. (This works because stories are sensual, provoking the emotions, and the emotions don't care whether something is true -- true in the sense of "it happened in history" -- or not.)

In that same passage, after a seeming admission that if Shakespeare didn't write it, it ain't Shakespearean, you go on to say, "But the fragmentary historical record does not afford ... certainty ... Ultimately ... what we call Shakespearean will at times depend on the idea of 'the Shakespearean' we project upon it." To me, this implies that you're closer to the 'biographers' than first meets the eye. You and they both wish for historical proof. Only they are foolish enough to pretend that proof exists when in fact it doesn't. You are clear headed enough to see that, alas, the proof doesn't exist, and to admit that -- in the absence of such proof -- we are forced to rely on less satisfying techniques (like subjective response based on close reading). Naturally, it's fine (and good) for your to have your views, but I wish you'd explored them more fully. Why do you long for historical proof? Why (as far as I could tell) would the "what is Shakespearean?" question be answered for you once and for all, if only Shakespeare's diary would turn up? Why is my view -- that Shakespeare's diary would settle nothing (other than interesting biographical riddles) -- not represented in your book? It's not a crackpot view. It's reasoned and passionately felt.

Yes, like most anti-intentists, I am wary of intent-based discussions because we can never know the author's intent. In the case of Shakespeare (or Homer) we really can't know, because they're long dead and have left such a paltry trail behind themselves (other than their works, of course). But even with living authors who give interviews and state their intents, we can't know for sure that they're not lying. Or, if that sounds too oddly paranoid, we can't know for sure that they have the ability to talk objectively about their intentions. Few of us can! I'm no Shakespeare, but in my own humble way, I am a creator. I write, draw pictures and direct plays. Many times, people have pointed out aspects of my work that I hadn't seen myself. Many times, people have made comments about my intent that might be true -- even though I wasn't aware of having this intent. I grant that I might not always be the best judge of my own intent. And I don't think there's any reasonable evidences that the really great writers and artists are especially reliable self-psychoanalysts.

But all of that is secondary to my main reason for rejecting intent. Even if Shakespeare came back from the dead, explained his intent, and somehow proved that what he said really was his intent, it still wouldn't matter to me.

I feel I must pause here and state that I'm not a proponent of "the author function." I do believe that works are created by authors -- authors who make artistic choices. I do believe that these authors have intents. It's just that I don't think their intents matter (though I think the results of their intents -- their work -- matter deeply.)

My view is this: I read (or watch) a play. I have a feeling. That feeling is what it is. It "is what it is" because I have very little control over my feelings. If someone close to me dies, I'm going to feel sad, even if I try not to. In the same vein, I'm going to feel what I feel when I read King Lear. Those feelings are going to be hard to budge, no matter what anyone says. As I said above, I think fiction attacks the senses and feelings much more profoundly than it attacks the intellect. So naturally, given this view, I'm going to be chiefly concerned with the feelings I get from Lear.

So what if Shakespeare comes back from the dead and tells me that though some particular line makes me cry, he intended it to be funny. My tears may be horribly distressing to poor old Shakespeare -- I can't blame him for caring about his own intentions -- but they are just my honest response. He can spend hours convincing me of his intention, and I can agree with him, but that's not going to stop me from feeling sad. So why -- other than for biographical interest -- should I care about his intent? (I'm actually passionately interested in biography; I just feel it's a separate domain. Discussions get muddled when biographical details get entwined with aesthetics.) And since "Shakespearean" is that feeling I get of a storyteller, what if the risen Shakespeare tells me that he didn't actually write one of the lines that most gives me that storyteller feeling? Once again, I must respectfully tell him that I don't care. It's still Shakespearean.

There is a point where one's personality comes into play. There are some people -- people who deeply respect authority or writers or Shakespeare -- who might be so moved by the risen man's explanations, that a change-of-feeling is triggered within them. I didn't say that feelings are immutable, just that they are very hard to budge and that there's no sure-fire way of budging them. But anything might change one's feelings: something a teacher says, getting older, experiencing more, a dream... So I can imagine someone saying, "I used to love that line, but then the author told me he didn't write it, and now I don't like it any more." Fair enough if that person is being honest about his feelings, but what touches that particular person (huge regard for authors as opposed to their works?) needn't necessarily touch all readers.

