Some Notes About Reviewing Shakespeare

Posted: May 10, 2010 in Braak, poetics, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

As is well-known, I recently worked A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.  They also did Macbeth this year.  There were a number of reviews for both plays, and I’m not going to get into how accurate they are, or mount a defense of either production, because that’s not what I’m here for today.  What I am here is to talk about why these critics are so preoccupied with the idea that we “edited” the scripts.

Now, I can understand some puzzlement about the Macbeth, since it was edited ferociously.  Toby Zinman says, in her review:

“To bring a five act play in under 90 minutes is a rare butchery indeed.”

This seems to indicate that she thinks the ACT of editing the play down is the problem — that no matter how a play is cut, as long as you are in the process of cutting it, you are committing some kind of a crime against Shakespeare.  I should think that this is plainly nonsense; is it a different play, if you cut Macbeth down to 90 minutes?  Yes, of course it is.  So?  It’s not like there aren’t (and won’t be) eight hundred regular old-fashioned productions of Macbeth around for you to watch.  And it’s not like Shakespeare’s alive to complain — besides that, his legacy already informs basically every aspect of English-speaking literature; I think we can afford to fuck around a little bit with his plays.

The review reveals Zinman’s insufficiency as a reviewer; she thinks it’s appalling, for instance, that three witches were cut to one, but doesn’t say precisely why.  Is it because something unfamiliar caused her to gasp and clutch her pearls?  I can only assume.

Of course, Macbeth enjoyed a lot of editing, so I can understand why it might have been worth commenting on.  But what’s peculiar is that the fact that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also edited keeps turning up in the reviews for that piece.

Alyce Wilson, in Wild Violet, calls it “pared down.”  Mark Cofta says of both productions:

PST’s repertory offers fresh but clear interpretations in lengths calculated for modern tastes. Purists will miss favorite lines and scenes…but novices will leave invigorated.

(He also, peculiarly, refers to the PST’s stage as “an elegant thrust”, when it is quite plainly a three-quarter round with a backlay.  I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s a subject for another time.)

And Howie Shapire of the Inquirer makes the idea of Midsummer as “Shakespeare Lite” the centerpiece of his article.

What are you in the mood for – the robust, enduring classic or the bubbly but more moderate lite? Can’t make up your mind? Well, we have on the current bar menu a combo: the lite classic – as in the version of Shakespeare’s much-produced A Midsummer Night’s Dream being offered in a more or less traditional but cut-down style by Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

This begs a number of questions.  The first, of course, is “Jesus Christ, how long did you guys want this to be?”  Our production of Dream ran at two hours and fifteen minutes, with a fifteen minute intermission.  That is, despite Shapiro’s assertions, actually pushing the upper limit of a modern audience’s tastes.  There was, moreover, not really more than twenty or thirty minutes worth of stuff pulled out; I suppose it’s possible that some Shakespeare purist missed some of Philostrate’s lines in the first act, but, no, it’s not.  Frankly, I think she show could have been cut even more.

The second question is, “What the hell Shakespeare are you guys watching?”  Shakespeare hardly EVER makes it to the stage unedited.  It’s full of obscure jokes, weird scenes that don’t quite work, speeches that run too long.  Every single production of Macbeth, ever, cuts the Hecate scene.  Not only that, but it has been edited, re-edited, and transformed routinely for FOUR HUNDRED YEARS.  This idea of “taking out some boring parts”, this isn’t new — it’s not a sop to a modern, uneducated audience’s unrefined palate.  We just think different parts are boring.

Look at what Shapiro says, “Shakespeare’s robust, enduring classic…”  He’s got the same problem that Zinman has:  he seems to believe that the text is perfect as it stands, and that any attempt to edit detracts from its robustness.  It’s almost as though he doesn’t realize that Dream’s malleability is precisely what MAKES it so robust.  The classic endures because it’s possible to take out the boring bits, and customize the text to the audience’s understanding.

It’s true that there are Shakespeare devotees (and I hope you’ll pardon an atheist’s instinctive disdain for ANY kind of worship, but there it is) who only want Shakespeare performed the way Shakespeare would have performed it.  I think this is probably the most absurd approach to the art I’ve ever heard.  Even those adamant old sticks-in-the-mud accept hundreds of tiny changes for the modern sensibility; they never complain, for instance that Macbeth doesn’t rhyme “good” with “blood,” even though Shakespeare was sure that those words sounded the same.

And, of course, if Shakespeare were alive today, doing his plays in the Elizabethan style is the LAST thing he’d do.  He wrote them the way he did because his audience was full of Elizabethans — that’s why the plays are filled with anachronisms, with topical references, with attempts to suck up to King James.  Do you really think if Shakespeare were alive today he’d give a rat’s ass about establishing Banquo as the generative antecedent of the Stuarts?  (That Banquo should father kings might remain; the point is, who cares if they’re Stuarts or not?)  Half the time, Shakespeare did his plays in modern dress (the exceptions were usually things like the Greek and Roman plays, since togas are fairly cheap).

Why all this?  Because thematic content needs to moderate between the alien material and the audience’s understanding.  If you’re dealing with big ideas, or larger-than-life characters, or Important Points, you must make the play palatable to the people who are going to see it, and Shakespeare never seemed to hesitate to do it.

