Vandalizing Shakespeare

What's in a nameThe Oregon Shakespeare Festival is currently producing a massive project. They are commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to, as they put it, “translate” 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. Their website reads :

“By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions. We are also excited about the potential for a highly engaging national conversation about language that this project could prompt.”

They have been getting a lot of press on this project, which I’m sure is a major part of the agenda. Well, in answer to their call, I would like to join their conversation. Here is my take…

OSF recently posted an example of this work that they are doing on their “Play On” Facebook page. The following excerpt illustrates perfectly how terrible the foundations of their project really are.

Please read this excerpt from their own post..

From Translating Timon: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare Translation/Adaptation Project By Scott Kaiser:

Although the Cavander version is written as dramatic verse, it is not penned in iambic pentameter. Working line by line, Cavander strives to honor the meaning of each line rather than strictly adhering to Shakespeare’s original meter.

For example, here are five lines, written in verse, where Timon finds that the servants have locked his doors to keep out his creditors:

TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?
[Arden 3.4.77]

And here are the same five lines from the Cavander translation, written in free verse:

TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I heave feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?

Shakespeare uses the common and easily understood English word FREE in this instance not for the purpose of just ONE interpretation, but for MANY. Even the sounds of the word itself evoke an experience. Be Free

Free – unencumbered
Free – liberal
Free – liberated
Free – complimentary
Free – for nothing
Free – gratuitous
Free – with love
Free – generous
Free – unshackled
Free – open
Free – limitless
It goes on and on. Every person reading, or listening, could add three or four more interpretations of what “free” means to them in the context of the moment.

You see, there are so many personal experiences in the word FREE that an audience is afforded an opportunity to participate, to build it for themselves when listening to the word in context of the story. That’s the genius of great writing. Shakespeare trusts the imagination of the listener. These “translators” strip the opportunity for such a wide breadth of experience and eliminate an economically beautiful word like “free,” which aspirates with the construction of a lip and the teeth into an elongated, potentially endless, “eeeee,” like the squeeeeeze of a lemon. They strip the listener of an opportunity to experience any of this and replace it with mundane and pedestrian interpretations like Cavander’s of Timon being “open with his friends.” This forces a narrow, limited interpretation on the audience, under the guise that this is Shakespeare’s own intent. It’s not translation they are engaging in, it’s vandalism.

On another note, the word: TRANSLATION
OSF and their writers continue to call this work a “translation.” Shakespeare is already in ENGLISH. It doesn’t need a “translation.” That word alone, being thrown around willy-nilly over this project, is evidence enough that no one supporting this endeavor knows what they are really talking about. Words have meaning and if this project is an exploration of the meaning of words, why not start there? These are not “translations,” they are at best adaptations and at worst interpretations. Unfortunately, if this is a shining example of the work they are doing, the latter is probably more likely.

Funk It Up About Nothin' By The Q Brothers, adapted from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Funk It Up About Nothin’
By The Q Brothers, adapted from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

If people want a better practical understanding of the more archaic passages, there are already plenty of books out there that offer up what OSF is doing. Instead of wasting all this talent and resource on this nonsense, why not commission these talented playwrights to write entirely new interpretations or adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like West Side Story is of R&J or Lion King is of Hamlet, or any of the exciting work done by the Q Brothers)? Adaptation is what Shakespeare did himself, so it would be entirely in the spirit of his work and at least we’d have some new plays. Perhaps they could even expand them to involve more women and different ethnicities.

By doing something that is the equivalent of the well-intentioned elderly woman updating the 19th century Spanish fresco, “Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, and representing these works as “translations,” reveals that OSF doesn’t even fully understand the language of our own time. How can we expect them to reliably interpret Shakespeare’s language better than the bard himself? Coming from an organization of this level of prestige, this is a disappointing and shameful representation of the state of classical theatre art in America.

Shame on OSF.

“Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, with

“Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, with “help” by Cecilia Gimenez.

Special thanks to Marnie Bullock Dresser for reminding me of the Spanish fresco debacle. 

We know what we are, but not what we may be.

I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, UK in 2006 after our (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s) opening night of Henry IV parts 1 & 2. Patrick Stewart… yes Patrick Stewart was standing alone at the post show party. Having just seen him the previous night in the role of Antony in Antony & Cleopatra, I knew I had at the very least an ice breaker with which to chat him up.  Being a fan of both Shakespearean legacy as well as comic books (specifically Marvel’s the X-Men), I could barely hold myself together as I approached Patrick-Antony-Shylock-Professor X-Captain Picard-Stewart.