By the way, I'm not a total relativist. I do believe that there are distinct stylistic and thematic elements that -- for most people -- trigger the "Shakespearean" feeling, and I think it's a worthy endeavor to try to figure out what those elements are. But I fear we'll get further from the truth -- not closer -- as-long-as we worry about intent, and as-long-as we don't frame the issue of intent clearly.

As you might guess, you've stepped on "one of my favorite corns" (as Chekhov puts it). I've spent decades discussing and arguing intent (I found it confused most discussions throughout my academic career), and the result has rarely been pretty. For some reason (I have a guess why: see below) the subject -- or my take on it -- really upsets people. I'm not so arrogant as to suppose I'm infallible, but a number of people who started out by disagreeing with me, wound up (after long debate) agreeing with me but mad at me. A few have (thankfully) been articulate enough to explain why. They have said, "I think you're right, but I don't like the fact that you're right. I don't want the world to be like that. I'm going to cling to the idea that intent matters, even if I'm clinging to a fiction." (Naturally, if it matters to them, it does matter -- to them.)

Here's my armchair-psychoanalytical view about this response: in day-to-day life we must constantly deduce intent. My wife talks to me (fights with me, whatever) and I'm not just concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm not even mostly concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm concerned with her intent. But if you take my view to its logical conclusion, it means that I can never know her intent (the thing that's most important to me!)

There was a time when I would have protested that this isn't true (even I didn't want it to be true!), and that I was taking purely about aesthetic judgment, not interpersonal communication with loved ones. But of course it is true. One never knows what's in the mind of another. Perhaps that's the worst aspect of being human: the fact that my mind can never directly touch yours. I think this fact is so terrifying that we do anything we can to flee from it. So naturally my "message" isn't welcome.

Assuming that other minds do exist and that they work in a similar way to mine, my theories about my wife's intent are probably right. But there comes a point in all relationships, if they are to endure, that one must accept (generally good) intent on faith. My wife says she loves me; she acts like she loves me; I must assume that she does. (It's ironic that this same impulse, which is the glue that binds people together, often tears them apart. So many bitter fights are fought over what I assume you meant and what you can't convince me that you didn't mean! The need to divine intent -- to feel an intimate, psychic connection with other minds -- is extremely powerful.)

So we're (genetically?) programmed to make certain assumptions when we encounter something that seems like another mind. And that storyteller voice seems like another mind. Just as I love my wife, many of us fall in love with Shakespeare -- with the Shakespeare voice. It seems like a mind, so we naturally endow it with intent. So for me to say "intent doesn't matter" is like telling a man that he can't believe anything his wife says.

True. Still. When I read Shakespeare, I feel what I feel.

The crazy thing is that my theatre company is based around close reading. We rehearse for two months (I wish it could be five), spending most of the time around the table. We rarely cut. We perform on a bare stage with no scenery or lighting cues, hoping to make the text shine. Due to this aesthetic, my productions are most loved by those people who want to see Shakespeare "the way it was intended!" It's very hard for me to explain to people how I could care so deeply about the text on a word-for-word level, without caring about Shakespeare's intent. So I rarely try. I don't care about Shakespeare the man (maybe I would if I knew him). But I'm in love with Shakespeare the character. And he only exists as a voice in the plays and poems. So the best way to know him -- the only way -- is through close reading.

It was a great pleasure reading your book. I look forward to the next one.


Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director
Folding Chair Classical Theatre, Inc.
New York, NY

Monday, October 16, 2006

The end. Stop.

Several years ago, when I was directing "The Winter's Tale," I noticed one of the actors was speaking strangely. His first speech in the play began as follows:

Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks...

The character is Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, and he's speaking to his friend Leontes, the King of Sicilia. Polixenes has been staying in Sicilia for nine months (nice changes of the wat'ry-star -- the moon), and now he needs to get back to his own kingdom. Translated into rough, modern-day English, the passage means, "According to the shepherd's calculations (shepherds, being outdoorsmen, watch the sky), it's been nine months since I've left my peaceful kingdom. And it would take me another nine months to thank you, Leontes, for your hospitality."