To be perfectly honest, critics:  if you aren’t Jacobean groundlings, you need to stop pretending that you have the same tastes as they do.  No one actually believes that you have a natural interest in seeing Shakespeare performed according to what interested Englishmen in the 16th century; it is pretense, and it’s clearly pretense, and what the hell are you guys about?

  1. Moff says:

    Speaking as a newspaper theater reviewer who is pretty much faking it, I can only suggest that a lot of other newspaper theater reviewers are pretty much faking it. I mean, with the exception of a handful who end up writing for The New York Times, these are probably not people on the whole who have as thorough a working knowledge of Shakespeare and theater in general as you do. They’re people who are moderately skilled at putting nouns and verbs together, and who don’t have the time or receive the compensation to be able to absorb the information they need to offer a genuinely educated opinion. And when you don’t have a genuinely educated opinion, you’re forced to fall back on relatively trite, possibly erroneous opinions (cf. a number of my io9 columns—I know from where I speak here).

  2. braak says:

    I’ve complained at length about the lack of a robust critical environment in Philadelphia; I can forgive some folks, like Mark Cofta, because he plainly takes as his intention the idea that theater should be supported, and so goes out of his way to find something good about everything he sees. I can respect that, anyway. Howie Shapiro is, I think, a movie critic that was commandeered into doing theater reviews, but he has been at it for a while.

    There’s absolutely no excuse for Zinman, though. Not only has she been writing theater reviews for twenty years, writing theater reviews is practically all she does — except for teaching theater criticism at the University of the Arts.

    Considering the amount of theater that happens in Philadelphia and its outlying areas, and considering the sheer number of educated writers and theater artists in same, there is absolutely no reason that this city shouldn’t have the effective, informed critical environment that it both requires and deserves.

  3. Amanda says:

    Love love LOVE your characterization of Zinman. *sigh* Perfect.

  4. Mark Cofta says:

    Chris, I learned that “thrust” and “three-quarter round” were pretty much synonymous, so I don’t know what all your fuss is about. You might worry more about why PST (and Villanova, with a similar configuration) discourages audiences from sitting on the sides! I’m tired of companies who are afraid of their own spaces: if you’re three quarter round, embrace it and enjoy it, don’t herd audiences into the center section. Both theatres place critics in what they think are the “best” seats, center of the center, and I tend to sit on the sides in protest (and also because I like the more three dimensional aspect of thrusts or three-quarter or whatever you want to call it).

    You’re reading a lot into a few critics’ comments about cutting Shakespeare. I think Toby’s point was that much more than usual was cut (although I agree, three witches or one, who cares?). My point was that Carmen’s intention (or, to be fair, my perception of the result) was to make these plays more palatable for modern audiences by limiting the playing time. I didn’t mind — except that, especially in Macbeth, I missed some familiar moments. I was actually pretty positive about the script editing, as my review clearly states — so maybe you should look at what I actually wrote instead of spinning an anti-editing bias that doesn’t exist. I’ve directed Shakespeare and edited quite a bit, for a variety of what I considered good production reasons: clarity; combining, cutting, and changing genders of characters for casting reasons; and, of course, running time.

    Oh, and Howie wasn’t a film critic. You’re thinking of Desmond Ryan, who reviewed theatre for a few years after a long career as Inkie film critic (and earned my ire for stalking out of shows during curtain calls, without applauding). Howie was Arts & Culture editor for many years.

    I’m glad you raised the issues, though . . . none of us (critics, theatre artists, audiences) should be complacent about editing Shakespeare. As you said, it always happens, but nearly always in different ways that say a lot about each production.

  5. Mark Cofta says:

    Oh, and thanks for forgiving me!

    I forgive you too.

  6. braak says:

    Well the thrust/three-quarter round…ah, you know what, I’m going to do a post and then link to it; that way, if I want to link to it again, I’ll have an easy way to find it. I hope you’ll pardon me if I’m a little non-specific — I need to talk about this stuff, but I’m in a pretty awkward spot when it comes to alienating potential future employers, so there’s no way I can name any names. (Critics are way better to enrage than directors.)

    Anyway: I actually agree, it’s absolutely right to criticize a lot of directors for not fully embracing the kind of space they have. Here is a more extensive bit on the Thrust/Three-Quarter Problem.

    I don’t disagree that you position was relatively positive; what I was trying to suggest — and apologies if it came out more vitriolic than it should have — was that Carmen’s Dream edits were so de rigeur as far as editing goes that I don’t think reading in an intent to make it more palatable to modern tastes is supportable and that the review makes it sound like the play was simplified, rather than basically just pared down for run time.

  7. […] I’ve said before that I don’t really think it’s a big deal for a play to have an element like […]

  8. Alyce Wilson says:

    First of all, thank you for the link. I’m sorry if it seemed to you as if I meant “pared down” was a bad thing. After all, I wrote, “Such was the brilliance of this production: making Shakespeare’s lines come alive.” To me, paring down the play was part of it. Having compared the version I viewed to the Shakespeare play, I noticed that most of the sections cut were expository. Perhaps I should have mentioned that in my review, but it was more important to me to spend time talking about what actually was done on stage.

    As I said in the review, the production did an exceptional job of making the play appealing and accessible to a modern audience. It was never my intention to infer that it was somehow less literate or less valid of an interpretation of Shakespeare’s work.

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