Stage Writes

The Official Stage Rights Blog

The Chance to Understand

By   Posted 5.2.2016   On Stage, Classical, Shakespeare, Drama, Theatre

This is a response to an Op-Ed article published by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, April 24, 2016 by Mark O'Connor titled Perchance To Understand. The Op-Ed article can be found on the Los Angeles Times website under the title Shakespeare's Work Has Thrived for 400 Years. Here's How To Improve It. In the article, Mr. O'Connor explains the importance of translating Shakespearean plays so modern, 21st Century audiences can understand and enjoy them. 

Mark O’ Connor seems to suggest that directors and actors are a presumptuous, deluded lot, who spend their days in the fruitless task of unpacking Shakespearean sense for a modern audience.  Funny enough, I thought it was in their job description. Interpretation, particularly with classical text, means more than slapping a confederate uniform on Romeo and a Yankee one on Juliet and calling it a day. Interpretation involves -as the sage Peter Brook put it-- “conjuring sound from the play,” which today also means reckoning with a culture that has become progressively more visual than aural.  However, four-hundred years on, judging by the amount of productions and summer festivals, Shakespeare’s plays, despite Mr. Dryden’s criticism, seem to be alive and well. When was the last time you saw a summer Dryden festival? Or, for that matter, a Dryden play that wasn’t being produced across the pond or in a university theatre program? 

Shakespeare often gets cut, sometimes thoughtlessly, but mostly to remove classical allusions (foreign to everyone but diehard scholars, or those with a copy of the Arden edition in hand) because they cannot easily be communicated, unless the actor and director resort to some grotesque gestural vocabulary. We edit even contemporary texts, so editing is not a given distortion, unless we reduce the plot and characters to the equivalent of Tofurkey. However, advocating a little nip-and-tuck to appease twenty-first century attention spans is not the same as lobbying for a full-on translation from English to . . .English? When English-speaking audiences watch productions of the Greeks or Ibsen or Chekhov, there is an obvious need for translation, and perhaps even a twinge of loss that we never get to appreciate these plays as they were written. In these cases, we have no choice but to depend on the careful work of a gifted adaptor to make meaning for us. But Shakespeare is not a second language, even though words and phrases have slipped from our common vernacular. Diction is character. To change the words, the syntax, or the imagery in which a character speaks is to change the character itself. Meter and rhyme and alliteration and assonance and consonance come from the soul of the character.  So, we cannot have it both ways: Say that it is a Shakespeare play and muck with what is fundamentally Shakespearean about it.  Shakespeare’s artistry was never merely about the plots, most of which were borrowed. And, yes, there have been bastardizations of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the centuries, but do two wrongs really make a right? Anybody want to advocate for the return of the then-popular sport of bear-baiting?  

The conceit that his once-familiar tongue has now grown archaic, thorny and inchoate ignores the fact that the first audience—many who were functionally illiterate and depended on graphic signage to distinguish the butcher from the baker and the candlestick maker—were similarly challenged by Shakespeare’s contributions to the ever-evolving English language. Shakespeare’s first audience heard sounds they had never heard before. Then, don’t today’s more educated audiences—many who recognize a Shakespeare word or phrase without realizing it is his invention—stand a better chance?  

Literal meaning is not even the most important factor in appreciating a Shakespeare play. Rather there is a more vivid, implicit meaning that surfaces in its rhythms, that which is not always easily articulated or understood. Nobody gets every moment of a Shakespeare play in the playing, unless they have worked through the text beforehand, but that is no excuse for resorting to a “translation” that cannot help to do anything but dumb-down the original. We already have plenty of existing “Shakespeare Made Easy” versions, bereft of soul, that do that very thing.

There have been countless successful adaptations and new plays inspired by Shakespeare’s plots and characters.  However, a “translation” that masquerades as Shakespeare play is a double falsehood. It is an insult to a modern audience. It is “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” passing as butter. One can imagine a future in which groups of students think they have experienced a Shakespeare play, when indeed they really have not.  Several years ago, I was invited to participate in an international workshop led by a Russian director, famous for creating multi-lingual productions of Shakespeare.  During the workshop, I directed several scenes in which my Juliet spoke Greek and my Romeo spoke Chinese. The Greek text was heavily trochaic, altering the emotional pitch of Shakespeare’s rhythm.  The Chinese translation was in prose. It was a fun experiment, one that perhaps emphasized the Capulet-Montague divisiveness, but I soon recognized that Shakespeare, by any other hand, is not Shakespeare—and I felt  a bit sad that the audiences of their respective cultures would probably never get to really hear Shakespeare – in the way that we miss out on Sophocles.

To see/hear a Shakespearean play resonate through the artistry of a director and actors who understand and have passion for the challenges of the classical text (and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed many such productions both here and abroad) is to know that Shakespeare’s language is still our language. That which we call a rose by any other word (or name) can’t possibly smell as sweet.