In early rehearsals, the actor playing Polixenes (I'll call him Dave) was punctuating the speech like this:

Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been. [Period.]
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne. [Period.]
Without a burthen: time as long again. [Period.]
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks. [Period.]

Nine changes of the wat're-star hath been? Hath been what? The shepherd's note since we have left our throne? The shepherds note what? (Anyway, it's shepherd's not shepherds, so that's like saying "the fireman's hose", which is an acceptable phrase, but not a complete sentence.

Other actors started pulling me aside. "He's pausing at the end of each line," they told me, worrying that I hadn't noticed. I didn't say anything to him for a few days. I remembered, back when I first started reading poetry, that I used to do the same thing. Then my fifth-grade teacher explained that the end of a poetic line isn't the same as the end of a sentence, and that I should keep reading until I got to a period. I though maybe Dave didn't know this basic rule, and I wasn't sure how to tell him about it without embarrassing him. I also thought it was possible that he was just getting used to the verse, and that after a few rehearsals, the problem might solve itself.

It didn't. After a few more days, I pulled him aside and said, "Dave, do you know you're stopping at then end of every line?"

He said, "Oh yes. I'm doing it on purpose."

I was stunned. Why would anyone do that on purpose?

He explained: "The punctuation in the script isn't Shakespeare's. It was added by later editors. We don't know what sort of punctuation Shakespeare intended, but we do know where his lines end. So that's the best punctuation guide we have."

I tried to reason with him that speaking this way didn't make sense, but he made it clear that he was going to do it his way or he'd quit. I should have let him quit. I should have fired him. Our styles were incompatible. But this was one of my first plays in New York, and I felt lucky to have the actors that I had. Other than this (huge) problem, he was a good actor. I sort of went into denial about things and just hoped the problem would go away. Naturally it didn't, and Dave became hated by the rest of the cast. I learned a valuable lesson about not letting problems fester.

"End-stopping" has now become an in joke in my company. Each time we do a new play, the actors who have been with the company for a while tell the new actors the story of Dave and his quirky punctuation. And the new actors always groan and many of them say, "I worked with someone who did that. It's horrible!" I've learned that end-stopping is an actual "school of thought", made popular by Sir Peter Hall, one of the great Shakespearian directors. I used to admire Hall, but when I heard he had started this silly ritual, I wrote him off as a dangerous loon.

Recently though, I read Ron Rosenbaum's book, "The Shakespeare Wars," a terrific exploration of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship. It's a thought-provoking, delightful and -- sometimes -- aggravating book, and I will post about it later. But what interests me now is a chapter about Peter Hall. Rosenbaum interviews Hall and asks him about end stopping. I never thought this would happen, but having read this chapter, I have changed my mind about the issue. I've gone from viewing it as an insane theory to realizing it's an incredibly useful tool -- one that I'll definitely incorporate into rehearsals next time I direct a Shakespeare play.

I should clarify here that I still think Dave was misguided. He wasn't using Hall's version of end stopping. He was using his own perverted version. Where did he learn it? Somebody out there -- some bad teacher (or some group of bad teachers) -- is teaching a corrupted version of Hall's idea, and this bad version is getting around. (Hence all the stories from actors about horrible end stoppers that they've worked with.)

As Rosenbaum explains, Hall learned end-stopping from his mentor, William Poel. Poel, who died in 1934, believed that Shakespeare worked best on a bare stage (as it was originally performed). This interested me, because my company performs on a bare stage. In general, Poel advocated the sort of production that I love -- minimalist in design and based around close, careful study of the text. And, of course, the verse endings are a major part of the text. You can see them clearly on the page, but they're generally lost in performance. To Hall, this is like playing a song on the piano without keeping to its tempo. Grudgingly, I had to admit that there's something to this. Shakespeare's writing -- most of it, anyway -- is verse, not prose. Is Hall wrong to want to preserve this vital feature on stage?

But Hall doesn't believe that the end of the line necessarily marks the end of a sentence. As he explains to Rosenbaum, it's not so much a pause as "a tiny sense break (not a stop)."

