I watched the passing of a cultural torch not long ago. I saw a group of about thirty high school kids perform an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet, complete with excellent costumes and pretty good sword fights, before a theater half-full of family and friends suffering the purgatory of Shakespeare. By the second half of the play, the teens in the audience were text-messaging their friends, and the adults, slumped in their seats, had ceased troubling to stifle enormous yawns. "Oh, I don’t understand a word of it, and I’ve heard him practice for a month," Romeo’s father confessed cheerfully to friends behind us during intermission. "All these words I don’t know, and the way they’re put together. Nobody would ever talk like that."
Too true. There were some fun bits, like when Mercutio mentions "‘the prick of noon,’" and there were plotlines that even those of us watching the play as a pantomime could understand. Gangs of teen boys fighting on sight in the streets: not good. Teens in love, and keeping secrets: also not good. And what’s in a name? Who am I, and to whom do I matter?
Otherwise, it was a purgatory. Theater-going has changed in 400 years, of course. We are not content to pop in anymore to look at an act or two, while girls sell oranges in the aisles and factions hoot at a bungled soliloquy. We treat it as a job to be done. The job is stuffed full of incomprehensible language and references. Even Samuel Johnson remarked, elegantly, that Shakespeare was out of date, and complained specifically about his puns – his "quibbles" he called them (I am not I, if there be such an ‘I’/Or those eyes’ shot that makes the answer ‘I,’ etc., etc. (III.ii.48).
I finished the evening wondering why anybody bothers with Shakespeare. I think it’s because authority tells us to. This may not be a new idea, but seeing it played out was startling. The Bard is not popular, he’s taught. The school’s playbill claimed that his "themes transcend the centuries," a compliment frequently paid him – almost as frequently as the compliment that no one else so understood all humanity. That’s why we love him, we’re told. That’s why we go.
But it’s not enjoyable. Given that, why should the themes and understandings of an English playwright of 400 years ago happen to outrank those of a Greek one of 2500 years ago, or of an Italian painter or a German composer? They don’t, but large groups of young people can’t dress up, and kiss and fight, to act out the perfections of Italian art or German music. Even Antigone has only nine speaking parts. Shakespeare is a training arena of fun for the kids and, when their families come to show their support, for his own imposition on placid and obedient us. Move the routine to a big city and you have a larger pool of people to recreate the high school experience – the trained young, and the support networks having a good time in fair purgatory, or claiming they do.
Of course, he is very beautiful, with his long jewel-lists of beautiful words. A professional big-city performance might be riveting, and of course we all should read the play first. Glancing through a few generations’ worth of old newspaper articles, however, I find hints that Shakespeare productions, and their audiences, may have looked for a long time like the humble passing of the torch I saw. Shakespeare is a money pit (he "‘spells ruin,’" as one sponsoring Chicago industrialist and ex-student actor was warned in 19291 ). He’s hard to understand. He is very much the domain of students. Adults don’t much like buying tickets for him; those who are excited about imposing him met him in school.
Naturally enough. The kids who tackle this may get big ideas about what to do as a teacher, or with a possible philanthropist-level, theater-founding income. Interestingly, Romeo and Juliet’s director would not permit her actors to say that Shakespeare is difficult. Apparently to admit so is to begin to put him off limits, and for the civilized young that is not to be thought of. We supportive audiences must shift for ourselves.
We only woke up for the sex and laughs. When I came home that night I watched an episode of Will and Grace revolving, as usual, around gay love and men kissing. Very funny. It occurred to me that possibly good theater does not change. Sex and laughs give us a fun time, we enjoy them as if they were spotlit, while the story, great, dumb, or middling, difficult, half grasped or not grasped at all, whirls in and out of the pale circled margins of the light.
Shakespeare’s devotees would answer that he foresaw all that, and treat me to a pitying look. I suppose I’m a groundling. But I’m only interested in witnessing what people actually like, and what they don’t like. The passed cultural torch is a good thing, but I wonder, whose would be the torch if Shakespeare hadn’t written big plays in (steroidal Renaissance) English full of parts for young people? We’d be sitting through the interpretations of some other master knower of all humanity, but who? And would we be having fun?
1 "Shakespeare is on paying basis at Civic Theater," Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 1929.