Saturday, September 21, 2013

The NY Times earns an F in Shakespeare

Last weekend, the NY Times published an astonishingly lazy “dialogue” by theater critic Charles Isherwood. Isherwood asks himself why he often feels resistant towards seeing Shakespearean drama. Part of what makes the piece so galling is that Isherwood, one of the few American critics to earn a living writing about the stage, has the opportunity to write his thoughts out on the most popular dramatist and poet of the English language—and he half-asses it:
HIM …But I’ve got to tell you, I hate Shakespeare.

ME I understand that. Now tell me why.
HIM Because it’s boring.
ME [After a pause] Let’s stipulate, for a moment, that Shakespeare can be boring.
HIM Dude, you didn’t really rock it in debate class, did you? Whose side are you on anyway?
ME The side of right and virtue and truth and beauty, of course, the side of the greatest dramatist and poet who ever trod the earth. But let me continue. Of course, bad Shakespeare is boring…

Then he says “listen to this” and quotes some Hamlet. Isherwood and his boss, Arts & Leisure Editor Sia Michel, should be embarrassed.

But what’s even more infuriating is that this inane article poses an extremely important question (for theater, anyway). Why produce Shakespeare’s plays? Why attend them? After all, there are legitimate, compelling reasons not to produce his work. One of the most important is that, according to 2010 back-of-the-envelope calculations by Parabasis, American theaters out-produce Shakespearean dramas against other playwrights works by a factor of 10. And that’s for modern masters like Stoppard and Mamet, Tennessee and August. For truly contemporary playwrights, the ratio is closer to 100:1. Forget dominant playwright: William Shakespeare, dead 400 years, may effectively constitute the dominant genre of American theater in the 21C.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays are fiendishly difficult to act, since they’re verse dramas in an age where actors and audiences both are used to realism. Shakespeare’s worldview is deeply outmoded: a royalist in a democratic era, a Christian in a secular epoch, a pastoralist in an urban civilization, a racist and sexist in a pluralistic culture.

The Times critic mentions none of these obstacles to enjoying the immensely popular, brilliant, and problematic dramatist. He does, however, take up the cultural impediments that work against audience satisfaction. To summarize his points, Shakespeare is full of:

  • Difficult poetry
  • Unfunny comedy
  • Unrealistic plots
  • Too little action
  • Men in tights
He also argues implicitly that Shakespeare (and perhaps theater as a whole) can’t compete with TV and video games for a person’s attention.

That list, mirroring the article's style, reads like one that a C student would dash off during study hall before English class. Isherwood's responses, in turn, sound like those of a mediocre English teacher’s rejoinders. That's when he manages to respond at all, since he often switches topics mid-argument. Again, audiences have legitimate reasons not to see Shakespeare's plays. Yet they also prefer to see his work over everyone else's. Rather than reason out that paradox, Isherwood ignores it—or is unaware of it.

Ultimately, however, what frustrates me the most about this article is that its subject is one I continuously grapple with. These days, my obligations have outstripped my schedule, and I’ve had to concentrate my limited time and energy on the theater I love the most. So I’ve decided that, if I’m going to write, I want to write about Shakespeare. But to reiterate, there are enormous issues, doubts, and contradictions in focusing on his work. As I shift this blog’s attention to Shakespeare in New York, I plan to address these quandaries from many angles. I suppose that, if Isherwood’s article does nothing else, it serves me as an object reminder of what not to write.

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