All well and good, but how should I translate that into a rehearsal technique? I can't just say to the actors, "Make sure you take a tiny sense break at the end of each line." Actors craft their performances around psychology. They think of their characters as people pursuing some goal -- to take over the kingdom, to have sex with the lady, to steal the money. How would pausing at the end of a line help them achieve these goals? One actress suggested to me that then end of the line is where she should take a breath. Maybe, but that's an awfully technical approach, and one that isn't remotely tied to psychology. I can't tie everything to psychology (sometimes I just have to tell actors to speak louder), but I wouldn't want to force a non-psychological rule on something as basic -- and as psychologically-meaningful-- as punctuation.

But then, reading further in the chapter, I encountered Barry Edelstein. Edelstein is the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, and he's discovered a way to make Hall's theory playable. (Hall surely has too, but Rosembaum doesn't explain Hall's rehearsal techniques). Rosembaum says that, to Edelstein, the pause at the end of the line is "the moment that the actor, as the character, takes to think up the next line." This is brilliant, because it has nothing to do with punctuation. In real life, we often have to pause and think mid-sentence: for instance "Back in the seventies, when I was living in ... Indiana..." (This technique is best when used subtly. If pushed over-the-top, you get William Shatner.)

A huge problem in rehearsal is to get actors to sound like they're saying something for the first time. Their characters are supposed to be thinking on-the-fly, but of course the actors, having (hopefully) memorized their lines, know everything they're going to say. If they're not careful, their performance will sound more like a recital than a conversation. What I love about Edelstein's idea is that it gives actors a rule to follow -- a place to insert the coming-up-with-a-new-thought or the finding-the-right-word (an activity heavily rooted in psychology). It's not a haphazard, arbitrary rule; it's connected to the verse!

Once you learn this technique, it's fun to try it out with random bits of Shakespeare. For instance, here's a snipped from "King Lear" (Lear is banishing Kent):
Hear me, on they allegiance hear me!
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Four days we do allot thee for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world,
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom. If on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...
Using Edelstein's technique, we -- as Lear -- mean to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, and with strayed pride to come between our sentence and our power," but, after the word vow, a parenthetical thought occurs to us: we've never broken our vow before! So the speech becomes...

Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,

Maybe because we're struck a little off balance by the parenthetical thought, we have a little trouble regaining our footing when we try to return to our main point:
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power,
For years, I've called this type of thought-process a "What? Oh yeah!" moment. It's very powerful on stage, when an actor plays it well, because -- as an audience member -- you momentarily fear the character is losing control, but then when he snaps back ("Oh yeah!") you're impressed with his newfound confidence: the type of confidence we all feel when we search for the perfect word and it pops into our head.

We then intend to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow ... and ... to come between our sentence and our power, our potency made good, take thy reward!" But, again, halfway through the thought, a "sub-thought" intrudes: "Which nor our nature nor our place can bear" (this is an insult that I can't pass over as either a man or a monarch).
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power, (and this makes me so MAD!)
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear, (Oops. Getting back on track...)
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Moving forward, we then mean to say, "Four days we do allot thee for provision, and on the fifth to turn thy hated back upon our kingdom," but a sub-thought, a mini refinement of our main point, occurs to us after the word "provision."

Four days we do allot thee for provision (You're wondering why I'm granting you four days?)
To shield thee from diseases of the world, (Got it? Okay. Going on...)
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom.
Again, I think the min-thought destabilized us, and we came back a bit shaky but then regained our footing:

And on the fifth to turn thy hated back (um... turn thy back on what?)
(Oh, yeah!) Upon our kingdom.

Finally, we intend to tell Kent what will happen to us if he disobeys: "If on the tenth day following thy ... thy... thy... thy what? What's a good insult?"

If on the tenth day following (What should I call your body?)
(Oh yeah!) Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...

This approach, while fun, can quickly dissolve into parody. So I would never tell an actor to pause for each one of these new thoughts. Often we have new thoughts without (noticeably) pausing. So forget the pause, and instead return to Hall's "tiny sense break." It's up to an actor how the sense break manifests itself. It could just be in his head. But if an actor does think of his speech this way, the speech will necessarily become a living mental process -- which is the most exciting thing about watching Shakespeare done well: seeing characters wrestle with their own thoughts, right here, right now, on stage, in front of you. (Hamlet trying to decide whether to be or not to be.) And if the audience follows the thought process, and if the thought-process follows the verse lines, the audience will also be hearing the music of the verse.