Patrick Stewart as Professor X in the X-Men movies.

Patrick Stewart as Professor X in the X-Men movies.

I introduced myself as a member of the cast and gracefully landed a simple, but direct, “I loved Antony & Cleopatra, you were fantastic.” He was nothing but gracious and returned the compliment (although I doubt he would’ve remembered me from my show) and we began to talk about Shakespeare.

Stewart as Prospero RSC 2006

Stewart as Prospero
RSC 2006

We went from Star and Blubbering Fan in one instant to just two Shakespeare lovin’ nerds in the next. Mr. Stewart… – oh who am I kidding?… my old buddy Patrick, Pat, Patty-o… – starts telling me about his current rehearsal process for the role of Prospero in the upcoming RSC production of The Tempest. Having played the role 3 times (once in his teens, again in his 40’s, and now) he felt his current age and Prospero’s were much closer to alignment. I told him that I too played Prospero in my teen years. We shared a smile that only two former teenage Prosperos could share and then I asked him, “so, what’s it like… to return to a role like that at different stages in your career?” Mr. Stewart will not very likely remember this conversation, but it will live in my memory as long as I have one. “It’s all there,” he said.

Now, I won’t be foolish enough to attempt to directly quote the rest, but I will share what I gleaned of his insightful response.  He told me that it was all there, that IT never changes; only WE do. He explained that Shakespeare is so rich and deep that it is impossible to get it all in one take, nor should one attempt to do so. In fact the only thing that was different was Patrick, himself. There was no way the teen age Prospero could deliver the performance of the 40 year old, nor could he now attempt to capture the magic of a moment that may have worked very well for him as a teenager. However, not one of those different experiences should invalidate the other. Just because he understood a moment or piece of text now after some life had been lived, doesn’t mean that he missed an opportunity the last time. This philosophy could be applied to a performance from night to night. Each time an actor enters into the machine of a role in performance he or she carries with them a different set of perspectives and opportunities, but as for the text… it’s all there. This look at the work was enormously freeing and continues to impact me from role to role.

I played (or should I say attempted to play) Hamlet in 1995 at the age of 17. The previous summer I witnessed Lee Ernst play the role at American Players Theatre. I was first introduced to the story at McKinley Jr. High School via the Zeffirelli film starring Mel Gibson. I have watched Kenneth Branagh’s film. I witnessed James DeVita on many nights playing the role at APT in the 2003 season, under the direction of David Frank.

James DeVita's "In Acting Shakespeare"

James DeVita’s “In Acting Shakespeare”

I have seen multiple films and read multiple books (including the many versions of the text itself).

Kenneth Branagh

Kenneth Branagh

Ben Carlson as Hamlet Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Ben Carlson as Hamlet
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

.Understudying the actor Ben Carlson in the role in a production at Chicago Shakespeare, directed by Terry Hands in 2006 was incredibly educational.  In the past year alone I have seen three different stage productions, two of which had dear friends of mine playing the Melancholy Dane (Michael Gotch, directed by Mark Lamos and Andy Truschinski, directed by David H. Bell). It is impossible not to have certain moments or line readings cement themselves in my consciousness, simply as a result of cultural osmosis. Whether I liked or disliked any of these versions is beside the point.

Michael Gotch REP 2013

Michael Gotch
REP 2013

The process now for me is about a deconstruction of those embedded assumptions as to what a moment is “supposed to be.” Then, in seeing these moments, beats, relationships, journey points – call them what you will – in seeing them fresh with a clean slate, I have to bring an innocent version of myself to each of those particular moments, allowing them to recreate my perspective of Hamlet himself and his journey and thus, recreating me.

Already there are moments in the play that have a completely different meaning for me than they ever had.

“…Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”

Is Hamlet raging here in a fit of uncontrolled passion, as I have seen it done again and again and as would seem to be the truth of the moment… or, having just seen the powerful  influence an actor has in performing, is he attempting to try on the “role” of the avenger; something he himself fears he may not have the ability to be? After all, what does he utter in the first act just before leaving to begin his vengeance quest?

“O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!”

The light being shed on these moments is illuminating different angles of what it means to be a “human being” for me. My automatic gut instincts are full of fire and aggressive passion. I have to allow that furious energy to release and take a breath in order to enter in to these moments with a state of being that is not so furious, but rather simpler, truer, more vulnerable and honest. This is the unending thrill of Shakespeare for me. It is truly transformative.  This Hamlet is changing me.

Jackie Davies & myself in Hamlet 1995

Jackie Davies & myself in Hamlet 1995