I am not dogmatic about this approach. There are times when it should be avoided -- when the thought process will be more dynamic if the actor plows right through the line-break. But it's a great tool. It's worth going through the play, line-by-line, and trying it out on each line ending, seeing what happens.

Full stop.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege

How are plays and films different? What does each of the two mediums do best? True, when you watch a play you're watching live actors, and I've heard people say that this is what makes theatre special. But how do live actors make theatre special? For some, just knowing that the person they're watching is flesh-and-blood (not a photograph) has deep, spiritual meaning, but not for me. I need something more tangible. Not that I need an justification for going to the theatre. I love going, and I find it to be a unique experience. I love going to the cinema, too. It's also unique. I'm not trying to justify either experience or claim superiority for one over the other. Rather, I'm trying to understand why I like both so much and how they are different. When I direct a play, I want to make sure I'm really using the assets of the theatre. If it could just as well be a film, why not make it a film?

There are special ways you can relate to both films and plays if you see a particular film -- or a particular play -- multiple times: films are static. The hundredth time you see "Citizen Kane", it will not have changed. It will contain exactly the same frames as the first time you saw it. This is film's great strength. It will not have changed but you will have. So a movie (like a novel) becomes a sort of benchmark against which you can measure yourself. When I was younger, I identified more with the young Charles Foster Kane. Now I identify more with the older one. The movie is the same, yet it's utterly different to me because I am different.

Plays change each time you see them. This is their great strength. You can go see the same production of "King Lear" ten times, and it will be different each time. This is appropriate, because you can't see the same production a hundred times as you can with films. Runs end. Actors move on. You can't want until you're older and different and then re-watch the same production. So it's lucky that you can -- during a short period of time in your life -- watch the same production and watch it change. I don't understand directors who try to fix their plays in stone, who try to ensure that the actors perform exactly the same way each night. If this is what they want, why don't they direct films instead of plays?

Whether I'm seeing a play or a film, I'm most strongly affected by what isn't on the screen or on the stage. Films and plays make suggestions, and then my brain fills in the blanks. I'm confused by people who claim that watching films and plays is a passive experience. It's not. It's highly active. When they're good, films and plays will hand me A and B but compel me to deduce C. And my C won't be exactly the same as your C, because C is a combination of data from the story and data from my life. So it's vital that plays and films leave things out.

Films should leave out psychology; plays should leave out scenery. Cameras can go anywhere and show me anything, so that's what they should do. The only place they can't go is inside someone's head. So they shouldn't try. They should plop me down in an environment -- and really make me sense that environment -- but they should leave some blanks as to how the main characters feel about this environment. I love the way Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" thrusts me into Vietnam and makes sniper bullets whiz past my head. I'm less thrilled with the voice-overs, which try to get inside the main character's head. This seems so un-cinematic and weak, an effect better left for a novel or a play.

But I love Hamlet's "To be or not to be." I love eavesdropping on his thought processes. I'm not completely sure why I buy this more on stage than in a film. After all, I can't really ever hear someone's thought processes. If this happens in a story, it's always an artifice. And maybe that's the key. By it's nature, theatre is always more artificial than film. Film can take me on location or fool me with special effects; theatre can't. And it shouldn't try. It will never succeed as well as film, so it should admit that hyper-realism isn't its strength.

When I'm sitting in the theatre, I'm primed for stage conventions. These conventions could be almost anything (a simple chair is a throne, a beam from a spotlight is a ray from the sun), but the strongest convention is that of an actor speaking his character's thoughts. It's strong because as a human, I long to connect with other humans this way. I know that I never really can, but in the theatre -- because I'm primed for a different sort of reality -- I can temporarily believe in brain-to-brain communication.

Omit the scenery: "Henry V" contains the most overt example of a play leaving blanks for me to fill in. At the very beginning of the play, the narrator says,
Suppose within the girdle of these walls.
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings...
And if he says this with enough conviction -- enough command of the language -- I do imagine the monarchies and horses.

On the other hand, in a recent film adaptation of "Henry V", I was nonplussed when the narrator said, "Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege..." when I didn't have to work my thoughts at all to see the siege. There were clearly armies and cannons and explosions, right there on the screen.

Shakespeare as homework

In "The Shakespeare Wars," Ron Rosenbaum laments the huge number of mediocre Shakespeare productions, and then, building to a crescendo, he writes:

As someone who who has come to realize ... after a lifetime of hoping to find something ... electrifying ... on stage ... very little approaches it. I don't think people realize it's rarely their fault if they don't "get" Shakespeare. Shakespeare done right is supposed to get you.

As much as I love the quote, to me it's more of a general note about theatre than a specific note about Shakespeare. Good theatre should "get" you. Good Shakespeare should too, but that assumes something about "you" -- that "you" understand the language. When you think about it, it's really simple. It's my responsibility, as a director, to craft plays that grip people. If people aren't gripped, that's my fault. But I'm talking about people who speak English. If my plays don't grip (non-English speaking) French people, that's not my fault. And I would never call a German play "bad," just because I don't understand it.

All average-Joes know that Shakespeare plays are in a foreign language, but theatre people tend to deny it. Maybe this is because they've spent so much time studying Shakespeare that it doesn't seem foreign to them. But when they casually say, "Anyone can understand Shakespeare," they come across as disingenuous. Anyone CAN understand it, but not without some work.

I've thought about writing a Shakepeare "appreciation" book, for people who want to get into his plays but don't know how. Only I don't think anyone will publish my book, because my message would be too unpopular: in order to understand the plays, you need to do a considerable amount of homework (most actors don't notice this "homework," because they do it while working on characters in rehearsal). Except for a few people who are into this sort of thing, the homework won't be fun. But it has a great payoff: getting in touch with some of the most beautiful creations of the human race.

Most Shakespeare books and teachers claim that in order to "get" Shakespeare, you should just rent some really good film adaptations and/or go see some really good stage productions. "Shakespeare was meant to be seen and heard -- not read." This is bullshit. If you don't get charged up when you read Shakespeare, you don't really "get" Shakespeare. And I mean "get" on a simplistic level: get = understand. I don't mean you're lacking in soul or intelligence. I just mean that you haven't yet fully grasped Shakespeare's language, which you can only do through study, so there's no way you can really get what he's saying. And if you don't get what he's saying (and how he's saying it), you can't grasp the beauty of the plays. (I'm operating under the assumption -- maybe false -- that most people who really do get the language will be wowed when the read the plays. There have been a few people, like Tolstoy, who hate Shakespeare despite understanding his language, but such people are rare.)

Usually, when people who don't understand Shakespeare see a great production and love it, they're not really loving Shakespeare. They're not really loving what's unique about Shakespeare. They're loving the production in spite of Shakespeare. They're loving the theatrics of that specific production. Maybe this will prompt them to learn more about Shakespeare on their own; maybe not.

One problem is that people want to get Shakespeare for at least two different reasons: (1) because they really want to connect with his writing, (2) because they want to look smart (or feel like they are cultured). Ron Rosenbaum calls this gaining "cultural currency." I don't think there's anything wrong with cultural currency, but it's worth disentangling it from the first reason. One can appear smart (and maybe feel cultured) by going to see a lot of Shakespeare plays, even without really understanding them. And if that's what one wants, fine. But let's not call an apple and orange. (Except that for culturally ambitious people, they must call an apple and orange. Who are they going to impress if they say, "I went to see MacBeth, but I didn't understand it."?

I'm always amazed by the hyper-educated, upper-middle class people who come see my shows and, afterwards, say something like, "Thank you for making Shakespeare fun." It's flattering but sad. Shakespeare is a chore for them, and they're grateful for a "spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down." I want to pull them aside and say, "You're a grownup now, and you're not in school. You don't have to see Shakespeare plays if you don't want to. There's no test on Friday." But of course, for them, there is a test. It's a cultural test. To pass the test, they need to fit in with a whole group of "cultured" people.

In my darkest moments, I imagine huge bands of people, all of them wearily forcing themselves to attend event after event that they loath. If just one of them would admit that the emperor has no clothes, they could all relax.

And then -- maybe -- a few of them, those who want to, could do some homework and meet Shakespeare on his own turf: Elizabethan English, which is a language one has to learn, just like French and Italian are languages one has to learn. You can't magically know Italian, just by watching a few Fellini films.

In order to learn Elizabethan -- or to want to learn it -- you have to take on trust that there's gold at the other end of the rainbow. You're not going to appreciate the gold until you DO learn it. So you just have to take the gold on faith.

We who have already reached the pot should emphasize the beauty. Sometimes, we make it sound like it's one's cultural duty to reach the pot, and that the only payoff will be to have fulfilled that duty -- and maybe to seem a little smarter. Which makes it seem like yet another burden, like getting a diploma in order to get a job. The diploma itself is worthless, except maybe that it makes one feel smarter. It's a hazing ritual. And I fear that's how many people see Shakespeare. He's the hot coals you have to walk over in order to be let into the culture club. We need to emphasize that there's great personal benefit, beyond seeming smart, of entering the club.

I remember they first time I really got Shakespeare. I had just finished the pre-production work on Winter's Tale, the first Shakespeare play I ever directed. I had gone through the whole play, word by word, and looked up each word that I didn't understand. I had about ten editions of the play, and I had read all of the editorial notes in all of them. Shakespeare had clicked, I was in love, and I knew my life would never be the same. But I also knew that Shakespeare never would have clicked for me if I hadn't put in that effort, and I probably wouldn't have done so if I didn't have a first-rehearsal deadline looming. It just didn't seem reasonable to expect other people to put in this same effort (which wasn't always fun). But without the effort, they will never really fall in love with Shakespeare the way I have -- the way other scholars and experienced actors have. And the falling-in-love is so worth it. But how can one communicate that?

Perhaps the best way is to find a difficult passage of great beauty, and to walk someone through it, explaining each word until they understand it, pointing out levels of meaning, poetic and rhetorical devices, complex metaphors and humor. It should be a short passage, and a self-contained one, so that the neophyte can -- within a reasonably short period of time -- feel the beauty without an agonizing amount of work. Maybe that's chapter one of my book.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Human Network

This site invites people to define "The Human Network" ("a social structure composed of individuals, business partners, friends or other organizations") Here's my attempt:

We can't ever know for sure whether anyone else is conscious, but as social animals, we've evolved to read conscious into other humans (as-well-as animals, puppets and other human-like entities). And we're vitally concerned with how other consciousnesses view us. I like and dislike people, so I assume Kate likes and dislikes people. If she likes me, she'll share food with me (or sex or something else). Since we're often around big groups of people, we tend to be concerned about how the group sees us.

Human Networks are the ultimate class-ranking systems. Almost all human interactions can be boiled down to attempts to gain more acceptance (and sometimes more distancing) from a human network -- or to bring someone else into a network (or kick him out). I want to be a cheerleader; I wish that guy would go away; I want to work in that office; I want to be left alone...

Most of us have two opposing drives: connection and disconnection. It's obvious why we want to connect: other people can meet our needs (for companionship, sex, paychecks, etc.). Why do we want to disconnect? Sometimes that's obvious too: Charlie is going to hit me, so I want to get away from him. But sometimes we want to disconnect from "nice" people. I think this is because social processing is expensive, complicated and ultimately exhausting. After hours of reading tiny nuances and trying to figure out what they mean, we need time to recharge.

Some people rarely need time to recharge. They are social athletes -- extroverts. Others have a harder time reading cues, and the social mechanisms in their brains get overloaded very quickly. They are introverts. Most people aren't pure introverts or extroverts, so they experience tension between wanting to connect and wanting to disconnect -- or they flip-flop between the two.

One can manage this tension -- sometimes -- by constraining one's network: I will only stay out until 10pm; I will only hang out with a small group; I will only hang out with people I know. Bounded networking.

Technology confuses traditional boundaries. On the Internet -- and in other new mechanisms for networking -- I may be unsure how to control the tension between my desire to connect and my desire to disconnect. How can I join such-and-such a message board and only talk to the people I want to talk to? But since this tension is pretty stable -- all people feel it and are used to feeling it and know they will always feel it -- most of us find ways to placate it, even in new social situations. New networks are confusing (and sometimes scary) at first, but we have such strong drives to carve out a comfortable (and simulating) social space for ourselves, that we throw all of our resources into making them work. And in the end, it usually does -- although we are rarely able to completely avoid tension. We can control networks, but we can't control other people. We can set up rules, but we can't always make people follow them.